Friday, August 27, 2010

To be alive, to be really alive (Frederick Buechner quote)

I found this in Buechner's memoir The Sacred Journey, where he remembers a hungry, cold, wet supper during his infantry training. Just before this he has been talking about St. Francis of Assisi and his Canticle to the Sun--"the madness of throwing away everything he ever had or ever hoped to have for love of the creation no less than of the creator...."
"With a lurch of the heart that is real to me still, I saw suddenly, almost as if from beyond time altogether, that not only was the turnip good, but the mud was good too, even the drizzle and cold were good, even the Army that I had dreaded for months. Sitting there in the Alabama winter with my mouth full of cold turnip and mud, I could see at least for a moment how if you ever took truly to heart the ultimate goodness and joy of things, even at their bleakest, the need to praise someone or something for it would be so great that you might even have to go out and speak of it to the birds of the air."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ambleside Online...isn't that too much British history?

If you want to consider this a commercial for Ambleside Online, that's fine...maybe it is. Come check it out if you like. But it's more just an unfolding of what we are doing for our history studies this year.
"We, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum, taking care only that all knowledge offered to him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas."--Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
A question that comes up a lot about the curriculum we use is that it seems--especially at first glance--to be first of all very British-centered, and second of all American (as in United States of America, white, European). What about world cultures? What about globalism? What about the Incas and the Songhai Empire and the Haida? What about Canadian Confederation? Why is the American history book written by an English author?

I have a couple of things to say in response. First of all, I have to be very honest: none of my Squirrelings (so far) just love history best and can't get enough of it; the family tendency is more towards science. I am saying that only so that I can't be accused of teaching the kids more history than what I consider the minimum; and they don't usually go searching for extra. Even The Apprentice did her one Ontario-required history credit in Grade Ten, and that was it--chemistry and mathematics and graphic design and English and hairstyling didn't leave much extra schedule room or homework time for more courses requiring a lot of reading. (Yes, you heard that right--Ontario secondary school students are only required to take ONE history course, and that's 20th-century Canadian history.)

BUT...even doing the minimum, and mostly using the suggested Ambleside Online books (with some substitutions for Canada and for what we can't find), our Squirrelings are still getting a very broad look at a lot of history. I would venture to say that it's as extensive as some of the other homeschooling programs out there--you just don't notice it right away. Now some of this is just going to be touched on during any school year--there is no way that we can go into everything in depth. But isn't that the same no matter what your method or curriculum? Nobody can teach or learn everything there is about everything.

Some examples...

Ponytails is doing what Ambleside calls Pre-Year-7. It's a combination of Year 6 books plus a few other books from previous years, plus a couple of others from higher years since she is really in Grade 8. One of the main books used in Year 6 and/or Pre-Year-7 is Genevieve Foster's Augustus Caesar's World. Roman history, right? More classical dead white guys?

Well, in addition to the life of Augustus Caesar, a summary of The Aeneid and a chapter on Roman gods, this book covers a fair amount of Old Testament history, Egyptian mythology, famous Greek and Roman philosophers, Mayan civilization, "Children of the Sun" (Incas), Lao-tzu, Confucius, Hindu beliefs, the story of Buddha, Zoroaster, and the life of Jesus. Not all in great detail, as I've said--but how much can you do in 325 pages?

Along with that book, Ponytails will be reading Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World, Volume 4: The Modern Age, the chapters covering from 1865 to probably just past World War II (depending on time). Just grabbing some topics at random from those chapters, she'll be reading about Japan's Meiji Restoration, the Dutch East Indies, the War of the Pacific (in South America), Ned Kelly (Australia), the colonization of Africa, Brazil's republic, and Abdulhamid the Red (events involving Turkey and Armenia). And we'll be adding in chapters from a book of Canadian history, because our perspective on the late 19th, early 20th century is a bit different from what you get in the U.S. history books, and because that's what Ontario school kids study in grade 8.

To me, that sounds like we're going to have more trouble sticking down all the loose pieces than we are getting out of any Anglo/European history rut. And that doesn't include what might come up through studies in geography (Kon Tiki, Heidi's Alp the Book of Marvels), Christian Studies, and other subjects.

Crayons, in Grade 4, will be basing her history readings on Genevieve Foster's George Washington's World. Oh--a year all about the War of Independence, right? Maybe we can sneak the United Empire Loyalists in there somewhere...

Well, yes. But the book also includes chapters on Catherine the Great, Captain Cook, Quianlong/Ch'ien Lung, the French Revolution, the Kalmucks, Hokusai, Fray Junipero, and ballooning with the Montgolfiers...and the Loyalists are in there on page 174. Not bad for a fourth-grade history book. Besides that, she'll be doing some Bible Geography and Archaeology, learning about Pompeii (in Fabre's Story Book of Science, and supplemented with an illustrated book we have), reading about Christians who made an impact on several different countries (Hero Tales), and hearing about some important periods in British history (Noel Streatfeild's The Fearless Treasure). Oh, and reading stories from classical mythology (Bulfinch's Age of Fable) and from Native Canadian traditions (Canadian Children's Treasury). (Note: only Foster's book and Age of Fable are specifically included in AO's Year 4. The others are our own choices, but they are similar to books used in AO years.)

Again, that's almost too much, too wide--not too little, too narrow. If we can fit even two-thirds of that in and have each girl remember maybe half of that two-thirds--that may still be better than what some public-schooled children will take away from social studies this year. There's a reason we've stuck with AO all these years, even when we've had to adapt it a little...well, there's more than one reason, but the one I'm thinking of is this: we have a big long paper timeline, the Timechart History of the World. When it's sitting on my desk (it's too tall for the bookshelf), it kind of blends into the wall and you don't notice it much. But when you really want to look at it, you have to fold it out--and it goes all the way across the room--and that's just the last six thousand years or so that it covers. And then you start looking at the timelines, seeing the connections, seeing the empires come and go, seeing the little thumbnail drawings of people; and you not only start to get a sense of how big history is, but how interconnected we all are. It's a bit tricky too to get it all folded back up again.

Ambleside Online is a bit like that--you have to unfold it to see what's in there, but once you do, you get kind of immersed and start to make connections. Even if you're not a born history student.
"The days have gone by when the education befitting either a gentleman or an artisan was our aim. Now we must deal with a child of man, who has a natural desire to know the history of his race and of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now; the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry, or, as poetry rendered in the plastic forms of art: as a child of God, whose supreme desire and glory it is to know about and to know his almighty Father: as a person of many parts and passions who must know how to use, care for, and discipline himself, body, mind and soul: as a person of many relationships,––to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognise and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know.

"It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; wide, but we may not say it is impossible nor may we pick and choose and educate him in this direction but not in that. We may not even make choice between science and the 'humanities.' Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him. Shelley offers us the key to education when he speaks of "understanding that grows bright gazing on many truths.""--Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
This post is linked from the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Frugal Homeschooling: Is there a homeschool store in your cupboard?

Last spring I made a list, not of every book in the house, but of what we had in the way of homeschool resources. I set it up in the same way as my favourite homeschool catalogue, so that I could "shop" from it. I didn't include library books, but I did include downloaded e-texts and software.

A homeschool catalogue usually starts by listing how-to-homeschool books and parent resources. My list started like this:

General Books

Debra Bell—Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling
Ruth Beechick books—primary, grades 4-8
Books Children Love, other books of books
Homeschool Your Child For Free
Classical Curriculum (Berquist)
Charlotte Mason Companion
CM Home Education series
The Blackboard Book, by Eleanor Watts (e-text)
Free printables and websites, 2010 edition (e-text)

Next section in a typical Christian homeschool catalogue: Bible study resources. Again I just made a list that started like this:

Bible Study

Bibles—several translations
What the Bible is All About for Young Explorers
Old Testament 2-year Survey Class, by Meredith Curtis (e-text)
The Holy Land in the Time of Jesus
Everyday Life in Bible Times (NG book)
Bible for Today, 3 vols.
Barclay’s Gospel commentaries
Desiring God / Future Grace

And so on through Spelling Skills, Handwriting, Grammar, Math, History, Science, Music.

All of this counting and listing had a couple of purposes. One was just a general figuring out of what we had--a chance to count our blessings, if you like, and to realize how much we really didn't need to buy, how much was already right there for us to use. The other reason was to take that information and "shop" with it. From this "homeschool store," what would I buy to use for math this fall with Crayons? What resources could I combine to put together a French program? And was there something really lacking, that I couldn't figure out a way around?

Most of what we plan to use this year came from our own "store." We got planners for about a dollar apiece. We did end up buying new Key to Algebra workbooks for eighth-grader Ponytails, because that made the most sense. Later in the year I'll download the next Math Mammoth level for fourth-grader Crayons. I also bought John Hudson Tiner's Exploring the World of Mathematics from a friend who was done with it, and a set of Calculadder 2, although I'm having second thoughts about using it this year...that's something I need to talk over with the Squirrelings.

I bought a printed-out copy of Write with the Best Volume 2, although I do have my own copy of the file, to save myself the trouble and paper of having to reprint it. (You have to print out the whole book with that one--all or nothing.) And there have been a few other things that popped up along the way, mostly secondhand--like The Canadian Children's Treasury and Science on a Shoestring. Very recently someone on the Canadian used-curriculum exchange list posted a few items for sale, including some historical colouring books that fit with Crayons' history, and a couple of other things, so I have my order in for those. (I try to sell a few books here and there myself to even things out.)

Some printer paper, and I guess we're set.

To sum up: homeschooling is not totally free, even when you shop mostly from the cupboard...but it does help. You could say that I should figure in some amortized cost for books that I had bought previously and used for one or two other people. You could also say that I should include things like printer ink (some people do), staples, any books I haven't bought but might, any lessons or outings that we haven't registered for or attended but might, or even Teacher Appreciation Presents.

Hey, everybody's got a wish list.

This post is linked from the Festival of Frugality.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Let's make muffins

The heat level went down enough yesterday that we decided to make some of Chef Earl's Muffins. Chef Earl is Earl Johnson, who was the subject of a favourite Canadian Living article which also featured Potage Paysanne, a soup we try to make at least once a year just because it's so much better than the ingredients make it sound (turnip, leeks, parsnips--shudder). The story of how he won over the high school students in Winnipeg also made it into Reader's Digest.

His muffin recipes are a bit fancier and sweeter than my usual throw-it-in-the-bowl formula, but once in awhile--like the soup--they're fun to make. The recipes for Streusel Apple Raisin Muffins and Black Bottom Muffins made 24 large muffins and 24 half-size muffins, respectively. I found it was just as easy to get all the dry ingredients mixed for both (put the 2 cups flour for one in one large bowl, then the 1 1/2 cups flour for the other in another bowl, and so on), mix up the wet ingredients for both, and then finish putting both recipes together and bake them at the same time. If you have an extra willing pair of hands around, it helps too. (Ponytails put the Streusel muffins together.)

Note on the Black Bottom Muffins: they call for cream cheese, but I've substituted both sour cream and drained (thick) plain yogurt, and both work fine. They do tend to get sticky if they sit around, so you would probably want to keep them refrigerated or frozen.

Especially if it's the middle of August.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What's for supper? Sausage pasta with cherry tomatoes

This is Mama Squirrel's lighter version of a recipe that Canadian Living ran last November and that we adapted as well. I guess you'd call this the summer edition...small fresh chard leaves instead of big hoary late-fall ones...tiny fresh tomatoes instead of diced...and done in a skillet instead of baked.

Sausage Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes


Two or three mild Italian sausages, uncooked, sliced (although you could use leftover cooked ones)
Several fresh mushrooms, sliced thin
A bowlful of very sweet, fresh cherry tomatoes
Half a can of no-salt chickpeas, drained and rinsed
A small bowlful of baby chard leaves, with the accompanying earwig discarded, rolled up and sliced thinly (EWW correction: discard the earwig, slice the chard!)
Cooked fusilli or other spiral pasta, enough to feed about four people
Some grated mozzarella or Parmesan don't need too much

In a nonstick skillet, start cooking the sliced sausage; cook until all the pink is gone. Add cherry tomatoes and sliced mushrooms; cook for several minutes and drain off excess fat/liquid. Add chickpeas and continue cooking until everything is pretty much done the way you want; stir in pasta and chard, top with grated cheese, and let it all heat through for a few minutes. If you turn the heat down or off, it can sit for a few minutes without complaining too much.

You will notice that this is not a very tomatoey dish. If you insist on more tomatoes, you could add part of a can of sauce.

You will also notice that there isn't any extra seasoning added; this is because the sausage we get is already pretty flavourful. Otherwise I would have added some pepper.

(What's for dessert?)

When it's better the second day (dessert)

We had some of last night's steamed pudding left--mostly a thick fruit mixture (raspberries, rhubarb, peaches) and just a bit of the cake part.

This is what I did with it: in five fancy dessert glasses, I layered plain yogurt, leftover pudding (making sure each serving had a bit of cake), a smaller blob of yogurt, and then a spoonful of grated chocolate. (Mr. Fixit buys bittersweet chocolate bars at the downtown grocery store where they don't cost much.)

Better than your average leftovers.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's for supper? (Mama Squirrel muses on sweet potatoes)

The Deputy Headmistress noted today that the subtitle of Martha Rose Shulman's 1982 cookbook Fast Vegetarian Feasts says something more about today's fast-fast-fast culture than was intended at the time: "Delicious, Healthful Meals in Under 45 Minutes!"

Wow, have things changed that much? I spent an hour puttering on tonight's supper and didn't think a lot about it, especially because I was doing other things as well while things cooked...but then we wash dishes by hand here too. To me that's just how long dinners take, unless you're having scrambled eggs or it's already in the slow cooker. I mean, even waiting for a pizza to come takes forty minutes.

What was tonight's supper? Kind of a smorgasbord, more food than we needed but some of it needed to be cooked and used up, so I cooked it.

Baked salmon fillets (the only thing that went in the oven, and that was the toaster oven)
Leftover sweet and sour turkey meatballs
Sliced sweet potatoes cooked on the stove top and with some chard leaves added at the end
The last bit of yesterday's bread (first time I've used the bread machine in awhile)
Fresh cherry tomatoes and cucumbers
"Steamed Pudding," made with frozen raspberries, fresh rhubarb, and a couple of peaches (it's not really steamed like Christmas pudding--you heat the fruit in a pot and then drop a pancake-like mixture on top, cover the pot and simmer for twenty minutes)

We like to eat, okay? And if it takes awhile--that's fine too. That's what at-home time's about. How hard is it to peel a couple of sweet potatoes, slice them and put them in a pot? It's not like you have to flambe them. How hard is it to slice a cucumber and arrange it on a plate around a bowlful of baby tomatoes? (Total time about two minutes?) How hard is it to put some fruit in a pot, mix about five batter ingredients, plop them on top, and then let the magic of electricity do its thing?

I don't think it's just that people are lazy these days, that cooking has become a thing that comes out of a package. I think it's partly that cooking is presented as too hard by people who are too snobby, who make you worry too much about what goes in the pot with the sweet potatoes, exactly how you're supposed to cut them, exactly how done is done and all that, especially if your mother never showed you how to cook sweet potatoes. People cooked food before they had critics to tell them they were doing it wrong. Unless you burn them black because you forget to add any liquid, you cannot do it wrong, as long as they're the way you like to eat them when they're done. If you like mushy sweet potatoes (I don't), cook them to mush. If you like them cut very thin, cut them very thin. You're the boss of how you want to cook your food--now isn't that more empowering than opening a jar?

Just saying.

A Christmas post? Already?

Well, I was re-reading a book we have called The Perfect Basket. (We have an earlier edition.) It's actually a combination of two earlier books, according to an Amazon review: food mixes for gift giving, and general suggestions for things to put in gift baskets. I like the mix ideas better than the basket ideas, because when you start putting things in a basket (or a bucket or a mixing bowl) the cost can add up very fast. Even a Christmas stocking full of dollar-store things will quickly run well over a few dollars, unless it's a very small stocking.

But that made me think of one of the Deputy Headmistress's Frugal Hacks posts from last Christmas, about thrift shopping/grocery shopping for presents that sort of go together--for instance, a shark book and a shark toy, or a nutmeg grater with some nutmegs. (If you remember, we actually did find a real nutmeg jar and thought of that suggestion.)

And that gave me a couple of ideas to expand on...because it's the middle of summer, prime yard-saling season here, and because I've passed over a few things lately that could, if I had been feeling really creative, have been turned into gifts. I'm still a bit iffy on how much anybody would have wanted the ceramic squirrel-on-a-walnut, even if I had filled the walnut with, say, walnuts...but you never know.

Idea Number One: Focus on basket themes that, besides being appropriate for at least one someone in your life, lend themselves to frugality. For instance, a basket based on someone's favourite decade. Where else are you going to find REAL 1980's stuff except at a yard sale? (Or maybe in your own closet or basement, and then it's free.) Think movies, fad items, magazines, music, toys, gadgets, cookbooks, kitchen items--whatever suits the person. There are stores and online places where you can find favourite candies from each decade, but that might run your costs up. Our nearby bulk store carries some retro candies that don't cost much. Hampstead House (book overstocks in Toronto) is offering a reproduction 1956 guide to entertaining that would be a fun gift along with retro things, but you could probably find an original book like that at a grandma's garage sale.

Idea Number Two: Since it sometimes takes awhile to find enough thrift-shopped/yard-saled basket-worthy things, decide on one or two themes and start collecting up anything that fits. Not that many people are probably into sharks, so choose themes like apples, strawberries, teddy bears, cats, horses and so on. Once you've narrowed your focus, you'll probably start noticing things at sales (or on sale, or in your cupboard) that fit right in and that you would have ignored before. You don't need to get carried away, just a few co-ordinating things can make a basket-type gift special.

Idea Number Three: Go for either the severely practical or the dangerously silly. On the practical side: give a basket of emergency supplies, like candles, matches, flashlight, batteries, vitamins, first aid kit. Or things that are needed in quantity, like postage stamps and bus tickets. Or make a tightwad gift pack for a frugal friend or wanna-be: sandwich bags or foil (for washing and rewashing), calculator, DIY tools, piggy bank, used copy of The Tightwad Gazette, coupon organizer, rubber spatula.

Dangerously silly? Also mostly for those who don't think there's anything wrong with giving or receiving used items: give a nice selection of weird,wonderful and inexpensive. Dancing hamsters come to mind.

Idea Number Four: Use some of the typical basket/filling ideas, but concentrate on items that you have on hand or that you come across at thrift shops, or maybe on sale at the grocery store. How many of these would you skip over at the thrift store?: small rolling pin, cookie cutters, any kind of containers that might hold cookies or other baking, doilies, cutting board, cloth napkins, butter knives (to give with a teacup, scone mix etc.), trays, jars, clear canisters, Bundt pan (to hold homemade cake mix), funny or pretty mugs (to hold candy canes and cocoa mix), knitting needles (I don't see crochet hooks as often, not sure why), a cassette of fiddle music (maybe to go in a Little House basket?), seed sprouter (for a health food basket)...endless possiblities.

Idea Number Five: Get inspired by a book. The last Hampstead House catalogue had a lot of possibilities that could go well with gift items, and you can often find similar titles at thrift shops. Examples: Heart-Friendly Cooking. Chocolate Recipes. Green Clean. Guide to Walking in Canada. Shameless Shortcuts (a book of household hints). Porridge. Taking Tea. And so on.

Idea Number Six: Go totally original, but (repeat this carefully) do not go overboard if your aim is to keep the gift under a certain dollar amount. The following ideas could be made either inexpensively or VERY expensively, so keep it in mind: A new-homeschooler basket with a timer, pens, paper, Nerf ball, anti-stress vitamins, how-to-homeschool book, math manipulatives, magnifying glass, favourite readaloud, Sharpies, etc. A Little House in the Big Woods/Little House on the Prairie basket with a sunbonnet, small rag doll, candy sticks, jar of plum jam, string of beads, homemade pancake mix, Little House craft or cookbook or paperdolls, maybe some Lincoln Logs. An "I love my 18-inch doll" pajama party set with handmade matching pajamas or nighties and/or slippers for girl and doll, matching pillowcases (handmade, they're easy), popcorn, cocoa mix, marshmallows.

And of course you can go with more usual basket themes, like sewing or crocheting supplies, but again, be careful--these days even spools of thread cost more than you'd think. Maybe pick out one more expensive and wanted item, and fill in with scavenged and inexpensive things, like (thrift-shopped) pattern magazines.

Good hunting.

Why there is more to life (and math) than long division (thought for the day)

"In our age of calculators and computers, we must question how much time even good students of arithmetic should spend working pages of problems of ever-increasing size....Curriculum improvements come slowly in the school world. But homeschoolers have an advantage. With just a decision of one or two people, you can make any changes you want. Will you skip the pages with three- and four-place divisors and let your children, instead, learn some BASIC computer programming? The choice is up to you."--Ruth Beechick, You CAN Teach Your Child Successfully (1984)

P.S. In case you're too young to know this, BASIC here refers to the programming language, not the fact that it was basic.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Saturday's yard saling and thrift shopping and just not paying too much overall

We are trying hard to stick to useful stuff, not just the giant ceramic walnut with a squirrel on top that I saw at a yard sale yesterday morning and left right where it was. (Kind of like this one.) (Now if I had seen this one instead, I might not have been able to leave it there.)

What did we bring home?

The Bible Book of Lists, by Joy MacKenzie and Shirley Bledsoe--looks very useful

The Story of the Church, by Walter Russell Bowie

The Sacred Journey: a memoir of early days, by Frederick Buechner

Little Women Living Classics kit--not a book, a "treasure chest" with embroidery stuff, a card game, map of Civil War battles and so on--just a couple of the paper dolls and a booklet of game instructions are missing (OK, that IS practical. Not that things are missing, but that there's a brand-new mini-embroidery set in there plus all the historical stuff.)

See Through History: Ancient Rome, by Simon James (an illustrated book with transparencies)

A big boxful of ribbon for $2

Some knit fabric that Ponytails bought--how cool is that? (It's something she wanted.)

About $50 worth of groceries from Giant Tiger--enough to hold us for awhile

A pair of lace-up runners for Crayons, also from Giant Tiger

Graph paper and page protectors for The Apprentice's fall term, also from Giant Tiger

And The Apprentice brought me home three free Family Circle magazines that the hair salon was cleaning out. I appreciated that very much.