Monday, May 25, 2009

First Lessons in Nature Study

Jeannette Tulis posts on the Childlight USA blog. What does the Charlotte Mason method of nature study really look like?

Crayons' Snowflakes

Crayons finished her gingham embroidery cloth last Friday.

What to do at a horse party

There are some pretty terrific online lists of horsey party activities. We checked out Pony Party Ideas, the "Horse Power Party Planning Guide," and Birthday Parties for Kids. Mama Squirrel could have put an entire list together of really fun things to do outside--relay races, tag games and those sorts of things. If Crayons had been a little bit younger, she probably would have done exactly that.

However, this year we simplified the list. Counting on a sunny day, we planned for a sack race and horseshoes in the back yard, and a Bingo game afterwards.

And yes, it was sunny and quite hot for May.

The sack race was kind of lukewarm--some of the girls were still feeling shy and didn't feel too excited about into putting their feet into garbage bags. The horseshoes game was a bit more successful--Mr. Fixit showed the girls how to play and a few of them even made "ringers."

However, the next time Mama Squirrel looked out the back window, the game was over, and there were girls all over the swing set, girls hula-hooping, girls playing with the toy lawn mower, and one girl playing badminton with Mr. Fixit. You take one warm day in Ontario, one big back yard, and a couple of swings, and kids will more or less make their own party.

We finally got everybody back inside for Bingo. Mama Squirrel had taken our old Bingo cards--they're really old, worthy of the DHM's Rattery stash--and covered the BINGO part with paper loops (stapled together, slid over the cards) that said HORSE instead. So--under the H, 1; under the O, 16. Everybody got a chance to make a HORSE--after you won once, you had to stop playing. Each winner got to pick a little plastic horse.

And they opened presents, and ate, and then--everybody wanted to go back outside! Some of them stayed outside for the rest of the party, and the rest came back in to play with the gifts--Anna Sophia's new clothes were very much appreciated, thank you (you know who you are).

So while Mama Squirrel would have loved to try a few more of the organized ideas, and might have if the girls had seemed to be running out of things to do--she admits that sometimes it's better to let your guests just have fun than make them play Musical Saddles.

Horse parties--enough of this galloping around

"I want a horse party"--sounds simple, right?

A lot of the horse-and-pony-party websites assume that you must have unlimited funds and/or local stores brimming with cowboy toys. Some peoples' descriptions of their children's parties sound more like the Calgary Stampede. We wanted to have fun, but maybe not on that scale. Still, how hard could it be to come up with a few horse-themed decorations or toys?

Mama Squirrel can now understand why people end up buying the whole thing online.

We went to a party-ware store that had one mylar horse balloon--and that was it, the rest of the store seemed to be all 40th-birthday parties and adult Halloween costumes.

We went to the bulk store and couldn't find anything neat or original (which turned out to be a good thing since one of the guests has peanut allergies and can't have anything from the bulk store). Jellybeans and pretzels would have been fine, but we were hoping for something sort of cool, like gummy horseshoes.

We went to the "bargain store"--like the dollar store but they charge more. They had no party stuff at all. And very few horses.

We went to the Big Z department store, looked in the toy aisle and found nothing except big toy sets. We did pick up some striped paper plates and napkins, and two packages of dried-fruit snacks.

We went to the Craft Store. All the horse stickers were in the scrapbooking section and priced accordingly. We settled for plastic harmonicas, two packs of balloons, and a Toob of tiny horses (which ended up as game prizes). Mama Squirrel also bought a big ball of brown yarn--which became horses. (Note on the harmonicas: we would probably have been better off with the kazoos they sold, since those are supposed to sound kind of bad anyway.)

(We already had stuffing and scraps of other yarn for manes and saddles. Mama Squirrel would point out that the pattern, while quite good, has a couple of quirks. There's no mention of tails, and there's also no mention of stuffing the legs--but since we didn't want collapsed horses, we thought it must have been just an omission. Also, if you'll notice, all those seven horses were made by the same person using the same pattern--and some of them are quite different, depending on how firm they are stuffed and on the angle that the head is sewn on. No right or wrong, just pointing out how much Results Can Vary.)

We thought we had some clear gift bags, but remembered that we used them up at Christmas. Tin pails would have been fun, but not at Craft Store prices. So Crayons potato-printed paper lunch bags (we made a horseshoe and a star print), and we filled them with the fruit snacks, harmonicas, and crocheted horses. It might have been nice to have a few other candies or smaller things, but as Mama Squirrel has already pointed out, such things were not exactly plentiful (and we didn't think we could handle any more stores).

For decorations, we blew up the balloons, put out as many horse toys and books as we could find, and sidewalk-painted horseshoes coming up to the front door. (Ponytails added a welcome message with chalk.)

And Crayons took charge of the front-door table.

Horsey Birthday Food

Photos from Crayons' party:

The tablecloths were deep pink sheets (not white, but the photo makes them look washed out). (We went looking for a plastic tablecloth, but the dollar store was closed. So you use what you have.)

Did we have a horse's head cake or other fancy creation? We did not--no offense to those who do take the trouble. We just went for green icing and sprinkles. There was one large cupcake at each place, with a candle to blow out; and a plateful of mini-sized ones for seconds.

There was also a star-shaped container of raw vegetables--horse treats. (The star-shaped dish came at Christmas with cookies inside it.) And a plastic pailful of apples.

I made Rice Krispie squares for "hay bales" and stacked them around a barn-and-animals toy (Crayons' birthday gift a few years ago). (The mere idea of Mama Squirrel making RK squares makes certain parties laugh uproariously, as she has made several less-than-successful attempts in the past. But these turned out fine.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rhubarb, what to do with it

We've gotten quite a few Google hits this week for things to do with rhubarb, since we did post about it a few times over the past couple of springs.

You can make rhubarb pie.

You can make upside-down rhubarb muffins. There's an easier muffin recipe in Edna Staebler's last cookbook (she has a whole chapter of rhubarb recipes), and there's Coffeemamma's sour cream version.

You can make rhubarb jam.

You can make all kinds of fancy rhubarb things.

You can break off a piece, sprinkle salt on it, and eat it raw. Not my thing really, but some people like it.

But short of that, what's the easiest thing to do with rhubarb, especially if you're not a baker and/or you don't have time? Put it (the chopped-up stems--you do know not to eat the leaves, right?) in your microwave and cook it. The way we did it two years ago, or the even easier way I cooked it last night: a big glass measuring cup about half full of chopped rhubarb, a bit of brown sugar, and two spoonfuls of water which were entirely unnecessary. I keep having to remind myself that Rhubarb Makes Its Own Juice. I also added two spoonfuls of last summer's strawberry jam, and a grated apple, but those things are also unnecessary (nice, but just extras). Repeat after me: chop rhubarb, add a LITTLE sweetener, cover, and microwave until it's soft enough to eat. Take it out and stir it if you're not sure, and put it back in until it's done the way you like it.

No crust, no batter, no gluten, no dairy, no salt. Eat it over ice cream / frozen alternative, or just plain.

Speed Baking: We Did It!

At 3:34:11 this afternoon I logged into the computer.

I quickly checked the mail and then read Meredith's post "Quick, Cheap Cookie Tray." Short version: she needed something nice--ASAP. "With basic ingredients, I can pull together these cocoa powder brownies and sugar cookies with 15 minutes of measuring and mixing," Meredith says.

Could those recipes for brownies and sugar cookies really be that speedy?

Could I pull something together that fast if I had to?

Start your engines.

I think I did the baking in the opposite order to Meredith's--I did the brownies first and then the sugar cookies (they bake at two different temperatures), but it still worked out fine. I didn't have any lemons or lemon peel for the cookies, so I used a quarter teaspoon of lemon extract.

For the fruit I used two sliced pears and a cantaloupe.

I don't know exactly what time I started baking after printing out the recipes, but let's say 3:40 p.m.

By 4:40 p.m., I had the whole thing put together and the bowls and spoons washed, plus dinner well on the way. It would have been 4:30, but I had to find the melon baller in the basement pantry, answer the phone, and grate the burned bottoms off one pan of cookies--I got distracted for a minute right after the buzzer went. (Sounds horrible, and Amy Dacyczyn got hissed when she did it on national television, but it really truly works and you really truly wouldn't know the difference if you do it gently and use the very small holes on the grater.)

An hour's work, a nice dessert. Thanks, Meredith! I'll remember this next time it's my turn to stare blankly and say, "Oh--I did promise, didn't I?!"

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rummage Sales

Last week's rummage saling: a box of oil pastels, a cassette recorder, a sweater (for Mama Squirrel), a skort (it turned out not to suit Ponytails, but we'll put it aside for Crayons), drawer organizers, a cap, and several books. Plus a cloth shopping bag, since this was a fill-up-a-bag sale and for an extra fifty cents you got to keep the bag.

Today was too rainy for much outdoor yard-saling (it's off and on, keeps pouring rain and then the sun comes out for awhile), but there were some church sales. We came home with two Beanie Boppers (Crayons' treasures), an embroidery set (mostly for the floss, needle and any other useful parts), a plastic tool box, two sets of punch-out wood dollhouse furniture, paper doilies, a "Country Flowers of a Victorian Lady" greeting-card keeper, and several books including Lasagna Gardening. Mr. Fixit found some records including a never-been-opened copy of The Mennonite Piano Concerto.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Why I won't unschool

Joanne Rendell published an "Education" piece in the May 3rd Toronto Star, called "Why I Won't Send My Son to School." A note at the end states that a longer version of the piece appears on, and yes, it does.

The comments on the article are, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, largely negative. I find it surprising because of the large number of unschoolers who would probably post some support for Rendell after reading the article. Unsurprising because of the general public's somewhat mistrusting take on homeschooling in general, much less the kind of unschooling that Rendell describes.

Now given that this is still a very young child, I have no issue with most...well, some...of her "uncurriculum." Playing in the dirt with other kids--natural thing for a little boy to be doing. Going out to a bar with his mother and her partner late at night--not so much.

But I would never want to "unschool" my own children. To each his own, as one of the homeschoolers commenting on the article said. But I couldn't do it, and I take issue with some unschoolers' position (implied or explicit) that unschooling is the Great Step Beyond Regular Homeschooling that the rest of us haven't been savvy enough to catch onto. Much like the idea that Regular Vegetarians aren't vegetarian enough for vegans and all the rest of the very-specific-dieters.

Yeah, I've read John Holt. In fact, I pretty much started with his books. I can understand why he got frustrated with teaching and schools. I survived all the fads and experiments and weaknesses of 1970's public elementary schools. Old books, new books, no books, desks in rows, classrooms without walls, headphone listening centers, smelly tempera paints, the first VCRs, repeating what you already knew, kids getting the belt, activity cards, kids getting their mouths washed out with soap...tell me why schools shouldn't work and I probably lived through it.

I'm a fairly flexible homeschool teacher myself, especially now that I only have one at home full time. We spent way longer than I'd planned today working on a math activity that Crayons especially enjoyed. And we'll catch up on all my great plans, another day.

But if I unschooled...or, if you prefer, I let my children self-direct their own education, picking and choosing all or most of what they learned and when...I'd miss the small coincidences like finding a book about our term's artist at Winners. I'd miss the satisfaction that comes when someone's given me their best exam narration ever.

They'd miss out on Hidden Rods,Hidden Numbers, unless I left it where they would sprain an ankle falling over it. It's not the kind of book that screams "pick me up and use me." No cute graphics, just a tiny-print introduction and three series of student-created Cuisenaire rod logic puzzles. Crayons and I are going to be working through a couple of them every day until the end of the school year.

They'd miss out on some of the great but ugly books we have. Our copy of Cue for Treason looks like the old one shown here on Amazon. What kid would pick that up without major coercion? But it's a great adventure story--a bit too violent maybe for Crayons, yet, but sooner or later.

I doubt they'd find their way to Plutarch without some help, or perhaps even find their way out of the kids' fiction section at all. I loved to read when I was young, but when I was Allowed The Adult Card in around the eighth grade, I had absolutely no idea where to start, what to read, how to read it. The first two books I brought home turned out to be an adult-content education in themselves although probably not what my parents would have expected.

How shall we then expect our children to find their way through what's out there without some nudging and even some direct "Here, I want you to read this," or even better, "Here, let's read this together?" I have no doubt that many unschoolers say those same things and still consider themselves unschoolers. Maybe the only difference is that I write it down six months ahead of time. Maybe.

I might not ever get to let my kids know that they should be "Still achieving, still pursuing, / Learn[ing] to labor and to wait." I have no doubt that many unschoolers read those lines too, and interpret them in their own ways. Maybe the only difference is that I have no philosophical problem with helping the labour along a bit.


Crayons' Grade Two: Gingham Embroidery

Crayons likes to make craft projects on her own, and sometimes even sews something for her dolls all on her own--usually with a big needle and yarn, and usually something that's done the same day. But recently we've been trying something more longwinded--the gingham-embroidery tea cloth from Hope Chest Legacy's Lucie's Snowflakes. (The gingham embroidery link there shows both the snowflake and lace stitches; Lucie's project uses only the snowflakes and then a hemming stitch around the edges.)

This was partly inspired by the fact that we had the book here (it was bought for our homeschool support group, and I was waiting to get it stickered and take it to the next meeting), and partly by the fact that we had bought a big piece of yellow gingham, with the right-size squares, at a rummage sale. Yellow may not be the preferred colour for a beginner to work with--I think red or blue might be easier to see--but Crayons has done really well with it so far.

The book is very much goof-proof. There are photos of EVERYTHING. It's the second book in the series, and we didn't do the running-stitch project from the first book, but that didn't seem to matter. There are one or two little discrepancies between the photos and the drawings, but nothing we couldn't figure out. (Specifically, how much space or how many squares you fold over for the hem.)

One slightly unrealistic thing about the story is that Lucie--sick in bed with a cold--manages to finish all the embroidery and hem one side of the cloth all in one day, while her grandmother reads to her. Lucie must have an incredible amount of perseverance, because Crayons has been working on this for quite a few days now (while Mama Squirrel reads) and she's still not even done the snowflakes. Just saying...

But overall I'm delighted with this approach to handwork, and I can't wait to be able to post a photo. UPDATE: here's the photo.

My favourite graph paper generator

Easy to print your own centimeter-sized graph paper. Great for using with Cuisenaire rods! Or for cutting up for this Family Math activity--thanks, Jimmie! (I don't think our "number line" is going to be that big, but I appreciate the warning.)

[Update: we decided to go with 1-inch squares for the number timeline, rather than 1 cm--easier to cut out and work with.]