Friday, December 28, 2007

Since we were talking about Mitford

Or I was, anyway...Circle of Quiet has a post about Patches of Godlight and some of "Father Tim's" favourite quotations.

Year of the Red Ribbon

What's in your hand...this year it was a spool of lovely red ribbon that we found at a rummage sale in the summer, and two spools of wide white lace. We used them both to tie up packages...tied bows with the red ribbon on the dining room mirror...decorated just about everything except ourselves with it.

And then the Apprentice topped every other use for it by hot-gluing it into a Barbie dress (the two dresses were her gift to Crayons). Nice, yes?

The blue print dress and the other parts of the ribbon dress are made from silk neckties. The Apprentice learned how to make those a few years ago from a library book, and she came up with some gorgeous designer duds. (All cutting and hot-gluing, closures made from sticky-back Velcro.)

(Photo credit: Ponytails)

The little clothespin kits that grew

Or, if you give a mom a Ziploc...

To read the rest of this post, come on over here and I'll whisper the rest while the Squirrelings are busy gluing.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

Birdie was asking for shortbread recipes, and that reminded me that I've never posted our recipe for Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread. This is one that came from Canadian Living Magazine (Dec 1/92) and we make some every year; it freezes well.

[2008 Update: I baked an 8-inch square pan of this and, for the first time ever, had it turn out underdone; when I cut the pan into squares, the bottoms of the pieces were very damp. I remedied it as best I could by turning the squares upside down on a cookie sheet and baking them a little while longer at 275 degrees; they're not perfect but at least I didn't have to dump the whole batch. So--a reminder to give the pans as long as they seem to need, even if they're turning a bit brown--better that than underdone.]

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

"This recipe can be baked as invidiual cookies or in a square pan." My note: I doubled the recipe this year and baked it in a large pan, cutting it afterwards.

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar (confectioner's sugar)
2 tbsp. poppy seeds
2 tbsp. grated lemon rind
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tbsp. granulated sugar for sprinkling (or as desired)

In bowl, cream together butter and icing sugar until fluffy; stir in poppy seeds and lemon rind. Gradually blend in flour. Gather dough into ball; chill for 30 minutes if sticky.

If you're rolling and cutting them: On lightly floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness; cut into 2-inch rounds and place on ungreased baking sheets.

If you're baking them in a pan: Press dough into 8- or 9-inch square pan; prick surface all over with fork. My note: I always find a fork really massacres the top of the bars, so I don't do that anymore; but I do prick the surface gently with a toothpick. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you like.

Bake in 300 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes for cookies, or about 35 minutes for square pan, or until set and very faintly browned. Let cookies cool on rack, or let large square cool in the pan before cutting into bars.

Shortbread can be stored in an airtight containers for up to 5 days or frozen for up to a month. Makes about 40 cookies or 24 bars.


I finished Shepherds Abiding. It didn't matter that it was the eighth in the series and that I didn't know all the characters...the story was exactly what I needed this week.

I've been thinking a lot about things and people that I miss (especially around the holidays), things that have changed, things I'm unhappy about (yes, there are some even though I don't blog about them), the fact that the living room won't stay cleaned (it's a living room), and the general imperfection that always seems to interfere and mess up the perfect life I always thought I was somehow entitled to.

Shepherds Abiding is full of imagery of things imperfect, broken, less than ideal. One-winged angels, families with missing siblings, lost letters, and, central to it all, an antique Nativity set that Father Tim is restoring as a Christmas present for his wife.

In a nice touch of irony, as Father Tim is consulting Botticelli paintings to choose the perfect colours for angels' robes, the ailing and rather simple-minded old man down the street is also making a present for his own wife: a wooden tray for her jewelery, with handles swiped from the kitchen cabinets. Both gifts are welcomed and loved.

The book is about restoring, repairing, finding what has been lost, and reconciling the past and the present. And even about extending grace from unexpected quarters: another couple sit "in their twin recliners" in front of a fake fireplace that "featured a forty-watt bulb that flowed through a revolving sheet of red cellophane." The wife opens a gift from a neighbour and recognizes something that she herself donated to a rummage sale "a hundred years ago."

"And to think I gave her a two-layer marmalade [cake]" [she said.]

"Th' poor woman has a gimp leg, Esther, which don't leave much room for shoppin'. Besides, why did you put it in th' Bane an' Blessin'? It looks perfectly good to me."

"Well, yes," said Esther, examining it more carefully. "After I put it in, I wished I hadn't."

"See?" said her husband, hammering down on a couple of cashews. "What goes around comes around."
It's about finding peace, mystery and wonder at Christmas in whatever place in the story you happen to be...understanding that God is allowing you to be a part of it all...whether your life is about Renaissance angels, or recliners, or somewhere in between.

It's about allowing some living room.

A matter of vocabulary

"He went to the coat rack by the back door and put on his fleece jacket, zipped it up, and popped a toboggan on his head."--Jan Karon, Shepherds Abiding

What on earth, I thought. Visions of Mr. Canoehead?

OK, no, obviously that must mean something different in North Carolina.


Noun 1. toboggan cap - a close-fitting woolen cap; often has a tapering tail with a tassel
ski cap, stocking cap

Oh--a toque!


Can't find the words

You are now looking into my closet where the Christmas gifts are hidden. If you have not been given an access code, shut that door right now if you know what's good for you.

If not, proceed





All right...for those of you who are allowed a sneak peak inside...

We didn't do that much of our usual dollar-store shopping run this year. I don't know if it's the discouragement over made-in-you-know-where stuff, or just that there didn't seem that much worth getting, or just that we had other ideas. In any case, the other ideas are turning out to be even better than we'd hoped. Obviously I'm not in on every present that's getting wrapped, but these are a few of them.

From Mama Squirrel, the Apprentice is getting a paperback copy of Up a Road Slowly (thrift shop), a vintage copy of Beautiful Girlhood, and a giant neckroll pillow that Mama Squirrel crocheted from several colours (cream, tan, white, lavender, turquoise) of yard-saled chunky-weight yarn and stuffed with leftover stuffing and quilt batting. (I started it last night and it was done by this afternoon. Squirrel paws work fast, especially when I know that The Apprentice is soon coming home from school and will be home from now through the holidays.)

From Ponytails, Mr. Fixit is getting a Daddy's Morning Drink Kit. Every morning Mr. Fixit sleepily asks Ponytails if she will kindly go over to the kitchen counter and fix him a tea or an instant coffee. Which she does. So Ponytails bought him a nice (thrift-shopped) mug, filled it with tea bags and instant coffee in baggies, and added this label: "Daddy's Morning Drink Kit. Ingredients: Tea. Coffee. Love." She was as pleased as all-get-out with it, and I think Mr. Fixit will be too.

Also from Ponytails, The Apprentice is getting a (thrift-shopped) fancy jar full of homemade sugar scrub, plus a fancy spoon to scoop it with, and a small piece of jewelry from Ten Thousand Villages.

The Apprentice got Ponytails her own makeup case with some toiletry items from the dollar store.

The Sunday School teachers are getting bags of Salad Toppers, decorated with fancy labels we made.

From Crayons, Mr. Fixit is getting a homemade book of her retellings and illustrations of Kipling's Just-So Stories. We used leopard-print paper to make a very cool-looking cover.

From Mama Squirrel, Mr. Fixit is getting two picture frames that are made to display LP covers. His request--one of those "yes I'd like them but don't tell me when you get them" presents. Half off at Michael's. Also a book about Captain Cook.

Ponytails, our budding cartoonist, is getting a set of Prismacolours, the fine-line kind (Michael's 40% coupon); and a few loose peach-coloured soft ones because she keeps using up all her peach-coloured pencil crayons drawing peach-coloured faces.

The Apprentice is getting a driver's-training handbook to study over the next while--and believe it or not, it's a fairly hefty chunk of change for those! No bargoons on driving books.

And the younger girls are also getting a small assortment of other things: a couple of Oz books, a couple of small Sculpey sets, a miniature boxed set of Benjamin Franklin's wisdom (for Ponytails), a toy cell phone so Crayons can talk to her imaginary friends (don't ask), a thrift-shopped Madeline Thinking Games computer CD-Rom, some chocolate, a couple of puzzle books, and anything else we come up with between now and Tuesday. Dollar stores may fail, but Squirrel imagination goes on.

An Advent Read

Found at the thrift shop: Shepherds Abiding, by Jan Karon. I am one of those outcasts who's never yet read more than a few pages of a Mitford book (sorry, Donna-Jean), but I'm about two-thirds of the way through this one. Something to put in a grownup's box of Christmas books!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Play it again, Eric

Heard on CBC's Studio Sparks, in a somewhat Chestertonian moment:

"That was a short version of Carol of the Bells. It's probably the shortest one out there. In fact, it was so short, let's play it again."

And he did, much to Mr. Fixit's disgust and the little Squirrelings' delight.

Want some Christmas?

Head over to The Common Room. More posts there today that I can shake a peppermint stick at, so you'll just have to scroll down through them. Music, Christmas villages, and thoughts on why you do not want to start any tradition with your kids that you do not hope to do over and over and over again. (Been there, done that.)

It's not only about reading to them

(Edward Ardizzone's drawing of young Eleanor Farjeon reading, in The Little Bookroom)

Ragamuffin studies has a post about Becoming a Reader: The Politics and the Reality. Read it, read the comments. It's very eye-opening. Then go read something else; read something to yourself, read something to your kids that's ranked above a grade 4 reading level. Just to be subversive.

Or go do something completely different with them--because you are the parent. See? I get it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

How to make a mama squirrel crazy

I bought three packs of Mary Engelbreit Christmas note cards at Michael's (in the inexpensive bins where they always have a lot of Mary Engelbreit cards, magnets and so on). I thought they'd work well as Christmas cards this year.

We wrote in them. We signed them. We put in photos. We addressed them and put return labels on them. We did everything except seal them.

Mr. Fixit was going to take them with him to work this morning and get them mailed. So just minutes before he left, Mama Squirrel started applying her furry little tongue to those envelopes. And it was then that she realized--not one of them had enough sticky on the flap to stay closed. These were dud envelopes. They had shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. (That's for the DHM.)

And Mama Squirrel didn't even have any pretty stickers, at least not that she could lay her paws on that quickly.

So if you get a card from the Treehouse, closed with Scotch know why.

And a very big HUMPH to whatever person (chuckling evilly) let those envelopes through.

Thank you all so very much

Yes, we won. I don't have the fancy button yet to dress up this post, but the votes are in and the Treehouse somehow scuttled up to the top of the Cyberbuddy category. As the Deputy Headmistress (and the Common Room is a double winner!) pointed out, the winner for Funniest Blog--as you'd expect--wrote a very funny announcement thanking all and sundry for their support. So what's a Cyberbuddy supposed to write?

Just thank you. Thank you to all 56.8 of you (or whatever it was) who voted for us. Thank you all for coming along with us over the last couple of years--because a Cyberbuddy is nothing without some buddies. We will strive to be worthy of your visitiness. (Thank you, Apprentice, I couldn't find the word there.)

And thank you very much to the team at Homeschool Blog Awards, and the sponsors of the contest.

Tofu Fudge Chews

Dairy and egg free! We don't make these every Christmas, but since we had a package of soft tofu and it is my tofu-eating brother-in-law's birthday, Crayons and I made a batch in his honour.

Tofu Fudge Chews

from Tofu Cookery, by Louise Hagler

Blend in a blender (or food processor, or use a blender stick) until smooth:

1/2 lb. tofu (or a 300 g package)
1/2 cup oil

Pour into a medium mixing bowl, and add:

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tbsp. vanilla (optional; we add it)
1 tbsp. water, milk or soymilk if needed (it wasn't needed)

Stir well. Mix separately (or just dump in):

3 cups unbleached white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt

Add to wet ingredients, mix well. The dough should be fairly stiff, although you may still find it sticks to your hands a bit while you're making the balls.

Roll into 1 1/2 inch balls (average cookie size). Put some more white sugar into a cereal bowl and roll the balls in the sugar. (We only roll about half the balls and leave the rest plain for those that object to crunching through sugar.)

Place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet about an inch apart. They will puff up and then spread somewhat, but they won't come out flat unless you squish them.

Bake for 12-15 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool on a wire rack.

Of Squirrelings and snow clothes

"James worked away frantically on the Centipede's boots. Each one had laces that had to be untied and loosened before it could be pulled off, and to make matters worse, all the laces were tied up in the most complicated knots that had to be unpicked with fingernails. It was just awful. It took about two hours. And by the time James had pulled off the last boot of all and had lined them up in a row on the floor--twenty-one pairs altogether--the Centipede was fast asleep."--Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach

And sometimes it does feel exactly like that.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kitbashing, a way of life

(Relax, this hasn't anything to do with blog bashing or HBA bashing.)

Kitbashing. Do you know what that is? I used to get dollhouse magazines with examples of kitbashing, and I know car modellers who do the same thing. You want to build something, if you'll pardon the example, a haunted you buy a regular dollhouse kit FOR THE COMPONENTS...or two or three kits...and change, combine or otherwise customize them to suit your purposes. Roof from here, walls from here and so on.

I was thinking through a whole blog post about kitbashing as a kind of frugal philosophy...a variation of what's in my hand...but this essay beat me to it.

"Sure, what I call "kitbashing life" has been stated before in a multitude of forms, from the impressive "Adopt, Adapt, Improve" of the Knights of the Round Table to the cliched "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." But I've found that since I started kitbashing toys, I've really taken this sort of attitude to's more than just words of advice, it's something I live by."

The inverse of this philosophy is missing out by not being able to see the parts, just the whole. I wrote once here about going to a yard sale and buying, for $2, some bits and pieces of craft supplies packed in a $14.98 plastic container--that several people had passed over because they didn't like those particular bits and pieces, or they ONLY wanted the bits and pieces and didn't notice the container. Sometimes you get a better deal buying a whole junker whatsit with a good part you need, than you do trying to get a new part alone. (Or sometimes, in that case, it's the package that's the best find of all.)

I was thinking about that this week when I noticed that a local fabric-plus-more outlet store has reduced its prices on several educational-type kits for kids. You might have seen them: they are large boxes, six kits (each marked with a school grade), and each one has a different theme and project booklets. The sixth grade one, I think, is called Flying (it contains things to make kites and gliders); the fourth grade one is a Top Secret Spy kit with fingerprinting dust and so on; the first grade one is just art and craft supplies. The outlet store had them for $5.99 for quite awhile, now they're $3.99. Somebody told me their dollar store had the same kits--incredibly--for $1 apiece.

And they're sitting there. How come? Maybe because of the grading thing: what sixth grader wants to be given a box marked "Grade Two?" Or maybe because of the whole-parts thing: maybe you don't want to be a top secret spy, but you sure could use a magnifying glass; who couldn't use a big boxful of craft supplies? How much paint and glue can you get even at the dollar store for that price?

I guess the company boxed themselves in (pun intended).

Of course the most frugal--I mean, the only sensible way to do the kind of kitbashing I'm talking about--is when you can get the pieces-in-the-whole for less than you'd pay for them separately. But even better is when you find a poor old forgotten whole--maybe in a dusty or dented or otherwise bedraggled package--for almost nothing, and it turns out to have one or two pieces of gold in it. A bag of tangled yarn with leftover knitting needles thrown in. A bag of weary-looking stuffed Santas and snowmen with, somehow, one very cute Dora the Explorer doll in there too; and the thrift shop was not going to parole Dora without her cellmates. (We bought the bagful--it was worth it for the doll, and the Santas found new homes too--they turned out not to be as awful as they'd first appeared.) A set of books for almost nothing, in which one volume turns out to be exactly what you need. Would you pass up the set and pay more than that for a different book?

Maybe that's not kitbashing exactly, but you know what I mean. Look at parts as well as wholes--and never mind the holes. Instead of buying all new embroidery floss and tapestry yarn, consider using what you find in the half-used kits at rummage sales--I see those all the time. Half-used latchhook kits, too. Obviously this only makes sense if you like latchhook pictures of old mills and things, and I don't, especially, so for me this is not a good kind of kitbashing. But I'd pick up a partly-used package of floss or yarn, if it wasn't cut into little latchhook pieces. I've found partly-used party kits (usually with some leftover paper hats and unused noisemakers)--even the slightly Boy ones are fun for Mr. Fixit's family-only birthdays. (He doesn't mind Ninja Turtles or robot warriors, even if we have to combine a couple of themes to give everybody a hat and a napkin.)

Recently some Squirrelings and I were talking about doing fabric painting, and we realized that, between two or three paint-a-something kits they had been given, we could put together enough colours to do the project we had in mind. As Meredith says, better than a trip to the Big M (not McDonalds).

Keep an open mind, and kitbash when you can.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Making stuff

There have been holidays in the past when we've made a lot of gifts and decorations--usually when I remembered to get started really early.
And there have been other years when I don't think the glue came out for most of December. Sometimes we make gifts of the food kind, not the crafty kind. Coffee mix, or homemade candy. (This is one food gift we're giving this year. This one also looks very yummy.)

But I do like to crochet, when I have the right kind of yarn around. On the weekend I was fishing through a bag of stuff I'd picked up at a rummage sale, and found a whole spool of something red and shiny called "Corneta Metallic Yarn for Handknitting." This stuff is very fine, like fine tinsel; too fine to crochet by itself unless maybe you're a mouse or a Borrower; but when I used it with another old ball of red Speed-Cro-Sheen, it worked great. I had enough of the Speed-Cro-Sheen to make four coasters and another decoration. (picture coming soon) Now I'm going to figure out what else I could put the metallic yarn with--maybe some white crochet cotton.

And of course I blew the "what's in my hand" by going to Michael's to buy some Stiffy. So if you get a very stiff and/or metallic Christmas present from me, you'll know why.
I am intrigued by this homemade gift at Like Merchant Ships, which I won't name in case someone close to me might be getting some (Apprentice, keep your mouse away from that link). Follow the links and enjoy Meredith's usual beautiful packaging as well. (There are more of Meredith's packaging ideas on Frugal Hacks today too.)

We spent most of today cleaning, not crafting...I have this Advent instinct that calls out for space, room. Clutter and dust bunnies cleaned out both literally and metaphorically; the last of the Halloween candy eaten; space made for holiday decorations to come. But once we get that taken care of, we will find time to get creative too. 

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Waving our homeschool catalogues, or, are we really prepared?

Jacci M at The Educational Life has a thought-provoking post about the naïveté shared by many new homeschoolers (green as grass, right?): how can we, without formal teacher's training or experience, dare to say we are prepared to teach our children? Her solution is a good dose of Charlotte Mason's books, and I'd go along with that.

However, I'm not so sure that we, coming into homeschooling, are necessarily as unprepared, or as different from any other new teachers, as her scenario suggests:
She [your child's imagined teacher] smiles a cheerful smile and explains that this will be her first year teaching. Although she went to college, she really has very little actual training in education. Her degree was in history. She did very well academically, though, and has always loved children. She babysat a lot as a teenager and was the oldest of four children. She's looked through teacher catalogs a lot, too, so she feels that she's fairly ready. Understandably, you're a little taken aback. Has she ever taught a child to read? What about handwriting? Does she have experience there? Or math? Did she receive any training in teaching math to young children? What are her thoughts on children's literature? Does she know how she will make sure the children are processing what they are reading? Her answer to all of your questions is, basically, "no". She seems very relaxed about it, though, and very matter-of-factly says that she has the curriculum the school system provided, and she will just learn along with the class.
Yeah, I know, that's how the school system and a lot of non-homeschoolers see us. As if we hadn't yet penetrated the mysteries of my husband's grandmother used to say darkly, just wait, you'll see.

However, is this hypothetical homeschooler much different from any other first-year teacher? Where I live, a B.Ed. is a post-grad degree, so every new teacher has a bachelor's in something or other--same as this story--plus One Year of Teacher's Ed. Is that long enough to make you an expert in teaching? If lacking one year of university classes and a couple of practice-teaching sessions is all that separates me from a first-year "professional teacher," I don't know why I should feel much behind. In my own pre-homeschool experience (that's up until The Apprentice was four), I would include all the babysitting and so on (and don't make light of that) plus several years of Sunday School teaching, volunteering in what was then called a TMR class, tutoring a special-needs student, directing camp arts and crafts for a summer (yeah, me), doing library music and movement programs for a summer (yeah, me again), volunteering at my toddler's weekly community-centre program, and taking several relevant university courses (developmental psychology, children's literature and so on). Had I ever taught anybody to read?--not from the ground up, unless you count playing school with my little sister. (Did that end up mattering?--well, no, all my Squirrelings have learned to read, with or without my help.)

But even more important than that--I had the luxury of a couple of years of "apprenticing" before I jumped in myself. I went to homeschool meetings and at least two conferences during that time, and I listened. And yes, along with talking to the real-life homeschoolers at the meetings, at church and down the street, I had the privilege of "meeting" Charlotte Mason, Ruth Beechick, Gayle Graham, Valerie Bendt, Mary Pride, Cathy Duffy, and other teaching parents who had written down what they'd learned. Oh, and John Holt. By the time I was ready to, figuratively, take my place at the front of the classroom, I had a very good idea of what was and wasn't going to work for us, and even some idea of why.

And you CAN learn a lot by browsing teacher catalogues--both the homeschool-friendly variety and the other kind. The best homeschool catalogues have detailed and sometimes critical descriptions and comparisons of the products (does anyone else in Ontario still miss Lifetime Canada/Maple Ridge Books?). And the other kind...well, as I've said before, you can at least learn from them what you don't need.

Besides, you're not presuming to sit in front of a class of thirty, waving your catalogue as qualification; you are planning to provide the brain-food for your own children. This week, this month. You do not need a teaching degree to follow Ambleside Online's Crisis Plan, to read them a chapter of Understood Betsy and play "Cup of Twenty." Homeschooling methods are, and should be, somewhat different from public school ones; remember that we don't have to slice bread with a chainsaw.

So while I would strongly agree with Jacci's advice to new homeschoolers (learn from the best parent-teacher-education resources you can get hold of, including Charlotte Mason's works; strive to understand what and why you do what you do; learn the best methods you can and base them on solid educational and spiritual philosophy), I would also like to reassure those who want to homeschool and maybe feel like they're not qualified (didn't finish college or whatever). Understand that being your children's parent, in at least one sense, qualifies you. Yes, you can learn more; and no, a browse through a catalogue is probably not enough to get you going. But you can learn, and much better and faster than the teachers' unions and other naysayers would like you to believe. (Feetnote: Jacci's not a naysayer, just to clarify that.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Still my favourite cookies

Last March I posted a longtime family favourite, Doreen Perry's cookies. We still don't know who Doreen Perry is; if you do, you can thank her for the recipe.

I made a batch this morning (actually while I was waiting for lunch to heat up) that included cornflakes and butterscotch chips. If you make them small enough, this variation is almost holiday-worthy. Who needs fancier?

(P.S.: I know the recipe says to use ungreased pans, but I have had better luck spraying the pans first. Try it and see which works better for you.)

Charlotte Mason would be horrified

Books and Bairns (one of the nominees for Best Cyber-buddy) has a must-read post about a public-schooled kid who--not of her own choosing--does Not Have a Life outside of her schoolwork. She just doesn't have time--read the post and you'll see why.

Reminded me of this:
"These seemed a great many lessons for one small girl. 'Chivvied from morning to night--that's what she is,' Belinda reported in the words of Mrs Bodger. 'Nothing but putting clothes on and taking them off, and practising and lessons, lessons, lessons.'

"Mother was disturbed at this. 'Every child should have some private time,' she said, 'time of her own and time for play.'"--Little Plum, by Rumer Godden

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whatever, it's all orange stuff

A real what's in your hand this morning: our grocery trip last Saturday was very hurried, and we missed several things: laundry soap, extra milk, extra flour, Parmesan cheese.

We did manage to replenish the allspice! (been short of that for weeks, and I refused to pay the price of the little cans; so I was happy that Saturday's store, while charging Yukon-worthy produce prices, did have a bulk section.)

With me so far?

I read Meredith's post about making Pumpkin Pie Playdough (the recipe is also in her post), and for some reason--although my Squirrelings are getting a bit beyond the playdough stage--I thought this dreary wet morning would be a good one for a potful of warm playdough, especially if it didn't smell like cooked salt. I didn't have enough flour for the whole recipe, so I halved it, and it turned out fine. I also didn't have pumpkin pie spice, so I used this recipe (quadrupled it for a half recipe of playdough). (Yay, allspice.)

So it was fun playing with the dough (yes, I squished along a bit too while we listened to an old radio show). But you can't EAT I decided to use up the bit of flour that was left on some pumpkin bread. We didn't have any pumpkin, but there was some cooked butternut squash from last night--so I pureed that along with the other liquid ingredients. (And the allspice.) Squash, sweet potato, pumpkin--they all mash up about the same, and they're all good in baking.

And now it's baked, the flour is gone, and the rain will probably turn into snow in the next day or so. I think we're going to make a fast run to Giant Tiger tonight so we can at least have clean clothes and pancakes...blizzard or not.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's in Your Hand / Year of Abundance

Buster's Poem:
"These are the things that make me nauseous:
Gloppy green goop that drips from faucets.
Blue hair that grows on slices of bread.
When your big old dog drools in your bed.....
And people who eat creamed corn with their mouths open so you can see it.
The End!" --by Buster Baxter

Mama Squirrel's Poem:
"These are the things that make me irritated:
Our family doctor who's absconded to a group clinic without so much as a by-your-leave
(you have to drive there even to make an appointment, unless it's one of the two afternoons a week when you can phone and get a live person, subject to change without notice);
The person behind the pharmacy counter who wastes Mr. Fixit's time trying to spell his name and then ignores his insurance card, forcing him to pay for the prescription out of his pocket;
The Canadian Tire store rearranged again with the car stuff hidden even further at the back
and the kitchen light bulbs away from the light fixtures altogether
(but of course all the Christmas junk is right up at the front);
When my kid's brand new knit top shrinks on the first washing
(even when I did follow the little pictures on the label);
And computerized telemarketers who phone me in the middle of math lessons."

What does that have to do with the Deputy Headmistress's week of doing without a barrette and putting up an old-tire retaining wall?


Thankfulness that, unsatisfactory as these new medical arrangements are, there's still at least someone there if you get sick (we hope), and that Mr. Fixit was able to be examined by our doctor and get a prescription for some of his allergy issues (long story). Thankfulness that his one day of feeling horribly sick this week (he got into some dust) has been followed by much better ones.

Thankfulness that we did have the money to pay for the prescription upfront, and that the insurance will (eventually) pay it back.

Thankfulness that we do have electric lights and can replace the burned-out ceiling bulb (we had one dinner this week by oil lamp).

Thankfulness that we do have a slightly younger Squirreling who will happily wear the now-too-tight top. Thankfulness that we are not living in the days of one dress for everyday and one for Sunday. (Crayons and I are reading Little House at the Crossroads.)

As for the telemarketers...well, at least computers don't mind being promptly hung up on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Crockpots rock

Mostly for my own remembering: Mama Lion has a post about crockpot cooking, and MomToCherubs adds some good crockpot sites in the comments section.

P.S. I like this page about "Slow Cooker Sundays" too.

If your blogroll was full of famous writers

Then when would you have time to read all the grocery lists and recipes that the rest of us post?

But seriously...In a Spacious Place has a post with links to blogs that are actually writings-of-the-day by G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor. (And don't forget your daily dose of Charlotte Mason--still continuing!)

Think of them as--what's the name of that other blog--"Mental Multivitamins."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What's in the grocery cart?

Javamom wants to know.

OK...I'm deciphering this from yesterday's grocery receipt. We were not being either particularly frugal or particularly healthy-minded on this trip, just so you know. And we were already stocked up on baking supplies and canned goods, so there aren't many on the list.

Box of frozen beef patties
piece of liver sausage
piece of pepperoni
1 package wieners

2 bags of bagels
Bag of hamburger buns
4 loaves of bread
1 bag of mini-croissants

1 little box of raspberries
1 bag of green grapes
1 bunch bananas
1 kg pears
1 bag of Gala apples
1 can cranberry sauce

1 container banana chips
1 bag walnuts
2 cans frozen orange juice
1 bottle of grape juice

2 green peppers
1 acorn squash
1 small pumpkin
1 big bag regular carrots and 1 little bag mini carrots
1 bag onions
1 bag frozen Italian vegetables
2 packages soft tofu

2 cans chicken noodle soup (Crayons has a cold), 1 can beef-barley soup
4 boxes of whole-wheat pasta (on sale for a dollar a box)

1 sleeve of mini-yogurts
1 doz. eggs (for Javamom: large eggs were $2.20 Canadian a dozen)
4 L 2% milk
three bars of cheese (on sale)
500 g cottage cheese
1 lb. margarine

A couple of frozen burritos for high school lunches
1 box of granola bars for high school lunches
A chocolate orange (a Christmas present to put away)

1 box tissues
1 big pack of toilet paper.

Now, how am I supposed to label this one??

Do the Math (Tofu Pie Revisited)

I've had this craving for Tofu Chocolate Pie, but I never seemed to have all the right ingredients around at once. I bought a jar of fruit spread a long time ago, but we ended up eating it on toast. Then we didn't have chocolate. Then we didn't have any occasion for quite awhile that demanded a whole chocolate pie (and if you've tried this recipe, you know it's rich and you just can't eat a big piece at once). (Okay, yes, I know we did demolish a whole Halloween Trifle a couple of weeks ago. It's not like we haven't had dessert lately.)

Yesterday I bought some tofu. We had some preserves that would work, some chocolate, and even some graham crumbs for the crust. Still not enough people around to do justice to a whole pie. Then my "Duh" lightbulb went on. Cut it in half, stupid.

No, not the pie. The recipe.

This is what I did:

Made a graham-crumb crust in an 8-inch square pan. I usually use 1 1/2 cups of crumbs for my large 9-inch pie pan; I decided to use two-thirds the normal amount since we like crumb crust. So: 1 cup crumbs, 2 tbsp. sugar, 1/4 cup oil, bake about 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

Melted 4 squares of unsweetened chocolate in the microwave.

Drained 1 300-gram package of soft tofu.

Combined in the food processor: the tofu, the melted chocolate, 1/2 tsp. vanilla, 1/2 cup liquid honey, 1/2 cup mixed fruit preserves. Blended it until it was very smooth.

Smoothed the mixture over the crumb crust and put it in the fridge.

And we're going to have it topped with a few raspberries, for fancy. But you could put whipped cream or tofu topping on top if you wanted.

OK, so I'm slow. But eventually these things do figure themselves out.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Notes from a Book Talk

(Adapted from a talk I wrote for a support group meeting. Are you sitting comfortably?)

Books Fall Open

by David McCord

Books fall open, you fall in
Delighted where you’ve never been
Hear voices not once heard before
Reach world on world through door on door
Find unexpected keys to things
Locked up beyond imaginings
What might you be, perhaps become
Because one book is somewhere?
Some wise delver into wisdom, wit and wherewithal has written it
True books will venture, dare you out
Whisper secrets, maybe shout
Across the gloom to you in need
Who hanker for a book to read.

When Mr. Fixit and I were at the beginning of our journey together, one of us once gave the other one a gift bag with a Winnie-the-Pooh illustration on it and the words, "As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was going to happen." That's almost identical to a chapter title in Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Child’s Heart (at least the 1978 edition, which is what I have): "The Pleasure of a Shared Adventure."

Reading is an adventure, and even better, it can be a shared adventure.

What do you need for an adventure? You need some place to go—often some place unknown. Adventures require at least a bit of the unexpected, the unknown, a bit of uncertainty; “things locked up beyond imaginings.” Most adventures don’t happen right in your own backyard. To have a real adventure you need to step outside, push beyond your comfort zone.

Real adventures can include buried treasure, answering riddles, fighting dragons, outwitting giants. They include big problems and big decisions.

Adventures go better with food. Apples, popcorn, hot chocolate…

Here’s a quote, see if you know what book it’s from. "Her own small bedroom now became her reading-room and there she would sit and read most afternoons, often with a mug of hot chocolate beside her….It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new world and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village."

And it’s nice to have a place to come home to afterwards. Our adventures are enjoyed more when they’re framed in the familiarity and security of home.

What should you expect from an adventure?

Expect it to take time. You can’t have a real adventure in five minutes, and some of the best book adventures are very long. We are often too impatient and we settle for abridged versions or just skip things altogether because they’re so long. But if you take, say, the long unabridged version of David Copperfield, there’s just a huge amount of wonderful stuff in there that hasn’t made it into shortened versions or movie versions. In other words, you don’t really know David Copperfield until you’ve explored the whole thing, and when you’re done you’re tired but you know it was worthwhile.

Expect some degree of danger, risk, opposition and difficulty. Being a reader these days can be a subversive activity, both inside and outside of the Christian community; it can make people angry; it can make a lot more people yawn with boredom. It’s not the books that get banned by school libraries that you will have to struggle to read or even to find; it’s the books that nobody’s actually supposed to be able or be interested in reading any more; that includes some of the treasures of our Christian literary heritage. How many people do you know--Christians or not-- who have actually read and enjoyed Paradise Lost or Pilgrim’s Progress, just for a start? How many homeschoolers will include those books in their children’s education? For some people, concentrating our children’s reading on the dead white guys (particularly dead Christian white guys) is seen as some kind of an act against contemporary culture. And those who don't get outright angry may try to discourage you in other ways. Just like in Pilgrim’s Progress, you are going to meet people with names like That’s-So-Dull and Much-Abridged who are going to try to get you to turn back; but press on, the rewards are there in the end.

And expect to be rewarded when you climb to the top. Who goes on a quest without hoping to bring back treasure? Without even specially looking for them, we can expect to make discoveries that lead to wisdom, teach discernment and critical thinking, inspire us with courage, and build character; what Terry Glaspey calls the Moral Imagination. Charlotte Mason said that “stories make the child’s life intelligible to himself; Gladys Hunt wrote in Honey for a Child’s Heart that “books help children know what to look for in life.” It helps to know what you’re looking for when you’re hunting for treasure. And besides that there are a lot of little side benefits of reading, like improved vocabulary and listening skills, creativity, and having bits of useful information stored up in the mind.

Again from "that book": “All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”

Northrop Frye said that literature is true, more true in some ways than our everyday existence; because when our everyday life is disappointing and superficial or truly horrible, it is in literature that we find examples of true love, true honour, true courage. Reading is more than just escapism. It’s not escapism to find strength by remembering Christian’s defeat of Giant Despair; by thinking of wise words that Corrie Ten Boom’s father and sister told her; by making yourself smile at a lovely line of poetry or laugh at the Pooh stories.

But reading is an escape as well, in a good sense. We rebel against ignorance and smallness and look for something more; we try to remember what we are or should be as human beings. We can escape from the pride of thinking we know it all, and from limitations like not really being able to sail or fly or ride horses, or find a secret garden or a buried treasure. We may not have people in our everyday lives who are as loyal as Charlotte, as resourceful as Laura’s Ma, as wise as Clara’s grandmother in Heidi, as encouraging as Ratty, or as valiant as Reepicheep; but in books, we can do all these things and know all these people.

Expect to have fun. The roads through books aren’t all serious; there is a great deal of humor, delight and pleasure, even nonsense. About a hundred years ago, a parent in England wrote this:
“I cannot count the times I have read aloud the stories in the "Just So" book. During a dreary month of grey skies and perpetual snow, spent in the hotel of a grim Yorkshire village, those stories were our daily bread, especially those that took us to the sunshine of South Africa. And the greatest favourite of all was The Beginning of the Armadilloes. Only Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll would dare to write anything so absurd. Day after day, for thirty days or thereabouts, those two rascals, Stickly-Prickly, and Slow-and-Solid, played their pranks, and day after day we laughed at the same places, and when Slow-and-Solid said to the Painted Jaguar--"Because if she said what you said she said, it's just the same as if I said what she said she said"--day after day we bounded out of our chairs with joy….Let us arm our children for the slings and arrows of later life by cultivating the spirit of innocent laughter.”

Terry Glaspey says that “being in the presence of greatness cannot but change us.” So expect to be changed, strengthened, stretched, widened, given a different perspective as you go on a particular adventure. As characters in books grow throughout a story, we share their experiences and also find ourselves growing and changing. One of my favourite short books is Rumer Godden’s The Mousewife, about a rather unhappy mother mouse who develops a friendship with a dove living in a cage. The dove tells her stories about the world outside and gives her a lot of new ideas about things she has never seen. Eventually the mousewife finds a way to help the dove escape, but suddenly realizes that she no longer has her friend there to talk to her and teach her things. Then she looks out the window. “She looked out again and saw the stars….When she saw them shining she thought at first they must be new brass buttons. Then she saw that they were very far off, farther than the garden or the wood, beyond the farthest trees….’I have seen them for myself,’ said the mousewife, ‘without the dove. I can see for myself,’ said the mousewife, and slowly, proudly, she walked back to bed.”

How can we get to be more adventurous, and get more out of our reading adventures?

Use the services of an experienced guide—in this case, booklists and books about books, including homeschool book catalogues and online reviews—but use them cautiously. In your book adventures, as in real life, some guides are more to be trusted than others; and some may simply suit your purposes or personality more than others do. What one hiking guide calls a nice little stroll may leave you exhausted; and what one booklist calls suitable for a ten-year-old may be your idea of something better saved for high school, or the other way around.

To have the greatest adventures, seek out the greatest treasures. Our culture tends to cheapen and trivialize reading (formula series, TV-tie-ins, other kinds of books that barely qualify as books); the media tells us we should read mostly because it’s fun. But even fun gets boring after awhile.

To have the greatest adventures, don’t stick only to the roads marked “fiction.” Read some of the history of medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy. Find out what was beautiful, revolutionary and even dangerous about scientific discoveries. Read history, and go beyond “how the peasants lived.” Read biographies, poetry, nature descriptions. Read the Bible together.

There is also the idea these days that there are no specific important books—wrong. Some book adventures are just more rewarding than others, especially the places you know you’ll want to go back to again and take your friends along to enjoy. There are certain real-life places that everyone should try to see once; and there are book adventures that are too good to miss. You may not be ready for them all at the beginning, but you can work up to the challenge.

Which is another good point: to have the greatest adventures, take along some good companions; make it a shared adventure, and everyone who goes along will be in on the shared vocabulary, experiences and “book friends” that you meet along the way. How do you work around different ages? Not everyone who comes along will get the most from a particular book journey, but sometimes what they do bring back will surprise you. There are times in life when you just can’t read with everyone, but even if it’s just you and one other person, you’re sharing that adventure together, and maybe somebody else will decide to come along if the two of you look like you’re having fun.

How do you deal with general reluctance, the attitude that books are hard or boring? I once went to a health-food demonstration where the presenter was asked, "How can I encourage my children to eat some of these foods instead of hot dogs?" She answered, very unhelpfully, that really they should have just been better trained from the start. In the same way, it would be easy for me to say that if your kids are brought up reading with you from babyhood, you probably won’t have a problem with this, and that if you do you should just force it down them; but that sort of answer just makes you want to give up, doesn't it? So a better suggestion might be that you’re going to have to woo them—maybe with the hot chocolate and popcorn, maybe with a particularly wonderful or funny book that you know gets right into the story very quickly. These suggestions might also apply if you really want to involve a spouse or another adult family member; nobody wants to be made to read, especially if they think they’re going to be bored by kids books; so make sure that it’s something that everybody’s going to enjoy. One recommendation is Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s nothing at all like the movie and it’s a lot of fun and has lots of things blowing up in it.

How do you cope with busy schedules, and the competing attractions of other media? You can use audio books, maybe during mealtimes or travel; you can use more homeschool time just to read; you can leave books lying around; you can give books as gifts. Even the cost of new books shouldn’t be a deterrent to reading, not with libraries and used books and online books readily available; Emily Dickinson was right when she said that reading is a pretty frugal chariot compared with a lot of the other ways we can find to spend money.

HE ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book.
What liberty
A loosened spirit brings! --Emily Dickinson

To have the greatest adventures, let the adventures find you. "Books fall open, you fall in." We can’t always regulate reading by squeezing it into a READING period; by labeling books according to grade or age; or excluding every word or idea that we don’t think our kids will understand. Again, you have to risk a little. Lines like “bequest of wings,” “loosened spirit” and “take us worlds away” speak to us of flight and freedom; the idea of moving outside our own place and time, being able to see beyond our own lives; that’s what the word education means, a drawing out. As our “spirits grow robust,” we are able not only to handle more difficult book adventures but to use our experiences in the everyday world as well, to survive the “dingy days” and also to change them into something better. “Robust spirits” implies strength and health; this kind of reading is not a weak, wussy thing or just an escape from reality. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Cousin Eustace was the cowardly, mean character; C.S. Lewis says it was because he hadn’t read the right books.

What are the right books to adventure with? A great storyteller named Ruth Sawyer gave this list (quoted in Honey for a Child's Heart): “Stories that make for wonder. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir one within with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence. Stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.”

THERE is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul! --Emily Dickinson

Let’s have the courage to adventure with books…and…Let’s go there together.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Canadian music study: Liona Boyd

For November and December, we're moving on to have a look at Liona Boyd's music.

This is our lineup:

1. Fantasy for Guitar (Barnes)  and Gymnopédie No.1 (Satie)

2. 2 pieces by Augustine Pio Barrios

3. 2 pieces by Carlos Payet

4. The Little Shepherd (Debussy)

5. Prelude on The Huron Carol (Robertson), and possibly Parade of the Toy Soldiers (Robertson)

6. Spanish Carol (Robertson) and Blessed Jesus (Bach)

7. (if there's time) a choice of other pieces from A Guitar for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Learning without a "real" teacher

Sometimes I'm Actually Coherent, a hsing dad's blog, has a long but very worthwhile post responding to a common question: how can homeschoolers have the audacity to think that they can provide an education comparable to that available through teachers (especially in high school) who are expected to be specialists in their subjects? Assuming that we are, indeed, talking about qualified, dedicated, interested teachers here (anything else is beyond the scope of the argument), why would you choose to forego what they have to offer and perhaps limit what your child is able to learn "from you?" (Already one point becomes obvious, if you're familiar with what homeschoolers, especially homeschooling highschoolers, do: it's not always about you yourself teaching a student; there are all kinds of ways to learn what you want to learn, and it's not always Mom struggling to remember grade 10 algebra.)

There's also some interesting discussion going on in the comments to the post.

For any of you who've just popped up here, we made the decision just over a year ago, after homeschooling our oldest since the beginning, to have her take some of her classes at the local high school. It wasn't because we disagreed with the point of that post, though (although I might have had a hard time trying to teach hairdressing); it became clear that our Apprentice's specific needs could best be met by making use of the school's resources. I think she has also found it somewhat--what's the word I want--reassuring?--affirming?--to know that she does indeed know her stuff in math, French and science; she's found the place where she fits into the system, and she's making the most of it (almost, I tend to think of it, as if she were attending a junior college for high school credit, as I know some hsers do in the U.S.).

By making that choice, we said no to some other options that the Apprentice would have had at home: more time to read books of her or our choosing, more time to participate in the daily stream of things at home, more time to help Mr. Fixit, more opportunities to take time off and go somewhere during school hours. However, she's gained a great deal as well, so we feel it was a worthwhile trade.

Will the other Squirrelings do the same thing? They are all so different that it's very hard to say. Of course the Apprentice's enthusiasm for what she's doing is influencing them; but if homeschooling high school looks like a better choice for them, that's what we'll do.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Because you never know when you might go cosmic bowling

Some people buy leftover candy after Halloween. Some people buy dressup clothes.

The Apprentice bought two cans of spray-on hair colour, Real Cheap. One makes your hair look really weird under blacklights. The other is just purple.

Now I guess she's ready in case Barbie phones her up.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A trifle scary

We do not forbid Halloween observance in the Treehouse. We don't make a huge honkin' deal out of it either, but we have some fun with the parts you can have fun with. Last night our menu included a Treehouse-designed Halloween Trifle, and the Squirrelings reverse-trick-or-treated the grandmotherly lady next door with some afterwards (because it made kind of a lot).

Halloween Trifle

1 9-inch chocolate cake (we had one in the freezer, half of a mix that we had baked up and saved for such times as this)--cut up in cubes

1 package of instant vanilla pudding, plus either orange or red-plus-yellow food colouring
Milk or powdered milk to make up the pudding

1 small can mandarin oranges (save the juice to add to the pudding)
1 real orange, peeled and sliced thin (not necessary but we had only one can of oranges; if I'd had two cans I probably would have left it out)
The grated peel of the real orange

1 cup of whipping cream, 3 tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp vanilla (or equivalent other topping)
Part of a chocolate bar, grated (or chocolate chips)
A few dried cranberries (just to add colour on top)

This is what we did:

Ponytails cut the cake into cubes and put half of them into a large glass bowl. (We do have a proper trifle bowl, but since this was family-sized rather than party-sized, we used a big glass salad bowl instead.)

Mama Squirrel used the drained mandarin orange juice plus another cup of milk to make up the vanilla pudding. Actually Crayons mixed it up. We added grated orange peel for flavour and some colouring to make it orange.

Ponytails added a layer of the cut-up orange and mandarin oranges (reserving about half a cupful for decoration), and then a layer of just-mixed pudding; then another layer each of cake and pudding. (I forget whether we had enough oranges for another layer).

Mama Squirrel put the whipping attachment on the food processor and beat up the cream, sugar and vanilla. She spread the whipped cream over the top of the trifle and let it all sit in the fridge while we did other things.

A little while later we gave the top a hefty sprinkling of grated chocolate (just a regular brand of dark chocolate bar) and arranged the leftover oranges and a few dried cranberries as artistically as we could. We had debated doing the top with oranges and pineapple rings to look like a jack-o-lantern face, but chocolate won out.

Also on the menu last night: Chicken chili, three-cheese dip with carrot and rutabaga sticks, and a package of garlic breadsticks. Mama Squirrel finally got to make a jack-o-lantern face, on the bowl of dip, with pumpkin seeds (the shelled green ones you can eat as is) and a celery stem. The dip was very good, too; you can find recipes for it including everything from bleu cheese to Velveeta. Mama Squirrel just improvised with what was in the fridge: some grated old Cheddar, Parmesan, and cottage cheese, with a good spoonful of white salad-dressing-stuff and a few drops of hot pepper sauce mixed in.

[Pictures are coming!]

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Spanish with Kim, Latin with Ann

Ann of Holy Experience is always inspirational, but she also posts many a helpful homeschooling post. Here's one: resources for getting started with Latin.

And Kim continues to post about the CM approach to teaching Spanish.

Eruditio domi est sapiens!

(A virtual coin marked 40 B.C. if you can figure that one out. I'm not sure the online translator gave me the best word order...wouldn't "Eruditio domi sapiens est" sound better?)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

More Google frivolity

Most unusual search terms today:

how much milk does a mama squirrel produce a day

Google sent them here.

The answer?

None, but I can produce a couple of pints of yogurt if I need to.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lasagna Without Recipes

I love lasagna and, like Garfield, I've hardly ever met one I don't like, with the exception of a Montreal version full of dried chili peppers, and one that was supposed to be "vegetarian" and had these huge hunks of half-raw vegetables and whole spinach leaves spilling out of it.

I love making lasagna too, but I hardly ever stick to a recipe. It's so easy to improvise this (especially with oven-bake lasagna noodles) that I'm always trying to convert people who tell me "I want to make lasagna but it's too expensive" or "my recipe calls for ground pork or something else I don't have or can't afford."

In the last twenty years or so I've made shrimp lasagna, overnight brunch lasagna [Update: our version], white mushroom lasagna, tofu lasagna, tofu-with-no-cheese lasagna (a very interesting Vegetarian Times recipe), chard lasagna (chard from our garden), and "regular" ground-beef lasagna. And we've made lasagna roll-ups, and stuffed shells which are almost the same thing. About six years ago I wrote an article for an online newsletter called "Iron Chef Lasagna." (I know when it was because I remember mashing some of it up for baby Crayons.) And tonight I made leftover-sausage lasagna.

So I can't give you a recipe but I can try listing some pointers; then you can use "what you have in your hand."

1. For a lasagna that serves about 4 to 6 people, you will need about 4 cups of canned pasta sauce; that's a 680 ml can plus a little bit. I pour the can of sauce into a 4-cup measure and then top it up with water. If you're using pre-cooked noodles (that is, you've cooked them soft in a pot of boiling water before using them), you might not need as much sauce. By the way, you can experiment by using regular lasagna noodles as oven-bake ones; whole wheat noodles (even if they don't say oven-bake) will usually cook just fine even if you don't pre-cook them. Saves a pot and a bit of time; just make sure you have enough sauce in the casserole to cook them well.

2. You will also need some version of a cottage-cheese/ricotta-cheese/tofu filling layer, which can incorporate fresh or frozen spinach or chard. (If I'm using fresh spinach or chard, I steam it and then drain (squish) it dry before chopping it into the filling.) I usually beat an egg into it and add some seasonings like salt, garlic powder or nutmeg (good with spinach). If it's too wet, add breadcrumbs. I often make this filling in the food processor, processing some dry bread first and then adding the rest. Tonight I had some leftover frozen chopped spinach (not cooked) and I just stirred that into some cottage cheese/egg/breadcrumbs, making sure it had enough crumbs in it to allow for extra moisture coming from the spinach.

3. You will probably want some grated cheese; mozzarella is good, of course, but you can use other kinds too. The amount is up to you; I've had some restaurant lasagna that seemed to be half cheese, but most home versions don't need that much.

4. And you can incorporate ground meat (browned), cooked sausage, canned shrimp, pepperoni, or other things like zucchini and mushrooms (just make sure they're going to get cooked and that they're cut small enough that nobody ends up with a huge hunk of vegetable). Add the meat to the sauce if you want, but I like making a separate layer of it. You can add in anything else you want too, like a layer of sliced tomatoes.

5. Try using a big lidded casserole instead of an open lasagna pan; you can take the lid off near the end if you want. Covering the casserole works especially well with oven-bake noodles, and the oven doesn't get as spattered. You can always put the casserole on a cookie sheet too.

6. Start and end your layers with sauce; otherwise the order is pretty much up to you. Something like this: sauce, noodles, stuffing, noodles, sauce, meat layer, cheese, noodles, sauce. Three or four layers of noodles are fine. You'll probably have to break them shorter if you're using a casserole instead of a flat lasagna pan. Leave lots of room between noodles so they can expand. And make sure there's enough sauce on top (even if you have to open another can of sauce), because otherwise you'll get that yucky dried-out layer of noodles on top.

7. Don't put cheese right on the top, it gets tough. Under the top layer of noodles is usually a good place for a layer of melted cheese. I like to sprinkle the whole thing with Parmesan when it comes out.

8. Bake the whole thing for about an hour at 350 degrees. Check the noodles gently with a fork to see if they're as soft as you want.

9. Let it sit about 10 minutes before you try to cut it. Leftover lasagna always cuts better (and tastes better the next day too, if you can reheat it without drying it out).

And that's it!

Another Child's Garden of Verses

Remember all our copies of A Child's Garden of Verses?

We picked up another one at the library sale last weekend. This one is also from the 1970's and it's illustrated by Erik Blegvad. But I can't find an online picture, so I guess we'll have to take our own. I can't even find a good website that shows a lot of Blegvad's illustrations (you have to search by "Eric" as well as "Erik" to find much). But he illustrated piles of picture books along with the Miss Bianca series and The Gammage Cup, so it's not hard to find something that shows his style.

This version is not all that exciting, maybe, but it's very nice, if that makes sense. It includes 24 of the poems, with pictures of children in Victorian clothes (lots of sailor hats). The one we like best is for "Pirate Story." It shows three children in a basket in the middle of a huge field of waving grass; it's perfect for "And waves are on the meadows like the waves there are at sea." Crayons is fascinated by their Jolly Roger flag attached to an upside-down broom in the basket; she wants to know where they got the flag, how they're keeping it upright (she figured out that one of the children is holding on to it), and how they attached the flag to the broomstick (and if they've permanently destroyed the broom: should I be worried about our cleaning tools now?)). The only issue I have with that picture is that the text is hard to read in the middle of all that grass; but the other pages in the book don't have the problem.

I still like some of our others better, but this one, even though it again doesn't have a large selection of the poems, is a good one to get started with.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

It's a book, book, book, book world

Yesterday was a day full of books.

It started with a quick visit to one of the city libraries while Crayons was having her dance lesson (the library's across the street, more or less)--we needed to take several books back anyway so we stopped in there. Mr. Fixit found a couple of Glenn Gould videos, The Apprentice found some things she wanted, and Mama Squirrel found a whole lot of booklets on countries of the Middle East on the discard shelf. And Paddington Goes to Town (also discarded).

So we got out of there, picked up Crayons, dropped off Ponytails for her lesson, made a quick run for groceries (the store's five minutes away--gee, you'd think we did this on purpose?), picked up Ponytails, and collapsed at home with some lunch. So far, minimum book damage (especially because there weren't any yard sales or rummage sales worth going to this weekend). Mama Squirrel planned to spend part of the afternoon psyching up and finishing the wording to a support group talk she was scheduled to do last night: on books, of course. And do all the coloured laundry that's been piling up (homeschoolers can theoretically get away with pajamas but public high schoolers can't).

Then Mr. Fixit got a bright idea. Mama Squirrel had mentioned that the BIG library downtown, the one we don't get to very often, was having its annual book sale, and he needed to drop some used motor oil at that place where you take used motor oil, and the big library is sort of on the way there, so he offered to take Mama Squirrel and anybody else who wanted to check out the library sale, drop us off and then pick us up an hour later on the return trip.

Note this was Mr. Fixit's idea. Mama Squirrel, as I have said, would have settled for a quiet afternoon of puttering and writing. But there were a couple of other errands that could get done as well if we went back out, and the laundry could wait a bit longer. And Mama Squirrel had missed this particular sale LAST year, and it was too good a chance to pass up--so with a promise not to get TOO many books, Ponytails and Mama Squirrel went hand in hand down to the very noisy library basement full of tables of books and people squirreling through boxes.

To make a long story very short, we filled up a carton (33 books, mostly children's non-fiction; you pay by the box) and hauled it home. Ponytails was a great helper and found some good stuff to put in. Mama Squirrel was very happy because she found three of Edwin Way Teale's nature seasons books (we already had two of the four, so there was just one overlap to pass on to somebody else); The Winged Watchman; Amelia Mixed the Mustard and several other books of funny kids' poetry; a Mary Poppins cookbook; two Charles G.D. Roberts animal books (this is the other one); Carl Sandburg's poems, his memoir Prairie Town Boy, and another book by him; and some other things I can't remember but will get to in another post. Oh yes--while we were there and waiting for Mr. Fixit, I did a quick run into the children's room (borrowing, not book sale) and borrowed Rumer Godden's Little Plum for Crayons and Jean Little's Look Through My Window for Ponytails--both books I hadn't been able to find at the other library. (Crayons just finished Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (by herself), and Little Plum is the sequel. Ponytails just finished Spring Begins in March (by herself), and although there isn't another book about Meg--which makes her sad--I thought she might like to try another Jean Little book. We do have a paperback copy of Look Through My Window, but it doesn't have Joan Sandin's illustrations.)

We brought the books home--it was almost suppertime by now--and deposited the box in the middle of the living room where the Squirrelings pulled out books and Ponytails played "bookstore" with a calculator. Mama Squirrel reheated Friday night's potato casserole, put in some frozen chicken wings to go along with it, and hid downstairs with the computer until the garlic timer went off. She also pulled a couple of dozen favourite books from the shelves to take as examples for the meeting: so by this time we had library-sale books all over the living room floor, and books from our own shelves all over the rec room--not to mention a big box of support group library books that other people had returned here and that had to go back to the meeting too.

We got all that in the car and Mr. Fixit dropped Mama Squirrel at the meeting, where in addition to giving the Book Adventures talk she also picked up several Hampstead House books from a friend (we did a joint order; some of these are for Christmas presents) and several new Scholastic books for the group library. So they all came back in the front door along with that basket of favourites. And there was Paddington still languishing where he'd been left as well, without even one marmalade sandwich.

It's a book, book, book, book...floor.

But that gives me something to do this afternoon besides laundry and enjoying the sunshine and appreciating the Lord's Day. No, not reading them--making the Treehouse habitable again, or at least not dangerous.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What I'm reading...trying to stay up to date

A couple of weeks ago I had a mom-at-the-library night and took out several newer-than-I-usually-read books that I'd had on a list of "I've read the review, now see if I can find it." I usually read a lot of older and/or kid-appropriate books, with the hope of eventually sharing them with the Squirrelings. This time I threw caution to the October winds and picked up some more recent "grown-up stuff." Some of it I like, and some I don't; some of it makes me want to go back to Sir Walter Scott.

So far I've finished The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, by Shyam Selvadurai. Neither are young-maiden reading--sorry. The Thirteenth Tale is a page-turner (and has a fun website too) but hinges on some decidedly unsavoury plot elements; Monsoon Sea has a cool setting (Sri Lanka in 1980; the references to Olivia Newton-John and Shaun Cassidy were bang-on) but overall it wasn't my cup of chai.

Still reading: Court Lady and Country Wife, the true story of the two Percy sisters and their times (the 1600's). [Update: why does every recent biography have to have the yuckiest stuff mixed in with the rest? Seems inevitable.]

Just started: Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, translated and with commentary by Anne Carson. (Assuming this will also be fairly adult in content, but so far I'm fascinated by the introduction to "Herakles.")

And not even dipped into yet: Margaret Avison's poetry collection Momentary Dark.

I have other things I should be doing besides reading...oh yes. But every so often I need a book refuel.

Some things you just can't do at school

Crayons and I sat down this morning to do "Grade One." That's what we call the half hour or so where I read her some of whatever's up in this week's Ambleside Online Year One. (The subjects we do with fifth-grader Ponytails don't count, in her mind, as Grade One.) One day it's Paddle-to-the-Sea, another day it's a fairy tale or Just-So Stories. Usually we read something from A Child's Garden of Verses and either a fable or one of the Fifty Famous Stories Retold as well, since they're pretty short.

Today we read the poem "The Land of Counterpane" and then we were about to start "Alexander and Bucephalus" from Fifty Famous Stories. But first I asked her to go over to the bookcase and pick out a book: Start in the middle. Now higher! To the right! Count five books over! What's the name of the book?

Stories of Alexander the Great, by Pierre Grimal. I love this book; the Apprentice and I read most of it the summer Crayons was born. "That's who this story is about," I said. "Alexander the Great."

"Okay, let's read the story out of this book," Crayons said.

"Well...okay." So I read it in Grimal's version (it's translated from French).

"So, my son, you think that you know more about horses than your father! Do you really think that you could break this one in?" he asked.

"This one, yes, of course," replied Alexander. "I am quite sure that I can deal with him far better than your squires."

"Well," replied Philip. "Why don't you try? If you do not succeed, what penalty do you deserve to pay for your presumption?"

"I will pay the price of the horse," replied Alexander.
And we read the ending:
"My son, it is time for you to find a kingdom worthy of your talents. I am afraid that Macedonia is too small for you."
Crayons started narrating it all back to me:

"Once upon a time...there was a king who was going to buy a horse for a famous price. [She meant fabulous.] Famous price now means that it's really cheap, but a famous price then meant it was really expensive."

Ponytails had wandered in after finishing her own assignment, and she kept saying, "I remember this story. This is a good story." (Pick up jaw from the floor.)

Crayons by this time had really gotten into her narration.

"Alexander said, 'I can ride this horse.' His father the king made a deal with him. If he couldn't ride the horse, he would have to pay the whole price of the horse himself."

"Do you want a horse?" Ponytails offered. "I'll be the horse."

Crayons considered the offer and then took Ponytails by the "bridle" and continued.

"He took the horse and turned him so he couldn't see his shadow. Then he got on and rode the horse. Then he galloped the horse."

(Ponytails: "Ooh! ow!" But she was a good sport.)

Crayons finished her narration, Ponytails got up from her knees, and we decided that one story was about enough for Grade One today.

Only in homeschool.

In whose best interest?

Mr. Person at TextSavvy posted some interesting stuff that you should read if you're unaware that there are people out there who would like to deny that you even have a right to homeschool. Not Mr. Person, of course.

And you might want to check out his math game Fact Xylophone too.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How you know it's fall

Northern Spy apples. (Time to make a pie that really schmecks.)

The temperature dropping four degrees in half an hour.

The sound of leaves blowing.

A pair of very cold little Beavers selling apples at the door of the Giant Tiger. (No, not the animals; the littlest Scouts.) We bought a couple out of sympathy.

Glenn Gould playing Brahms' Intermezzo in A major (opus 118 no. 2) (featured on CBC's Sound Advice today while we ate lunch)--this is bare-trees music for sure, as moody as the end of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Better math, better learning (John Mighton and JUMP Math)

Do you know what neuroplasticity is?

What do you think about recent discoveries about the way our epigenetic system helps us process information?

University of Toronto professor Dr. John Mighton slung some of this around last night to a roomful of teachers and interested others, in between demonstrating why we invert and multiply when dividing fractions, and giving some hints about teaching the nine times table. (Funny, I just reminded one of my own Squirrelings about that yesterday, the fact that the digits have to add up to nine. Teachers don't know this?) He also shared the (to me) appalling information that, according to his research of provincial math curricula across Canada, there is not one province that specifically, in its curriculum guidelines, says that children must be taught to solve questions like "what is 2/3 of 9."

What he had to say went well beyond pushing his math program or his books, although he was there specifically to promote his book The End of Ignorance. As I listened I kept mentally hearing quotes from Charlotte Mason overlapping with some of the scientific findings Dr. Mighton was describing along with his own experiences tutoring children. (You can read the appendix to his book here.)

The most recent discoveries about our brains show that they can develop new abilities, rewire themselves and learn material beyond what was previously expected. It's not so much that you're born a math genius or not. The evidence points to the fact that most kids can learn anything.

So why don't we all learn way more than we do?

Dr. Mighton mentioned a Scientific American article, "The Expert Mind," that points out that you can learn the rules of chess, and play chess as an amateur for the rest of your life, not ever getting any better than a beginner. (Yep, he's got my chess-playing style nailed.) On the other hand, players who are taught small groups of powerful moves and so on become very good, very fast. (Wouldn't the same thing also apply to those who are taught to bang out songs on the piano but never go beyond that?)

He also described being inspired by a volume of letters by Sylvia Plath, in which she explains how she learned to write: by imitating great writers. He pointed out that Plath developed one of the most original voices in 20th century American poetry, so it obviously was no handicap to begin with imitation.

The problem in schools today is that kids are often expected to do without some simple training in basics that they need if they're to seriously develop their abilities--specifically in math, but in the other areas as well. The issue of whole language vs. phonics is one example; spending too much time on discovery-based math learning (including overuse of manipulatives) without teaching the needed basic skills is another. (Remember Mr. Person's blog post, Hands-On, Brains-Off?) Just because kids can work with models or manipulatives doesn't mean they can generalize enough to answer questions that are given in another context; and conversely, just because they haven't been able to learn something by playing with pizza pieces or whatever doesn't mean they can't learn those concepts if they're presented with a more "guided discovery" approach. (Some people apparently read The Myth of Ability and get the idea that John Mighton completely eschews manipulatives; this isn't so, he does use chocolate bars and other concrete examples when it helps to demonstrate a point.)

Add to this the fact that our working memories aren't always that great; you might "discover" something during a lesson, but forget it later. And this is not limited to children; Dr. Mighton mentioned (I think it was in The Myth of Ability as well) that he was once impressed by some mathematical discovery, and then realized that he himself was the one who had published the article some time before.

We need to pay more attention to the ways that kids learn and behave in groups; this might not apply so much to homeschooling (and might be a reason we're homeschooling), but it's still important to understand. Actually most of us know it instinctively already: when you were in school, didn't you have a pretty good idea who the "smart ones" and the "dumb ones" were? And if you thought you were one of the "dumb ones," the odds are that you started to limit your own ability to learn because you thought you couldn't.

And in our most of us also's socially acceptable to laugh, wince and say "I just never could do math."

So we need to change that.

We need to find ways to increase students' confidence in themselves--no matter what their background, no matter how they've been labelled. [UPDATE: sorry if that sounded a bit too much like the I'm-so-special-boost-my-self-esteem thing. I'm talking only about helping students understand that they do genuinely have the ability to learn.] We need to avoid making the faulty assumption that certain parts of the population are born with less ability to learn than others. (Charlotte Mason's methods were used with children of all classes and backgrounds, blowing the Victorian idea of only-wealthy-children-can-learn to pieces.)

We need, according to Dr. Mighton, to have more confidence in teachers' reports of success with these methods. He talked specifically about the fact that his JUMP Math program has been accepted more in Western Canada than in Ontario, in spite of the fact that classroom teachers who have tried it have been more than satisfied with the results they've seen. Bureaucracy rules and change is slow.

We need to use "guided discovery" methods, especially in cases where manipulatives did not work well; where it would really make more sense to just teach what needs to be taught rather than expecting students to keep reinventing the wheel. We need to teach subjects such as mathematics in short, progressive steps, always "raising the bar" (a favourite Mighton phrase) just a little--or even just making the next step seem a little harder; never rushing ahead or adding in a lot of extra clutter. Dr. Mighton talked about one special-needs student who understood 1/4 + 1/4, and then 1/7 + 1/7, and then 1/36 + 1/36 and so on; but got agitated when asked to add 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4. However, after being given more opportunities to add things like 1/400 + 1/400 and 1/855 + 1/855 (my examples), he suddenly asked to go back and try 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 again; and this time he was successful.
"Here we may, I think, trace the solitary source of weakness in a surpassingly excellent manual. It is quite true that the fundamental truths of the science of number all rest on the evidence of sense but, having used eyes and fingers upon ten balls or twenty balls, upon ten nuts, or leaves, or sheep, or what not, the child has formed the association of a given number with objects, and is able to conceive of the association of various other numbers with objects. In fact, he begins to think in numbers and not in objects, that is, he begins mathematics. Therefore I incline to think that an elaborate system of staves, cubes, etc., instead of tens, hundreds, thousands, errs by embarrassing the child's mind with too much teaching, and by making the illustration occupy a more prominent place than the thing illustrated."--Charlotte Mason, Home Education
Is this just a return to rote learning? No. Even Charlotte Mason had her students practice times tables, and insisted that learning in subjects such as mathematics and grammar must be continuous--that each bit must build on the next. As Charlotte Mason said--look at the evidence. I have personally seen our 10-year-old's success with Mighton's JUMP Math fractions unit this fall, at a time when she particularly needed to rebuild confidence in her math ability.

If kids stumble through school not being able to read, to spell, to do basic math--then is it their fault for being stupid, or our fault for not teaching them properly, or for making them think they are incapable? (I don't think Dr. Mighton blames classroom teachers but rather the system in general.) If we have astonishing success with children who were thought unable to learn--how did that happen? (Some educators could learn a lot from homeschoolers.) If we discover, or rediscover, some method that works well for a wide range of students--can we put down our prejudices and simply use what works? Don't we want all children to be good readers and writers, to go beyond the minimum, to enjoy all learning including mathematics? Shouldn't we be doing whatever it takes to reach those goals?

You can decide.