Wednesday, July 31, 2013

20-Day Clutter Challenge

Tomorrow begins a new month! Summer is going by so quickly, and I'm not getting everything done that I had hoped. One thing I'd still like to do before beginning our school year in September is a major declutter. So today I made a plan, one inspired by Minimalist Packrat's 30 Day Declutter Bootcamp. I would love to be able to afford that e-book, but I need to do some more surveys to get some dollars into my Paypal account first. So I made up my own plan. Maybe that will work better, anyway...I don't really need inspiration to declutter, after all. I've always loved doing it, loved the feeling of freeing myself from the mountain of stuff we seem to accumulate.
So here's my plan:

20-Day Clutter Challenge

1. (August 1) Shoes and Outdoor Wear
2. (August 2) Paper
3. (August 3) Dishes, Rubbermaid Containers, Cutlery
4. (August 5) Pots & Pans (including baking pans and casserole dishes)
5. (August 6) Spices, Baking Supplies
6. (August 7) Food (including pantry, fridge and freezer)
7. (August 8) Canning Supplies
8. (August 9) Cleaning Supplies, Personal Care Supplies
9. (August 10) Toys
10. (August 12) My Clothes
11. (August 13) Stephen's Clothes
12. (August 14) Boys' Clothes
13. (August 15) Games, Music Books
14. (August 16) Photos, Notebooks, Stationery
15. (August 17) Tools, Paint, Renovation Supplies
16. (August 19) CDs, DVDs
17. (August 20) Linens, Blankets, Bags & Suitcases
18. (August 21) Children's Books, Novels
19. (August 22) Nonfiction, Christian Books
20. (August 23) Homeschool Supplies (not decluttering so much as finding a home for them for now.)

To make things fun for me, I'm giving myself points:
15 minutes/day = 1 point
30 minutes/day = 4 points
60 minutes/day = 10 points
Finished the job = 20 points

And for even more fun, I'm giving myself rewards:
20-80 points: an e-book
80-150 points: date night without any children along
150-300 points: new slipcovers for my couches
300-400 points: new clothes

I'm going to try to post a short update every day. I'm not committing to before and after pictures. If I can, I will. I'm hoping this will keep me on track. This is going to be fun! (And if any of you want to do this with me, that would be awesome!)

I should also be clear that my goal is not to finish decluttering each of these categories in this amount of time. My goal is to do what I can with the time I have (at least 15 minutes every day), and if it's no-where near done, the little bit that is done will at least be a blessing. The fast pace is really just my way of trying not to get bogged down in the enormity of the task. I can always do this again another month, after all. (Or maybe not...let's see how this works first, OK?)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Thoughts on Math 1

I have been taking a MOOC called How to Learn Math. The course is for teachers, homeschoolers, parents, and anyone else involved in teaching children math. I'm taking it because I have a son who delights in math, and as a homeschooler I want to be sure I'm never the one to take that joy away from him. What I love about these courses is their flexibility. You can engage at whatever level you have time for or interest in. What you get out of it depends entirely on what you put into it.

The first session was quite interesting. There was a lot of discussion about the math anxiety so prevalent in our society and the negative messages we pick up (and pass on) about math. It really made me think about my own education in math, and how it has affected my attitudes towards math. Lockhart's essay A Mathematician's Lament has been incredibly thought-provoking for me since Alice (our PEI resident homeschool math expert) first introduced me to it back in May, and I'm so glad the course included it. I think I can safely say that though I don't agree with everything in it, it has completely changed my perspective on math.

Here's a copy of one of my assignments for the course: a concept map.

I was rather fortunate that my childhood experience in math did not leave me with a fear of math. Other than the fact that all the drill was frustratingly boring in the elementary years (pages and pages of long division, ugh!), I did well and got good grades. Then high school came, and algebra and geometry were introduced. I loved these. (for all the wrong reasons, according to Lockhart. I think maybe he could have been more open to allowing us non-creative logical/analytical type thinkers to enjoy math in our own way. Not that I don't wish that I had more training in problem solving and creative mathematical thinking as he describes it.) Though I did well with math as a child, there was no joy in it, no exploration and discovery, no creative problem solving. It was all a matter of being a "good student" and following directions well.

And yes, I did think I was smart because I could "do" math. I remember telling Stephen about an incident where my younger sister, who did not enjoy algebra the way I did, exclaimed in frustration "But why?" I replied, "It doesn't matter why. It's like a puzzle...just go through the steps and you'll get the right answer." Stephen was shocked by my reply..."You mean you did it all without understanding it?" And yes, I guess I did. He described how he could visualize a problem, which was a totally foreign concept to me (I am so not visual. I don't even understand being a visual thinker. The closest I come is the way I can usually tell how a recipe is going to taste when I read a recipe.). So maybe I'm not as smart as I thought...

Lockhart's music analogy really spoke to me. When I was a young child, we had an organ in the house. My mother taught me the bare basics of reading music, and from then on I was on my own. I played with the organ all the time. I learned to play hymns quite fluently, though I always thought the ones without sharps or flats were the easiest to play. I can remember figuring out that I could play anything I wanted without using black keys by simply moving my hands up or down the organ from where the written notes indicated I should play. I worked out a whole system where I counted the sharps or flats and figured out how many notes up or down I had to play to get into the key of C. Of course, I knew nothing at all about keys...I just knew that if I did this I could play without using black keys. I can still remember the moment when my "cheating" was discovered. I think my guilt that I wasn't playing it "right" the way it was written colours my memory of the experience. More likely the girl who found me out was simply surprised that I was confidently playing in a key other than what was on the page in front of me. At one point, my parents decided to give me organ lessons. They took me every week, then watched as my interest in playing dropped to near zero. Wisely, they stopped the lessons before permanent damage was done. Later, as a young teenager, I bought my own piano. I played and played, and gradually got better at it. I met someone who could play by ear, decided to learn how to do that, and did. Perhaps I would have learned more if I had had lessons. I could have learned to use the right fingers on the right keys. I could have gained some fluency if I had practiced some scales. But as it was, every minute of playing the piano was purely for the enjoyment of it.

So what's my takeaway for math? Because of my "unschooled" experience with music, I believe that unschooling in math could have its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage (and this is huge!) is that, given the right resources and challenges, the joy of discovery and learning is never quenched. The disadvantage is that without disciplined application at the right time, children may not gain the fluency and facility that would enable them to continue to discover and enjoy at a higher level. On the other hand (as Lockhart expressed so well in his essay), the "drill and kill" method so common today is much worse. Even when it is "successful" and children do well according to the tests they take (as I did), they may never explore the wonder of the order and patterns that God built into His creation and gave us the ability to appreciate and enjoy. They may never experience the joy of successfully figuring out a challenging and complex problem. I did not, but now I am so looking forward to discovering all that is wonderful about math and to passing it on to my children.

I believe the approach expressed in Charlotte Mason's philosophy is the best. "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." It is also a "science of relations" (Lockhart spoke of that, too, when he referred to the importance of historical context in the study of math.). Unschooling emphasizes the atmosphere and life, Classical education emphasizes the discipline, but I think Charlotte Mason brings a needed balance to both.

How do I see this working in my home? SA's natural enjoyment of numbers and measurement is what first set me on the path of finding a better way of teaching math, one that would not take away his joy. First, I will try to provide an atmosphere in the home that fosters learning. This is a bit difficult for me when it comes to math, given my own experience and gifts (or lack thereof -but at least I'm still learning!). I have found that a book like Family Math can be a real help if everyday math situations are not your strong point. I want to provide a rich variety of resources and challenges that will continue to stimulate SA's interest. I also want to teach him the discipline of taking on a difficult challenge and persisting until it is solved. Of course, we are just starting out. I'm sure real life will give me a lot more insight than I have now! This course is looking promising, too.

So there it is...long and rambling and only a fraction of all I've been thinking about lately. How would you describe your math experiences as a child? How did they affect the way you feel about math today? If you're taking the course, has it given you any insight or sparked any thoughts so far?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Words of the Week

I love it when kids make up their own words! They pause midsentence, and finding nothing in their vocabulary to say what they want to say, they make something up on the spot.

Stand-fly "Mama, the goose is doing a stand-fly!" meaning, of course, that the goose is flapping its wings. So said SA (5) at Avonlea yesterday. We went yesterday with Oma and my little sisters. There were a couple of geese in a tiny pond, and they really played to the crowd. As one did somersaults in the water (unfortunately toppling sideways each time), the other flapped its magnificent wings beside the pond. (Well, they were ordinary wings, but clearly he thought otherwise.)

Upside-over This is a noun meaning bottom, as in, "Mama, it is burned on the upside-over!" JJ was helping me cook some hot dogs, and one side got a bit dark. Yes, I know I'm a bad mom, since good moms don't feed their kids hot dogs, and they definitely don't burn them. We did have quinoa and beans with them to balance it out.

Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge

I sang at a funeral this week (No, it wasn't this piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, before you get too impressed.). Funerals always make me think again about how short life is in light of eternity. I do wish I could have a choir sing this at my funeral. That probably won't happen (for obvious practical reasons!). Turn the volume up!

Lord, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth
or ever the earth and the world were made,
Thou art God from everlasting and world without end.
Thou turnest man to destruction; again Thou sayest:
Come again, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in Thy sight are
but as yesterday; seeing that is past as a watch in the night.

O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

As soon as thou scatterest them, they are even as asleep,
and fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and groweth up,
but in the evening it is cut down and withered.
For we consume away in thy displeasure,
and are afraid at thy wrathful indignation.
For when thou art angry, all our days are gone,
we bring our years to an end, as a tale that is told.
The days of our age are threescore years and ten:
and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years,
yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow.
So passeth it away, and we are gone.
Turn thee again, O Lord, at the last.
Be gracious unto thy servants.
O satisfy us with thy mercy, and that soon.
So shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.

Lord, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth
or ever the earth and the world were made,
Thou art God from everlasting and world without end.

And the glorious Majesty of the Lord be upon us.
Prosper Thou, O prosper Thou the work of our hands upon us.
O prosper Thou our handy work.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: Nature Through the Seasons

"It is this timeless sense of a joy which is almost fear that many people -or so it has often appeared to me- find they cannot feel, even when alone in a wood or by a stream. Perhaps they are still thinking too much of their own affairs. Or they may be trying too hard- having decided that they want to discover some particular thing which a book has told them is rare. They may have made or been given a list of things to look out for, and they hope to be able to tick them all off, if they can. This is the wrong approach -or so I believe. Nature is not a competition. It doesn't really matter, when you go out, if you don't identify anything. What matters is the feeling heart, and the only point of identifying things is to help you (if it does) to derive more joy and pleasure from them."

So begins the introduction to Richard Adams' Nature Through the Seasons, a wonderful thrift store find this weekend. Of course, as a Christian, I would go farther and say that the joy and pleasure we derive from nature is something that glorifies God as the Creator of all. But what a lovely book this is!

Richard Adams is well known for his novel Watership Down. I had never heard of Nature Through the Seasons before, which is a collaboration between himself, scientist Max Hooper, and illustrator David A. Goddard. Adams provides the conversational nature appreciation. Hooper goes more in depth into the scientific questions that could rise from your observations in each season, though he is also very easy to read. Goddard provides quite a few full-page spreads very similar to the cover on the book (above). More fascinating to me, though, were the detailed drawings that showed similarities and differences between species, and the life cycles of different organisms. My favourite so far is "The Life of the Honeybee." (p. 48-49) This is a British book, but so far I have not found the plants and animals foreign to me. If we don't have the same species here in Canada, we seem to have similar ones.

Flipping through this book, I am reminded of why nature study is important to me as a mother and home educator. My goal is to gently guide my boys into this kind of appreciation for God's Creation. I myself grew up with the freedom to explore in nature, and I feel that it was one of the best aspects of my childhood. My boys are still young, but they are already learning to be quiet so they can listen to the birds, to observe details carefully, to identify our home species by name. This is not done in any forced or unnatural way, but simply as we go about our daily lives. To be sure, we do have to be somewhat intentional about it...I need to make sure that we, or at least they, go outside every day. I have to be ready to identify things, or at least to look them up. (SA is very keen on knowing what things are called.) I need to be ready to gently stimulate their observation of details in the moment. I believe the right moment is important. Chirping at them constantly about details when they are simply enjoying a walk would be counterproductive. But when they come running to me with a broken robin's egg shell that they found, that's a good moment to ask lots of questions. (Such as, "What is that smell?")

I think I will probably use this book as part of our nature study when the children are a little older (maybe aged 10-12?). I can see myself taking it in my backpack on a nature walk, and after we've observed and chronicled, reading an appropriate portion. Not only will this add to our enjoyment of an already enjoyable pursuit, but it will serve as an excellent example of good nature writing and art. I highly recommend this book!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Little Things Happy Memories Are Made Of

SA chattering a mile a minute as he "helps" Papa check out what's wrong with the oil pan.

Curriculum Show and Tell: Leading Little Ones to God

Marian Schoolland's devotional Leading Little Ones to God is one of my favourite resources to teach children about God. It's also one my parents used when I was young.

How does this resource fit into your daily routine?

We read the Bible to our children every day. We've chosen to use the ESV (though any essentially literal translation would have done for us). It's important to us that the language of Scripture becomes familiar to our children, and using the same translation every time helps with that. Part of my Dutch Reformed heritage is that we anchor our Bible reading, singing and prayer to every meal. We nourish our bodies, we nourish our's part of the rhythm of life.
Leading Little Ones to God fits into our routine after breakfast each day. The boys and I go and sit on the couch. I begin by reading the Scripture passage suggested in the lesson. It's usually less than a chapter, appropriately short for a child-sized attention span. Then I read a chapter from the book. Chapters are generally about a page in length. The style is conversational and engaging. The book also includes two or three discussion questions, a hymn to sing, a memory verse, and a prayer. I use the discussion questions only if my 3-year-old is not standing on his head yet and my 5-year-old is still engaged with the lesson. (I figure I'll probably go through the book several times over the need to cover everything the first time around.) I don't usually use the hymn. Instead, we sing one of the (five or so) hymns the children already know and love. Doing a different hymn every day will probably work better after they can read. I usually incorporate the ideas in the written prayer into my own prayer. This all doesn't usually take longer than 15 minutes (depending on how active the preschoolers are at the time...). I typically miss a day or two in the week (life happens...) so we generally end up using it four or five times a week.

What topics does Leading Little Ones to God cover?

This book is a book of Bible doctrine. It talks about the attributes of God, about sin, the law, grace, who Jesus is and what He did, the Holy Spirit, how we become children of God, growth, prayer, the church, and the Second Coming. There are 86 chapters in total. I would never suggest that this book is all you need. The most important thing is that you read the living Word of God to your children...after all, it is His own Word that God promises "will not return to Him void." (Can you tell the translation of Scripture I grew up with?) You will also want to tell or read Bible stories in a way little children can understand.

What distinguishes Leading Little Ones to God from other devotionals for children?

I think the most important difference is that there are no cutesy stories to artificially draw in the child's interest. It is assumed that the child is interested in learning about God, and that the child can appreciate the wonder of what is being taught. Each chapter usually does have an illustration from Scripture itself. Equally importantly, there is no artificial "moral" to each story...the object is more to draw out a response of worship, or wonder at God's greatness.
Another thing I appreciate about this devotional is that using it actually teaches me as a parent helpful and appropriate ways to talk about God with my children throughout our everyday life. I can be a fairly private person when it comes to my relationship with God, and I need to learn to be more open with my children.

How is Leading Little Ones to God illustrated?

The illustrations by Paul Stoub are beautiful, but there is less than one on every page. Where they are included with the lesson, I find they help keep the younger child's attention.

What ages would this resource be appropriate for?

I've had this book for several years now. I've started through it a few times before, but I'm just finding now that my 5-year-old is really getting it. He doesn't always display a lot of interest at the time, but later, during the run of a day, he'll make comments that show me he was listening. This is also the first time that I find he really has the attention span for us to read the Scripture passage and the chapter at the same time. I think the book is deep enough that it will continue to hold their attention up to the age of maybe eight or nine.

But speaking of my 5-year-old "getting it", I have to tell you what happened this morning.

We were reading about God's omnipresence.
"God is everywhere!" I read. "When you go to bed at night, God is there. The room may be dark, but you do not have to be afraid..."
I read on, but I noticed SA's face scrunching up the way it does when he's thinking hard.
"Mama," he interrupted. "God is there when I'm in bed."
"Yes," I said, glad he was thinking about it, waiting eagerly for his next thought.
"Mama, God throws my pillow on the floor and moves my blanket like *this* (motions with hands)."
I had to explain that sometimes our hands and feet move when we're asleep so our pillows and blankets aren't in the same place when we wake up... He took a bit of convincing.

May the Holy Spirit use our humble efforts in the lives of our children.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Time to Focus and Put it into Practice

Do you ever feel like you are being bombarded with information and advice?

I'm really feeling that now, as I contemplate beginning homeschooling. The sad thing about it is, it is mostly self-inflicted. I am the one that's researching online, devouring blogs about homeschooling and Charlotte Mason and organizing your days with preschoolers. I click on links recommended by other homeschoolers on Facebook; I pin helpful tips on Pinterest. Most of what I read is excellent advice and truly useful information from people who have been there and know what they're talking about.

When is it time to decide that the amount of information I have already is enough? If I put into practice a fraction of what I've "learned" on-line, I'd probably be set for the rest of my homeschooling life.

It's time to slow down and to take stock of what I've learned. It's time to focus my attention on one thing rather than have it scattered in thousand different directions as it is when I follow the trail of links. It's time to articulate what I believe about children, about education, about parenting. It's time for me to really learn, not just by reading, but by putting it into practice over the long term.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not denying the helpfulness of learning from others' experience and expertise. It's just that there is a time and place for everything. If the time I'm spending reading and learning about life is taking time away from actually living that life, perhaps it's time to stop and re-evaluate my priorities.

I plan to begin reading Charlotte Mason's Original Homeschooling Series this summer. I will consciously plan to cut back on other written sources of information and advice so I can really focus on this one thing for now. I really believe this will be of value to me through all my homeschooling years. My resolve is to read it slowly, to think about it deeply, and to pray over it. Slowly but surely, I will put into practice the things that apply to me and my family.

What about you? How do you deal with the bucket-loads of information coming at you in this age of the internet?
Have you ever consciously decided that "enough is enough", even while realizing that there is still so much helpful and interesting information "out there" just waiting for you to discover?

Friday, July 5, 2013

My Birthday as a Tourist

As my birthday approached this year, I could see it was not going to be very exciting. No one was visiting, Stephen had no plans for me, and my boys are still a little young to be coming up with surprises. I decided that if my birthday was going to be special, I was the one who was going to have to make it special. I decided to play tourist for the day.
The Harbour Hippo is a combination bus/boat that does tours of downtown Charlottetown and the Charlottetown harbour. I bought tickets for myself and the boys (It was not cheap - $50! But since it was my birthday...) and we set off.

Somehow I didn't manage to get a picture of the outside of this behemoth...this happens sometimes when you're juggling three children five and under.
We saw Province House, where the 1864 Charlottetown Conference took place that was the beginning of the process that resulted in the Confederation of Canada in 1867. (Though, interestingly, Prince Edward Island did not join until 1873.)

We also saw a number of other historic we are passing the Kirk of St. James (incidentally, this is the church where we were married) and Beaconsfield Historic House.

Into the water. SA liked this part. JJ and MM were both sleeping by this time.

Our tour guide Bekah serenaded us with a Stan Rogers tune "45 Years from Now". She looked kind of like Anne of Green Gables, with her red hair and big smile.

And to crown our lovely outing, I won tickets to see "Anne and Gilbert", the musical about Anne of Green Gables' romance with Gilbert Blythe! I was so excited!!

I'm so thankful I was able to find someone to look after the children for me while I went to this! I wasn't able to get ahold of Stephen, so I went with my friend Christina, and we had a lovely time. My favourite song (though I am a "Come from Away") was "You're Island Through and Through".

It was a wonderful birthday.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Black Forest Ice Cream Cake

Five years ago yesterday, I became a mom! For SA's birthday, I made a simple ice cream cake. I'm usually a from-scratch kind of baker, but we'd had a crazy week with the two youngest sick with a virus. So I used a cake mix and dressed it up with ice cream, chocolate, and cherries. The one thing I was worried about - that the cake would be hard once it was frozen - didn't end up being an issue when I served the cake about 5 hours after putting it together. It was harder the next day, but simply letting it stand at room temperature for a few minutes fixed it.

Black Forest Ice Cream Cake

1 Devil's Food Chocolate Cake mix, prepared as per directions on the box for a 9x13 pan. (I used milk instead of water)
1 litre Cherry/Chocolate/Vanilla type ice cream (I used half a container of PC Loads of Cherries and Chocolate Chunks)
1 litre Vanilla ice cream (I used half a container of PC Cream First Vanilla Bean)
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1 tsp butter
1 cup cherries, pitted (I took the sweet cherries out of a bag of frozen Welches Cherry Berry mix)

Cut the cooled cake in half. Put it in the freezer for 10 minutes or so. Soften the cherry ice cream slightly (leave it in the fridge for a while, or just mix it in your mixer until it's spreadable) and spread over the bottom half of the cake. Top with the top half of the cake and freeze. Soften the vanilla ice cream slightly. Spread over the top of the cake. Freeze until firm, at least 3 hours. Before serving, arrange cherries over the top. Melt chocolate and butter together. Let cool. Scrape chocolate into a small Ziploc bag and cut a small hole out of the corner. Make designs on the cake.