Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's For Dinner?

I must admit, cooking is one of those chores that I would love to outsource. Although I don't, as a rule, dream of the day my children grow up and move out, I do look forward to not having to feed so many people. When they all move out, (in like 15 years) I will stock up on food from Trader Joe's and when my husband asks, "What's for dinner, dear?" I will holler from my spot among my garden or my books, "Look in the freezer, dear"

However, those days are far off, and so I do try to find inspiration to make decent meals for my family. I usually make the same things in a rotation of about ten entrees, give or take a few, and there have been a few real duds, such as the "goulash" I made by combining several kinds of leftovers in one big pot. My family was not impressed. It might have even caused a little conflict.

As much as I don't love cooking, I do love reading and was excited to find the book, Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist at the library. I though it was a book about community which is a big idea for me right now. If I had known that it was mainly a book about cooking and eating, I might have thought twice about bringing it home.


I am glad I did though, because as I read about how much enjoyment Shauna gets from feeding the many people in her life, I felt inspired to make this same task more of a delight in my life. It isn't that I hate cooking, it is just the monotony of providing 21 meals a week that really begins to wear on me.

A last, remaining breakfast cookie

The book is full of descriptions of beautiful meals and beautiful community. Although, some of the community that I can develop with my large family is going to be different than what she can do, (I don't foresee taking my entire family to Paris for a week and eating fine french food at restaurants anytime in the very near future), I can work to develop a community around the table, right where we live.

So, in the last two days, I tried three of her recipes. White Chicken Chile, Breakfast Cookies, and Mango Curry. The first two were well loved by my family, and were so easy that I could see adding them to our rotation, giving my family some relief from the same few dishes we had been eating.

The White Chicken Chili was so easy in fact, that after I had finished serving and eating dinner, I made an extra batch of it to freeze. I actually cooked dinner twice in one night!

I hope you enjoy the recipe here, which I adapted from the book, and I hope you can get your own copy of the book, so you can try more of her great recipes. Then, invite some people into your home, put out the fine china, or the jelly jars and paper plates, and start building community right where you are.

White Chicken Chili

6 chicken tenders, cut into small chunks
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
6-8 cups chicken broth
4 cups cooked or canned white beans
1 jar salsa verde (green salsa)

Brown chicken, onion and garlic in a large soup pan until chicken is cooked through and onion is transparent.

Add cilantro, chicken broth, beans and salsa verde to pan.

Cook over medium heat for 20-30 minutes until flavors have intensified.

Serve with more chopped cilantro, tortillas or tortilla chips and sour cream.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Early American History-Immigration and Industrilazation

This month our history studies have focused on immigration and industry in America. As we have wrapped up our stories and readings from Civil War era history, we have begun to explore the late 1800's and early 1900's. This was an exciting time for our continent. So many new industries meant new opportunities for hopeful immigrants.

The thing that I have most looked forward to in our year of history co-op, has been this month's meeting. At the beginning of the year, when we mapped out the plan for our co-op, I knew this would be a fun day for our children. Instead of the usual program of singing, geography and art projects, our children would have the opportunity to open up a real store as well as explore their diverse ancestry.

The plan was simple. Each family would pick one of their ancestors to study, and prepare a presentation based on that ancestor's country and history. They would also bring products which related in some way to their ancestry to sell for a small amount, in this way representing the small businesses and farming endeavors which these people undertook in order to provide for their families. 
We did this same project over four years ago, in the last community that we lived in, and at that time, we chose Portugal which represents my husband's grandmother. For Portugal, we sold veggies from our garden, and homemade sweet rolls. This time, we chose England, which is where my grandmother's parents came from. 

We started our country fair by having each family stand at their "store" and share their presentation. One of the best parts of preparing an ancestor presentation is the opportunity to learn about our family history. I listened intently as my son shared the interesting information that we had compiled after interviewing my grandmother. For instance, I had never heard that my great grandfather was the son of an English strawberry farmer near Kent. Nor, that his brave fiancé, after waiting three years for him to send for her, took matters into her own hands, and headed to Canada. She wanted to give him the opportunity to make good on his commitment to marry her.

They did marry, and had six beautiful children, one of whom was my own dear grandmother.

We celebrated our heritage today at our country fair by cutting up an old sheet to make "Nearly Proper English Hankies" which we sold for twenty-five cents, along with fresh homemade scones and tea.

The children listened eagerly to their friend's presentations as well. They heard reports from several European countries, as well as one from our darling little friend, who was welcomed here eight years ago by her lovely parents, becoming a first generation Chinese-American.

After the children took turns giving their presentations, the stores were open for business! My kids were excited for the opportunity to make a meager profit, one of the benefits of not offering allowance. 

They were also excited to spend their money at their friends' stores. The goods for sale were exciting! Hawaiian soap, Scottish shortbread, and Chinese fans were big hits with my kids as they eagerly divested themselves of their small change. I did end up raiding my husbands coin stash a few times, to replenish their coffers, it didn't occur to me to teach them a real lesson on economy when they, and their friends were so hopeful of selling their products.

Although this day was simple to prepare for; we merely did a little crafting, cooking and report writing in the few days preceding the event, it had a big impact on the children. Now they can have a small glimpse into the process of creating products and marketing them, and a taste of what some of their ancestors experienced as they crossed the sea in search of opportunity.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Homeschool Speech and Debate

We just returned from participating in two back-to-back STOA speech tournaments. As I recover from the exhaustion which wandering around a campus with hundreds of teenagers has induced, I am reflecting on all that we learned from our experience.

We began the year by participating in a speech club with some local families. The boys enjoyed going to club, and the experience helped them to craft an organized essay and respond well to critiques from other parents. As part of the club requirements, we needed to participate in a minimum of two events. Many of the families had signed up for as many as eight tournaments, which in retrospect is a huge commitment of time and money.

We arrived at our first tournament, bright and early on a Monday morning. There might have been some mild hysterics in the car on the way up, but once we got there and they saw all the interesting young people, who were also clad in conservative dress suits, looking like so many mini business people, they started to get excited about competing, or at least about playing ninja and discussing LOTR.

As a parent, I was required to judge, so my two littles and I were given a round of humorous speeches to listen to. Only a couple of the eight speeches were actually funny, but having to tell teenagers that their efforts at inducing laughs were in vain, is not my jam. I gave my best shot at being constructive and kind on the ballots, as the critique forms are called.

On the third day we were required to show up by 7 am to see if any of our children had "broken" as they call making it to finals. Unfortunately, my boys had ranked fifth and below on nearly every ballot, which was quite disappointing. After we spoke with some of the moms, who had been doing it for a few years, but whose children had rarely broken either, we were mildly encouraged that it wasn't just us.

The next tournament, just a week later was not quite as confusing, since our previous experience was so fresh in our mind. We arrived, once again at the ungodly hour of 7am, dropped off our snacks and scripts and worked on finding our rooms. 

Again, I had to bring my two youngest children and when I had finished all my other duties, I was assigned a round to judge. This was a round of eight persuasive speeches and in order to give them my full attention I had left my 6 year old in the care of his older brother. About two speeches in, the older brother dropped him off, saying that he could no longer handle him. Embarrassing, but it would get worse. 

He was pretty quiet through the speeches, merely knocking his swivel chair against the bookshelves a few times in a passive aggressive show of protest, but by the eighth speech he was done. He quietly wandered up behind the speaker, picked up a soft ball, and lobbed it in the direction of the young speaker. I responded by running my hand deftly across my neck, a motion which I hoped would clearly communicate my disapproval. Needless to say, I gave the patient speaker first place, if not for his clever speech, then assuredly for his ability to concentrate amid the distractions. 

The boys finished up the tournament again without placing. I loved their speeches, one boy had written about the benefits of twelve year olds having part time labor and the other had written about finding joy in a world of sorrow, based on a book he wrote by the same name. However, as we watched the young people who swept the trophies, it was clear that their families had put in much more time than ourselves. One highly organized mother had invested in a week of speech camp for her successful teens, and another family had boys who were involved in many online classes, as well as having a father who was both a lawyer and their coach. It was like being at a gathering of the Tiger Mothers (and fathers) of the homeschool world.

Our year of speech was a worthwhile experience. My boys had the opportunity to craft an organized essay, respond well to critique, and get input from other caring mothers. We are very grateful to all the amazing people who contributed to our year, and the tournament. 

Would we do it again? I hope not. Although it was worthwhile, the idea of spending days away from home, hundreds of dollars on tournaments, and neglecting the schooling of the younger ones to be there, does not appeal to me. Although it is a wonderful opportunity for some families, it is not for everyone.

In speaking to adult alumni and their parents, it seems that the results are mixed as well. Some of them got scholarships, while others needed loans. Some had gone to college and others started their own businesses. One mother inferred that her chronic fatigue was a result of her years of debate. Another mother inferred that her children had become much more confident communicators, while another mother felt that her children had also gotten better at arguing with her, as a result of their experience. So, it seems that like many activities we put our time into; sports, lessons, and clubs, the results are mixed.

My prayer is that as homeschool parents, we would use our variety of gifts to encourage our students. Science clubs, art co-ops, choirs, business apprenticeships, 4H, and drama groups are all wonderful ways to encourage our students, and to develop the many different gifts that God has placed in our children.

If your community doesn't have a group that fits your family's learning style, then find some friends and start one. This is the beauty of homeschooling. One size doesn't fit all. It doesn't need to. You just have to discover what your family loves doing, do it well, and then trust the results to God. 

Did your family participate in speech and debate? Do you have a favorite homeschool club or activity? I would love to hear about your experiences!

This post contains affiliate links.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Write You On My Heart

A few months ago, I stumbled across the website, "Write You On My Heart", and was able to get a copy of the book, Playful Pictures, which is written by the website owners, Jeremy and Alicia Brown. I was so excited to find this resource for improving the photos we take of our children, and only wish I had found it years earlier.

 I have always loved recording memories with my children through photos but there were so many basics that I had no idea about. Simple things, such as being aware of busy backgrounds and getting the right lighting, were new ideas to me. Knowing these basics would have made such a difference in the pictures that I took of my older children, it breaks my heart a little to think of how much lovelier my photos could have been.


The authors of the book convey so much enjoyment of their children, and their ideas about photography resonate with me; picture time doesn't have to be misery, it could actually be fun.

"In experimenting with our own kids, we discovered that adding play into the mix is the magic ingredient, and we wrote Playful Pictures to show you exactly how to find the same thing come true in your own family. Along with sharing our favorite iPhone photo tips, we've filled the book with inspiration, games and other ideas for making picture time playful and fun while creating space for you to easily take pictures that capture your child's heart. " (Jeremy and Alicia Brown)


The book includes a very handy checklist for making sure you are set up for success. I use the checklist regularly when I am taking pictures of my children, and it has made a big difference in the quality of my photos. One very precious feature of the book is a list, and descriptions of several games to play with your children as you are taking pictures. Games, which will not only create joy-filled pictures, but which will also make picture time a happy-memory making time with your children.


I have loved interacting with Alicia Brown. She is a very genuine person, who, with her husband has created an amazing book which so beautifully captures the joy of parenting. Not only is this book a wonderful beginning photography resource, it is also a heartfelt expression of love; capturing the joy of childhood, and the awesome privilege it is to be a parent.


This is an affiliate post, which I am so honored to do.
You can purchase the book through the ad in my sidebar, or by clicking here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Home School High School

It's that time of year when I begin thinking and planning for the coming year of school. At this point in the year, I start to face the inevitable questions of, "Am I doing enough?" and "Is homeschooling the right choice for my children?" This question rarely comes up for my younger children; what could be better for young children than being at home, reading good stories, doing hands on math, painting, drawing and being in nature? It is easy for me to feel very confident about their education, especially as I see my eight year old daughter devouring books such as Indian Captive, by Lois Lenski and the Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, her imagination sparked by the sweet stories she reads.

High school is a little more intimidating for me though. True, my oldest three have all graduated or are dually enrolled in the community college and the two without learning difficulties are getting the grades we dream of as parents, but I still end up questioning myself. 

With these insecurities as the driving force, so far this spring I have looked into three charter schools and visited a Classical Conversations campus in an effort to explore other ways of doing high school, ways that might offer more structure to my 12 and 14 year old boys. As I was researching my options, I pulled out some of my favorite homeschool books and was very encouraged by the writing of John Taylor Gatto. 

"Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. A small business, small farm economy like that of the Amish requires individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation; our own requires a managed mass of leveled, spiritless, anxious, familyless, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between Cheers and Seinfeld is a subject worth arguing about.” ― John Taylor GattoThe Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling

This completely resonated with me. Looking into the charter schools was enlightening. In high school, they load the students up with six hours a day of their compulsory, state standards based schoolbooks. This leaves no time for personal projects, such as the ones my boys have been working on. My boys are writing books, programming games, creating ecosystems, writing blogs, milking goats, raising pigs, building wooden toys, designing solar systems and reading lots of books from our home library. As well, my 14 year old was able to take his first college class last semester online. If we were enrolled in a charter school, none of this would have been possible. Their time would have been completely absorbed in keeping up with recommended classes.

However, there are still subjects which we struggle with and which are necessary for them to learn. Algebra is one of them. With my first three students, we tried several different programs, struggling with each one, and when the two normal learners got into their college algebra class, it finally clicked. What had been painfully obscure with the programs we were using, suddenly became clear. My son, in his first semester of algebra at the community college (as a high school student) was recommended as a math tutor, my daughter was told she should be a math teacher by her professor. Ironic and funny when I reflect on how little I still know about algebra. Thankfully, even the areas that we have real struggles with are not hopeless. 

The best thing about homeschooling high school is that our opportunity to continue influencing these young adults carries on for a little longer. The opportunity to give them classic books to read, and quality history materials, the opportunity to discuss important topics with them, and to let them explore their own interests are all hidden blessings of homeschooling high school.

I don't think I have to be their only teacher, and high school is a good time to outsource some subjects. If your state allows dual enrollment, this is a fabulous way of getting a head start on college credits. Also, there are online schools such as Potter's School and Veritas which offer high school classes. There may even be a local homeschool mom who would teach your child a difficult subject, in exchange for help in a different area. 

Homeschooling high school is an opportunity for our children, who have learned such good basic skills to really take off in independent learning and interest led projects. It is not necessarily the time to suddenly put your freedom educated teen into a social construct that has far reaching, soul killing effects on our country and culture.
“I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my thirty years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers to care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic -- it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.” ― John Taylor GattoDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Prepared Environment

Homeschooling often involves keeping multiple aged children constructively occupied. Most of us don't have several children of the same age which we can teach all at once. We must integrate our different aged children into the same learning environment. In our home we do have circle time where all of our children are gathered for learning, with some of the material going right over the heads of the littlest ones, and some of it, such as singing the ABC song, boring to tears the older ones. The ideal then is to have an environment which is conducive to many independent learners of different ages. Why independent? Well, obviously, so that I can drink my coffee in peace (this is a joke)!

Really, the goal is to develop independent learners because when children are directing some aspects of their education, they are going to be more motivated about what they are learning. 

This brings us to the subject of The Prepared Environment. A prepared environment is a Montessori term that means a classroom that is carefully organized for optimum learning. In a homeschool environment, it is completely possible to have a beautiful environment for learning, one which makes independent learning a natural occurrence.

In the above linked article, the author explains that there are several  principles for a prepared environment. This is my adaptation of how these work in a homeschool.

1. Structure and Order- Young children are carefully taught how to do things. How to make their bed, get dressed, brush their teeth and wash their hands are all part of the basic lessons. Children, from a young age are allowed to get their own snack and drinks but they are taught how to do it and how to clean up after themselves as well. A minimum amount of clothes are kept in drawers low enough for children to reach, and toys are also kept to a minimum so that a child can easily pick up after herself. Tools are preferred over toys, tools such as; a small broom and dustpan, child sized table and chairs and even clothes washing supplies such as washboards and clotheslines.

2. Freedom- Within the framework of order, there is great freedom. A child may choose to color first or to do a pouring exercise. They may choose to wash some dishes or sew a button on a cloth. They may choose to diagram a sentence or do a counting exercise. However, a child is not allowed the freedom to stay in their pajamas all day watching cartoons. So, although freedom is highly prized in a Montessori environment, and can be a great motivator for young children, it is not freedom from all restraints, it is more simply, the freedom to choose activities which are available within the prepared structure.

3. Beauty- A Montessori environment should be beautiful, but so should be your home. Beauty doesn't have to require a lot of money. It can involve simple things such as getting rid of broken toys, and excess furniture. It can involve putting fresh paint on a tired and chipped wall, or finding a thrifted basket to keep blankets and toys in, instead of strewing them across the floor. Life with children involves lots of messes, but putting in the effort to keep your home an inspiring place does have a big impact. Also, keeping the T.V. off and instead having a variety of lovely books, and music in addition to Bibles and musical instruments will make a major difference in the atmosphere of your home.

4. Nature and Reality- When children have an opportunity to interact with nature it can be both inspiring and calming for them. This is why it is important to keep your environment as natural as possible. If you have outdoor space, let them have time daily to enjoy it. Keep your indoor space tuned towards creation as well by using natural materials such as wood and glass in your kitchen and workspaces and avoiding plastic toys and tools (we make an exception for a variety of items, such as Legos and toy animals.)

Although, these are some examples of basic things we have done to create an environment which accommodates learning, it is all grace if things go as hoped for. There are mornings where I fail to follow through on good habits and my kitchen ends up a disaster because the children have all freely helped themselves to breakfast (good), using up all the sugar, and smearing jam across the counter in the process(bad)!

Ultimately, the best thing I have done to create a prepared environment, is to prepare my heart by seeking God first. Only He can give me the self discipline needed to follow through on good habits, both for myself and for my children, and only He can give me the power to forgive, both myself and my children when we fail.

However, it is better to put in the effort, and through baby steps move towards a learning environment  that makes it easier for children to learn, than to not even try. It is better to receive forgiveness when you miss the mark, than to shoot for nothing.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Westward Expansion

We have been having such an interesting year, studying
Early American History. It is hard to believe that we are in the last three months of the school year already! It is flying by. I often wonder if I am doing enough schoolwork, but seeing my children excited about what they are learning, reassures me that we are on the right track.

We recently got together with friends to celebrate our studies of the pioneers and westward expansion. These get togethers are one of the highlights of our history studies. While at home, I read lots of great books to the children, we do map work, and also journaling, but the monthly co-op meetings are when we can delve into hands on projects that require more preparation.

At this months get together we made butter! This was actually incredibly easy and group friendly. We simply poured cream into clean mason jars, screwed the lids on tight and let the kids go crazy shaking them until a nice lump of butter had formed. I took a picture of our butter after we made it, but then when I was going back through the photos, I couldn't figure out what it was and deleted. It was yummy, if not photogenic. 

The butter was spread on fresh baked bread, the best of pioneer treats, and eaten along with tortillas, and cattail tubers which we had harvested from our pond. A good study of the pioneers and westward expansion wouldn't be complete without talking about some of the foraged foods that they ate to survive.

We also drank tea made from nettles. Not the tastiest of drinks, but super healthy and according to research, a good traditional remedy for all manner of illnesses, including allergies and anemia.

Another thing we do at our co-op meetings are oral presentations. I feel that being able to give a report is an important part of homeschooling. It is also a helpful motivator for my children to do well on their journaling projects so that they have something good to share with the group. We have been alternating Draw Write Now books with fine art postcards from Mommy It's A Renoir for art journaling prompts. These go nicely with narration exercises, and if we are not feeling creative enough to come up with an original narration, we simply copy the sentences from Draw Write Now as well. These journaling pages then become oral reports for the younger students.

Draw Write Now, Book 5: The United States, from Sea to Sea, Moving Forward (Draw-Write-Now) Mommy, It's a Renoir!

The oldest of my four students still in my homeschool prepared a report on health care, or the lack thereof, during the time period we were studying. My 12 year old created a stop motion Lego movie about Civil War Sea Battles. I love seeing them use various technologies and mediums to prepare their presentations.

For map work, we looked at where the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled, as well as what area the Louisiana Purchase encompassed. Later, we traced U.S. maps and labeled them with the route which the Lewis and Clark Expedition took, so many years ago.

Back at home, I read to the children from "Sacajawea" by Della Rowland, while they made a tent and pretend fire which they roasted pretend marshmallows over. Or maybe it was bear meat on a stick?
Stories are great at providing prompts for imaginative play. They also do so much to expand your children's vocabulary, these are a few of many reasons why we make a high priority of reading aloud. I also have a basket of books based on the period we are studying, which my children are encouraged to read from as we work our way through the year. If possible, I give my older children books which include source documents. I want them to be aware of what the thought process of historical figures was, and not just hear their stories through a modernist filter. 

The Story of Sacajawea: Guide to Lewis and Clark (Dell Yearling Biography) The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis & Clark Expedition)
Little House Nine-Book Box Set

American History is full of fascinating people, and I am studying it again, with some of the most fascinating people that I know. I hope that your children, and your studies, bring much joy and inspiration to your life as well.

This post contains affiliate links (Amazon)