Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This is how I know when I'm listening to God

Often it seems that God speaks in a whisper, not a shout. The problem is, you have to be still and quiet to hear such whisperings.

Today, as I was preparing to wake a napping Oliver for lunch so that we would be on time for his 2 p.m. speech appointment, a still, small voice nudged me.

"You should call first. Make sure they're open."

I thought, that makes sense. Snow and all. Maybe the lot's not plowed, so they're closed. Maybe the hill they're on is still a mess. Everything out here's fine, but who knows what it's like half an hour away?

So I closed the door to the sleeping boy's room back with a click and found my cell phone. I called the Children's Center and got a recording.

"This message is for December 24 through January 2. The Children's Center will be closed ...."


Let the boy sleep. Enjoy the quiet. Call it a gift from your Father, who didn't want to see you driving five children an hour out of the way for nothing.

Review: Peterson Diected Handwriting

I take a rather eclectic approach when it comes to teaching my children handwriting and I have to admit, the results are not always the best. Jo was "ruined" (her word, not mine) by a zealous teacher at her Christian preschool when she insisted that my then 3 yo daughter use only her right hand. I had no idea that this was going on and frankly, would have told the teacher to find better ways to occupy her time had I realized that she was warping my little girl's writing skills. As it was, I have never required a three year old to write anything, let alone with an aim of proper handedness. The nerve!

Jo has remained right handed, but it's fairly evident that she would be have been far better served as a lefty; her father is left-handed, so I'm assuming it's genetics ... not that I care. When you mix in her vision difficulties in the formative years of her small motor development, it's a miracle the kid can write at all as far as I'm concerned. Jo took up cursive writing at the tender age of seven thanks to an infatuation with the American Girl Felicity and has never looked back. Her handwriting is anything but neat but it gets the job done.

Vowing to make a more concerted and organized effort with Atticus, I turned to the highly-recommended Handwriting Without Tears and was frankly driven to tears. I'm not sure if I ever really understood the whys and hows of HWT and I definitely found the structure of the letters as taught slightly off-putting. I dumped the whole idea and let Atticus do his own thing and have been rewarded with what I consider "boy scrawl"--mostly legible, highly uneven and barely passable.

With Logan, I put off doing anything at all in the way of formal handwriting due to his tendency to reverse letters. I suspected for a time that he was dyslexic (he's not) and finally settled on "He's a normal kindergartener," as an answer to my concerns, but not until I made a go of the (again) recommended course of teaching him cursive first. Yeah ... that didn't go too well. Chided, I reverted to my, "Hey, they'll be using computers anyhow," mind-set and stuck my head in the sand.

Then I was given a copy of Peterson Directed Handwriting to review and figured hey, why not? I had recently seen my kids' chicken scratch comments on a writing wall at Sunday School, and was alarmed at how loopy and tidy and downright formed all those other samples were when held up to what passes for writing in my house. Maybe it's time to look this one in the eye and stare it down, I thought.

So we undertook Peterson's, a very structured, very formal writing program that promises pitch-perfect results. Let me say up front that I am not the best at adhering to any curriculum that lays out methods and models in ways that feel rigid. And Peterson Directed Handwriting is rigid. There are formulas, special tools, the whole nine yards. It doesn't say so in the teacher's guide, but you get the distinct impression that if you opt out of any of the recommended (ugh, that word again!) steps, you are dooming your child to a lifetime of horrid handwriting.

That in mind, I decided to take the revolutionary step of following the directions. We used the provided pencils, gripped them just so, angled our papers, listened to music with the right tempo and practiced moves in the air until we all felt as if we'd just conducted every cycle of Wagner's epic The Ring. Twice.

And it helped. Kind of.

For the amount of time invested, I feel like Jo and Atticus have seen negligible results. Frustrated with learning a whole new way of writing, neither of them put forth their best effort, making this a bit of an exercise in "How much more?" Despite the many gimmicks and whatnots included in this very complete program it is still very much your standard handwriting instruction drill. Not exactly the stuff of creativity and excitement, if you know what I mean. Does this make it a bad handwriting curricula? No, I don't believe it does. It just makes it on par with pretty much everything else I've seen marketed to teach handwriting skills. The upside is that this handwriting is truly beautiful, the type that you want to see flowing from a child's hand. So many programs fail in this area and the end result is blocky, unrecognizable forms that barely hang on to the original idea of a letter, imo. Peterson Directed Handwriting is pretty.

The biggest improvement was seen in Logan's writing. I found that all of the practice in the air and with the rhythms translated into letters that were properly shaped and forward-facing, not to mention standardized in their appearance. This wasn't an overnight development, nor has it been a 100% transformation. When jotting down words on drawings or in his own handmade books, I still find plenty of "b"s that have rotated into "d"s. But when actually putting forth the effort, I would say that the work is paying off.

Peterson offers some of the most customized choosing and support assistance I have ever seen in a homeschooling product. Rand Nelson, the creator, is personally available for help in placing your child in a program, for questions about problems you're seeing and for ongoing support. He offers a "meeting room" where you can talk to him live by appointment, as well as email and phone access. He backs up his products with a boatload of scientific data. Clearly, this gentleman is dedicated to the art of handwriting.

As for me, I find that I'm only so invested in it. While I am reassured to see improvements in my children's skills, I am having a hard time justifying the amount of prime school time dedicated to a subject that I rank in the lower echelon of educational hierarchy. In the end, I think this is one of those beauty of homeschooling kind of things; if handwriting is not important to you, let it slide. If it is, check out Peterson's.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Critical Thinking

I'm not a big workbook person. In fact, when I pass piles of workbooks on vendors' tables at curriculum fairs, I usually feel sorry for the kids who are standing by as their parents pick through the offerings. It's kind of like being forced to plant beets in a garden when you know that you abhor beets, and all those little innocent seeds are just going to grow and mature and end up on your plate and send you into fits that cause your parents to make you leave the table still hungry and .... oh, sorry. That got a little too personal. Let's just say it's a bad feeling, and I empathize.

But, in truth, there are a few worthy workbooks out there. You just have to dig really hard beneath layers of "A One Year Condensed Study of Human History from the Middle Ages to the Present for Tenth Grade Students with Fill-in-the-Blank Questions." But they're there: the gems.

My personal favorites come from the Critical Thinking Company. I've shared before that I've used their Language Arts series selectively with both Jo and Atticus, and have tried their Critical Thinking books on ocassion as well. I find that these workbooks take a creative, entertaining approach to education that entices kids to pick them up. I've used enough of their titles over the years that I was fairly certain they didn't have much that I hadn't seen, but I was shocked when I tooled through their catalog. Frankly, my wish list is pretty long. They have books on every topic imagineable. Applying case law, in a workbook? Who knew?

Critical Thinking books rank among my faves simply for the fact that they engage children not only in learning facts (they do that, too) but in really, truly evaluating all angles of a given situation. Coming from the perspective that it's one thing to know the answer and another all together to know how to get there, I find this among the most valuable skills in all of the great universe we call "education."

Critical Thinking Co. books that focus specifically on thinking skills alone are entertaining, challenging and fun. They're the type of thing that smart folks do for entertainment: mental gymnastics that leave you stretching to scratch the spot on your brain where you know the answer is ... if you could just reach it. Even better, they train kids to like that feeling, and to keep coming back for more.

Logan has found these books completely irresistable. As a matter of fact, he's begging me to buy the Grade Two Book Bundle for his schooling next year. He promises to read the Sonlight books and to listen in on history read-alouds, if I'll just pretty please buy the puzzle school books for him ...

Social workers are people, too

What would you say if you saw a chubby, grinning little boy in a woman's arms, straining to sink his fingers into her hair and babbling away?

Now, what would you say if the last time you saw that baby he was emaciated and listless? 7 weeks old and four ounces under his birth weight? Broken bones, but no energy to protest the pain wracking his little being?

Would you cry?

The CPS worker who brought Manolin into care did.

She saw him--all 16 lbs. and 10 oz. of his not-quite 7 month-old self--for the first time again today. She stroked his cheek. Talked to him. Had to hold him in her arms to know for sure it was real.

"This one," she said, handing him back to me, "I never thought would make it. And not like this, for sure. I just knew in my heart when I brought him in that he was broken for good. But look at him."

Healthy. Happy. Normal.

"God is good," I smiled, shifting him on my hip so that his constantly moving fingers couldn't find my glasses.

She beamed, and then winked.

"All the time," she answered.

Review: Math Mammoth

You know I love Math-U-See.

I use it for all three of the children I'm currently homeschooling.

I recommend it to anyone who asks, "What has worked for you?"

I've even given over the bulk of my math teaching duties to the very capable Mr. Demme, the man whose math program literally pulled me back from the brink of homeschooling insanity a few short years ago.

But can I tell you a secret? I have been cheating on Mr. Demme. I can't even tell you how shallow and fair-weather-friend I feel just typing that out. I have been cheating on Math-U-See!

Here's why: I've found that there are some areas where Math-U-See doesn't totally do the job for my kiddos. I love the program. Love the approach. Love the amount of practice ...

Wish there was a little more critical thinking involved.

Did I really say that?

Well, I did. Believe it or not, MG--dyed in the wool math phobe that she is--wants to make sure that her children get that well-rounded, critical thinking aspect of math down and down well. Really well. I also want a little more of those things that normally get lumped into elementary math skills: time, money, etc.

So I'm cheating on Math-U-See. But with what, you ask?

Math Mammoth.

I saw this program in the WinterPromise catalog a while back and was honestly completely baffled. First of all, it's called Math Mammoth. Say what? Aside from
The New Way Things Work illustrations, I have no clue what mammoths have to do with much of anything in the modern world, let alone teaching my children math. Second, what got me was the sheer out-of-the-blue of it. I'm not an early adopter when it comes to math programs, in case you haven't figured it out. No--I like tried and true. Because this is MATH we're talking about here, folks. It's not something willy nilly. It's MATH. (Now that I've gotten that bit of panic out of the way ...)

But get this--Math Mammoth works. It's child friendly. It's innovative. It's thought provoking. And really, the mammoths have naught to do with anything. It just ... sounds good, I guess.

The best way I can describe Math Mammoth's approach is to link it to programs I am fairly familiar with, so try this: this is Singapore for the rest of us--a down-to-earth curriculum that you can use a'la carte (as I am) by selecting topics and levels as needed, or go whole hog with by buying an entire package.

When I say Singapore for the rest of us, what I'm getting at is that Math Mammoth is so approachable, so easy to understand and so transferable to any other math program that really, a parent can pick up this program and go at any point without having to familiarize yourself with something that may feel slightly foreign in its execution. The best elements of Singapore--the art of math evident in puzzles and looking at problems from a variety of directions--is still very much intact. It's just easier to swallow, somehow.

For example, I've been using the Blue Series Clock book with Logan. It begins by utilizing just the hour hand. But before moving on to the minute hand, there are a series of problems to solve: if it's 2 p.m., what time is it an hour earlier? And hour later? This sounds like what you'd find in any math text but trust me, the approach is unique. Your child will see the clock and feel it move. This isn't your ordinary workbook!

Using a downloadable, fully reproducible format is an ingenious twist that puts Math Mammoth within the reach of every homeschooler--even those of us with four or ten kiddos who shudder at the thought of purchasing consumables ad nauseum. It also allows the teacher (that would be you) to pull out practice sheets with the click of a mouse on an as needed basis.

If you're curious about the program, check out the website. Continuing in the theme of being user-friendly, Maria Miller (the author) has even put together some freebies for you to sample:

A little "virtual" email course. You will receive:

  • The package of 280 free worksheets and sample pages;
  • 7 math teaching articles;
  • 2 emails discussing the books;
  • Homeschool Math newsletter.
No obligation, of course. Just resources to ponder.

I highly recommend checking out Math Mammoth. Just don't tell Mr. Demme, o.k.?

Review: Alphabet Alley

A couple of years ago, my children were invited to a birthday party for a boy whose family we're not particularly close with. I have the feeling that this family would like to be in what we shall refer to as the Circle of Trust. You know ... my kids sleep over at your house, yours are comfortable enough at my place to go digging through the fridge looking for their own snacks. That's the Suburban Circle of Trust, folks.

However, some of the decisions I've seen said family make over the years have left me pretty well aware of the fact that I'd eat bees before I ever left one of my children in their care. And this is a pretty serious assertion, guys, because bee stings put me in a lovely state of anaphylactic shock. So you can see how not into this family I am.

But this family is Christian. I've heard them profess, I've seen them make overtures and really, I think they're doing the best that they can muster under their own power. They believe. They're just losing something in the translation, if you know what I mean.

I've taken different tracks with this family over the years. While I wish sometimes that I could write them off, I know that that's not what Jesus has in mind. I believe that the Lord calls us to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ, and I've tried to do that. But, being wise as a serpent, I have finagled to leave my little ones out of it. The relationship is strictly between the adults. And that's the way I like it.

Then this birthday invitation came around.

And I was flummoxed. What to get this little boy? The little bit that I knew about him didn't lend itself to the kinds of gifts I'd get for my own children. I cast around for something we had in common, finally landing on a common thread: faith.

O.k. Faith. But how do you give a child a faith-centered gift? You go to a Christian bookstore or website, of course. And this was how I originally stumbled on Alphabet Alley. I'll be honest with you: I am not a huge fan of mega-stores/mega-sites. But hey, a consumer has to do what a consumer has to do from time to time. The best that conscious purchasers can do from time to time when utilizing a box store is to at least support a mom and pop operation in the process. And that's essentially what Alphabet Alley is: a family business that markets products through larger chain stores.

There are lots and lots of Christian-themed products out there, and the majority of them are not anything I'd really want to bring home. Is it just me, or does it seem like slapping a cartoon version of Noah on a retread game or toy is supposed to make it more palatable to Christians? Unfortunately, Alphabet Alley does plenty of this, too. But at least their products stand up to wear and tear. The workmanship and quality of materials is by far among the best I've seen on the shelves of our local Christian outfitter, which plies more than its share of plastic, dollar-store worthy Noah's Ark playthings.

Personally, I think the best of Alphabet Alley's offerings are aimed at the preschool set. The card games are a special favorite; the cards are large enough for little hands and not printed in those jarring, playschool colors that make your eyes hurt. As noted, they haven't disintegrated under constant use, either.

Are you wondering what I got for that boy I mentioned earlier? A Memory-style game. Yeah, I know he probably had four of them already, but frankly, it was a Veggie Tales movie year and Larry and Bob were chasing me out of the store. Not that I have a problem with Larry and Bob ...

Post-Christmas, Pre-New Year

And this is why the world at large calls this season "the holidays" (well, that and the fact that not everyone celebrates CHRISTMAS, dontcha' know).

I am trying to decide if the tree stays up until Ephinany this year. If we're giving Ephinany gifts (we are swamped with presents this year, y'all). If I'm staying up for the family movie on New Year's Eve since I do, after all, have a two little men who will shamelessly insist on being out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on January 1 ...

What are YOUR plans for the upcoming week?

A happy day indeed

Please join me in rejoicing with Anya at St. Udio and her beautiful family as they celebrate the adoption of their three beautiful kiddos!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: All ABout Spelling

I have honestly only used one spelling program in my entire homeschooling career. I myself am a former spelling bee prodigy who never put much effort into the art. Jo--my first--was a natural speller from the start, able to sound out and orally spell words long before she could actually read them on a page. ("Spell 'cat.'" "kuh ... 'c' ....aaaaah .... 'a' ....tuh ..... 't'.") I toyed with spelling for a little while, pulling free lists of high frequency words form the internet and quizzing her on them from time to time. At some point, I picked up a copy of Spelling Power with my cousin and decided to use it as my list source.

And that, my friends, is how I became a Spelling Power user by default.

Jo has continued to sail through spelling anything, and I do mean anything. If she has access to the basic phonetic rules of a language, she can spell in it--even if she has only the teeniest grasp on the language itself. For instance, she can spell Greek words that she is years away from being able to read, simply because she knows the sounds that the Greek letters make. This is a very cool parlor trick, and also one that wins you medals and mentions in the local papers when you decide to measure your talents alongside those of your peers.

So spelling was really a moot point with Jo, and one I'd never deeply pondered. By the time that Atticus was coming down the pike, I spotted a disturbing trend, though: the Spelling Power approach, as I had used it thus far, was not actually transferring into proper spelling in day-to-day usage. Atticus might spell a word correctly when I asked him formally, for example, and then butcher it on a drawing he made later that same day.

And then there was Logan. Somehow, Logan seemed unable to hear the individual sounds in words larger than three or four letters, and would drop them completely when spelling. "Rainbow" might appear as "Rabow," as if the "n" sound was optional.

Unsure as to how to progress, we began studying the etymological roots of words, which did make for an improvement, but not as big of one as I had hoped. The problem seemed to be rooted more deeply than I could put my finger on, and I was ill prepared to tackle the spelling monster head-on.

I considered several programs this past fall, but honestly felt absolutely at a loss. So many approaches, so many different philosophies, so many ways to spend a lot of money. When I was given the chance to review All About Spelling, I danced for joy. A place to start! Something to apply in our homeschool and see how we fared.

Well, we've fared far better than I could have imagined. All About Spelling is that rare homeschooling product that not only meets but actually exceeds expectations.

I started with Level One for both Atticus and Logan. A quick skim of the easy-to-use guide allowed me to place Atticus at lesson 16 rather than lesson 1. Actually, I was fairly shocked that he only rated lesson 16; this child has been reading at an astounding level for several years, so you'd think that he'd be out of beginner's spelling. But that's the thing with All About Spelling--it really and truly is ALL about spelling. Atticus had to start with lesson 16 because I, his mother, had never actually taught him how to determine when the letter "c" says "s." He had picked it up over the years, of course, and didn't bat an eye at "cyclops" and whatnot simply because he had been exposed to the word back in Greek Myths at age 5, so how could it be anything else? But still, I'd never TOLD HIM about it--and he probably couldn't apply it out of context in more difficult words. So lesson 16 it was.

Atticus has flown through Level 1, picking up on things he tells me he never actually knew. The approach has fit his learning style quite well, and he enjoys the lessons. Enjoying what you're learning and actually learning? That rates a gold star in my book!

The biggest, most stunning improvement, however, has been with Logan. Beginning with the first lesson in the first book, we have covered an immense amount of material. Is Logan learning to spell? Yes, he is. Thanks to the multi-sensory approach that has him literally moving a small token for every sound in a word, he has virtually stopped dropping letters in spelling. Moving letter tiles has him reading more carefully. And seeing letters working in unison on a regular basis (think "qu") has him spelling even off-the-cuff words more accurately. I am astounded at the results.

All About Spelling is relatively low-cost when held up against similar programs. A teacher's guide, letter tiles, word cards and magnets can be had for under $45 for Level 1. That's a deal when you consider that this program gets to the meat of spelling by covering:
- How to say and write the first 32 phonograms
-How to segment words into their individual sounds
-Short and long vowel sounds
- How to identify and count syllables in a word
-How to choose between c and k at the beginning of a word
-When to double f, l, and s
-How to spell /k/ at the end of a word
-How to form plural words by adding s or es
-Compound words
-Open and closed syllable types

I highly recommend All About Spelling for anyone looking for a multi-sensory approach to spelling that is easy to use and keeps kids motivated.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A husband by any other name

Finally, I have found the perfect monniker for the man previously known only as "dh."

It's Mr. Blandings. And I'll explain more after the holidays ...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Review: Puppettools

What to say about this website? I could take the "Huh. Maybe it's me." approach and just say that I found little use for a website of videos encouraging me to engage my children through the use of educational puppetry. That would be accurate .... but it would also fall far short of being the full truth. And here at Books and Bairns, I have a policy of FULL TRUTH when it comes to my reviews because frankly, I think my readers are worth it. So here goes:

Puppettoools is a website that gives ideas on how to use puppets in teaching. As far as the creator is concerned, there's room in every lesson for a couple of puppets. Or four.

I have absolutely no idea who would find this particular site useful. Classroom teachers? Probably not. Unless they roped a bunch of parent helpers in to assembling puppets in addition to tying shoes, giving small-group spelling quizzes and doing crowd control in the hallways, I just don't see how the professional classroom teachers that I personally know could possibly have enough hours in the day to undertake the Puppettools premise.

Homeschoolers? Nah. The Puppettools ideas reek of the kind of canned "Sit still so I can teach you something!" thought process that makes most homeschooler run, not walk, in the opposite direction.

I won't even go into the cost benefit analysis because frankly, if you're tempted to pay someone to show you how to use puppets, I've got a hint for you: google. Best kept secret since modern plumbing, right?

So, an unequivocal thumbs down for Puppettools. Sorry.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This much I know

I've been maintaining radio silence for the past few days as I've gathered my wits about me and begun the process of wrapping my mind around the news we're pondering this holiday season. I can't say that the news is especially bad, nor can I say that it's good. It's just news ... the newest happening in the journey that we call life here.

A little more than nine years ago, I sat sobbing in the driver's seat of my gold Volvo 240 wagon, casting my eyes in the back seat at Jo, who was happily thumbing her way through an already dog-eared copy of Where the Wild Things Are. She was as cute as could be that hot summer day in her little red swing top with the oversized buttons and the denim shorts I'd bought on sale at Old Navy. She kicked her feet up and down as her eyes wandered over the pages of the book, and cocked her head ever so slightly to the left while pinching her right eye shut.

And this was why I was sobbing in the parking lot of a pediatric opthamologist. I had taken Jo in for what should have been a routine screen for a kid whose parents both wear glasses, and come out with a stack of literature, a stunned heart and a referral for a world-class specialist at the major children's center an hour and a half away.

My baby girl didn't just need glasses. The cute way she clenched one eye shut and turned her head was not an affect God had placed in her just so that I could coo and crow over it. It was a sign of something bigger. Something not so routine. Something wrong.

To this day, I can parrot back the diagnosis verbatim, but to the world at large it means nothing. The long and short of it is that Jo's vision, overall, was terrible, and her right eye was markedly weaker than her left. The right eye was beginning the slow journey inward ("crossed eyes") but that was only half of the problem. Her right eye was so weak that her brain had decided not to power it any longer. To turn it off. To render her blind.

Which would mean a lifetime of vision through one eye--one eye that was in no way capable of perfect vision, even when corrected.

My heart stopped that day, and it took many years for it to truly begin beating again. Exams, patches, therapy, countless screens, glasses, you name it. We waited, we worried, and we prayed. When Atticus reached two years old, I carted him to Jo's specialist and demanded the full nine yards. "Give him the screening you give kids who show symptoms," I told her, and she complied. I did the same thing with Logan. What, my heart begged, if those recessive genes had come together in just the right way again? They hadn't. Jo was the only one of our biological children to endure the intensive interventions.

The only one anointed with oil in my family room, in the glow of our fireplace, with the hands of our pastors and elders crowning her little round head.

The only one healed, at age 9.

The only one our doctor took notes on to send to her fellowship board.

The only one I can point at in the middle of a conversation with a stranger whose beautiful baby is sporting a pair of thick glasses and a patch and say, "Our God is still very much in the business of healing. Let me tell you about my daughter ...."

So what does this have to do with my news? My pondering?

I have once again found myself thrust into faith territory, the place where what you are told is your new normal looks nothing like the scenery you thought you'd find. I'm once again looking at a precious child and asking God to make me the parent I need to be in this season. This time, of course, I don't just know in my heart that He will provide. I know from experience. And that makes the road I'm looking at seem so much less rocky.

Oliver, age 2, is being evaluated for profound hearing loss. This is not the type of hearing loss that results from fluid in the ears or damage to the actual physiology of the ear. This is the type of deafness that rests in the brain and its complex processing of sound.

In all likelihood, Oliver has some residual hearing capabilities but will be considered functionally deaf.

And so we put our feet to yet another path where there are but one set of footprints. Thankfully, they are God's. And they are carrying us all.

Review: Core Learning

While my boys, in particular, have wasted more than a few precious hours enjoying fairly useless computer time (, anyone?), I try to keep things fairly educational around here. Yes, I'll admit it: I also grate vegetables and blend them into my turkey meatloaf. There. You've caught me.

I think an ample selection of educational software is vital to just about any homeschool, and am always on the lookout for affordable programs that sneak a little learning into the fun. Over the years we've had some hits (anything put out by DK), some misses (a glut of Scholastic cheapies), and more than our fair share of "Welllllll, I don't hate it."

The internet has made it a lot easier to tap into freebies that seem to make actually buying software so 1990s. But one decent run of a few days without a reliable internet connection is just enough to remind you that backups are always good ... especially when the best you have to offer your 11 year old on the 104th day of rain and the 10th day of the flu is Reader Rabbit's 3rd Grade.

In that vein, the offerings from Core Learning fit the bill. Fun, interactive and not from the Costco discount bin (you know what I'm talking about!) these are games that focus on learning in ways that will keep your kids coming back for more. We received a sample of the Crayola Art Studio and watched as it kept 6 children ages 2 to 11 entertained for the better part of an afternoon. There truly was something for everyone, and enough layers of effects and offerings to keep the program fresh for many, many hours of creative play.

So do yourself a favor: Stock up on a few sure to please programs that you can whip out in a pinch. You'll look like a hero, you may score enough time to make dinner and hey ... who doesn't need some really cool printouts for their fridge now and then?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: ALEKS

Maybe it's me. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it has to be me ... because I am about the only homeschooler I know of who has given ALEKS math a try and wasn't immediately sold.

ALEKS is a
“web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system"--ie, an online math program that tracks what your kids know and keeps reviewing yet-to-be-mastered material. This is a complete curriculum; if you use ALEKS, you really don't need to supplement in the area of math beyond perhaps giving your children the chance to apply what they're learning.

And, for me, therein lies the rub. This is math completely out of context. Knowledge for knowledge's sake. Joyless, flat and lacking in the "ah-ha!" moments that make homeschooling so very beautiful.

ALEKS instruction is thorough and detailed. Your child will learn, don't get me wrong. The explanations are relatively clear and the amount of drill and practice is just right. Lessons are presented in a no-nonsense tone that doesn't employ games or other "distractions." There's even a complete report emailed to the parent to help you track progress, just in case you wonder what's happening in the area of math (this program requires no involvement on behalf of a breathing instructor). I have no doubt that children educated through ALEKS score exceedingly well on standardized tests.

Really, it couldn't be easier.

But it also couldn't be any less like the warm exploratory sessions I prefer in our homeschool, where math is absorbed, context is retained and a good time is had by all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: Times Tales and Clean 'n Flip Charts

There are some things, I believe, that you just have to know. Like how many quarter cups make a whole. How to tie your own shoes. Where you were born. How to dial 911. Your mom's real name. ("No, 'Mom,' doesn't count, sweetheart.") And, of course, how to multiply.

Let's be honest: there are some math operations that are fairly useless in most people's lives. I have yet to employ much of my higher-level mathematics courses in daily living, but I multiply several times a day. It's just a useful thing, that whole fast adding concept. Kudos to whoever came up with that.

Lower-level multiplication facts are easy. Most kids can pick up on them with little difficulty if they are taught to skip count not just by 2, 5 and 10, but by every number in between. This is one of the selling points to me of the Math-U-See program--they skip count like crazy from the beginning, which makes multiplying old hat by the time that your child gets around to mastering that skill.

Still, even with all that skip counting, my kiddos have sometimes tripped up on the upper level multiplication facts. Enter Times Tales.

I found this product two years ago when I met Dena Wood at a homeschool convention we were both working. She explained the concept behind Times Tales in a way that appealed to the writer in me: attach a story to each math fact, give it a personality, and bingo! It's memorized.

I knew that it would work with Jo, so I invested in the program and wasn't disappointed. Within just two sessions, Jo had cemented each fact flawlessly.

Jo was slightly older than most children are when they get around to multiplying, so I thought I'd try it out with someone on the younger end this time around: Logan. At 6, he's working in the Math-U-See Beta program and doing quite well. He grasps math concepts with ease, but he had never tackled formal multiplication. When I mentioned learning the facts, though, he was thrilled. Anything to be a big kid, ya' know.

I sat down with my boy, introduced him to the characters (such as "Mrs. Snowman" for an "8"), ran him through each story, asked him questions, showed him flashcards and BOOM ... no joke ... twenty-five minutes later, he had memorized all of the upper level facts. And that was it. You can ask him today what 9 times 9 is, and he'll tell you 81 without blinking.

As if you need to be sold on this product any further, let me share this with you: in the process of my working with Logan, ATTICUS overheard the lesson. Curious, he drew closer. Listened in. Joined in the conversation. And ... memorized his multiplication facts.

Incidentally. As in, without even trying.

I wish Mrs. Mormon, my 3rd grade teacher, had clued in to this method and spared me the time drills. Mrs. Snowman is a lot more fun than that darned ticking clock.

The brilliant minds behind Times Tales have also put their heads together to help kids process through chores. The Clean and Flip charts provide a systematic, straightforward approach to breaking big jobs into kid-sized pieces. Using illustrations as well as text, each duty (such as "Cleaning your bedroom") becomes a series of smaller, logical steps that lead to a completed project.

My children enjoyed using the Clean and Flip charts to tackle the bathroom and their bedrooms, but balked at the zone cleaning tips. Apparently, tidying the living room is just too elementary to even consult a chart over in their book. As for me, I really don't care HOW they get it done, just that it GETS DONE.

Because that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Review: The Little Man in the Map

Do you ever look at something and think, "Wow, that person is thinking WAY too hard about something that's really pretty simple?"

Well, that was me with The Little Man in the Map.

Centered around the idea of teaching children the names and locations of all fifty of the United States, this book takes what ought to be a fairly rote, straightforward process and makes it more complicated than I ever thought possible.

To be honest, I have to say that I've already taught my children the fifty states and the capitals. Using the Audio Memory "States and Capitals" CD, my kiddos picked up the states in no time. And when I say no time, I mean in
days. From there, the task of locating them on a map was a simple case of pointing them out on a map every day for maybe a week. No biggie. We even threw in the flags because Logan was interested.

It was really no. big. deal.

But with
The Little Man in the Map, it seems like a tall order. The premise is that there's a little man, see. And he's in the map. Got it? But he comes to life. And he tells you what each state is ... all in relation to himself and his location. Like ... he's sitting on Texas. After he scoots another state out of the way, of course. With me?

Yeah, my kids weren't, either.

Jo was dumbfounded by the whole idea. While she could locate the "man," she had no clue why he was necessary. Atticus was perplexed, trying his hardest to squint hard enough to make Kentucky look like a field of bluegrass ... and figure out why the "man" would have bluegrass over by his table, anyhow. (You've got to read the book to get this.) Logan summed it all up by saying that if New York was a flashlight, it must be a
broken one.

So, no ... I can't recommend this book. But I can recommend a little time spent with an actual map. It'll pay off. Trust me.

Review: Time4Learning

A little while back, I admitted that I was finding myself at a loss for how to fill the necessary down moments that resulted when a diaper needed to be changed or a bottle needed to be mixed. While my older children are great at finding constructive things to do with their time, they're also only children ... and therefore, prone to wandering so far off track as to require a bit and harness to drag them back into a fascinating math lesson.

The answer for us in this season of interruptions came to us in the form of a trial review membership to Time4Learning, an online curriculum resource that boasts lessons in the core areas of Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. Many of the lessons are animated, and nearly all contain some form of evaluation at the end of the session--be it in the form of a multiple choice quiz or a few practice questions. The results of these assessments are then available for parent review.

We only have one internet-accessible computer in the house, and I can tell you that it never seems to be enough if I announce that now is an o.k. time to hit Time4Learning. My husband was thrilled to be able to pull off an entire day of school while out of work with a slipped disk in his back. After doing the SL reading, he simply rotated the kiddos on Time4Learning and pulled in a few other things that he counted as "funschool." He said it was one of the easiest days of school he's ever had with the kids.

Logan loves the math lessons. Since he is slightly advanced in that area, I have been able to kick his skill level up a notch and have him working on second grade topics. When we enrolled online, I assumed he would be at grade level in their course, but found that he could work up. No problem. A small icon at the top of the screen highlights the current level ("1") and allows you to select the next level up or down as needed ("K" or "2"). This no hassle fix was a blessing for a busy momma trying to check off a box or two while keeping a teething baby happy on her hip.

Jo's favorites are the Think Aloud Activities. These are reading selections that require a certain amount of comprehension and higher thinking in order to provide feedback. She's also enjoyed the Social Studies lessons, which border on the eclectic, in my book. For example, yesterday she learned about why the Motion Picture Association of America instituted the ratings system. Not something I would have ever though to actually tell her, but interesting nonetheless.

Atticus can't get enough of the vocabulary activities. Somehow, they manage to sock a whole lot of Latin and Greek into these ten minute video segments called "Word Herd." You'd be amazed at how funny these little acts are. Are they on the snarky side? Yes, they actually are. If I had a child who parroted catchy phrases in annoying ways, I'd probably steer clear of these. They were, in actuality, written for public school enrichment and are therefore designed to appeal to kids who have had their horizons broadened a bit beyond the Pollyanna level. If your family thinks "The Princess Bride" is relatively clean fun, then you're probably going to be ok. with much of the humor in these lessons.

There has, apparently, been a ton of feedback aimed at Time4Learning regarding the evolutionary content in their lessons. I will admit that we've steered clear of the science segments simply because my children and I find the idea of reading something on a computer screen a dull stand-in for the hands-on excitement of scientific exploration. Be forewarned that it's there, however, and plan ahead to counter anything that may run afoul of your beliefs.

Time4Learning is available for $19.95 a month for the first child, and $14.95 for each additional child. Access in unlimited, and levels are customizable by child. For us, now, in this season, it's been priceless.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Little Wonders

I will freely admit that I do not listen to "Christan music" all the time. You can go ahead and throw stones at my head or quote scripture to me about how I am not meditating on lovely things, and I'm o.k. with that. The sad truth is that I find the vast majority of what passes for contemporary Christian music to be pap ... and I mean that in the nicest way possible. The intent behind most of what fills the dedicated spirit-filled radio waves is good. They are praising God, using their gifts and focusing on blessings. Who doesn't want to hear something that is, as our local Christian station advertises: "Uplifting and Kid-Safe"? The end result, though, is usually agonizingly bad. Syrupy, mushy, and predictable. And I just can't bear it, guys.

When my kids are in the car, I generally stick to books on CD, recorded music or the Christian pop stations. Why? Because even the advertisements you hear on most mainstream stations are enough to make me blush these days. Seriously--once, in a moment of flipping through the dial, I stopped briefly on an ad that degenerated from " Honey! I'm home!" to "Sweetheart! You and ... the NEIGHBOR?!?" I was able to find a new spot on the dial before the innuendo went any further, but c'mon. What could you possibly be selling that needs infidelity to make it seem more useful?

In those rare moments when I'm alone in the car, I like to explore the radio options a little more fully. Back in the day (we'll call it pre-Jo) I was quite the connoisseur of musical genres various and sundry. I'm not above listening to bluegrass, English pop and some mainstream rock all in the same hour. I used to love a live show, too. Having children curbed that little habit through sheer finances, not to mention how silly I felt going to see the Boo Radleys when I was eight months pregnant. These days, I might squeeze in a random show once a year. But for the most part, it's those car rides alone that give me access to new frontiers in music; ie, the things I don't already have stored in my iPod for my own private enjoyment.

Since becoming a Christian, I've discovered something that makes me feel, shall we say, less sheepish about indulging my musical curiosity. Perhaps you've noticed it yourself: a band --a song, even--need not be expressly Christan to speak to my soul. I anticipate as much with a U2 album. Say what you will about Bono and his mouth, the fact is, he's coming from a worldview that is clearly spiritual. His songs are bound to reflect it. But what about other, less obvious, musicians? Can God use them to fill the "uplifting" genre?

If even the rocks can cry out, then I say the rockers can cry out, too. Case in point: this song, which I heard on a mainstream station a couple of weeks back.

I had no idea that the song was linked to a movie when it came on the radio. And clearly, it's an old song to boot. But it was new to me and hey, that's worth a listen. The music hooked me--melodic enough to hold my interest, quiet enough not to disturb the two sleeping boys in the backseat of my Suburban. I let it play, and found myself turning it up bit by bit so that I could hear the words. By the time the chorus came on, I was nodding my head in agreement:

Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain

A glance in the rear view mirror revealed Oli, his sleeping head cocked to one side, his outstretched hand settled just on the edge of Manolin's car seat. The tiny tips of Manolin's fingers grasped at his big brother's hand. Little wonders, both of them.

So hard won, these little men. Lives so short, yet so full of pain and need and misery. Yet God led those lives through a maze of His own making to lead them to our home. I felt myself tearing up as the music swelled.

With this verse, I was sobbing:

All of my regret
Will wash away some how
But I can not forget
The way I feel right now

Just before this line, I was feeling the brunt of all that had passed before in my babies' lives. But in that moment, I couldn't hold on to the sadness I felt that my children had suffered. All I could do was revel in the grace that blessed me with their hugs and smiles. It was as if God heard me raking the bottom of my heart, and answered. Little Wonders. Yeah, that sums it up.

So, can God use a secular song, written by an artist who may or may not know Him (I refuse to speculate on other people's salvation), to tell of His glory? I think He can. I certainly felt His presence in that moment just as keenly as I have while standing in a worship service. No overt references to His Name. No heavy-handed layering of scripture. No weak guitar chords. Just music.

Just music ... and Him.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Preach it, sister!

If you want some food for thought, I highly, highly recommend a trip to Working Title. Always a direct hit in the places where you have to think hardest, Amy has been absolutely on fire lately. She recently posted about the rebirth of a form of womanhood that allows room for more than just the little people who populate our households. And if that's not enough to chew on for the next few hours, hit today's post. You may not always agree, but you'll always walk away with something that forces you to put your faith into mindful mode. Who doesn't need more of that?

Review: Salem Ridge Press

Here's the thing about having kids whose reading levels shoot ahead of their maturity level: you will be stumped (and I do mean stumped) for material by the time the child reaches 8.

I tell people this all the time, and still, they do not believe me.

Of course they don't. Their children are brilliant. Beyond brilliant, really. Smart enough to glow in the dark, their little brains are just that effervescent. So really, they NEED to read Anne of Green Gables at age six. Nothing else will do. Really!

If only I could understand.

((insert rolling eyes))

Well, I do understand. See ... I was that homeschooler. There's just a wee bit of (very humbled) experience speaking here, folks, so listen closely:

Jo was my first stunningly adept reader. Ability, comprehension, interest: check, check, check. All of her reading neurons were firing and there was no way I was holding her back. So I threw open the doors to every classic that crossed my path and watched, gleefully, as she devoured them. Little Women. Anne of Green Gables. The Secret Garden. The Little Princess. The Borrowers. All of a Kind Family. Eight Cousins. The list goes on and on.

This worked very well for a while. Truly, she understood what she was reading, she enjoyed it, and she was learning like blue blazes.

But all good things must come to an end. And this little book blitz was no different.

By the time Jo reached the third grade, she was able to read books from many college reading lists. Here's the rub: she had already exhausted most of the "clean" classics, and what was left were those books that covered themes, events or characters that were far too coarse, advanced or disturbing for the mind of a young girl.

The Sonlight readers were fabulous, but not enough to quench Jo's thirst for books. I was left with a choice. Resort to the teenie twaddle that fills the shelves of most bookstores and libraries or begin the laborious process of unearthing the lesser-known literary gems of days gone by in an attempt to keep our book baskets filled.

I went with the latter choice, of course. It was time consuming, often expensive and nowhere near an exact science. Some of the books I found were hits. Others were woeful misses. Lots of serial fiction (such as Nancy Drew) began to find its way into our house. And still I searched ...

Knowing this, you'll understand why I was so excited to find Salem Ridge Press. While the list of available titles is still rather short, I think that this publishing company has real promise in the area of providing challenging, clean, quality books for homeschoolers. My first impression of these books was that they fell somewhere along the Henty vein--historical fiction written for children back when adjectives were still important and a plot was more than a vehicle for scoring a cartoon series. I think that my initial impression was partially accurate, but Salem Ridge books seek to fill a greater niche. Church history, adventure and allegory are all addressed

in these reprints of early novels. They even have titles for reading aloud to your

These books are not all overtly Christian, and several center on time periods where practices run counter to Christian ideals. If that bothers you, you'll want to select titles carefully. If, like me, you have already explained to your children that not everyone believes in Christ, you won't have any concerns. These books have modernized text, but not so modernized as to contain sassy little siblings who tell one another to shut up, if you know what I mean. :-)

I still say that the very best way to avoid backing yourself into a literary corner with your kiddos is to let them enjoy age-appropriate books no matter what their skill level. But if you've already jumped the gun, or if you just need a few more titles to choose from, check out Salem Ridge.

Review: Spears Art Studio

I am a writer. My cousin is an artist. You'd think that God would have mercy on us and give us children who bear the same gifts he'd blessed us with.

The joke is that Anne, my cousin's 11 year-old daughter, is a writer extraordinaire. And Logan, my son, is not a writer, but an artist.

Which means that on any given day, both of us are standing there, awed by our the fantastic gift poured into the child in front of us, and wondering how in the world we are supposed to direct THAT?!?

My cousin has found some wonderful outlets for Anne. Like the diligent homeschooling mother that she is, Kindred Blessings has found resources, classes, camps, mentors and a host of opportunities that give Anne the chance to develop her skills. Add to that the space and time that any budding author needs, and I am certain that in a few years Anne will be taking her prowess to bigger and better levels in the publishing world.

And how am I doing with my little Picasso? Not so well, frankly. I do great on that time and space concept; Logan has an easel and free reign with paints. He has supplies galore, and plenty of chances to explore with his tools. But instruction? Not so much.

I've considered multiple programs over the years. The one that I stuck with most consistently was ARTistic Pursuits. I found, however, that once we walked away from the time periods presented in the art history portion of the program, I had a hard time keeping art, as it were, on the table. (I realize that the program is not meant to be used that way.)

This fall, we've been trying Spears Art Studio, a curriculum that incorporates Christian elements into art instruction. Based around monthly themes (seasons, holidays, etc.), the program lists weekly ideas for each grade level. Art elements, design principles and different media are all covered.

There are 269 art activities listed in the elementary guide. This is a glut of activities, guys. There are more here than you could ever use in the course of one year of art instruction. Many are based on printable pdfs--a nice touch for those of us with more than one child using the program. The supplies are generally common, although I don't happen to have india ink or rice paper lying around. To help with the random "huh?" supply, the program offers a few substitutions that have turned out to be lifesavers for folks like me who fail to read too far ahead some days.

While I would like more in the way of step-by-step instruction, the background information and extra resources listed in conjunction with each project are numerous and thorough. How many art programs come with a reading list? This appeals to the writer in me, who likes to link a story to everything. It also gives me something to do (ie, read aloud) while the kids are in the midst of construction paper glory.

The biggest measure of the quality of a program, though, is whether or not children are learning. Maybe it's just my teaching method, but I'm not sure that the many fun crafts and experiences my children are getting through Spears are translating into a deeper understanding of art as a form of expression. While I am using the reference points and giving the background vocabulary listed, I still feel like something is missing. My kids, however, don't seem so concerned. They have gained a better understanding for the application of some of the included scripture, which obviously has lasting value. Perhaps if I myself was designed to "see" the way an artist "sees," I could give my kids the full value of this program. As it is, I feel like they are--at the bare minimum--being exposed to some of the big picture details. Someone else will have to fill in the blanks later. Someone with an artistic bent, I'm guessing.

Spears Art Studio is very user-friendly, easily customizable and reasonably priced. But it can't make up for any deficit of talent you may have. Only a real, live artist can do that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dinner's Ready!

A recipe just isn't a recipe until I've taken this out, added that and oh, yeah ... who said it needed to be cooked in that kind of a dish? Yes--it's all about customizing at Casa MG.

A couple of weeks back, I took this recipe from BHG (which I admit is one of my favorite magazines) and made it my own. Here's a peek at what it morphed into:

"Like Shepherd's Pie. But not." (so named by Jo.)
  • leftover Thanksgiving turkey breast (diced)
  • 1 16-oz. pkg. frozen mixed vegetables
  • Shredded cheddar cheese (2 cups)
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • leftover Thanksgiving mashed potatoes


1. Preheat broiler. Heat diced turkey through. Stir in frozen vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Stir in half the cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.

2. Dump into greased, oven-safe casserole dish. Top with potatoes; sprinkle remaining cheese. Broil 3 inches from heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until cheese is melted.

It took all of fifteen minutes from the time I walked into the kitchen until the meal was on the table, and the kids ate every last bit of it. I call that a success!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Rime to Read

I've been pretty open about the fact that Logan has humbled me greatly when it comes to teaching a child how to read. While Jo and Atticus took to the written word like fish to water, Logan's reading skills have reminded me more of a cat approaching the selfsame lake. He sees everyone else enjoying it--he can even get glimpses of those yummy fish paddling by--but in the end, he'd just rather not, thankyouverymuch.

See ... Logan CAN read. He just chooses not to. And this, my friends, mystifies me. How can someone sit in front of a slab of chocolate cake and not want to eat it? How can the entire world be open to you and yet you chose to take a nap?

I've pulled out my entire bag of tricks on this boy and still, when asked to select a book to read aloud with me he heaves a great sigh, slumps his shoulders and invariably presents me with a dotty, simplistic reader of the "See Spot Run" variety.

It's my job as his homeschooling momma, I think, to make reading such a delectable, pleasurable activity that he can no longer resist. With this as my charge, folks, I'm willing to try anything.

Enter Rime to Read. This website combines two elements that I knew would seduce Logan into some quality reading time: computers and phonetically controlled readers. And I was right.

Rime to Read offers twenty short, illustrated books of the simplest kind. The titles say it all: Pat, Kit, The Log. You get the picture. Essentially, these are Bob Books online--and that's the novelty of it all. Even children who cringe at the sight of yet another line-drawn adventure with Pat the Cat (because there's always a "Pat," isn't there?) will get a grin out of controlling the action in a computer environment.

In addition to the benefits of traditional first readers, Rime to Read books also allow you to click on certain sounds to hear them pronounced. This would be an added bonus for anyone using the books with children who are not yet reading. I had to make the feature off limits to Logan, though, since I wanted him to actually READ the stories and not coast through them.

This program strives to incorporate actual instruction into the little readers. By highlighting certain pieces of words, children begin to recognize patterns and have the confidence-boosting experience of not struggling to sound out each syllable.

Rime to Read books are based not on straight phonics, but on word families. This approach seems to be in vogue right now in homeschooling circles. The idea is that a child who can read "hat" can easily recognize the rime pattern "-at," and apply it to similar words, such as "cat."

The Rime to Read books are available in sets of five for just under $10, or you can buy the whole set of 20 for $50. Books can be printed off your computer for later use, but only one copy can be made, so hang on to it!

While Logan enjoyed poking around the Rime to Read books, I found them to be very light for what I was hoping to accomplish. He was actually reading, so points there ... but while the site recommends these books for remedial instruction, I don't really see that as being a good fit. The stories truly are the lightweight variety that leaves older children feeling like the time invested was wasted. Younger readers and children just starting out will get much more out of this product.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Yam math

Here's the totals I came up with on my yam-making project:

36 oz. of organic homemade baby food for $2.50
36 oz. organic Kroger store brand yam puree for infants in 4.5 oz. jars at $0.79 each: $6.32


Yeah ... I'll just make my own, thanks.


The pediatrician today predicted that, with Oliver's current rate of growth and stature, he will probably be five feet, five inches tall as an adult. This is in a family with bio children have routinely topped out in the 95-100% ranges. Logan is estimated to attain six feet, five inches as a grown man, and I bet he gets there handily.

So hey --- I have yet to add a variety of beautiful skin tones to my family (Manolin is thus far quite pale), but I've got a variety of builds. That's something, right? :-)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

If God is for us, who can be against us?

I was reading my Bible yesterday morning, and this verse--which I've heard for so long that it had taken on the aura of a shallow euphemism--jumped out at me. I mulled it all day, which says a lot since my day was not as pleasant as I would have liked it to have been. (More on that in another post, I promise.)

IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US? Plenty of people try, don't they? They fight and they kick and they make life on earth a veritable hell for folks who walk the walk that marks them as followers of Christ. But the Bible seems to imply a promise here: if God is on your side, who can possibly overtake you? Flip to Revelations, folks. The white hats win, once and for all. It's good news alright.

I felt the weight of that Biblical charge this afternoon when the phone rang. I have certainly felt that the folks who voted my hubby out of a job have been tools of darkness these past few weeks. While I don't think they targeted my dh specifically (it was a purely political move), it sure felt like it. Frankly, it felt like one of those moments when the good guys take one for the cause and slink away moral winners but earthly losers. Not bad shoes to walk in... but a place that I'd rather not find myself when two adoptions are on the line.

Anyhow, that phone call ...

Dh called to announce that he had received written notification that he was being reassigned. Yes--his position was eliminated through a political slight of hand. But, truly, if God is for us, who can be against us? A new position was opened just in time, and my husband will be slid--seamlessly--into it as soon as the new year dawns.

Salary, insurance, etc., intact.

If God is for us, who can be against us?


Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I actually never thought that I'd ever again have the privilege of making a batch of homemade baby food. Believe it or not, making baby food is one of those tasks that brings me an amazing amount of contentment. It's the mundane, elevated somehow into a little taste of domestic bliss. Who knew a little puree could make a woman so happy?

My journey to homemade baby food began when Jo was an infant. Remember that this was the late nineties; breastfeeding had really just come back into the mainstream a few years before and no one--I mean, no one--expected anyone to keep at it for longer than six months or so. I figured myself for just such a gal when I started. The truth was, my main motivation for breastfeeding in the first place was financial. Sure, I knew from the parenting magazines that it was best for my baby. But I was also intelligent enough to figure out that the vast majority of medical professionals, even, didn't buy into the exclusiveness of it since they doled out cans of formula hand over fist. What couldn't be countered, however, was the fact that breastfeeding was extremely cost effective. Since we were living on a combined salary of about $17,000 a year in 1998, free was a term I very much felt a kinship with.

The free food train was screaming to a halt somewhere around Jo's fifth month, however. It was time to introduce solids. I clipped coupons, scanned the store shelves and still came up at a loss. How come bananas were 49 cents per pound in the produce section ... but when I meandered to the aisle lined with little glass jars, the same bananas were now 49 cents for 4 ounces? The same held true for apples. Pears. Green Beans. I just couldn't fathom setting aside what amounted to a huge portion of our food budget to finance a steady stream of individual serving-sized portions of really pricey, really bland food.

So I started making my own.

Again, this was 1998. No one I knew seemed to have a problem with buying baby food. I'm pretty sure that no one in my immediate circle even questioned it. Perhaps if I had lived in an area with more granola mommies, I would have found someone to commiserate with me. As it was, I felt like a loser for not being able to feed my baby the same stuff everyone else did. I can actually remember buying jars of baby food to take whenever we went to visit family because I was ashamed of our poverty and certain that I was denying Jo something that was somehow essential to her well being.

But a funny thing happened. I started enjoying making that baby food. Shopping, chopping, steaming, blending ... the whole process took on an event-like feel. I started feeling just the tiniest bit proud of those freezer bags full of good stuff I had made for my baby. After all, I was selecting produce that met my standards. I was in charge of the ingredients and the outcome. And I wasn't lining the pockets of whoever it was that was making millions off of impossibly small glass jars.

I realized that maybe I wasn't just cheap. Maybe I was doing a good thing, after all.

So I kept making baby food. By the time that Logan came along, I could certainly afford to buy in bulk all the Gerber goodness I wanted. But I didn't. By then, the idea of feeding my baby something mass produced without any love at all seemed just plain silly. Finances aside, I asked myself, why on earth is is necessary? I can do that myself.

A lot has changed in my parenting style since Jo first came on the scene. I surprised even myself when I nursed her for fourteen months and made all of her baby food from scratch. When Atticus arrived, I was a breastfeeding die-hard who gritted her teeth through weeks of agonizing latch-on problems and managed to pull off another 16 month nursing stint. I held Atticus off on solids until he was six months old and was amazed when the dire predictions of his imminent decline failed to materialize. Then there was Logan, who I could have nursed well into toddlerhood had he not asserted himself and boycotted the entire process at 16 months. I got creative with Logan's baby food since he was still toothless at a year of age; to this day, Jo remembers asking to lick the spoon when I made "Blueberry Ganoosh" (as she called it), which was a blend of silken tofu, blueberries and plums.

Manolin is the fourth baby I've had the honor of concocting mush fruits and veggies for. What follows is a simple tutorial on the process for anyone who thinks it's too big a job to take on. (It isn't, trust me.) While I now live in an area where virtually everyone I know handles the food production for their infants without any help from the masterminds at Beechnut, I'm sure that somewhere out there there's a mom who needs a little encouragement. Maybe she's scraping by on one income that barely pays the rent. Maybe she's just concerned about what might possibly be in those jars after all. Rest assured, mom ... you can do it.

And hey, it's even fun!

Step one: Start with washed fruit or vegetables. I chose yams because my husband came home with two massive ones from a local organic farmer. These monsters were $2.50.

Step Two: Cut into large chunks. I slice yams into rings, then peel them in one motion and chop the remaining round into four sections.

Step Three: Cook. I have always steamed the foods I prepare. It's just personal preference, though. Many people bake or roast instead.

Step Four: Blend. I don't have a food grinder or any special equipment; I literally just fill my blender and go.

Step Five: After a little initial blending, add some liquid. I reserve the water from steaming and use that first. For this batch, I added some formula as well--it was to be Manolin's first go with yams and I thought that the familiar taste might be good.

Step Six: Stir from time to time. The goal is to get the entire batch thinned out!

Step Seven: Fill ice cube trays and freeze. Each compartment in an ice cube tray is one ounce.

Step Eight: Place frozen cubes in a freezer-safe bag for storage and label.

O.k.--so here's the challenge. My husband paid $2.50 for those organic yams. How many ounces of puree do you think we got out of it to feed little Manolin? And for that price, how many ounces of comparable organic baby food could we have purchased commercially?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

As if I needed convincing on this one

I was not meant to be a single parent. Period.

God knew this, so He blessed me with a really sweet, lovable husband who goes out of his way to pick up the slack in areas where my giftings fall flat (like grocery shopping--yeah, I don't do that).

I like having a husband, and I think mine is a-one, hands-down, THE BEST ONE OUT THERE. You may think the same thing about your own but, I'm sorry--you're just wrong. And that's o.k. Not everyone in the world can have the BEST husband. Some of you have to settle for the guys who get red ribbons. Admit it and move on, ladies. :-)

Anyhow, just to make sure that I remember to be really, truly grateful for the enormous blessing that is my man, God has arranged for said St. Hubby to leave town a couple of times a year. For a week or more. Just to .. you know ... keep me well aware of my shortcomings. Like that whole grocery shopping thing.
But, wait! There's more!

In His wisdom, the Lord usually arranges for a MAJOR illness of some sort to b
efall one or more of my kiddos when my husband is away. Because really, anything less would only be half parenting, right?

When there's more than one responsible adult in the home, the duties are divided. Even if you're the one who cooks the bulk of the meals, is the go-to gal for pick-up and also handles the paying of the bills, you know that someone has your back when push comes to shove. Someone else could vacuum that carpet. Another person over the age of, say, 11 might just decide to fold those clothes. Or hey--you may even score a shower without setting the house alarm and crowding the crew around the computer in front of a webcast of "The Magic School Bus." Not that I've ever done that or anything.

So here I am, in the midst of yet another lesson in why it's so vital for me to have another living, breathing adult in the house. Aside from the groceries, there's also the matter of delicately balancing bedtime routines. There's the reading of SL read-alouds for the oldest two. And, oh yes ... there's the whole "the trash can/recycling won't be picked up if it isn't at the curb." How annoying is that, I ask of you?

This particular go 'round, it's been Oliver that's fighting off the inevitable bug. Since he's been generally congenial about the whole thing, I'm counting myself lucky. It could be so much worse. Like when my husband went to Haiti for two weeks just a few days after Logan had his tonsils removed. Oh, the lessons learned during those 14 long days! Ah, if only there was the time to share them all with you. How about I condense it to this simple line and leave it at that: DO NOT ALLOW TONSILLECTOMY PATIENTS TO EAT TORTILLA CHIPS. There. Enough said.

So, Oliver's sick. Unfortunately, he's puking-and-diarrhea sick, which means that clean up is a big thing in my life right now. That's easier said than done while balancing everything else required to keep the family afloat. If my husband were in town, I could at least fall back on the fact that when he came home from work in the evening, I could turn the four healthy ones over to him and throw all of my attention Oliver's way. Since that's not an option, we're all in "getting by" mode.

Lest you think that all is grim and dour around here, Benny suggested that I share the following vignette from our current situation. Be forewarned that graphic descriptions of domestic hilarity ensue:

Last night, a freshly bathed birthday boy Oliver, smelling of divine Oatmeal Lavender soap and wearing adorable clean pj
's, felt well enough to play with his new toy airplane while I finished giving Manolin his bedtime bottle. The big kids were in the gameroom playing Monopoly (again), so I simply let Oliver slide to the floor from my lap and wander the family room. Just as I put Manolin to my shoulder, I heard the tell-tale signs of something amiss.

Oliver was leaning over a red plastic toy bucket and emptying the
contents of his stomach. Loudly. With vigor.

Even Oliver was amazed at the quantity and volume of this particular heave, because he spent the next three minutes pointing at the bucket and asking, "Wha da?"

Now, you have to know this in order to truly appreciate the moment: I have a carpet cleaner. If Oliver had chosen the rug for his launch pad, I could have had the entire mess out of sight and out
of mind within ten minutes. But, no. He chose the five gallon bucket that we use to store all of the toys with the impossibly small parts. Cars with tiny wheels. Blocks with small connecting points. That kind of thing.

I warned the big kids of the foulness peculating in the bucket, set it in a safe spot in the laundry room, changed Oliver's clothes, put the two little boys to bed and came back to do my clean up duty about forty minutes later. Folks, puke that has been sitting for forty minutes does not mellow. It just becomes, if possible,
more repugnant.

By the time I got to the bucket, what I really wanted to do was join my children for their unending game of Monopoly. With that in mind, I gave the contents of the bucket a preliminary rinse, dumped the mostly-clean c
ontents into the dishwasher and threw in a tab. I hit "heat cycle" for good measure, scrubbed the bucket itself with soap and water and then spritzed it with bleach.

Good enough, right?

Well, no.

This morning, as I was talking to Benny and sharing my latest single parenting fiasco, Logan began his morning chore of emptying the dishwasher. He immediately ran over to my side and threw his hand on my shoulder. This is our sign for a request to interrupt a conversation, and I could tell by the way that he was pressing on my shoulder he meant business.

"Mom! There are a bunch of toys in the dishwasher!"

"Yes, hon. Remember, I said Oliver threw up in the toy bucket last night. Just set them in the drainer to dry if they're still wet."

"But, mom, they're still dirty!"

This demanded investigating. I approached the dishwasher cautiously, wondering if the toys had somehow been melted and still keenly recalling the odor I'd been forced to endure just a few short hours before. Sure enough, the toys were there, and they were intact ... but they were clearly dotted with some kind of caked on goo that appeared to have been dried.

And that's when it hit me.

"Oh, man," I told Benny, "It's fried vomit. In my dishwasher. Fried. Vomit."

And that was how this single-for-now momma started her day. Rinsing off bits of baked yuck from a batch of toys. Oh, and throwing a good number of them away.

Every war has casualties, you know.

So ask me a year from now to distill the advice that I've picked up this season into one single line. Unless something somehow more enlightening happens over the course of the next week, it will probably be this: DO NOT USE THE HIGH HEAT CYCLE ON TOYS THAT HAVE BEEN THROWN UP ON UNLESS YOU PLAN ON A WHOLE NEW KIND OF BAKED GOOD EMERGING.