October 28, 2009

The Art Bucket

I am not crafty.  Nor am I artistic.  Those genes all went to my siblings.  I got the hayfever gene.  Where is the justice?

But my seasonal allergies are not the topic of this post.  Instead we will talk about The Art Bucket.  Genetics, being the fickle thing it is, skipped me but hit my kids.  Hard.  They love crafts and creating and doing.  In order to facilitate that I created an art bucket.  Well, to be perfectly honest I created it mostly for that, but also because they kept taking my "teacher supplies" and when we'd go to do a science project or craft I wouldn't have what I needed.  But the first reason sounds nicer, doesn't it?

So, they have a large plastic container with the following items:

1.  Pipe cleaners (aka chenille stems) - these can be used for a bazillion things.  Right now they are using them to make Transformers.  A lot of Transformers.
2.  Pom-poms
3.  Googly eyes
4.  Scissors
5.  Tape
6.  Glue - both white and stick
7.  Felt
8.  Watercolors
9.  Pastels - both chalk and oils
10.  Sequins, jewels and other shiny things
11.  Beads of all shapes and sizes
12.  Popsicle/craft sticks
13.  Toothpicks
14.  Straws
15.  Construction paper
16.  Colored pencils, crayons and markers
17.  Yarn
18.  Craft foam, some sheets, some assorted beads
19.  Stickers - regular and foam

They have free access to this at all times.  The only rules being they have to put all the stuff away when they're done and they need to use a Messy Mat (a large plasticy mat to protect the table).  I have been amazed at the things they have created - bats, owls, adorable cards showing me with enormous googly eyes, robots and the list goes on.  If they run low on something they let me know and we restock.  We also keep our eyes open whenever we're shopping for cool things to add to the bucket.

Now my supplies are safe and they can create whenever the mood strikes instead of waiting for me to haul everything out of the closet.

Educational movies we love

I use videos in my home for several reasons.  First, one of my sons learns amazingly well by watching a video.  Second, some days I just need to catch up on laundry or people will be naked and a video teaches while I wash.  Third, I can't practically show them some of the things they can see on a video.  I have no jungle animals or historically recreated villages in my living room (darn it).  And fourth, they're fun.

I'm fairly selective about what they watch, however.  We don't even have TV.  Well, we have a TV but it's only hooked up to the DVD player.  These are the movies that pass muster in my home, and that they watch over and over and over again. In no particular order....

1.  The Leap Frog videos.  I especially love Letter Factory and Talking Words Factory.

2. Word World. A fun, simple way to learn how letters come together to make words.

3. Super Why. Who wouldn't love a super hero who teaches you to read? There are currently only two discs out now. Who do I talk to about that?

4. Between the Lions. Three out of my four kids adore these and will sit and watch them still at 9. My youngest, now 3, runs screaming from the room when we turn them on. One of our libraries had the whole set; it was heaven. I have not seen a library since so well stocked.

5. The Best of Beakman's World - My younger sister watched this when she was little. Oh, how things don't change.

6. Bill Nye the Science Guy, with a caveat. He does have some evolution in a few of his videos. We've really hammered this topic here so the boys don't get confused, but be aware that it is present. That being said, Bill does a fantastic job showing, and explaining, a variety of really cool science topics. My kids want to be him when they grow up.

7. Popular Mechanics for Kids - I love to watch these with the kids; they are funny and we learn a ton.

8. Liberty's Kids - we're studying American history right now so I bought this for them to watch 'whenever'. They've watched the whole series 5 or 6 times already FOR FUN. They are always telling me interesting things about what we are studying and saying, "I learned it on Liberty's Kids."

9. Magic School Bus - all four kids love these. Sometimes it gets a little heavy-handed with saving the world, but mostly it's just fun science.

10. Mathtacular - It's math. And it's spectacular. And yes, my kids pull it off the shelves to watch "just because it's funny and we learn a lot." We have the first 2 volumes which cover most of the basic elementary math concepts. There's a third I need to get still. The best price is at Sonlight.

11. Reading Rainbow. And yes, I sang the song while I typed it. They have so many neat episodes and such a wide variety. Make sure you watch all the bonus features too.

12. Meet the Sight Words. I bought one on a whim then went back for the others when my kids begged for more. They are basically animated flash cards but my two youngest love them. And now they can read those sight words. The 3-yr-old is thrilled to be able to recognize words in the books we read and I have to make sure I pause so he can read them all by himself.

I'm not a big fan of the Eyewitness movies. They work evolution into just about everything, like weather. Huh? And National Geographic for Kids has some good ones, but enough bad that I'm not entirely comfortable with them.

I don't have a problem with most things by Schlessinger Media. We especially enjoyed the Ancient Civilizations for Children series and what we've seen of the Science for Children series, we've liked. Libraries seem to carry a lot of their videos; I wish our current library did...

While I don't like the TV to babysit my children, it does have a place in our home and in our homeschool.  What educational movies do your kids love?

October 27, 2009

Homeschooling amid crisis

I have four boys.  Sometimes we have a crisis.  My husband is in the military.  We move a lot.  He deploys.  More crises.  I've been on bed rest with my last two pregnancies.  One of those boys came extra early and spent some time in NICU.  Crisis.  The flu.  Colds.  Broken bones.  Crises, crises, crises.

Life happens and sometimes school doesn't.  At first I would beat myself up and think I was the world's worst homeschooler.  I knew I was dooming my children to mediocrity.  The foundation I was supposed to be laying was a crumbling network of sand and pebbles.

But I was wrong.  Maybe my kids spent a little more time playing than they did 'hitting the books' but they developed strong friendships with each other and the older boys learned to take care of their younger brothers.  And they learned how to entertain themselves; I rarely hear "I'm bored" in my house.

I've spent much time filling my house with mind-challenging activities, with toys and manipulatives that teach, with engaging books and educational movies.  When crisis time hits we fall back to the basics - I read outloud a lot.  And we play.  Or they play while I pack/unpack, lay on the couch or mop up the puke.

When we're in crisis mode I try to have them do something math related, a worksheet, a lesson, a game, or maybe they just build something and we call it geometry.  I also try to have them write.  Having a copywork system already going definitely helps.

Other than reading aloud, I just (try to) relax and work our way through whatever chaos we are living through.

Here is a list of things I have loved having in my home.  They make me feel that play time is actually learning time.


2.  Lincoln Logs

3. Super Magz - magnets, only better because they're stronger.  You can build really tall, big things and they won't collapse.  I've tested this theory with over 500 magnets.

4. Straws and Connectors - you can build so many great, crazy things with these.

5. Legos. It took me 9 years to embrace Legos, but I'm okay with them now. We have a gob of the K'nex brand 'brick' sets and they work with the Legos. Way to play nicely, guys.

6. K'nex and Kid K'nex - there are a bazillion different kits you can buy for these and they all work together. My kids love to follow the instruction booklets but they also spend hours coming up with their own creations.  Garage sales and thrift stores are great for these.  They may not have all the parts or the booklets, but my boys don't care because they can make ninja weapons or space stations.

7. Plastic animals. As weird as that sounds they have been the foundation for a myriad of imaginative play scenarios. Same with "guys" whether they be cowboys or Indians or knights or Power Rangers. They all rise to the occasion.

8. MightyMind and his friend Super Mind . Oh, I just saw they have an aquarium version. I want that now....

9. Various blocks and building materials. Even Cuisenaire Rods and centimeter cubes and pattern blocks work.

10. Bionicles. While not strictly educational these toys do teach them how to follow the instruction manual. And they use fine motor skills. They also use a lot of imagination by creating their own creatures and then they produce movies with them. (I can justify just about anything!)

I think my boys would be eternally happy to get any and/or all of the above for every birthday and Christmas until they're 50. And I love to give them because they get used.

So when a crisis hits I can take a deep breath and let them go, because I know they'll learn something.

October 23, 2009

Real Science 4 Kids

My kids are science junkies.  If they have a choice between some popular current movie and Bill Nye, they'll choose Bill Nye.  And speaking of popular, they love Popular Mechanics for Kids.  And all sorts of other science-y things.  They want to grow up to be scientists or space station builders or work with robotics while being a zookeeper.  They'd also like to figure out how to access the Power Grid and make Power Ranger Morphers.

So we do a lot of science in my house.  Most families do science a few days a week.  We do it five.  If I didn't I'd have mass rebellion on my hands instead of must major chaos.

That being said we've tried a few different curricula and ways of doing science.  Most of the science books we've tried we have not liked.  But we absolutely love Real Science 4 Kids.  Love it.

We started at the Pre-Level and are now working our way through Level 1.  The books take college level science and write it in a way that kids can understand.  They don't dumb it down; they just explain it really well.  Last year my then 4-yr-old was able to explain chemical bonds after sitting in on his brothers lessons.

The illustrations are excellent and really add to the child's ability to understand the material covered.  The text is bigger than most textbooks which makes it easier for kids to read.

And I just said textbook, which is a bad word if you follow Charlotte Mason.  Yes, I use a textbook.  But it doesn't feel like a textbook.  It is engaging and interesting and whole.  It reads like a story.

My only real complaint is that each book is only 10 or so chapters long.  That takes us about 10 weeks to get done.  Technically you're supposed to use all 3 books in a level during one year, but that can get expensive.  My compromise has been to add in various 'living' books to each chapter and then take short breaks to explore other science topics not covered in the books.  Right now the topics covered by RS4Ks are Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  We've taken time out to learn more about birds and the ocean and the human body.  Next is space and then we'll go back into Physics.

Things I love about Real Science 4 Kids:
1.  Written clearly and intelligently.  Treats the kids with respect.
2.  The books are truly beautiful - great illustrations, glossy pages, shiny cover.
3.  No creationism or evolution.  Straight science.  I get to add in my own stuff.
4.  The experiments correlate well with each chapter.  And they're fun.

Things I don't love:
1.  Can get expensive - especially when you need the text, the teacher's manual and lab books for several kids.
2.  The books are short - we want more!

I should mention, you can view all the books online at the link above.  Every page of every book.  How's that for being able to decide if you like the book or not?

We'll be using RS4K throughout the rest of our homeschooling career, but I know we'll use a lot of living books too.  I'll be adding posts with the lists of the books we've used and liked, as well as the ones we didn't so you can avoid those!

Simply Charlotte Mason

We started out homeschooling using a Charlotte Mason approach. It just seemed to fit our family's learning style and what I wanted our days to look like. Four years later we're still following it, mostly.

One of the biggest helps to me, and which I only recently found, is Simply Charlotte Mason. They have an excellent blog which walks you through all of Mason's ideas and how to apply them in your school. If you want to know what Charlotte Mason is all about, stop here first. They also have an excellent, and free, curriculum guide. There are many products to purchase as well, but I don't have any of those so I can't comment.

They also host a forum where you can ask just about anything related to homeschooling or CM and someone there will answer. (And sometimes that someone is me!) It's been such a blessing for me to have a place to go to talk with mothers who've been down in the trenches for years and can give some insight or wisdom or just a cyber shoulder to cry on.

For the first few years I put together all my book lists for history. It took many, many hours of pain and suffering and no sleep to do this, but golly we were having fun. After I found SCM I still created my own book lists because obviously their lists couldn't be as good as the ones I put together. And here's where I show that I was wrong....I was wrong. After moving for the 8th time in 7 years I decided that just this once I'd use their suggestions. And they have all been excellent. With a few additions I found from the TruthQuest guides I had history planned in a few hours and we've been enjoying some truly excellent books. I have learned my lesson - trust SCM.

Just wanted to pass on an excellent resource.  Long live Charlotte Mason!

Brain Pop and Brain Pop, Jr.

We first heard of this through Homeschool Buyer's Co-op. We watched all the free videos we could and decided it would be worth the smallish monthly fee to get a subscription. We love it.

But what is it? Brain Pop and Brain Pop Jr. have many, many, many short animated videos on various subjects. We've watched videos on the brain, snot, aliens, the water cycle, motion, classifying animals, and arrays. Actually, we've watched a whole lot more than that, but I'm pretty sure you don't want me to show you the entire list.

Brain Pop is geared for kids in 3rd or 4th grade on up. Brain Pop Jr. is for the younger set. My kids (ages 9, 9 and 5) have watched videos from both sites and have been able to understand them. There are short quizzes your child can take after each video as well as games and activities.

I usually turn it on during breakfast or lunch and they take turns choosing videos (they are 3-5 minutes long). It's a fun, easy way to get some extra learning in or to review a subject we've already learned about.

Thus far I haven't had any problems with content aside from a little "save the world and go green" stuff. I get a little defensive about how hard they push that on kids. Other than that, I've been okay with everything.

There are multiple free movies you can watch on either site and they change every week. Check them out and see if this is something your kids would like.

Rain Player

Rain Player by David Wisniewski
We read this as part of our ancient American study of the Mayans. The boys really liked it. The illustrations are superb and bring a lot to the story. The story itself is sensational, as are most legends/fairy tales, but that's what makes it fun. As with all things Mayan, there are a lot of references to their gods.

Valuable addition to study for the Mayan culture. It makes it very easy for the little ones to feel involved too.

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth by Kathryn Lasky

Very excellent book. It took us several days to read it as the text is deep. The math was over their first grade heads, but they still really enjoyed the story. The illustrations enhanced the telling as well.

This tells the story of Eratosthenes, the ancient Greek librarian who figured out how to calculate the circumference of the earth.

We will read this again for both middle and elementary study. I wish more books were like this.

d'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
I did not read this to my kids. I read through several books on Greek myths to see which one I'd use for middle school. I thought we'd wait until them to dig deep into the gods and goddesses. For elementary we just did a brief intro.

Now to this book....I didn't like it much at first. But after looking through several others this one began to really shine. The text flows easily and is written clearly and it covers a large variety of myths. I didn't like some of the illustrations.

I liked Myths to Read Aloud by William Russell the best, but it is not illustrated. (Duh, it's for reading aloud). I think we'll read through both his book and this book in middle school and discuss the differences/similarities.

The First Marathon: The Legend of Pheidippides

The First Marathon: The Legend of Pheidippides by Susan Reynolds
What you need to know to begin with is that I'm a big baby.

So, we read this book and it's all about courage and sacrifice and honor and all those wonderful things. And the book is very well-written and pulls you right in. We get to the end and I'm bawling like a baby. I can barely finish the last few pages. My kids see my crying so they start crying and pretty soon it's just a room full of weeping, snotty people.

They asked why I was crying so we were able to talk a little about how heroism like this touches me deeply. We ended up having a great discussion.

We read the book several times before we returned it to the library.

Definitely read this in your study of ancient Greece. A beautiful telling of the legend of Pheidippides.

The Great Alexander the Great

The Great Alexander the Great by Joe Lasker

I had a hard time finding a book about Alexander the Great for my first graders. But when I found this, the search was over.

This book was very well done. It had nice illustrations which portrayed a lot of information without being gory. It didn't contain much, but it was enough for our purposes.

You really wouldn't be able to use this for middle school, but it is very nice for elementary.

The Trojan Horse: How the Greeks Won the War

The Trojan Horse: How the Greeks Won the War by Emily Little
I previewed several versions of the Trojan horse story and this one won. It told the story simply and without a ton of gore. Obviously it had to leave a lot out (it's a children's book for heaven's sake) but it was a nice, solid introduction.

The kids picked it up and looked through it over and over again. We finally bought it. I'll definitely use again for the elementary kids. For the older ones they'll read Rosemary Sutcliff's Black Ships Before Troy.


Pyramid by David Macaulay
We looked through this, but didn't read the text out loud. I didn't think my elementary set would understand it and it was a little slow to boot. They did really enjoy the pictures and it helped them visualize the things they'd read about in other books.

It's a valuable visual resource, but may not work for younger kids. I'll have to try it again when they're older.

October 20, 2009

Workboxes - Charlotte Mason Style

If you homeschool you've probably heard of workboxes.  It's all over the place, ad nauseam.  Never one to jump on the band wagon I stayed far, far away from them.  Until one day I caved and thought I'd at least figure out what the brouhaha was all about.  After reading for a while I could tell that it did not fit well with the Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling.  It was mostly worksheets or busy work (or so I thought).  So I ignored it.

Several months later, and with everyone still talking about it, I did some more research.  This time I saw how a few people were using it in a more CM-friendly way.  I sat down and made a list of things I thought would work and talked with my husband.  We decided to take the plunge and started doing workboxes about 2 months ago.  Thus far it is working very well.

My two older boys, ages 9, are learning to be more independent and to manage their time.  My 5-yr-old is also learning how to work solo and to sit still for longer than 3 minutes.  Even my 3-yr-old is in on the action with lots of fun and educational activities.

So, how did I reconcile my Charlotte Mason beliefs with workboxes?  I'm glad you asked.  First, there are many things I wanted to get to in our day, but it just didn't happen.  Workboxes were a great way to add those things in.  Second, I saw that a lot of their schoolwork could be put in the workboxes and done on their time thus freeing me up to do other things.

Right now each boy has 6 boxes.  We chose to use the larger plastic drawer style because we don't have a lot of room for shelves full of shoe boxes and frankly I think that looks messy.  And my 3-yr-old loves to dump things out.  I also bought several digital timers from the Dollar Store which are kept in a small box on top of their workboxes.  We're at a point where we need more boxes though.  More on that in a minute.

To make it easier on myself I've created index cards with the name of each potential activity on them.  For example, one card might say, "build something with Lincoln Logs for 15 minutes", another might say, "play with Creativity Express on the computer for 15 minutes" or "use the Wedgits to create something" or "play Swamp Sum with your brother" or whatever.  We all have (or at least I do) closets full of awesome things we've bought over the years, but can't find the time for the kids to use.  By writing everything on cards I can easily see what I have and make sure I'm rotating through them.

So, in those 6 boxes the boys might find the following:
1.  Scripture verses to read - always.  The first box every day contains a small card with the verses they should read that day.  They also keep a copy of their scriptures there so they don't have to hunt for them every day.
2.  Copywork.  I put their copywork folder in a drawer with a sticky telling them how many pieces of paper they need to draw from the copywork jars.  They do this 2 or 3 times a week.  Occasionally I'll have them do copywork from something we read in history or science or poetry.
3.  Math drill worksheets.  I'm not a fan of worksheets, but math is the one area that they need them.  I photocopied the drill sheets from the back my RightStart book and they do those 2 or 3 times a week.  The other days they play some of the games either by themselves or with each other.  To make things extra fun I throw in logic games once in a while like Rush Hour or Mighty Mind or something from the Critical Thinking Skills books.
4.  Narrations - I will include a blank piece of paper with instructions as to what they should 'narrate' such as 'draw how food is digested' or 'draw a picture of Plimouth Plantation'.  Sometimes I'll include a notebooking page where they illustrate on top and write a few sentences on the bottom.
5.  Piano practice.  There's a card that tells them to go practice the piano for 15 minutes.  This is done daily.
6.  Exercise.  I vary this - some days it tells them to ride their bikes or to play the Wii Fit or to go for a walk with their brother and dog.
7.  Handicrafts - I either include some craft materials in their workbox and tell them to go create or I have a card in there which tells them to make something.  Sometimes it's up to them - "create something" other times I'll say "using glue, pipe cleaners and pom-poms to create something".
8.  Explode the Code and Growing with Grammar.  Some might argue that these are not CM resources but I find them very helpful in learning to read and understanding the language.  Two or three times a week I'll stick in a page or two from one or both of these books.
9.  Various games, puzzles and building toys.  I use the index cards as mentioned above to fill any additional boxes.
10.  The last box usually has a piece of candy and a reward such as "go for a bike ride" or "play the Wii for 20 minutes" or "read a comic book from mom's secret stash".  Yes, I keep a secret stash of comic books with which to bribe my kids.

As you can see there are a bazillion things I could put in their workboxes so it never gets boring for them.  Scriptures, exercise and piano are daily.  The other ones get rotated through.  And now we need more boxes!!!

Instead of getting more big ones (at $30 a pop) we were talking about getting the tiny little drawers that could be used for holding the index cards only.  They cost about $5.  The cards could go in those drawers and things like their copywork notebooks and math worksheets could go in the larger drawers.  We'll see....

The 5-yr-old is in kindergarten.  His workboxes contain the following:
1.  Scriptures - but he reads these with me.
2.  Handwriting practice - I give him a whiteboard and an index card with various letters or numbers or words to practice.
3.  A phonics or Explode the Code worksheet.
4.  Some sort of skills worksheet like "circle the item that doesn't belong" or "mark the tallest".  I know, I know, I said I hate worksheets, but they do have a place for new learners and he sure loves them.  Sometimes it's an actual skill like cutting paper or gluing or lacing or threading.
5.  Hands-on games and activities.
6.  Exercise
7.  Piano practice
8.  I use the index cards for him too and he often builds with K'nex or Lincoln Logs or magnets.

The 3-yr-old has mostly fun educational games that I've made.  I'll have to do a separate post on those.  His boxes are downstairs where we do most of our reading and he is learning to pull out an activity and sit quietly working on it while we work on school.

From what I've read the woman who came up with the idea of workboxes does not fully approve of people modifying her system.  We further modify (golly I feel bad) it by not even using the workbox labels!  The boys know you start at the top and work your way down.  Most people have the child take the velcroed number off the workbox and place it on a strip showing the work was done.  My kids don't really seem to care about that.  They do it, they enjoy it, they get done and move on with their day.

I feel like we're getting more done in each day now and the boys are feeling more confident in their education.  I think it's a great way to help them work towards more educational independence.  Workboxes also help keep the kids productive when I'm doing dishes or teaching a brother independently or whatever it is I do during the day.

Overall I'm very pleased with the way the workboxes have improved our school days.  I think they most definitely can be used in a Charlotte Mason way!

October 19, 2009

The Gilgamesh Trilogy

There are three books in this trilogy by Ludmilla Zeman -  Gilgamesh the KingThe Revenge of Ishtar and then The Last Quest of Gilgamesh .
We totally loved this trilogy. My kids spent hours looking at the pictures and asking me to re-read it to them.

Granted, it's a violent story so some of you may not want to read it to begin with. But it's handled really nicely and isn't all gory and gross while still retaining the original themes.

I do believe the first book is the one where "they explore the ways of love together". My kids didn't even catch that so I didn't dwell on it. It may become an issue worth discussing when they're older. The art is done in the style of what has been found during that time which was another way to learn about the time period.
I like to find children's books of classic/adult books and have them read it when they're young. Hopefully when they're older they will better understand the classic works because they are already familiar with the characters and plots. This series was exceptionally well done.

Who's in Rabbit's House

Who's in Rabbit's House? by Verna Aardema
This book kicked off our love for African tales. My kids couldn't get enough of them. The pictures are bold and colorful. The story is clever and just plain fun. We loved making the noises that go along with the actions. My kids re-enacted this book for months afterwards. We used this for our study of Africa, but love to read it any time we can.

Misoso: Once Upon a Time Tales From Africa

Misoso: Once Upon a Time Tales from Africa
by Verna Aardema
We liked this collection of 'creation' type stories. Each is short enough that you can read one or two a day. Good selection from various countries with a map showing where each story is from.

Black Ships Before Troy

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff
I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations are excellent and the story is very well written. I think it does a fabulous job taking the essentials of the Iliad and turning it into something children/young teens can understand.

I haven't read it to my kids yet. The subject material is a bit intense and rather bloody. I will have them read it during the next cycle of ancient history (5th grade).

I also think if you're intimidated by the Iliad you could read this to understand the original work. This may be all you (or a child) needs.

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Trilogy (Hardback)) by James Dashner
This was a gripping book in that I didn't get a darn thing done on Saturday. Well, I did finish this book, but I'm not sure that counts. I kept saying to myself, "Just till the end of this chapter, then I'll go wash the dishes" but the chapter would end with a huge crisis or question and I HAD to read the next chapter, but only that one. Then there'd be another cliffhanger and I'd have to read more....and so on and so forth. My nerves were shot by the end of the day.

The book reminded me somewhat of Hunger Games and The Giver. I really enjoyed seeing how this group of teenage boys chose to live an orderly, productive life instead of complaining and sitting on their duffs or becoming savage (like Lord of the Flies). This might be a good book to read with teens to show that everyone has a choice no matter how stinky their circumstances are, and yes, these boys had some pretty stinky circumstances.

The characters were interesting, the action flowed well. We follow a young boy as he enters this world and he has no idea what's going on and gets more and more frustrated as people don't answer or give him half-answers. I was feeling his pain and was just as frustrated as he was and considered chucking the book against the wall for the first little while. I guess that means the author did a good job brining me into this new world.

A fun, interesting read. Probably best for teens and adults as some of the content is violent and the ending is certainly disturbing.

And speaking of the end, I didn't know this would be a series so I was expecting a nice happy ending and instead got another cliffhanger (hanging on a cliff and that's why it's called Cliffhanger).

Creamed Chicken Over Anything

I like mine over green beans. My husband and the boys like theirs over biscuits. Often we put it over toast. Whichever way you choose to eat it, it's fast, cheap and delicious.

1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 c. water
1/4 c. milk
1 tsp. chicken bouillon granules
2 c. cubed cooked chicken

In a saucepan, melt margarine. Stir in flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Gradually add water, milk and bouillon. (Or you can add 1 1/2 c. homemade chicken broth plus 1/4 c. milk) Bring to a boil; stir for 2 minutes. Add chicken and heat through. Serve over green beans or biscuits or toast. I usually double the 'cream' ingredients for my family.

New England Clam Chowder

My mother-in-law makes this delicious soup which is just as great as the soups on the wharf.

1/4 lb. bacon
1 1/2 c. water
4 c. potatoes, peeled and diced
1 onion
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 cans minced clams
2 c. milk
1 c. light cream
3 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt

Fry the bacon in a soup pot. Remove the bacon and crumble but leave the drippings. Add the potatoes, water, onion, juice from one can of clams (or both if you want) and the celery. Boil together until the potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Combine the milk, cream and salt in a small bowl. Add the flour and mix until smooth. Add to the potato mixture and heat to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add the clams and crumbled bacon. Cook until desired consistency.

Chicken Noodle Soup

When the kids get sick they ask for this soup. It heals all and cures all. It does not, however, clean up after itself.

2 lbs. chicken or turkey, cubed and cooked (or less - I only use a few handfuls)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, sliced
3 large carrots, sliced or a few handfuls of baby carrots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 to 6 chicken bouillon cubes OR several quarts of chicken stock
1 c. or so frozen peas
1/2 tsp. dried sage
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. marjoram
1/2 tsp. tarragon
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. rosemary
pepper to taste

Fill a 6 quart pot about 3/4 full of water (or chicken stock). Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Add the spices and bouillon cubes (if not using stock). Simmer an hour or so. Bring to a boil and add the chicken and pasta. Cook on a low boil for 20 minutes or until the pasta is done. A few minutes before you turn it off, add the peas.

On the days when I have more time to get this on the table I'll fill a big stock pot with water and add a few pounds of chicken breast and wings, some carrots, onions and celery with a few tablespoons of vinegar (to draw out the calcium) and sea salt. I let it simmer for hours, all day if I can. Then I strain the liquid and pull the meat from the bones. Discard all the mushy veggies unless you love to eat mushy carrots. Then I use the newly made stock for the soup and add all new veggies. I still only use a small amount of the chicken and freeze the rest for later.

Enchiladas verdes

We absolutely love these. The sauce can get a little spicy depending on the amount of serrano peppers you use. I used two tonight and it was pretty tame. I've used up to five and it gets a little fiery then. Our kids are wimps so they usually don't eat the sauce. They have chicken on the tortillas with a bit of queso fresco and maybe some cilantro. It's all good. The sauce freezes really well so I usually double or triple it and throw it in a Ziploc bag for later. Enjoy! Oh, I think I got this recipe from allrecipes, but I'm not sure anymore.

2 or 3 bone-in chicken breasts
2 c. chicken broth (I often use bouillon cubes)
1/4 onion
1 clove garlic
2 tsp. salt
1 lb. tomatillos (remove the husks and wash well)
2 - 5 serrano peppers (or less if you don't want it really hot. We have used jalapenos, too)
1/4 white onion
1 clove garlic
12 tortillas (corn or flour -we like flour better)
Queso fresco
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped

In a large pot, add first 5 ingredients. Boil for 20 minutes or until chicken is done. I often let it go for several hours. Reserve broth. Let chicken cool then shred; set aside for later. Place tomatillos and peppers in a pot with water, enough to cover them. Let boil until tomatillos turn a darkish green. Strain and place in a blender with 1/4 of the onion, garlic and salt. Pour in reserved broth until it just covers the vegetables by 1 inch. Blend. Pour in saucepan and bring to a low boil. If using corn tortillas, heat some vegetable oil in a pan and slightly fry, drain, then dip in low boiling green salsa. If using flour tortillas, just dip into the salsa. Place 1 to 3 tortillas on a plate. Top with shredded chicken then green salsa. Top with crumbled queso fresco, chopped onion and cilantro.

This can be adapted to be dairy-free by skipping the queso fresco.  You could just not use the cheese or you could substitute cashew or almond cheese.

The Best Chocolate Cake Ever

or at least that's what my husband thinks. I make it every year for his birthday at his request, and about 10 other times in the year, too. This makes a fairly dense cake and tastes very old-fashioned. It's not the fluffy, airy kind of chocolate cake you get from a box. One great thing about this is that it doesn't use eggs or any type of refrigerated foods - only stuff from your food storage!

3 c. flour
2 c. sugar
6 tbsp. baking cocoa
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 c water
2/3 c vegetable oil
2 tsp white vinegar
2 tsp vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine the first 5 ingredients. Add water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Beat on low for 1 minute. Beat on medium for 1 minute. Pour into a greased (or sprayed) 13x9 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

We typically don't frost this, just dust with powdered sugar or whipped cream.

Handwriting Without Tears

And sometimes with them too...

We started using this when my two oldest were 5. One of them was a lefty and no matter what I did he just couldn't figure out how to hold the pencil or form the letters. He would scream and cry and throw his pencil and paper across the room. It was good times.

My mom (bless her heart) suggested Handwriting Without Tears. We took the plunge and bought the Pre-K stuff. Miracle of miracles, he figured out how to write! It took some time but it really helped that there were so many ways to learn the letter - build it with wooden shapes, write it on the chalkboard, make it out of playdough, trace the card with your finger or use the magnetic writing tablet. Tracing the letter over and over with the wet sponge and then the dry paper towel helped to create muscle memory which was what he needed as his hand was fairly weak. (I should note that some of these items are *extras* and not necessary for the program. We use/d them and love them still.)

The child starts by learning the letters with straight lines and slowly moves to the curved letters. Everything is uppercase in the first book too, which is much easier for little hands to make.

Both boys have now completed the books through second grade. We stopped at cursive writing because I want their printing to be a little (read a lot) neater before we move on to cursive. I should point out that their poor handwriting is due to laziness, not the program. When I tell them to 'do it perfect' it's perfect. Our third son just completed the Pre-K book and is proudly moving on to first grade where he will learn lower case letters.

As the boys got older I felt it necessary to add additional copywork in each day. I felt like there wasn't enough practice. Also, the sentences they had to copy were a bit on the boring side so I gave them sentences that were interesting to them. Sentences like "My frog is green and red and can jump really high." instead of "The boy went up the hill." I also tried to get things in there like "My mom and dad think I am smart and funny."

I didn't feel that the teacher's manuals were necessary. It's a very intuitive program and the student books have small pictures of each step across the top so you can figure out what to do just by looking through their books.

I bought some of the short pencils thinking it would be easier for little hands and they helped a lot. In the beginning when they would try larger pencils the letters would be all over the place. We still have a bazillion of the pencils left, four years later, and they use them regularly. We never have the "I can't find a pencil" excuse.

Things I love about Handwriting Without Tears:
1. Easy to use
2. Produces results, as in great handwriting
3. There really are no more tears
4. Multi-sensory and very hands-on (excellent for my child with learning issues)

Things I don't love:
1. The cost of practice paper is crazy high
2. Needs a bit more practice built in

Overall, a product I truly love. I'm so glad I made the investment - thanks mom!

Anansi the Spider: A Tale From the Ashanti

Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott
We loved, loved, loved it and had to buy it. Or steal it from the library, which I'm morally opposed to. We bought it from the library for ten cents at a book sale so I won't need to go to jail.

Like all Anansi books, it's colorful, fun and clever. McDermott's books are always great.

Anansi Does the Impossible

Anansi Does The Impossible!: An Ashanti Tale (Aladdin Picture Books) by Verna Aardema
We developed a real love for Anansi during our studies of Africa. Ms. Aardema has written many books about African folklore/creation studies. We got to the point where anytime we saw a book by her we'd check it out because we knew it'd be great.

This book is colorful, fun to read and for once Anansi does something right! We'll use it again for the ancient world, but we also read it for fun from time to time.

Cat Mummies

Cat Mummies by Kelly Trumble
I checked this out to preview for the middle school years. My boys saw the book and begged me to read it to them. I thought they'd get bored quickly but they LOVED it. We read the whole thing. The book moves fairly quickly and is easy to follow. They acted out several of the battle scenes described.

A caution: it does deal with animal worship and spirits so we talked about that in reference to our beliefs. Other than that it is best used as a middle school read-aloud or a junior high independent BUT my then first graders enjoyed it an understood it so I wouldn't hesitate to read it to all my kids.

Mummies Made in Egypt

Mummies Made in Egypt (Reading Rainbow Book) by Aliki
My kids really enjoyed this (and the Reading Rainbow episode which discusses the book). It has good illustrations with solid information without being disgusting like other mummy books.

We'll use this again for our ancient world studies. My favorite "mummy" choice for the elementary years.

How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck

How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck: A Tale from the Akamba of Kenya by Verna Aardema
This was a really fun book. The illustrations were not the best (not the African bright colors we expected), but the story is well written and the kids really enjoyed. It's a great complement to any study of Africa.

This is a book of 'creation' stories - stories of how animals became the way they are. How they got spots or long necks or shells or whatever. They're usually quite funny and have a twisted logic to them. My kids liked making up their own stories as well.

We've liked everything from this author so far.

Ancient Egyptians and Their Neighbors

Ancient Egyptians and Their Neighbors: An Activity Guide by Marian Broida
This is an excellent book with a ton of information and numerous hands-on activities. It covers groups of people you can't really find information about, like the Hittites. We checked it out of the library many, many times so finally decided to purchase it.

It doesn't have any pictures so you'll want to add those from another source.