Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Life in a small(ish) town

We live in a small town. It's so small, in fact, that any real grocery shopping or doctorin' (as my Mamaw calls it) has to be done 7 miles to the west, in the nearest not-quite-so-small town. That town has multiple grocery stores, two whole pediatrics offices, and the a library that makes my heart go pitter patter. See ... I love our little local tiny town library. But the shelves are limited, which means that browsing is generally limited to a five minute skim of the new releases and a quick run up and down the four aisles of combined fiction and non-fiction offers. The staff, however, is topnotch. And the service ... impeccable.

But for sheer bibliojoy, one can not go wrong by making a drive to the bigger town and killing an hour in the non-fiction section alone, pondering the twenty options on the topic of raising sheep. (This is a passion and dream of Mr. Blandings. I'm a chicken girl myself.) The two oldest children wander at will; you'll remember that Logan is my personal escort thanks to his lack of detail orientation. We all meet back up over in the picture book section, where Oliver likes to throw/work the nifty wood puzzles. It's a great way to spend an afternoon.

Which is probably why it was the first thing that popped into my head when a realtor called and asked to show my house today. It was still early enough in the day that I could do an intense cleaning, pull off naps for the littles and still manage a nice library trip. Unfortunately, I got a little carried away with the cleaning and decided, for no reason at all, that things like the drip pans on the stove needed to be scoured. They were clean already. I do not know what I was thinking. It's not like me to be so deep-clean frenzy, but hey ... I guess everyone goes a little nuts when their house is on the market.

By the time I looked up from my white glove test work, the clock was fast approaching the set arrival time. Fighting back a sense of panic, I rounded up the kids (who had all been working as intently as I was) and shooed them to the truck. We closed the door behind us, buckled in and set off.

I think it was somewhere near the McDonld's drive-thru, where I was picking up some congratulatory milkshakes, that I realized that we all looked like, well ... like we'd been cleaning our house all day.

I was wearing a natty, long denim skirt that is nowhere near as "absent minded professor" as it sounds. On my feet were my usually-cute, but really clashing rain boots. I had thrown my long brown sweater coat over my hot pink shirt and by the way ... did I mention that I hadn't actually done my hair after my shower? Yup. Frizzy curls everywhere.

The kids were not looking much better. Jo was lucky enough to have left a hooded sweatshirt in the truck, which she quickly used to cover her stained VBS 2007 t-shirt. Manolin had no socks under his robeez. Logan's shirt was one that I am certain I've tossed in the rag pile at least twice. Oliver was wearing a pair of not-too-complimentary sweats. And let's not get started on Atticus, whose hair was afro-quality and jeans were barely holding together in the butt.

It was a fine sight, I tell you. A fine sight indeed.

To my horror, as we pulled in to the library lot, I remembered that it was Spring Break week. The lot was especially full, and I recognized several cars from our church. As we wrangled our massive book box out of the back of the truck, I spotted two families that I know, walking in with their preschoolers. It was then that it occurred to me: not only was it Spring Break ... it was preschool story time, too.

Double whammy.

Naturally, we ran into a dozen different families that we know once we were inside the library proper. At least one woman seemed a little shocked at how clearly disarrayed we all were. And with good reason: I looked like a bag lady with a baby on her hip, herding a bunch of ragamuffins through the library. No one said anything about our attire or obvious state of dishevelment, but I know exactly what a few of them were thinking:

Boy, they are in over their heads. Five kids. Homeschooling. I hear she's picked up her writing lately, too. Those poor children!


Not exactly our best face forward. But hey, that's life in a small town. People are gonna talk. I guess today, they're just talking about us.

Maybe .... ?

I had two bits of news in Manolin's case yesterday. The first was in the form of a letter from the Department of Corrections. It was addressed to my husband, but I'll be honest and admit that I ripped that puppy open without a thought. After all, the man gets some pretty odd pieces of mail due to his occupation (I no longer bother with the ones that have DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY emblazoned on them in ALL CAPS. Not that they take themselves seriously or anything.) But Department of Corrections? O.k. That deserves some attention.

It was a notice giving us an approximate release date for Manolin's birthmom. The date is far enough in the future that it doesn't show up on my check register, although I was able to add it in to my iCal. Just in case I forget, of course. Don't want something like that to slip by me.

Manolin's birthmom hasn't seen him since he was a 7 weeks old battered infant struggling to breathe in a hospital bed. Her last glance at the baby she'd given birth to and then systematically abused was with handcuffs on her wrists. She's under a 10-year no contact order that mandates that if she even tries to send him a letter, she goes back to prison. So really, I'm not too worried about the release date. It's more of a formality that I need to store away in my mind, alongside all the other bits I get to share with Manolin as he grows up. ((sigh))

The second bit of news was a bit sunnier all around. Manolin's Adoption Staffing has been scheduled for early May. You may remember Oliver's Adoption Staffing, which has resulted thus far in absolutely nothing. I think that the largest portion of that failure to progress rests soundly on his social worker, Georgie. Georgie still, to my knowledge, has not turned in the termination paperwork that she promised to file by November 15, 2008. Thankfully, Manolin's social worker is much more of an advocate for the children on her caseload. When she says she's scheduling something, it's scheduled. When she says she's filing something, it's filed. Period.

Which means that I'm cautiously optimistic as we approach yet another Adoption Staffing. If the timeline holds--which you never know ... could happen, I guess--Manolin could be finalized and enjoying the status of a child (not foster child) in the eyes of the law by this fall. I could be able to sign as his parent, not guardian, on all of the nagging little bits of paperwork. I could be able to look the nurse squarely in the eye as I hold a feverish baby and say, without fear of reprisal, "I realize he is behind on his Hep B shot but no, it's not happening today."

This baby needs a full-time, 100%, state-recognized momma and daddy. Which he's already got.

We just need a judge to sign on the dotted line.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

TOS Review: Schleich

Jo has this really, really interesting habit: she likes to climb underneath Manolin's crib and play with her farm animals. She has pigs, horses, cows, rabbits ... a whole menagerie of sturdy little plastic friends in life-like poses that come to life at her fingertips as she hides away under the baby's bed.

Is it the enclosed space? The sense of seclusion? The "I'm still little!" thrill?

Or is it her über-realistic Schleich animals?

We'll never know. She's not telling. But if you happen to find her there, hiding beneath the crib skirt and murmuring to her little flock, please don't disturb her. Imagination is at work.

TOS Review: Bonnie Terry Learning

I have bought my fair share of curriculum items that just didn't work out the way I'd hoped. There was, for example, the Rummy Roots game that failed to teach my children Latin or Greek roots words but did manage to make for a really confusing version of Go Fish. There was the Quarter Mile Math drill that lost its luster after three or four rounds.

And there have been more. Many more--because I am completely fallible, yes ... but more because there is no one curricula product that matches every family's learning styles and needs.

This, I suspect, is why Bonnie Terry's The Sentence Zone Game fell flat with us. We just never quite figured out what it was trying to do, how it was supposed to work and why on earth we'd invest that much time in getting from point A to point B.

The game is huge--"massive," Logan says. Over 500 color-coded cards of various parts of speech wait to be arranged into ever-more-complex sentences in a game of multi-level play. The premise is promising. It was disappointing to see the shortcomings.

The first problem for us was that the color coding basically defeated the purpose of sorting out the parts of speech. If you already know that nouns are, for example, red, then what's the point? The next issue was this: children who didn't need the review plunged through, racking up points. The ones who did were stymied by their fear of losing (a very clear probability) and by the sheer magnitude of the charge in front of them. And finally, the game board itself was restrictive. Dictating where each adverb was supposed to be located was anathema to creative minds who already have a decent handle on how to construct a rich sentence.

I am not sure who this game would be a good fit with. Student who need the drill will be overwhelmed; those who are proficient will be bored and frustrated. We found a nice middle ground, however: by ditching the board entirely and shuffling cards, we were able to manufacture a form of card game that we called "Go Fish meets Mad Libs." I could post the rules but really ... you probably wouldn't enjoy it half as much as we did. :-)

Bonnie Terry Learning does have other products that seem worth their salt. The Writer'sEasy Reference Guide is thorough, well thought-out and user-friendly. Designed to be a go-to source on everything writing, this neat sheet lists everything from common prefixes to how to write a bibliography. This kind of simple reference is a huge help to many budding writers who don't want to take the time to stop the writing process and leaf through a thick tome.

Another product, Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills is a crash course for your students on how to absorb information in an efficient process that uses their own natural learning style. High school students concerned with standardized testing might find this useful as they try to make this homeschool-trained mind fit the government school-trained tests.

Bonnie Terry Learning products seem to be pricey for the homeschool market. Because of their speific target, though, they may fall more in line with the pricing common to special education curricula.

Friday, March 27, 2009

TOS Review: Generations of Virtue

This is a Moms Only post. O.k., not really. Anyone can read it, but be forewarned that the topics and discussion are decidedly feminine and potentially not what dads (or dads-in-waiting, Luke) want to read. With that said, I will continue ... and know that I don't need to self-edit, because my audience will all have the same lack of Y chromosome that I enjoy.

I was about 12 when I got my first period, and ladies, it was nothing to celebrate. My mother was out of town, to start with. This wouldn't have been so horrendous in itself, except for the fact that my mother's prime contribution to my knowledge of menstrual cycles had been to sign the release form required for me to endure the sappy, 1970s filmstrip along with the rest of my female fifth grade female peers. At the end of the presentation, our frighteningly masculine gym teacher--Ms. Barber--asked if we had any questions. We didn't, and I'll never forget the look of relief on her face. I left the gym that day having learned this: no one can tell you when your period will start, exercising during your period is just fine and
no, you can't wear a pad under a bathing suit.

Ms. Barber handed each of us a take-home pack as we filed out in horrified silence. In it was a pamphlet outlining the (not so) helpful information we'd been force-fed during the cheesy movie, a talking points sheet for our parents and two coupons for the Kimberly Clark products of our choice. I remember riding home on the bus that afternoon and being drop-dead embarrassed with the knowledge that such incriminating evidence was in my backpack. I dumped the cheerful little plastic bag and its contents into the outside trash can before anyone could see the smiling girls (Periods are FUN!) on the side and ask questions.

And so it was that I found myself alone, in the bathroom, unarmed with any knowledge or comfort beyond what I'd managed to glean while trying desperately not to look at the screen during my crash course in reproductive biology. While I wouldn't have asked my mother any such probing questions on a regular day, this was
clearly no regular day. There was blood in my underwear, for goodness sakes! What on earth was I supposed to do?

I had no choice but to turn to my father. Famously tight-lipped and generally horrified by bodily function in general (he had a strict "gas is only passed in the bathroom, with the door shut" rule that haunts me to this day), I was petrified to approach him. But I had no choice. I was ill-prepared and clueless. My grandmother was a long-distance phone call away. I had no sisters. And my mother was, conveniently, on a trip to New York with her best friends.

I crept through the house, looking for my dad. I finally found him in front of the newspaper, smoking a cigarette and scanning the car ads.

"Dad, I, uh--need some...uh,
stuff," I remember starting.

He looked at me as if I weren't making any sense, which, of course, I wasn't.
Stuff? What kind of stuff, MG? Oreos? A pair of shoes? A VCR tape to record more of those darn Miami Vice episodes you watch all the time?

"Yeah, ummmm...some stuff of mom's."

Still blank.

I was pretty sure I was going to pass out if I had to say it out loud, but I gave it one more try.

"Dad ... you know ... girl stuff."

Now we both felt like we might vomit. My father's face crumpled into a shudder that matched mine. He looked away, back to the safety of the car ads.

"Yeah," he managed after a long moment of studying the Dodge listings. "Yeah. That stuff's under the sink there. Get what you need, sure."

I ran out of the room, even though I was sure he wasn't going to be making eye contact for possibly the next twenty years of my life. I found a bin under the bathroom sink, pulled it out and eyed the contents. Unfortunately, what I found there was nothing like the quick rundown I'd picked up from the smiling, pimple-free teen in the movie. First of all, these things were about two feet long, and didn't have the sticky side she raved about. No ... there were some kind of tabs ... long, without padding. And then there was this elastic thing that seemed to have hooks on the end. Huh?

It probably took me an hour to figure it out, but necessity being the mother of invention, I got the point. The elastic was a belt that went around your waist. The tabs fit into the hooks on the puffy pad and voila! I was go to go. Well, except for the fact that the pad seemed to go from my navel to my middle back.

And right about now, if you have any clue what I've just described, you're asking yourself why on earth my mother had such a thing in the year 1986. That is, if you haven't fallen off of your chair laughing.

The answer? The whole box I found was a leftover from when my baby brother had been born five years previous.

You have no idea how hard my mother laughed when she got home and saw me waddling around the house with the equivalent of a scuba suit to handle the puddle hopping I was trying to do. Not that I'm still bitter or anything. After all ... it was her fault I was wearing the things. If she'd given me any inkling of what to do, I wouldn't have been in that predicament to start with.

As you can imagine, coming off a shockingly horrible first period episode such as this, I've always felt that it's of utmost importance to prepare my daughter for her impending ascent to womanhood. We started talking it through early. Probably too early, if there is such a thing. I made it clear to a preschool-aged Jo that women were made differently. That there was an important role our bodies were given to play in the making of babies. And that even when there was no baby on the way, your body was ready, just in case.

Our discussion has been open all of these years. As Jo has crept slowly closer to her own maturation, I've kept the dialogue going by asking questions, answering concerns and steering her toward a kind of young womanhood that I wished I'd had for myself.

Knowing that her first period is just around the corner, I've looked for a resource that fit what I wanted to say--and left out what I didn't want to say. I wanted a focus on the beauty of growing into a woman, the miracle that God created in the form of a woman and the blessing that changes are for us as individuals. I didn't need-or want--someone to fill in the blanks on sex, birth control, STDs or the like. I just wanted something that said "Congratulations! You're a WOMAN! Look at the amazing things that will happen inside of you." No cheese. No embarrassment. No stinky gym or corny movie.

I tried a handful of recommended resources and found one thing or another lacking. Finally, with Generations of Virtue's Beautifully Made! series, I found the perfect fit.

This thin, three booklet set says everything that a thoughtful Christian mom has in her heart for her daughter. You know all those moments of wonder you've tried to express to your little girl but couldn't put into words? They're in here--from revealing the artful complexity of God's design for our bodies to celebrating the long line of women we share a heritage of grace with.

The first booklet, Approaching Womanhood, is designed to be given to your daughter before her first period begins. An overview of physiology, some insight into emotions and a few tips of preparedness are all included. I gave this book to Jo and then talked through it with her. While we had covered many of the points in the book, I was delighted to hear new questions and concerns coming to the surface as she thought through the big changes happening in her body and life. Reading Approaching Womanhood led us to talk through the options in hygiene products and assemble a kit of necessities for the big day. Her excitement in getting prepared has been contagious, and I find that I'm not just dreading the next sign that my little girl is growing up too fast, but actually looking forward to celebrating with her as she hits her next milestone.

This idea--celebration--is clearly defined is the third book, Wisdom from a Woman. Intended for mothers only, this booklet shares God's real plan for the biological process most of us dread each month. By putting into perspective the very real blessing of the monthly cycle, the author shows moms how to rejoice in watching their daughters grow into godly women.

The second book (Celebrating Womanhood) is a more detailed explanation of the nuts and bolts of hormones and the cycle itself to be given to daughters as they begin their monthly menstruation. I have to say that I'm looking forward to giving Jo this book and then taking her out for a special Mom and Daughter Dinner--just one of the ways the books recommend blessing your daughter and recognizing her new status as a young woman.

I can't imagine how different my own experience would have been if I had been given thoughtful, loving direction on how to handle growing up gracefully. I know that I wouldn't have worn a Victorian-era menstruation belt for four days while I tried my best to ignore what was happening to my body. Maybe my entire outlook on womanhood would have been different. Maybe, just maybe, I would have had an easier transition into adulthood had I been prepared for my role as a female, not just a human.

I suppose I'm getting a glimpse of what could have been now, though, as I watch Jo process the new information, learn more about her body and anticipate the changes God has in store for her. Tools like Beautifully Made! are priceless. Your daughter is worth the investment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

False Advertising

It's been nearly a year and a half since I've posted an installment in the story of my Mamaw's and Papaw's lives. If you're new to the blog, or just need a refresher, this post links back to the series from the beginning.

She met him in church, which was cause enough for her to remain bitter well into her 60s.

"I knew that boys came to church just to spark with the girls," Mamaw admitted, "but I always said I'd not fall for that. I wanted me a man who would fly straight as an arrow from the get-go. A good man who was in the church and who didn't lay out drunk."

This was a tall order, of course. Even if her direct link to the town's most fallen woman hadn't scared off the likely suitors, there was still the issue of wide-spread bootlegging to contend with. Very few young men made it to courting age without also acquiring a taste for homemade likker. By the time Naomi was twelve--old enough that it was considered proper to think of marriage and babies--love of drink had all but decimated the population of young men that had once attended church, worked hard and avoided scrapes with the law. Most boys, even the ones who still sat in the schoolhouse when they weren't needed at home, drank, danced, raced torn up old Packards and played the devil's cards with loose women. Naomi's prospects for a clean-living young man in 1946 rural Kentucky were dim at best.

But on a Sunday afternoon when the Easter flowers were soaring yellow above still-sleepy soil, Naomi spotted three new boys crowding around her Co-Cola cake in the church's crowded fellowship hall. Each one of them had the same coal-black hair, wiry build and squared jaw. They were set apart only by their height; like stair steps, she noticed, first one, then another, then yet another. She had never laid eyes on them before, but this wasn't cause for alarm. She'd only been back from Indiana for two weeks and so much had changed while she'd been away with her mother; for one thing, she hadn't been looking at boys when she'd left. Too, weather and work often kept menfolk from attending Sunday services, but the promise of a big meal often lured them in for an afternoon supper. There were any number of reasons for why she didn't recognize the three boys admiring her cake, Naomi told herself.

"I went up and asked them would they like a piece," she remembers. The oldest--and tallest--said they would. While she was slicing thick slabs of the cloyingly sweet cake, they introduced themselves: Duke, the oldest at 19, Roy, who was 16, and Mick, a gangly 15 year-old. All three were wearing dirty overalls and boots with knotted laces holding them together in the soft spots. Their accents were funny and slightly off, she remembers. Being raised in one of the most secluded hollers by parents whose Irish brogues were still thick had left an imprint on their speech patterns that marked the boys as outsiders even in their home community.

"I guess that's why they didn't say anything else other than their names. I gave them some cake and they stood around eating on it for a while. I went to my Mamaw and asked her did she know those boys and she said she might. They looked like some boys my Papaw had hired from way back up in a holler to cut hay a few seasons back."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but not a condemnation, either. Naomi figured she could talk to them a little bit more, get to know them. Her shyness around men had evaporated in the time she'd spent with her mother in Indiana. But by the time she had worked her way back around through the church crowd, the boys--and her cake--were gone.

"I had a picture in my mind that they'd run off with it and boy, that made me madder than fire. That was the very first Co-Cola cake I'd ever made and I was so proud of it," she sniffs. "'Course, there was the entire congregation right there in that hall eating. I guess it could have just been eat up before I got back around to it. But you know, I didn't think on that. I just knew it was those boys, and that they were no good."

Naomi chastised herself as she gathered up her Mamaw's bare cake plate. If anyone should be able to spot bad seeds, she reckoned, it was her. How was it that she had lived amongst the trash and rabble with her own fallen mother and not been able to recognize a bunch of rough boys when she saw one?

My Mamaw always smiles as she recounts the next part, the part I never tire of hearing.

"There was maybe a hundred people in that hall but the minute he walked back in, I couldn't hear nothing else," she says. Mick, the youngest of the dark-haired bad boys, had come in through the open double doors and sauntered over to the dessert table. He stopped right in front of Naomi and gave her a grin. "He said he sure did like that cake, and wondered would I like to come riding with him a little later that evening, after church let out."

If she'd been thinking about anything--the possible stolen cake, her mother's very public shame, her Mamaw's strict rules--she would have said no, and the story would end there.

"But all I could see was his eyes and, Lordy, they were the bluest blue I had ever seen. See, I hadn't looked at his eyes before. I reckon I assumed they were that greeny color that his brother's were. But no sir, his were the brightest blue I'd ever seen. I couldn't think about nothing but those eyes."

In that very instant, she says, her mind wandered too far to ever come back. She laughs about it now.

"I was thinking on what those blue eyes would look like on a baby. When you start thinking on that, why, you know you're gone."

Naomi said she might could come for a ride, but Mick would have to talk to her Papaw after the service and see what he said. Mick agreed, adding in a little white lie for good measure.

"Oh, I told her that I wouldn't miss that Sunday night preaching for anything," he admits slyly. "But I don't think I ever said I was baptized or any such."

"You did, too!" Mamaw snaps, even to this day. "You told me you were washed in the blood. You were smart enough to know what that meant."

Mamaw harrumphs with the flustered disgust of an old lady who can't stand the mention of such a long-standing injustice. My Papaw, Mick, just grins.

"I may have been a little drunk," he says. "I was wild as a buck back then. What I can't figure, even now, is what I was doing in that church in the first place."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yeah, we've got a verse for that

I am normally the one assigning Scripture memorization. With the help of those ever-present AWANA handbooks, some sing-along CDs and my personal library of go-to self-discipline verses, I've managed to fill my older children's heads and hearts with what I think of as a formidable treasure chest of Biblical knowledge. Fighting with your brother? We've got a verse for that (Matthew 5:9). Can't find something nice to say? We've got a verse for that (1 Thessalonians 5:11a). Nervous? We've got loads of Scripture on that one (Psalm 91 and Joshua 1:9 are our faves). Beat down by the world? We've got a verse for that (Isaiah 40:31).

We even have Life Verses that we selected for each of our children. Jo's is Isaiah 43:1-7; try getting all of that out in front of a congregation during a Princess Ceremony without crying! (I sobbed like a baby.) For Atticus we went with Psalm 91. Atticus is our worrier, our reluctant warrior. He needs that Psalm spoken over him to remind him of his destiny as one of God's courageous sons. Logan needs no such Scriptural prodding. For him, we chose something to remind him of the "details" (Psalm 119:9-16) as you may recall that details are not exactly his forté. Oliver's was easy. 1 Samuel 1:26-28. Actually, go ahead and apply the whole story of Hannah praying, and know that that was me. For Manolin, we are still waffling between Psalm 138 and Psalm 139. When you consider his miraculous healing and protection in the womb, both are appropriate.

In other words, we have a lot of verses going on around here.

So imagine my shock and--I'll admit it--
pure joy when Jo approached me sheepishly, index card in hand.

"I've got something for you. I think you need it."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Uh-huh. I read it and thought of you."

She handed over the card and there, in her girly pre-teen scrawl was this:

Jeremiah 17:7-8

7 But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.

8 He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.

I could barely see for the tears in my eyes. I pulled her in for a hug, chin trembling and eyes shut tight as I praised the God who has given me a daughter who listens for His voice ... and loves her momma, too.

The verse has been taped to the front of my microwave for two weeks now, and I can finally say that I have it down pat. Which is a good thing because, as you have probably already assumed, God was sending it to me for a reason. I've had a few worries as of late (health issues in my grandparents and now mom) and was starting to feel the tight anxiety of "how can I do this?" creeping into my throat. But blessed is the man--or, in this case, woman--who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. With this verse beating in my ears, I am reminded that I am not alone. I have roots in the stream. I will not wither; I will bear fruit!

Thanks for the memorization assignment, Jo. :-)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Yes we can!

You can live for a week without internet access.

You can stand at a sink full of soapy water and dirty dishes and not wonder what your facebook friends are thinking.

You can get out of the habit of jotting down blog topics in your centro.

You can make it through the day without running up to check your email.

Give it a try. It's liberating.

TOS Review: Mathematical Reasoning

You have no idea how often I wish that my my children were little cookie-cutter versions of one another. How much easier would life be if they were all the same? You'd never need to learn new discipline techniques. Never second-guess the whole "Love Language" thing from one kid to the next. Always know exactly what to expect in specific situations. Never own a pair of size 8 khakis in both "slim" and "regular" fit. And homeschooling? A snap! Just replace any consumables and reuse the rest as each new child comes up through the ranks.

Of course, family life would be very boring if each and every member was a carbon of the other. Plus, half the fun of curriculum shopping would be lost. (I still wouldn't mind sacrificing the slight variations in body types that result in needing different cuts for different kids, though!)

One area where I've felt this "every child is a unique creation" stress the most is in math. I have--so far--three distinctly different mathematical learners. Jo was lost without a manipulatives approach, but memorized the multiplication tables in a week flat. Atticus tires of blocks and other "helps" after he's got a process down, but works much harder on the simple rote learning part of math. And Logan simply doesn't need either. Math is like breathing to him.

Wouldn't you know it? Finding a program that fits a kid like that is somehow just as difficult as locating the right approach for a reluctant learner. I should know; I've run the gamut on both ends of that particular spectrum.

The solution for us, when it comes to math, has been to scattershot the whole affair. My most recent quandary in this department has been Logan's mathematical education. Here's what I finally settled on: a little Math-U-See for sheer structure. A little Math Mammoth for variety of skills. And now, Critical Thinking Co.'s Mathematical Reasoning Level B for both fun and application practice.

Prior to beginning Mathematical Reasoning, I was seriously considering Singapore for Logan. I gave him the online assessment test and was set to order the recommended book. I liked the various twists and turns that Singapore seems to apply to its overall instruction, and knew that Logan would feel challenged (which he likes) and still be covering the "grade appropriate skills," whatever those are. I know people who use the program and are happy with it. It seemed like a not-quite-perfect but still acceptable fit.

So why the Critical Thinking book instead? First, Mathematical Reasoning is an entire year's instruction in one massive book. There are 264 pages in Level B, and when you've got a kid who sincerely enjoys math, the more worksheets he can occupy himself with, the better. Second, Mathematical Reasoning includes all of the instruction necessary right there on the student pages. There is no teacher's guide or other information to be presented. New lessons are taught in a straight-forward, here's how you do it way that appeals to Logan's innate ability to get a little direction and plunge in.

Another plus is that the pages in this Critical Thinking Co. book are bright, colorful and cheery. Logan, as a visual learner, is attracted to aesthetically pleasing pages that engage without overwhelming--something that Mathematical Reasoning pulls off quite nicely. Each page also includes just enough practice to feel official, without becoming drudgery. If a child needs more practice, no worry. A few pages later, you'll likely find the same skills exercised in a fresh way.

The variety of ways in which mathematical thinking is encouraged is truly unprecedented in the books I've looked at over the years. Reasoning puzzles run alongside simple facts drills. Problems that require division (a skill generally introduced in third grade) sit a page before pattern practice. In one recent day's work, Logan drew lines of symmetry, divided, used logic to ascertain which child owned a dog and drew a graph to help determine the ending sales of a lemonade stand. This is the kind of practice that truly stretches the brain's ability to apply skills in a variety of settings.

For his part, Logan is a huge fan of everything Critical Thinking Co., and Mathematical Reasoning is no exception. This is his favorite math book, he asserts, and one he actually looks forward to working in. Believe it or not, he willingly plugs through 8 or 9 pages a day. He'd happily do more if I let him, but I do feel it's important to balance out mathematical instruction styles. Math time, therefore, is split between thinking fun stuff and classic how-to instruction. Opinions on this approach differ, but I'm one of those boring killjoys who thinks there's something to be gained in enduring facts drills. For this reason, I don't recommend Mathematical Reasoning as a stand-alone math curriculum. I also wouldn't recommend Singapore as such, either; if your philosophy differs, you'd probably enjoy Mathematical Reasoning by itself as well.

So math is finally under control ... for Logan at least. Now if I could just figure out how to get him into his big brother's 10 slims without purchasing a whole new supply of pants this spring, I'd be a happy momma.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More about college

A hearty thanks to everyone who took the time to outline their philosophies on higher education. My own outlook on the topic has been somewhat refined, I have to say. For me, college is not a have to, but rather, a should. Whatever form it takes, I truly believe that a few more years spent exploring the concept of adulthood is not time wasted but rather, invested.

I probably come to this opinion based mostly on my own personal experiences. I am the first on my father's side of the family to go to college (although my father did attain technical certifications in adulthood). I grew up in a blue collar family that was just a half generation removed from the poverty of the Appalachian foothills; I say "half generation" because my father used an outhouse until he moved to Detroit at age 15. His own father--my beloved Papaw--worked on an assembly line punching out auto parts for 25 years in an era when job loyalty was rewarded by a system of perpetual support (pension and stock dividends) that no longer exists. He raised his family on these excellent benefits, then watched in despair as his own sons joined the industry just a few years too late to harvest the crop of "25 and out" jobs that factories and service industries used to be able to provide for their workers.

The willingness to simply put in your time was no longer enough for a man to truly provide for his family, my grandfather decided. An illiterate farmer who was denied the opportunity of an education in favor of providing labor to support his mother, siblings and ne'er do well father, my grandfather was no fool. He saw that the engineers and the designers and the folks who wore ties weren't worrying over the braces on their kids teeth or when they might save up enough to buy a home big enough to house their growing families. They also weren't the guys breathing in coal dust in the mines, losing fingers in machines or being bent under the weight of stoop labor in fields.

"You need one of them college papers," he used to tell me. "You go on and get you one, and won't nobody ever look down on you."

And he was mostly right. I got one of those papers; it's in my attic, filed in the big plastic bin of things I never unpacked when we moved in six years ago. I won't say that I've been immune to criticism or economic downturn. But something else happened in those four years that I spent a the large, state-run university I chose. My perspective on the world got wider.

I was a marginal Christian went I went to school (good enough to teach Sunday School, apparently!). I was also a spoiled brat. A big fish in a small pond. And more than a little cocky.

I probably could have come out of college exactly as I went in, but I didn't. God used that time to turn me around, to give me direction, to introduce me to the love of my life, to expand my horizons beyond California on the west and New York on the east ... and to begin in me the process of true discernment.

I had to make choices. And they had consequences. Some were good (work three jobs+no sleep=tuition & rent paid!). Some were bad (drive for six hours to D.C. + watch show in night club=miss chem lab in the morning). I had roommates who were not related to me and didn't give a crud what my motivations were. I had teachers who invested in me, and those that didn't. I had bills to pay, jobs to finish and a life to launch.

And I had four years to sort it all out.

I won't say that I don't regret a single moment of my college education. But I will say that I see God's hand in it so clearly that there's no way I could ever want to take it back. I went in a child. I came out ready to be a Child of God.

I don't for a second believe that those who eschew college in favor of entering the job force or establishing a business are destined to failure. And nowadays, not going to college doesn't necessarily mean a factory job, manual labor or even being employed by someone else at all. Heck, my best friend didn't go to college. Her husband also decided to forgo higher education. Aside from the fact that I don't envy the burden of maintaining one's own health insurance, the difficulty of running both a business and a family and not getting any paid vacation, I think that the big picture looks pretty good. It works for them. They're happy. Enough said.

But for me, personally, I think I'll keep encouraging my kids in the direction of college. Our preference is that they attend a Christian school and live somewhat nearby. If they choose not to go, then hey, that's o.k. It's not as if Mr. Blandings and I plan on footing the bill (we both paid our own way, and feel that it actually enriches, rather than detracts from the experience). We'll guide, we'll recommend, we'll pray and we'll support. That's our job. We're parents.

The job doesn't stop when they enter kindergarten, high school, college, the mission field, the job market, or marriage. That's the joy, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TOS Review: One2Believe Noah's Ark

((sigh)) Don't you hate it when something comes thisclose to being exactly what you want ... and yet somehow manages to botch the landing? Like that perfect-looking recipe you pull from your favorite site, only to find in the execution that your family doesn't love garlic nearly as much as the author of the recipe? Or the book you relish up until the final chapter, when all of a sudden it seems clear that tying up loose ends is more important than really letting the story play itself out?

Well, that was me and the One2Believe Noah's Ark. So close ... and yet, so far.

First, the good points. The animal in this little playset are numerous, unique and adorable. Until you've seen your 2 year-old dance around with an ostrich in each hand, well ... you're just not really living, folks. There are lions, sheep, camels and elephants as well. Also included is a very cute set of monkeys who somehow have managed to infiltrate Oliver's consciousness to the point of having to be in his pants pockets at all times. Thankfully, I usually rescue them before they hit the washer, but they've been run through a couple of times and still look new. Durability? Check!

I think that the One2Believe human figures are among the best Bible "action guys" I've seen for the preschool set. They're slightly cartoonish, friendly-looking, and the perfect size for lining up on coffee tables and creating vignettes. We like them so much that when I spotted a display at our local dollar store, I bought the whole selection: Jesus, David, Goliath and Moses. True, true ... it's a little disconcerting at times to have Jesus usurping Noah in the herding of animals into the ark, but hey ... at least it's not Hannah Montana, right?

Unfortunately, where this whole set falls flat for me is in the actual ark. Made of hard, rigid plastic, this ark is by no means as child-friendly as the "guys" (as we all all plastic figures) who nest inside. Figuring out how to open it was a trick; it was Jo who finally wrenched the lid off of the ark and revealed the plank hidden inside. Needless to say, opening the ark is strictly the territory of anyone over the age of 10 in our house. Not even Atticus the Engineer can figure out why they made a flat lid that essentially only fits in one direction, with no handle, and a tight fit. It's just plain silly in a toy rated for ages 3 and up.

Since I thought perhaps it was just my brood who was ark deficient, I handed the fully loaded playset to Benny's sons Finny and Goose (5 and 2.5). They couldn't figure it out, either. They were similarly delighted when the lid came off ("Ook! Ani-maws!") but what if they hadn't had an able (and initiated) adult sitting right there to open the thing?

All of the kids--but Oliver especially--love playing with this set. Our rule has been to never, ever put the lid on all the way. The last thing I need is to burn the lasagna simply because I hear an agonized howl of frustration in the living room as Oli tries to bash the lid off against the coffee table so that he can get to his precious moneys. Not that that's actually happened or anything ... ;-)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let's talk college!

I am LOVING the college discussion; I had no idea that the opinions on if/when/where/why to pursue higher learning were so passionate! Unfortunately, the bulk of the drama is taking place in my inbox. And, guys, that's just no fun. Can we take the discussion public? If you've written me an email on the topic, expect a request for full disclosure in your inbox today. And if you've refrained from airing your views, do you mind taking the time to post them? I think we might all have something we can learn from this.

Some of the things I'm hearing, just to get you thinking:

1. College isn't something Christians should encourage their children to look into; faith is often damaged or snuffed out entirely there.

2. Homeschooling a child and then putting them in a classroom environment is counterproductive.

3. Not sending your child to college is akin to shackling his potential for a lifetime.

4. College isn't the best thing in the world, but it's the way it is, so ... pick the best one you can and guide your kids through it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sticker shock

Jo is toying with the notion of colleges as of late (thank you, Cousin Malcolm). Her repertoire is limited, of course, by the names she's heard here in our home--primarily the large, state university where her father and I got our undergraduate degrees, the smaller, state university where her father received his master's, and the tiny community college where I've done online classes. Oh, and the smattering of, "wish I'd gone there," schools.

Her top choice? A "wish I'd gone there," of course. Biola University.

Do you have any idea how much that school costs?

Somebody pour cold water on my head.

Friday, March 6, 2009

And the winners are ...

Here are the results from my Heads Up! giveaway ...

It's not a hat, but the names fit anyhow.

Taking their jobs very, very seriously.

The results are in.

Congrats to Ellajac and Heidi/1shortmomof4! Email me your address at this blog's name (no spaces) at gmail and I'll pop them in the mail to you right away!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

TOS Review: ARTisticPursuits

You've heard of ARTistic Pursuits. We all have. It's become something of a standard bearer in homeschool art programs.

I used the K-3 books one and two back when I first started homeschooling, and they were just what we needed. A guide to general art education. A little bit of art history. Some nice narrative introductions to the greats. Full-color reproductions of important pieces. Hands-on experiences in multiple media. I was thrilled with the program, and my children looked forward to seeing the big, comb-bound book being pulled from the shelf. That book, after all, meant art. And art was fun!

Right around the time that Logan became a real force to be reckoned with in our homeschool, I walked away from ARTistic Pursuits in favor of a more Classical Education-style art appreciation approach. There wasn't anything wrong with ARTistic Pursuits, per se. If anything, it was still a great fit for our family. But time had become a premium in our little homeschool, and giving it over for a full afternoon of art exploration was suddenly just not something that I felt I could muster.

Which was really silly, because I only had three kids, and they were 8, 5 and 3. Ahhhh... perspective. :-)

At any rate, I've still managed to produce not one, but three children who have more than a passing interest in art. You already know that Logan is my budding painter. But what I rarely mention is that Atticus is quite the cartoonist, and Jo longs to be able to draw with the same skill that she sees represented in the art all around her. The boys are happy to be left alone, stumbling through the early phases of their artistic development. Jo, however, has reached the point where her lack of output frustrates her. Short of signing her up for a drawing class, what's a homeschool mom to do?

It turns out that she can trust ARTistic Pursuits to fill the void once again.

Written directly to the student and requiring no teacher preparation (you read that correctly!) ARTistic Pursuits Junior High Book One, The Elements of Art and Composition is a basic, do-it-yourself instruction manual in the classical tradition. Students are led through the rudiments of drawing, from using the space on the page to sketching texture. With a basic set of supplies on hand, they can work at their own speed to develop and eye for drawing and a mind for composition that sets the stage for building on their newfound skills.

Jo--armed with pencils, ink and some wire--has been tackling the book solo. She raves about the presentation, and has already begun to improve the figures she produces in the corner of her math worksheets on a daily basis. In addition, I see her enjoying art more: digging a little deeper into the different media and wondering aloud what went into it. This, to me, is what art is all about.

The ARTistic Pursuits books are not cheap. At $42.95, they can feel like a big chunk out of a slim homeschool budget. For the price, however, they provide a well-rounded education in an extracurricular that truly ought to rank higher in most homeschools. Which, by the way, is a bit of advice I plan on taking to heart myself.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Details, madame! Trifling details!

So there I am.

(You know it's going to be a doozy when it starts with "So there I am," don't you?)

Anyway, so there I was, in the library. Just me and the Fab Five, doing our weekly run in which we fill a massive crate on wheels full to bursting with as many free reads as they will let us escape with. Thankfully, our library has a very generous lending policy that includes the added bonus of no fines. Nada. No charges for videos, no late fees.

Go ahead. Be jealous.

ANYWAY, there I am, at the library with my kiddos. I have Manolin in the ergo, Oliver in the joovy and Logan dragging the book crate. The older two are somewhere out of my line of sight. Truth be known, the library is as comfortable as our church at this point, and I don't think anything about letting the older two wander at will. Logan's not quite there yet, but there's a reason for that. A very good reason, as this little tale will illustrate.

Logan is my passionate, creative one. Logan is the boy who will agonize over sharpening a colored pencil to the right fineness, who will be almost physically ill from a clash in interior decorating that he finds cloying ... and yet, Logan will still put his shirt on backwards almost every day. It's part cute, part disturbing.

This, my friends, is what it's like to live with a creative genius. The details are important only when they play a part in the big picture that the genius is currently bringing to life. Otherwise ... who cares?

As we're waltzing through nonfiction section 951, Logan suddenly looks stricken.

"Mom, I have to go to the bathroom," he says, clearly panicked.

"O.k. Right now?"

"Yeah! Poop!" His eyes begin to bulge as I weigh my options.

"O.k. Um... go. Just go. Go right over there in the children's section. I'll meet you at the door outside."

Logan takes off at a run, dodging study carrolls and all sense of decorum. It takes me a moment to manage the heavy book crate and the stroller, but I finally gain momentum and start towards the children's section. To my shock, Logan meets me at the door.

"You're finished?" I ask.


"Did you go?" I'm truly curious now. This was literally a three minute potty, and this from the boy who can linger for half an hour if left alone.

"Oh, yeah."

"And you flushed?" I'm getting worried now. How on earth--?

"Well, yeah. Of course." He seems slightly indignant.

I lean in, close. Barely in a whisper I ask, "Did you wipe, Logan?"

He squirms slightly.

"Uh ... no."

I am horrified. Absolutely horrified.

"Why not? What in the --?"

"I was finished. I was just ... done."

And this is why Logan does not wander the library alone. All big picture, no details. Or all details, no big picture. That's my boy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

TOS Review: Beyond Five in a Row

This review was due yesterday.

I hate posting reviews late. It's not professional. It frustrates publishers. It makes me look bad. It's just plain old poor form. But the fact is, I tried to finish this review several times yesterday. I had a draft in my folder, ready to go. All I had to do was plug in some key information and hit "publish." That's not too tall an order, is it?

One slight problem: my review copy of Beyond Five in a Row Volume 3 was missing.

While I am by no means a stalwart example of orderliness, I do a pretty good job of keeping my business affairs in order. Therefore, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had left the green, softbound book to the left of my computer keyboard--my launching pad, if you will, for the project next in line. When I didn't find it there, I wasn't terribly concerned, however. If you'll remember, my house in on the market. Mr. Blandings had been the one to tidy the desk area in our "Show-ready Sweep" on Sunday before we left for church. It was entirely possible that he had relocated the book without realizing it was for review.

I perused my school shelves and came up empty. I did a scan of the usual haunts: my bedside table, that persistent pile on the kitchen counter, the gameroom shelves. Nothing. I put in a call to Mr. Blandings at the office, only to receive word that he was in meetings all day. Desperate, I shot not one, but two emails to his Blackberry. He replied (in true, "Gee, hon ... I'm busy here!" fashion): "Did not touch book. Last seen on desk by comp."

Which wasn't very helpful at all, now was it?

Daylight was fading by the time I took up the search again. As I was plunking Oliver and Manolin into the bath, it occurred to me to question the troops.

"Atticus? Have you seen that green book that was by my computer? The one with The Cricket in Times Square study that we did in it?"

"Oh, yeah. It's in Jo's room. We were reading it," he replied before scampering off to take advantage of his nightly free time before stories.

They were reading it?

I don't know how much you know about Five in a Row, but folks, it isn't designed to be reading material. This is a curriculum, after all. The book I reviewed (the aforementioned Beyond Five in a Row) is specifically a literature-based unit study approach to learning for children ages 8-12. Four selections (two fiction and two nonfiction) are covered in the study, which delves deeply into the details of a book to guide you through some pretty amazing and in-depth rabbit trails. In other words, it's about books, but it's not actually a book, per se.

Curious as to what my three little discoverers were doing with a curriculum guide, I waited until the little ones were down before rounding them up and starting the inquisition. I'll be honest here and say that we first reviewed the fact that we ask before we snag someone else's property. After that, though, it was a rather pleasant discussion. :-)

The whole affair, it seemed, had started with Marie Curie. A recent topic of interest thanks to Cousin Malcolm, Beyond Five in a Row includes as one of its books to study a juvenile biography of this particular scientist. Jo had found it while sitting at my desk the afternoon before and had leafed through the readings and activity suggestions, finding them interesting enough to cart off and share with Atticus and Logan.

"But it's not really a book about Marie Curie, guys. It's curricula," I pointed out.

"We know that. But it had really, really interesting stuff in there, like the geography of Poland," Jo answered.

"And some words in Polish, like 'Do widzenia,'" chimed Atticus.

"And a guide to the Dewey Decimal System!" said Logan.

"Wasn't it boring, though? I mean, it's a teacher's guide."

"No! It was great. Very interesting. The part about the dangers of radioactivity was really, really good," Logan told me.

Turns out, they did an experiment with magnets without me, and have decided, based on what they read in Beyond Five in a Row, that they'd like to hang a copy of the Periodic Table of Elements in their bathroom, where they can memorize it. (This is a habit that they picked up after we read Cheaper By The Dozen. It's odd, I admit, but somewhat endearing as well.)

"So you'd like to do the study on the Marie Curie book?" I asked, knowing that it was a foregone conclusion at this point.

"YES!!!" they all screamed.

So there you have it; not only was our test run of The Cricket in Times Square a success (that was the topic of my original review, by the way), but my children are clamoring for more. I'm off to put a hold on that Marie Curie title at my local library. After all, I don't want to be responsible for forcing my children to read books about unit studies. I'd rather they spend their time doing them.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Just how difficult is this to understand?

Today we started Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? in SL Core 5. While I admit that I have been looking forward to this book about as much as I tend to anticipate a nice long stay in the dentist's chair, I was pleasantly surprised at how readable and informative it is.

We finished chapter 1--which was about actual, physical money--and the kids begged for more. We ended up reading another chapter before I pulled the plug and sent them off for their daily rest time.

This is a book about economics. You remember economics, right? The high school class where you studied the desktop and wondered exactly what Shana did to deserve being slurred like that? My older children are 11, 8 and 7. The fact that they asked for more is huge, guys. They paid attention. They learned. They were intrigued.

Best of all, this book truly explains the economy. And hey, what's more timely than that? If you're confused by all of the discussion swirling about the economy, I highly recommend this as an adult read--SL Core not withstanding. Better yet: get it, then read it aloud with your children. Who knows? Maybe listening to Uncle Eric's take will create a generation of people less likely to repeat the mistakes of the recent past.