Friday, January 30, 2009

Yellow Bus Blues

Yes, folks ... it's almost February. And as anyone whose been homeschooling for any length of time already knows, February is The Month When It All Falls Apart.

At least, that's what it feels like. Consider what your average homeschooling mom deals with on any given day in February:

  • Kids who would rather bicker with each other than listen to a read-aloud.
  • A telephone that is far more tempting than the scheduled science project (which is probably missing key ingredients, anyhow).
  • A laundry pile that has somehow begun to double overnight and is now threatening to take over the kitchen.
  • An AWANA calendar that cheerfully reminds you that you have only 8 weeks left to help your T&Ter through the last oh, five Discoveries.
  • A son who hates his co-op classes.
  • A toddler who suddenly thinks that napping is boring.
  • A daughter that runs screaming when she hears the words "math worksheet."
  • Cabin fever, thanks to crummy weather and snotty noses.
  • And that legendary homeschooling mother creativity? Well ... it took a spur of the moment trip to the Bahamas, and invited its buddy motivation along for the ride.

This is Yellow Bus Blues season, guys. You know exactly what I mean--the time of year when you watch the big yellow bus drive happily down your street each morning, stopping at each knot of huddled children, whisking them off to be educated far away from their own kitchen tables. You see the beautifully coiffed mothers of these children, walking away from the bus stop in their jogging pants with contented smiles, good friends and plans for meeting up at Starbucks later after some intense Facebook time. And you? Well, you've got a week's backlog of math lessons and phonics reader waiting in the wings. And did I mention that the breakfast dishes are still in the sink?

Yellow Bus Blues, I'm telling you. It's enough to make even a dedicated homeschooling momma throw her hands up in the air and admit defeat.

I've already fielded three phone calls from desperate moms in my support group who are feeling the sheer desperation of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this isn't what they signed up for after all. They are failures. Their well-intentioned plans didn't stick. Their children aren't interested in learning. Their houses are a wreck. And, at the end of the day, there are woefully few shiny, happy moments to revel in.

Take courage, homeschooling moms. You are not alone.

Over the years, I've come up with a handful of tools to combat my own bouts of Yellow Bus Blues. I'll share a few of them here in the hopes that they might inspire someone to hang in there. After all ... spring is just right around the corner.

  1. Mix it up. Ditch the usual routine for a week and try a unit study. There are hundreds available online, and it won't cost you a dime. For maximum effect (ie, cooperation from your children) ask them to come up with an idea of what to study.
  2. Try a new schedule. Sometimes all it takes is some discipline. Buckle down and charge ahead. Before you know it, the season has passed.
  3. Tour your local public school. No, I'm not joking. There is nothing that will remind you quite as clearly why you chose a different path than peeking in an institutionalized classroom.
  4. Take a field trip. For that matter, take two. Don't let the weather stop you.
  5. Waste an afternoon with a webquest. All the better if you have no idea what I'm talking about. Your kids will enjoy learning along with you.
  6. Add a new element to your homeschooling. If you've never done a lapbook before, give it a try. Listen to an audiobook together instead of reading aloud (hey, you can do something with your hands now, too!)
  7. Get some support. Talk to someone who has BTDT and get a little empathy.
  8. Schedule a Valentine's party with another homeschooling family. If your house is trashed and you don't want to host, take the pressure off of both of you and meet at a McDonald's Playplace. Bring your craft supplies and set up shop. Seriously ... as long as you're buying something and cleaning up the glitter, what do they care what you're doing at the table?

So what about you? What's your favorite way to beat Yellow Bus Blues? Leave your ideas in a comment and inspire someone in the trenches!

Mary (Grace) had a little lamb

Logan enjoys some quality time with the lamb who kindly volunteered his services to our homeschool.

We hosted our lamb for just a few days, but boy, was it fun. A beautiful primer for my children on the true lack of sentimentality that must be employed when an animal is a means to an end rather than a four-legged friend. A living biology specimen. A chance to exercise stewardship and develop compassion for the weakest of things.

Mary (Grace) had a little lamb, and she would do it again in a heartbeat.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A reminder

I heard from a friend this morning who needed to hear this little bit of truth spoken aloud, and thought I'd share it here. After all, who doesn't need to be reminded to quit worrying and simply do the next thing?
Do The Next Thing
"At an old English parsonage down by the sea,
there came in the twilight a message to me.
Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven
that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.
And all through the hours the quiet words ring,
like a low inspiration, 'Do the next thing.'
Many a questioning, many a fear,
many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.
Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing.
Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
working or suffering be thy demeanor,
in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.
Do the next thing."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: All About Homophones

In this age of spell check and word processing, a few skills that were once nonnegotiable have fallen by the wayside. Why invest hours in teaching your children the ins and outs of spelling when they will have those friendly (or is it "freindly"?) little red lines to guide them to better writing? Why even bother with penmanship at all, when chances are good that within another generation we will have morphed to an entirely digital era?

I'll give you the fact that there's some credence to those arguments. Knowing that a computer program has your back certainly makes both of those skills a little less daunting. I myself have succumb to a certain amount of malaise on the whole handwriting thing, you'll remember.

Yet there is one particular old-fashioned notion that I beg you not to write off; please,
please teach your children homophones and their correct usages. Doing anything less is something akin to sending your children to an AWANA meeting buck naked: brownie points for being there, y'all ... but hey, aren't you forgetting something?

I could rave all day about All About Homophones. I could outline the superb teaching method. I could tell you that the graphic organizers make so much sense that even children who struggle to define individual words in print will make the connection. I could point out that the games are fun and educational. I could even tell you that the list of homophones alone is worth the purchase price. But frankly, most of you aren't convinced that there's a need for something this elementary. Your homeschool hours are packed with enough learning, you say. He'll just pick it up somewhere along the road (or is it "rode"?). I'm not making this an entire subject. I mean, really, MG. Have. you. seen. my. schedule?!?!

I may not have seen your individual schedule, but I have seen the fallout of homophones gone very, very wrong. Walk with me now, dear readers, as we encounter just a few examples of why you NEED All About Homophones.

And sometimes, you shouldn't skip your sixth grade grammar class.

Their there. No, wait! There they're. Shoot! They're their? Oh, whatever!

Pity those poor sugar uncles, left all alone while their wives circle the sink, doling out random capitalization and stealing punctuation marks.

Naked at AWANA, I'm telling you, people!

Please, look into All About Homophones. Make room in your homeschool schedule. Give the Grammar Nazis of this world less to groan over. Trust me, your ( or is it "you're"?) child will someday thank you (or is it "ewe"?).

Monday, January 26, 2009

$10 off All About Homophones

Remember my review for All About Spelling? The author has another homeschooling resource, this one titled All About Homophones. I have a review copy and can vouch for the fact that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor; I'll write a more thorough review later. Until then, here's a note from author Marie Rippel:

And this is the big news: to celebrate the launch of All About Homophones, your readers can get $10 off any order at! To receive the discount, visitors to the site need to enter "FUN" in the customer code box during checkout. The coupon code is good for one week, through February 2, 2009.

With that discount, the ebook version will only set you back $17 and some change. If you've been curious about the book, now's definitely the time.

ETA: My full review of All About Homophones is now up and available here.

The best of intentions

I stayed up until 10 last night working on school planning. This is a big deal because I am a 9:30 p.m. girl as a rule. But this was going to be The Week That I Got Everything In. The Latin Atticus has been begging for. The art study Jo is pining after. The flower dissection Logan keeps reminding me that we skipped over a few lessons back. The Eric Liddell book I have been ignoring for two weeks on the Sonlight schedule.

I squeezed it all in there. I even printed out lapbooking pages, people.

At 9 a.m., we were in motion. Work was getting done. Books were being read. Talk of math and quips in Greek were flowing around my kitchen table.

And then Mr. Blandings called sounding, well ... sheepish.

"Can I bring a lamb home?"

"No, you can't bring a lamb home," I replied, thinking: My house is on the market. I live in a suburban neighborhood. And, have you noticed, I am homeschooling and doing it with my whole being right now?

"C'mon. It's just a little lamb. The Ag Devo lady (Us non-governmental types call it the Agricultural Development Office) brought it in. It's only three days old. It can't even walk without falling over. She says we can keep it as long as we want and then bring it back. Man, is he a cute little fella."

I am such a sucker.
Guess who's doing a unit study on sheep this week? No art study. No Latin. And the only flowers we'll be dissecting are the ones we might be able to feed Li'l Lamb.

I wonder if Eric Liddell liked sheep?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sometimes you say no

I just finished a phone call that made my day end on a happy note. For the better part of the afternoon, it looked like the possibility of hitting my beloved memory foam pillow with a contented sigh just wasn't going to happen. No ... it was going to be one of those nights where you close your eyes and try to slay the dragons of the worries that just won't die when the daylight fades.

I had, after all, just turned down placement of a little girl that I know personally ... and adore.

This particular girl is just two and a half. Cute as a button. Smart as a whip. Chatty as they come. Engaging. Curious. Fun. A delightful little girl who is still young enough to be unaw
are of the mess her biological family has made of her life, but wise enough to begin putting together the pieces that spell out "d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-t."

And now, while she sits on the cusp of discovering that she is "just a foster kid," the state is intent on bungling her life even more.

I won't go into the how and why and wherefore. Let's just give each other the knowing, wizened look that says, "Oh, one of those cases," and move on. The
specifics don't matter. What matters is this precious little girl who deserves a home.

And I have a home. And a bed. And all of the things that little girls need in their lives, like love and cuddles, family breakfasts, siblings and ponytail holders. I have an open spot on my foster license. I have a willing placement coordinator and a state social worker who'd be delighted to move this little girl into my home tomorrow.

But I said no.

My agency's placement coordinator didn't even ask for a reason, but I found myself pouring it out anyway. It was guilt, I think. Guilt over knowing I could help and yet was withdrawing the cup of water that I could have so easily extended. Guilt over seeing a need and saying no.

The reason, you see, is Atticus. Before you ask, no--nothing is wrong with Atticus. Nothing that some intensive one-on-one parenting time and a concentrated helping of spiritual guidance and a whole lot of love won't solve. Atticus has entered that tenuous, heartbreaking stage that I remember so well with Jo: the "who am I?" season that finds little bodies beginning the slow climb that will lead to eventual puberty and little souls grappling with deeper truths than their brains can as yet handle. The season of hand-holding, of long talks and of explaining the world with new depth.

The time when the world that you had previously painted with black and white suddenly must be filled in with shades of grey, green, red and blue.

Growing up, part one, in other words.

Jo made it through this initial stage of maturing with the finesse that defines who she is. A few months of trying on her new skin and shaking the wrinkles out and she was as good as new. No more sulking. No more holding herself up to the images of others. Just Jo--confident and sparkling, assertive and magnetic, always the center of every gathering.

But Atticus is not Jo, and I do not suspect that the first few threads of silk in his own cocoon will adhere quite so comfortably. Atticus takes after his father. He is prone to anxiety. He worries. He is far too intelligent for his own good, and this leads him to try to jam every piece of knowledge and feeling into the small, tight box he has labeled for it, ready to be placed on a shelf in his brain where it can be accessed at his leisure.

Atticus will feel the changes of maturing in his life and his heart, and he will be uncomfortable with the raw emotions that it brings to the surface. I have begun to see the first birth pangs of this new movement in flared tempers, sullen moodiness and irritable impatience, and I am realizing more and more that this will be a hands-on, hearts-on parenting experience for Mr. Blandings, Atticus and me.

With this is mind, I said no to the placement of the little girl.

She needs a home, but I need to fulfill my promise to both God and my son. Atticus needs me. He needs--and deserves--more than a few scraps of my attention as I try to settle a new toddler into our busy household. To give him anything less would be unthinkable.

Even knowing this truth, my heart was heavy. I had put my feet to the path I knew I was meant to take, but not without a glance over my should to apologize for not being somehow more capable of doing it all. Maybe if I were a better mom all around, I could have said yes to both the little girl and Atticus ...

Because I am Supermom, don't you know. Cape and all.

Sometimes, the Holy Spirit rushes ahead of our prayers and brings our requests to the feet of the Lord. This was one of those days. As I changed Manolin's diaper, the name of a fellow Christian foster mom of five came to mind. The voice of doubt that had been whispering my shortfalls receded, and a new voice echoed in my head. Can't hurt to call her. See if she's got an open spot on her license. Why not?

So I called. She did have an empty spot. She loves toddlers. The girl's racial background almost matches one of her kiddos. "A little girl? Absolutely. Who do I call?"

A flurry of phone calls and email exchanges. A long wait. And then, this:

"Mary Grace, I just wanted you to know that we've got it all worked out. She's coming next Friday. I can't believe it! We're so excited! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THINKING OF ME!"

Even unsettled days can end like that: with happy, satisfied sighs that bring you back to the goodness of God amidst the ongoing flux that we call life. Growth, change, discovery, hurt, joy, frustration ... the world is still moving forward, uninterested in the individual experience. But what's this? A family is being expanded next week. I believe in my heart that the Lord is looking upon that fact and calling it good, very good.

Atticus will weather the storm of his emotional upheaval. He'll figure out a few things about himself and in the end, he will walk away from this short period with a few more tools in his arsenal of self definition. If we are careful, he will learn more about relying on God and start taking the baby steps into a more mature relationship with Him. And he'll learn that he can turn to Mr. Blandings and I no matter what, because our love is not conditional.

So sometimes, you say no. But really, what you're saying is YES.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Benny helpfully pointed out yesterday that my "about me" blurb on this blog has Manolin perpetually stuck at 6 months of age. He's actually closing in on 8 months. At this stage of the game, a difference of two months is actually a very big deal. Two months turns flopping to sitting, rolling to crawling, rice cereal to finger foods. Big doings when you still haven't reached that pivotal milestone of being in the world longer than you were in the womb.

Watching Manolin leapfrog forward has brought out all of the emotions you would expect. I daily find myself reveling in his new skills, all the while looking wistfully at the time that has already passed and the skills already discarded.

Manolin is developmentally on target. He sits solidly, rolls when he chooses, eats like a horse and babbles meaningfully whenever he catches your eye. He gives the biggest belly laughs I've ever heard from an infant; he's even developing a bit of a sense of humor, which is delighting Atticus to no end. Manolin sucks his thumb, basks in the love of others and is comfortable enough to fall asleep in his daddy's lap when the mood strikes him. He is the epitome of an almost 8 month-old.

You'd never know his history by looking at him. The only reminders of the abuse he suffered that will carry into his adulthood are a small indentation at his hairline and a white teardrop scar in the corner of his mouth.

We love him like crazy. The bonding between our already established family and this smiling, happy baby was almost instantaneous. There was no courtship--no dancing around emotions, no getting to know you, no wondering what the future would hold. The first time I saw a photo of Manolin, I knew he was my son. I can't tell you why or how. I can just say that it was so.

As I write this, Manolin is making concerted attempts to turn his on-his-bottom scoot into an actual forward crawl. He's reaching, straining, fussing and casting me the occasional "a little help here?" glance that lets me know I have seamlessly become his safe place. In a few minutes, I will scoop him up and tell him it's time for a nap. I will settle him in his crib and he will beam at me as I hand him Bandito, his stuffed Racoon, and cover him with his velvety blanket. He will wedge his thumb in his mouth and snuggle Bandito against his cheek. In two hours, he will let me know he's awake by babbling loudly and thumping his feet against the crib mattress with a resonating bang that still shocks me with its veracity. He will have a bottle and then he will go back to the work of learning to crawl.

And I will be there, every minute. I will watch and take note, because these precious days do not last, even when forever is on the table.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The ONE thing

I got a package for review yesterday that I have been waiting for with baited breath.


A whole entire chemistry program! Experiments, games, a beautiful, orderly periodic table (you have got to click on that link!) that I can spoon-feed into the minds of children before nudging them forward into the fascinating world of reactions.

Yes, I am a geek.

But chemistry. It's the ONE thing that I've been waiting to teach with an anticipation that rivals only my love of introducing creative writing to budding authors.

What about you? What's the one thing that you are chomping at the bit to teach in your homeschool?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Exactly how quickly can YOU get out the door?

With five children, it takes me a bare minimum of twenty minutes to get out the door. Bare minimum, folks. From the time that I am totally ready to go--twenty minutes. Twenty minutes to give walking orders ("Shoes on! Brush your hair!"), gather blankies, prepare a bottle, grab a sippy cup, remind everyone to make a potty run, check the diaper bag, change both of the little boys one last precautionary time ...

So if you're a realtor hoping to show my house, can you please keep this in mind? Telling me that you're a street away and want to show my house like now is just not doable. 

Twenty minutes. That's all I ask.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Because God laughs.

Because there is no such thing as control.

Because schedules were meant to be thwarted.

Because grooves can too quickly become ruts.

Because nothing, nothing is ever full enough in God's economy.

And that is all I'm (not) going to say about that.

Review: ee publishing

One of the things I love the most about having a homeschooled 11 year old girl is that she is, truly, an 11 year old girl. No make-up. No high heels. No Britney Spears. Just an 11 year-old girl who is still content to play with her treasured
Mini Whinnies, collect American Girl dolls and dress up in character as the mood strikes her.

To the outside world, my daughter probably appears a touch immature. To me, she's perfect: still a girl even as the blossom of young womanhood unfolds.

Even knowing this, though, I was skeptical that Jo would show much of an interest in the adorable cloth doll that ee publishing
sent me for review. After all, the doll and her sweet picture book were clearly targeted for a younger audience (my 5 year-old niece came to mind when I saw her). The lovely illustrations and simple, charming story didn't hold much promise for a girl who routinely tackles 800-page novels.

But with just one glance, Jo was smitten.

"She's lovely," my girl told me when we pulled Nana Star from her box. Soft, poseable and dressed in frills, satin and flowers, the doll is a confection for little girls.

I let Jo read the book, and went off to make dinner. Later that evening, I found this note on the kitchen counter:

Dear Mom,
I know that Nana Star is for little girls but I would really, really like her. She's very pretty and the story is really cute. If it wouldn't be too much to ask, could I maybe have her?
Love, Jo

How can a mom resist that? So that night, Nana Star took up residence in Jo's room, where she has remained, a prized member of the menagerie that overruns
--excuse me: guards--her bed.

A couple of days afterwards, Jo presented me with another note:

Dear Mom,
I don't know if you've read the Nana Star book yet, but it is about a girl who finds a lost star and promises to return the star to its home. Anyhow, in the book there's a note that says that everyone makes mistakes, even authors. So there's a mistake in the book. I found it. If you find the mistake and write to tell them about it, you get to join a club. I'd really like to join. May I?
Love, Jo

I ask again, how can a mom resist that? Jo wrote a quick note to ee publishing, put it in an envelope and sent it on its merry way. A short time later, she received a very official-looking, oversized envelope addressed to "Miss Jo" that contained a personalized, signed photograph, a certificate, a folder and directions to find coloring sheets and whatnot on the website.

Free, mind you.

Jo beamed all afternoon.

And that, my friends, is a simply sweet product. Simple. Gentle. And appealing to all.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's not actually playing hooky

When I was in high school, playing hooky looked like this:

Me to best friend T. (who was, oddly enough, both a boy and my boyfriend's best friend ... go figure) while driving to school: The thought of sitting in Physics is making me feel sick.

T.: Yeah, me too. I think we're watching a movie again anyhow.

Me: Seriously?

T.: So it would basically be, like, wasting time to be there.

Long pause.

T.: Did you know that the Mint Museum has a new exhibit?

Me: No, what is it?

And just like that, with no real decision made, the nose of my car magically pointed itself in the direction of whatever museum or cultural opportunity presented itself. I realize that the vast majority of high school students do not spend their truant hours enriching themselves in zoos, museums, galleries and libraries. But seriously, T. and I did. We took in plays, sampled cuisine from hole in the wall ethnic restaurants, studied art from more genres than I can count and became intimate with the underutilized research section of a local university library. With frightening regularity, we shunned the classroom and declared mental health field trips that, in the end, have made me a far more interesting and educated person. Or so I like to think.

Not that I'm recommending anyone else follow in our shoes. First of all, you'll probably find yourself running over unexcused absences. In a delightful twist of fate, my school had decided to suspend those formalities for my junior and senior year in favor of letting the grades--not attendance--speak for themselves. You'll be stunned to learn that the bulk of the students failed to show up for those two years and found themselves repeating grades. I, however, managed to keep up with my work AND miss just enough school to keep me well-rounded. (Truly, I would have been a wonderful candidate for unschooling.) Since too many of my fellow classmates couldn't do the same, the 10 absence rule was reinstated the fall after I graduated. It was a lovely experiment that I thank the Lord for every time I think back over my teen years. See? God can even use the fickle winds of public education to bless us!

And second of all, no ... smoking pot on your boyfriend's couch while his parents are at work isn't a valid alternative to sitting in a math class, no matter how boring the math class happens to be. Get thee to a classroom, slacker, post haste!

But anyhow, this post isn't about me and my personal days of reveling in freedom from the confines of forced education. It's about the fact that I don't think there will be too much in the way of formal schooling going on here for the rest of the week, and why I'm o.k. with that.

My house is currently on the market. In typical fashion, Mr. Blandings and I are currently finishing all of those DIY projects that we never quite got around to: repainting the downstairs bathroom, painting the master bathroom, sorting through the amassed school books and whatnot, fixing the drawer fronts of two kitchen cabinets, etc., etc., etc. The reason we never got around to doing these very worthwhile things is (drum roll please!) we didn't have the time. Well, guess what? We don't have the time now, either. But the idea of someone calling and asking to see our house--and maybe, maybe even buy it--is enough to help you carve a little slice of motivation out of your day, if you know what I mean.

Which means that today, instead of presenting the great Botany lesson I had planned, I am hanging wallpaper.

And I don't feel the least bit guilty about it.

Five years ago, the thought of setting aside a short season of school to get through a rough patch, get something done or just revel in a snow day felt decadent and frankly, wrong. I had a hard time giving myself permission to let things slide. I was sure that I was setting a rotten example or, worse yet, doing my kids a disservice by letting them fall behind their peers.

Today, I see a whole lot of value in these days of pulling together as a family to get a project done. Jo may not be reading about China, but she told me today that she was using some of Oli's speech therapist's tricks with him and was delighted to find that they worked. Atticus may not be doing math, but he picked up Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. Logan may not be practicing his handwriting, but he was my level pro this morning, and was an ace at getting a repeating wallpaper pattern just right.

Taking a page out of my own education, I'm enjoying the side trip that this move is giving us. Taking in the scenery. Letting life be the teacher, and throwing in what actual lessons I can when I can. We'll pick the books back up soon enough. A little hooky is good for the soul.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Our phone rang at 8:30 last night. A quick check of the caller i.d. revealed an east coast area code and the name of one of my mother's many sisters. A quick calculation ("It's 11:30 p.m. over there!") terrified me. After all, distant relatives do not call to ask how you're getting on when the midnight hour looms.

As it turns out, it was a simple case of checking in. My Aunt Louise had heard a weather-related news story from our area and was wondering if we were o.k. Before turning in for the evening, she picked up the phone and called. It was a small gesture, but one that I will always remember.

Once I convinced her that we were safe and well, the conversation meandered to the happier fields of nostalgia and the remembrances that family members can share. It is a comfortable, familiar thing to talk to my Aunt Louise despite the fact that years float by without our speaking to one another. We are cut from the same cloth, it seems. We both agreed some time ago that fitting in doesn't appear to be our strongest suit. In a family of seven children, she was one of the first to strike out and move not just out of the town she grew up in, but entirely out of state. Her family embraced a form of ardent faith that many relatives consider extreme and unnecessary. Further bucking the family trend, she went on to give birth to five babies in 9 years. Four of her siblings had only one child each; the other two had three (another sister) and two (my mother). I can remember my mother insinuating that Louise was clearly crazy. Or, possibly, stupid. After all, who had five children now that birth control was readily available? Only simpletons who were missing out on the Me First revolution.

My last phone call with my Aunt Louise was prompted by a note I'd included with our Christmas card a few years back, thanking her for the gentle way she had shaped my life. Without any real effort on her behalf, I told her, she and her entire family had made an impression on my heart so deep that it resonates still. I told her how I can trace my love of old houses back to them, and even my desire to have a large family. Without saying a word, I was impacted by the true joy and very real faith of my aunt, uncle and their five children. They never preached, but their love of Jesus was in every hug, every door held open, every silly tickling session, every sing-along beside their piano. As a hurting, lonely little girl, I saw this family, and I wanted to be folded into their warmth forever. My aunt was stunned but pleased that she had blessed me, and gave all of the glory for it to the Lord.

I was not surprised.

Now I am the one with the five children and the family far away. I am in my mid-thirties and well into the stride of my marriage and my life. I can look at my aunt in a whole new way, and with even deeper appreciation. My heart is ripe for the wisdom that can be passed on by a woman who laced up these same boots a generation ago. We talked for nearly an hour. I gleaned nuggets of truth from her experiences that I know will carry me for a lifetime. I thought I would share some of her questions, comments and insights as a way of passing on the blessing:

*First and foremost she asked about my marriage. Are we treating each other well? Do we talk about things other than our children? Do we have something that we enjoy doing together, just the two of us--like reading aloud, or collecting something meaningful. Don't listen to people who seem miffed that your husband comes first, or that he's the one you'd rather spend time with. This relationship is the one that will carry me into old age. "My children are grown and moved out years ago," she reminded me, "but my husband is just down the hall."

*Parenting isn't as hard as society makes it right now. Parenting is only a piece of the job of a woman. Don't let it take over the whole pie. God created you so to be a wife, a mother, a housekeeper, and a talented individual in your own right. If you think your full-time job is "mom," then you're out of balance.

*If you're "too busy" to make dinner, clean your own house or fold your own laundry, you've either missed the boat on training your children in how to be a part of the family or you need a serious shake-up in priorities.

*Activities for kids are elective, not necessary. "People think that kids have to always be
in something or on some team or having some sport," mused my Aunt Louise. She noted a long list of children in her life who have not had what she called "nothing time" in their whole little lives: seasons of no sports, no gymnastics, no dance, no camp, no Bible Club, no nothing. While the children seem to be enjoying the smorgasboard of activity and experiences now, she wondered what bigger thing they were missing out on. "The Bible says, 'Be still and know that I am God,' but nobody wants their kids to be still."

*The expectations of others--how you should spend your time, what is most important, how much you should invest in them and their pursuits--is not your problem.

*Don't feel bad for "trading" a larger family for a smaller family--the "cost" is worth it. My aunt noted that they never took grand vacations, had money for fancy ballet outfits or clothed their kids in the latest styles. But they still have plenty to talk about when they gather for a Sunday dinner, and only one of her children has ever expressed that she felt she was missing out in her childhood.

*This is your family. Cut apron strings are not the sign of poor relationships, but the sign of maturity and true leaving and cleaving. Your mother and father shouldn't be paying for your vacations, couch or kid's soccer fees. We're not talking about stubborn "I won't ask for help even when I need it" mindsets or one that refuses gifts. We're talking about the natural order of things as described by the Lord--one man, one woman ... a new family, connected to the roots of the past, but blossoming in new ways.

*Children truly are a blessing. Embrace the gift and be content in your heart.

Isn't my Aunt Louise a breath of fresh air? In a world where children are either worshiped or maligned (depending on the worldview of the person speaking), where woman are judged by what they can get done in the course of a day, where families will do whatever it takes to come out on top, it's so nice to hear from someone who rejected the trend ... and not only survived, but thrived.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Review: Insight Technical Education (or: Further proof that you can teach just about anything at home)

You've probably heard this question asked a million times, a million different ways:

"But what will you do when it's time for (fill in the blank with appropriately "involved" area of study)?"

I've always responded with a confident, "There are lots of resources out there. We'll tap into those if we find ourselves in over our heads."

It's a true enough statement. Can't remember a thing about upper level math? Check out the Teaching Textbooks line of courses. Have a budding violin prodigy on your hands? Hook him up with a talented musician willing to teach homeschoolers. Need some hands-on civics lessons? Investigate page opportunities in your state's government.

The field of homeschool resources is ripe and growing, folks. Case in point: Insight Technical Education, a company that offers high quality instruction (via books and CD ROM) in the areas of accounting, drafting, technical sketching and graphic design.

Designed to be self-directed immersion studies, these courses offer far more than what I recall of my own days spent at the high school drafting table, when I was forced to copy a design for the same Mason jar jellybean dispenser that everyone else was making. I had no interest in making a Mason jar jellybean dispenser but, alas, 9th graders were making Mason jar jellybean dispensers. Period. The 10th graders were lucky enough to be making chess boards, but the curriculum standards had spoken. I was locked in; guess what my mother unwrapped for Christmas from me that year?

I'm fairly certain that I learned nothing about sketching, drafting, design or anything else in my own technical education classes. I did learn that my shop teacher had a thing for making sure that you sat properly on the ancient, elevated stools we used at the drafting tables but frankly, this knowledge has not served me well in life.

Imagine what I could have done if I'd been given a crack at the real deal, such as is found in Insight's products. My review copy of Advanced Complete-A-Sketch was thorough, rigorous, and chock full of so many truly fun activities (like making a paper model of a tank, a castle and even a parking garage) that it became an area of study all by itself in our homeschool. Seriously--I had a 6 year-old sampling the art of orthographic (2D) sketching.

A close family friend is an architect, and he practically drooled when I detailed some of the Insight products to him.

"If I had been given access to that kind of thing when I was still in elementary school or even in high school, I can't imagine how much easier my undergraduate work in architecture would have been," he says.

So seriously--don't sell yourself short when it comes to homeschooling. The resources ARE out there, and they are ABUNDANT. A little bit of digging will most likely bring you to quality instruction at affordable prices, no matter what you're looking to teach.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Welcome to my museum

Is it just me, or does every homeschooler set up a curriculum museum?

I have finally realized that this is the only way to describe the vast expanse of resources I'm housing on far too many shelves in our school space. I have Instructor's Guides. Workbooks. Catalogs. Manipulatives. Science kits. Notebooks. And, of course, more books than you can shake a stick at.

I have a collection of books--both fiction and nonfiction--that rivals many small town libraries at this point. I am a bibliophile by nature, and homeschooling books have become my weakest spot. I collect books on any topic of real interest--or potential interest, for that matter. I have a whole section on microscopes, and have had to subdivide my books on animals into phyla. I collect "math adventure" books because they are hard to come by. And let's not get started on historical references ... but if you ever need a good book on slavery-era folktales or on the animals France's Charles X collected, let me know.

It's kind of sinful, to be honest. I look at those books and sometimes I realize that I have forgotten that I owned something on a particular topic. Many's the day I have put a library hold on something that already graces my shelves. Sometimes I don't even realize it until the book is at home and one of the kids says, "Hey, we already have that one!"


This doesn't even begin to catalog my collection of "I'll need that eventually" resources. Books on Victorian history that are way over Jo's head. Math videos explaining advanced Calculus. A course outline for high school biology. And what about the things I know I'll (probably) come back to? The outgrown phonics readers.
Computer software for learning the alphabet. And all of those Sonlight Cores ...

The hilarious thing is that I didn't buy a very good chunk of whatI house in my collection. My cousin has been exceedingly generous over the years, and has passed on more valuable curriculum (and advice) than you can imagine. I have benefitted from multiple "going out of business" homeschoolers, too, who have passed on their stuff as their children have gone on to public school or graduated into the real world. And then there are those library sales ...

I'm putting together a curriculum swap for my homeschool group, and many of the items I just haven't used will probably find their way to the swap table. I'm also fairly free in lending out homeschool stuff, although I've reigned that in since I found that not everyone shares my idea of stewardship. But the vast library of resources on my shelves is still something I am looking at and wondering over. Is it necessary? Should I pare it down? If I do get rid of something, what's the worst that will happen when I discover I need it again? Can I live without a room lined with shelves that are brimming over with homeschooling resources?

How about you? Do you have too much of a good thing? IS there too much?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's all so puzzling

I work really hard to make sure that my children get a heavy dose of math in their lives. I feel that math as a mental skill is extremely undervalued; the emphasis is either on rote memorization or solely on application (cooking, measuring, etc.). These things are important, but they tend to lack the element of critical thinking that truly is the entire foundation of math. The art of mathematics can truly be so much more than we (and that includes me) give it credit for.

To that end, I'd found ways over the years to sneak a few challenges into our homeschooling adventure that have driven my children insane ... and taught them how to reason, to problem solve and to think outside of the box. My favorite
method-which I've recently resurrected--is the puzzle tray.

At one point, this was actually a puzzle box: a small recipe card holder-type box with a few ziploc baggies that contained individual puzzles of various types. Many were of the toothpick variety. A few were tangrams or the like. All were geared toward my 3rd grade-and-under crew and all could be completed with just the materials provided in the baggie.

Nowadays, I've opted for the Montessori-inspired tray approach. Using primarily puzzles I've printed from my favorite spots over the years, I slip the instructions into a page protector and leave any necessary manipulatives (coins, toothpicks, bingo chips, paperclips, etc.) in a small bowl on the tray. The kids take turns working the puzzles, sometimes in pairs, sometimes carting the tray off to their rooms for a little privacy.

When the kids were little(-r), I kept a prize box going that they could tap into once they'd accumulated so many "points." Each baggie was assigned a number of points based on difficulty, and a running tab inspired them to either master as many of the easier puzzles as they could handle or stretch to conquer a big ten pointer and get into that box in one fell swoop. The prize box had pencils, those little Dover sticker books, fancy erasers and the like. It was a nice motivator to get reluctant learners into the mode of brain teasing.

Today, the reward is being able to report back--and demonstrate--how you solved a puzzle. Many of our favorites have multiple ways to get tot he correct answer, and sharing how you did it in the least number of steps, or the fastest, or with the most finesse is a high point in our days. That was my ultimate goal all along--making the art of the solution a reward in and of itself. It just took a few years to get that far!

This doesn't replace our normal math instruction. It's all part of what I see as a well-rounded environment. As a writer, I don't have to work very hard to make sure that our homeschool is print-rich. But math ... well, that takes a little more effort!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Other people's children

I get asked all the time what it's like to "raise other people's kids." It really doesn't occur to me that Oliver or Manolin are other people's kids. They seem like, well, just kids to me. Even the short-term foster placements we've had have felt like members of our family. Temporary members to be sure, but members who slid into the framework with just a little bit of effort. I feel the same way about the children of close friends--I don't hesitate for a second when there's a booboo to be kissed or a hug to be doled out or a "Simmer down there, mister," that needs to be issued. They don't grate on my nerves and they don't make me heave deep, heaven-help-me-through-this sigh.

So why is it, then, that there are some children who just strain every ounce of your being whenever they're around? Children who go left when you say right. Children who buck and twist and kick at every little suggestion. Children who test every rule, who are loud and uncouth and who never, ever remember to flush.

Children who drive you crazy, in other words. You know--other people's kids.

What is it about these children that makes them absolutely unable to go with the flow? What renders them unable to grasp even the merest shred of self-discipline? Is it nature or nurture? Parenting or personality?

I don't know. I really don't know. But I tell you this. Taking on other people's kids is a big job not to be undertaken lightly or without coffee and chocolate.

Come to think of it, maybe it's best if you put the chocolate in the coffee.

There you go: my new rule of thumb. No more other people's kids without a mocha. Period.

Review: Kinderbach

What's the one thing that Logan is looking forward to in our new house? Is it the new bedroom theme I've promised him--something Americana-ish, as befitting his love of the presidency and all things patriotic? Is it a dedicated playspace that won't be used for any other purpose? Is it a backyard to call his own?

No. It's a piano.

We flirted with buying a piano a year ago, when Jo mentioned a (fleeting) interest in learning something musical. We looked on craig's list and fell in love with any number of beautiful old pianos that would have never fit in our living room. When Jo passed out of the phase, we quit looking. But little did we know that the seed had been sown; Logan, my most creative child, was smitten by the idea that we might pony up the cash for music lessons.

I don't invest lots of time, effort or money in interests that may not pan out. I know far too many parents who have closets full of discarded ballet leotards and karate gis that saw the light of day for four months of usage to follow that train. Instead, I usually do some preliminary research, identify resources and throw the ball back into the court of the child who expressed an interest in whatever the hobby or sport might be. Then I let them chew on the information and see what becomes of it. Sometimes it grows into a passion--Jo and her 4-H involvement is a great example. Other times, the flame flickers--such was the case with Atticus and his brief stint in Archery, which cost me all of $2 thanks to a great 4-H club that was willing to let him try it on for size.

But Logan is getting his piano. I've decided that the passion is true and worthy of the investment in time and money that any real spark of curiosity should receive. Here's how I know:

Logan has spent the past few months using an online tutorial called Kinderbach. Designed for much younger children (preschoolers are their prime audience) this website offers video lessons (DVDs are available if you'd prefer) in keyboard familiarity, musical terms, hand positions, musical notes, and simple songs. Miss Karri--the teacher--is the epitome of the sunshiney, glowing preschool music teacher. There are characters to help you remember key concepts and a whole host of games and coloring sheets to keep it fun.

Did I mention that it's far cheaper than music lessons? Seriously, check it out. While such things are regional, I highly suspect that Kinderbach will be cheaper for most people than those dreaded mommy-and-me circle time sessions that many firstborns (mine included) are forced to attend. All you need is a cheap keyboard (check craig's list) and internet connection.

Logan persevered through much of the material, barely groaning when he was invited to participate in another finger-play session designed to cement information. He learned far more than I'd anticipated from a preschool program. He even liked (some) of it.

When asked if he would rate the site favorably, he gave it two thumbs up with one caveat--"For little kids, Mom. Make sure you tell them it's really for little kids."

So there you have it. Logan says it's worthwhile ... and it's too young for him. So it's on to the real deal for my boy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Have you ever been given a gift that was so fabulous, so wonderful, so over the top that it took your breath away? Something that you certainly didn't deserve and didn't ever see yourself calling your own? There's a feeling of utter awe and thankfulness that washes over you when you realize that you're loved that deeply. I can't put my finger on the English word for that kind of emotion, but in Greek it is stergo--the love that only a family can conjure, the love that warms and protects and surpasses logic.

I have been wrapped in stergo for the past few weeks, and I have found myself struggling to unwind its tentacles from my heart and free myself from its nest.

The truth is that I am a person who has a hard time being loved. I can go on and on about how I grew to be this way but really, it's not important. What is important is that I am learning, bit by bit, to accept stergo on the terms it is offered and not super-
impose my own expectations or desires on the bearer of this precious gift.

Especially when the bearer is YAHWEH.

I fully admit that there are times when I have boxes I want God to check. I have a list of wants (not needs) that I selfishly keep hidden in that hard spot at the back of my heart. I sing when God throws me a bone and blesses me with one of them. I pine secretly over the ones He chooses not to satisfy. I strive for contentment at all times and come up short just like everyone else. I can admit that.

But God has this funny habit of blessing me with things that I never asked for. It's stergo in action: Here, Mary Grace, my beloved daughter. Take this. Trust me. You'll like it. Like a child who has learned obedience but not fully soaked in the heart of compliance, I take the gift. I move on. And I always, always learn to love it eventually.

But those first weeks, months and even years can have the pallor of forced optimism written all over them. I am the child posing with the new sweater at Christmas and eyeing the box of Lincoln Logs my brother just opened.

Seven years ago I found myself bathed in this unasked-for stergo. This was in the month immediately after 9/11 and long before I embraced the concept of "the more the merrier" in regards to my family size. I found myself pregnant just a few short months after regaining my equilibrium from an incredibly harsh bout of post-partum depression. The world was falling apart, it seemed ... and so was any sense of balance that I'd ever hoped to have in my life.

People around me congratulated me on the enormity of the blessing I was receiving. Another child! How good was God, they asked, to gift me in this way as the whole
world reeled from the devastation of September 11? It must seem, a woman told me, like God had his finger of healing on me even as everyone else wept.

But I didn't feel it at all. What I wanted--what I had asked for--was a season, just a season, Lord, of quiet. A season of peace. Not this. Not another screaming newborn and months of sadness and a house even more cluttered with the acrruements of infancy.

How did the message get confused? Wasn't I clear in what I wanted? This isn't what I asked for, Lord!

But it's what He gave me, praise God. I wouldn't trade a single second of life with Logan for the peace and quiet I craved all those years ago. The blessing God gave me was far greater and in His mercy and wisdom, He gave me the better thing.

Right now, God is in the process of leading me to the thing that He wants for me yet again. Not the thing I would have chosen. Not even the thing I can see in my future. But the thing that is best. The thing I will look back on and say yes, that was a
blessing. That was stergo.

This thing is a brand-new, nearly 3,200 square foot house.

How a woman can be conflicted over such a gift is a matter of shock for a great many people, but let me assure you that the kind of home I always saw myself raising my family in is smaller by half and older by a century or so. I am not a new house person. I am not a big house person.
I find newly constructed homes in cookie-cutter neighborhoods to be devoid of character, poorly planned for real living (master suite, anyone?) and havoc with green standards in all kinds of unpleasant ways.

Not for me, thanks.

But I am the child who unwrapped the gift of Lindt chocolates when all I really wanted was a Hershey's bar. My cup, it seems, runneth over.

I have no doubt that the possibility of this home is a gift straight from the hand of the Lord. There are many reasons, not the least of which is Mr. Blanding's absolute confidence that God is going to do amazing things to get our family under that as-yet-to-be constructed roof. And I believe him. I'm already seeing it at work; we originally expressed an interest in a 2,500 sq. ft. model and were instead steered to the 3,200 sq. ft. house ... for the same price. We did the finances and came out ahead, somehow--even if we make a measly $10,000 profit on what we paid for our townhome six years ago.

Sounds like my God.

God is using this exercise in blooming where you're planted to grow me in amazingly unexpected ways. First and foremost, I am submitting myself, yet again, to the sovereignty of a God whose plans are far beyond anything I could imagine. Second, I am trying to embrace a blessing I feel more than a little sheepish about. And third, I am wondering over God's vision for my family and my own.

I am waiting on the Lord. Trying not to disparage His gift in the presence of others (a hard one, because I feel incredibly guilty about the notion of even living in a house this big). And waiting for my heart to let the outrageous stergo of a fatherly God seep into my heart.

So please be patient with me as I grow comfortable in the spot I find myself occupying. I never meant to be here. I never meant to be that woman--the one who has a line of beautiful children, a handsome, witty husband, the gas-guzzling SUV and the big house. But here I am. Blooming where I'm planted, and watered with stergo.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Good to Know

Oliver had his hearing test on New Year's Eve. The results were slightly better than we'd hoped: his right ear has approximately an 75-80% hearing capacity. The left ear is unfortunately only able to hear sounds that fall within a very narrow range of frequency.

It's all in how you look at it, isn't it? The glass could be half-empty (he can't hear out of his left ear!) or it could be half-full (he has hearing in his right ear!).

I'm a half-full kind of gal, myself. How about you?

Review: Kid's Wealth

I struggle with the concept of allowances. I want my children to learn to handle money, and I know in my heart that the only way to do that is to have money. But I don't like the idea of getting paid for things that you do as part of the family (ie, chores) and I definitely am turned off to the idea of handing over cash simply for breathing. Trust me, I have family members who live with the "on the dole" entitlement mind set and it is not anything I want to see my children indulging in.

Since we could never come up with an actual syste
m of remuneration, Mr. Blandings and I adopted by default the "above and beyond" concept of earning money for our brood. Finished with your daily chores a little early and want to fold an extra load of clothes for me? Sure, I've got a quarter in my pocket for that. I need a quick pick up for the living room and you volunteer cheerfully? That might earn you a dime. The rules for this extra pay are this: you may be offered money for a service, or you may not. If you are, you are perfectly within your rights to turn the job down and let it pass to someone else. But if it's not a cash job, then it's a request and compliance is fairly well mandatory. Oh--and if you ASK for money up front, then no, you're not getting any. Sorry.

The kids then have the option of taking their spare change and keeping it aside or having me credit their "account." An account in our house is simply an index card with a running total of deposits and withdrawals from birthday money, etc., and purchases made.

And that's been it. Not a lot to it, but hey, I said it was a default system.

Aware that Jo is creeping up into the age
where more instruction is probably in order, I was happy to be able to review Kid's Wealth, a complete kit that helps kids learn to manage their money in a systematic way. Systematic is key here: teaching children to budget is one of the most important parts of raising an adult who knows how to live within their means. You know all those folks who call in to Dave Ramsey? Well, they never got the systematic budgeting thing down.

Kid's Wealth comes with instructions and caveats for the adults and I feel that it's important to say up front that I don't agree with all of them. First and foremost, as a Christian, I take the mantra "Pay Yourself First" to be an affront to my Christian sensibilities. Whether you are a tither or not, you probably agree that God wouldn't ascribe to this particular theory. You pay God first--period. Second, Kid's Wealth states quite plainly that unless you are giving your children what they call "real amounts" of money, you're wasting your time. Their idea of "real amounts" soars into the unreasonable, in my opinion. Many of their examples revolve around $80+, a sum that I am in no way able or interested in giving to any one of my children in the course of a month.

Does this mean that the program is a wash? No, it doesn't. A little pick-and-choose magic made Kid's Wealth a valuable learning experience for my whole clan.

The first step was deciding on how much money to issue each child. Since Mr. Blandings gets paid twice a month, we decided that we would base our pay schedule on his paycheck. We noted this in the calendars that each child received and then handed down the judgment:

Jo, age 11, $20 month
Atticus, age 8, $15 month
Logan, age 6, $10 month

The children were delighted beyond words.

Each child kit comes with a set of five wallets to divide and store their cash. Linked to a set of characters that signify the area of budgeting, these are color coded and divided into five categories: Wealth, Plan, Learn, Fun, and Angel. In my house, we mixed things up and took this approach: Angel (giving back to God), Savings, Learn and Fun. Tying the wallets in to more closely match our values was not difficult at all.

Each wallet receives an agreed-upon portion of the overall pie with each Kid's Pay Day. We used the formulas provided as they seemed reasonable; we simply turned them a bit and put aside the 10% for God first rather than last.

Accompanying each Kid Kit is the most valuable piece of this program as far as I'm concerned: a child's activity book.
The activity books are customized by age and have age-appropriate exercises included. These are the heart of the program, with real math exercises, example and outlines of what kinds of things fall into each category of spending. Using one of this books is a real-life math workbook and not for the faint of heart. Jo spent an entire afternoon playing with percentages, not something she would have been motivated to do on her own.

This program has been a habit-forming, fun way to teach my children about income, debt and managing money. They are looking forward to saving up for big ticket items and love being able to see the funds they've set aside for fun stuff--in case they want to use it. I would have never taken the plunge into such an in-depth financial education without Kid's Wealth. It' nice to know that my children are learning about money now, before they're in the real world!