Monday, June 27, 2016

Bike on Water

Bike on water...or along it, to all the beautiful, wild places you did not know were right in your backyard until you saw them from your bicycle. I am still bowled over from the beauty of my morning ride today. 

The Mississippi? A big thing to get across to get to work, an event, school. That's from your car. On your bike? It becomes mystical, magical world of its own, ever-changing, ever alive. 

The bike path along the river that winds its way through Davenport, Moline, Bettendorf and Rock Island is like a road through France; a small country with huge landscape and climate changes in a matter of hours. In ten minutes of biking today, I went from mist surrounding the far banks, making the hills appear to be distant mountains as I rounded a bend in the path, then swirling and dipping into the water like the gulls and pelicans along my way, to the sun rising on a jungle-lined section, clear blue water, and suddenly,

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cool Sirop de Menthe for All That Mint Outside

If but for the squirrels...well, not only the squirrels, there is also the invisible-ish fence I put in place for the dog who chases after the squirrels, over which I continually trip, and the dirt that is all over and has to be replaced and put back nicely and cleaned up after the darling beasts have finished digging up my foxglove, red onions and geraniums yet again. Besides this, gardening is pure joy, especially when I have a day when I can just be out without interruptions. The kids wander out and around, help out when I give them a job...or not, sometimes. 

Today, sirop de menthe is on our always is in the summer. This is the French equivalent of Kool-Aid; a syrup in a bottle that you can mix with water for a kid drink. [Not a clear photo, but I loved the dreamy face he had as he hypnotically pulled leaf after leaf off the stems, singing a half-song as he did.]

Back when I didn't know any better, I once planted a tiny little mint plant, it may even have been from seeds started indoors in February. It was so long ago that I've forgotten. Here is the thing: mint is an invasive sort of species. It goes crazy and pops up all over, beginning from the spot where you first thought you had contained the little devil. I have decided to capitalize on this prolific harvest each year and make mint tea, taboule, and the thing that will use up the most amount of mint by far; sirop de menthe. After some trial and error and extensive Youtube research, here is our super simple recipe/method of making it. There are, after all, only 3 ingredients, and one of them is water. 

4 cups of water
2 lbs. sugar
A lot of mint leaves, one recipe said 750 grams
this looks like 2+ cups when the leaves are all removed from the stems

Put cold water and sugar into a pan, heat, stir until thickened; 30 minutes at least. Remove from heat. Immediately add mint leaves, cover. Let sit for 12-24 hours. Strain. Bottle, put in fridge. Use 1:6 with water for a delicious drink. If the color is less than beautiful and you have no moral objections, add a few drops of green food coloring to make it pretty during the bottling phase. Cheers.

Da Good Counts Maksh da Good Neighborsh, but the Good Compost?

...I'm afraid my Portuguese neighbor's old adage; "good accounts make good neighbors," as he was giving me change for 5 centimes, or making sure he paid me for a 35-cent baguette, was not one that will hold up to the stench of my newest compost bin. Good compost? Yes, the compost will probably be very nice, if there is not a court-order for its removal before I can use it. As for our dear neighbors to the left; I had really better go ask them if it is a problem for them. Maybe the wind always blows from the north in the summer. any case, it smells like something died and decomposed in it, and except for its daily hosing down, I am not sure what to do about it.

I have tried every method you can imagine of storing and mixing and using compost. I have battled roots growing down into the ground from plants that really looked dead when they went in, or maybe they were banana tree seeds, who knows. In any case; the "turn over once a week" part was cumbersome, to say the least. The summer before last, my darling husband built us a fresh bin. It was made out of wood, but left open on one side by design. I faithfully added matter and stirred all through the fall and part of the winter, the part before the snow covered everything up and I gave up. When I went to prep my soil for planting the following spring, it was empty; completely empty, spotlessly void of matter. It turns out that the open-side design, so nice for ease of use and probably meant to avoid altogether the stink problem arising from this year's system, was also an open invitation to my dog, the possum and the racoon family that live nearby. I simply hate the aesthetics of the black plastic barrel on a rotisserie stick we were once gifted, I won't have it in my yard. 

So, when I saw these cool rain barrels on a rotisserie stick, (behind the AC):

it looked like the perfect idea; big enough for the great amount of kitchen scraps we produce on a daily basis, strong enough to last, and not too terribly ugly. And when it was delivered, from a local company, about an hour after I had called to order it, it did not smell bad at all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cuisine Renovation

I knew my creative energy...or simply all of my energy that was not spent cooking, cleaning and chauffering, must have gone somewhere the past few months. As I was arranging my brand new spice jars, I realized just where that was; the kitchen! It started with an obligatory floor do-over when I realized there was a water-stain slowly spreading outward from the sink or somewhere in that under the dishwasher. Et, zut. New floor:

The desk was the dismay of the playroom/schoolroom which inherited the contents. Then things really got out of hand. There was this wonderful new space in my kitchen with so much possibility. I asked for opinions. This can be, in certain circumstances, a good idea. In this case, what I originally wanted to know was whether or not they agreed with my husband's desire to suspend out pots and pans from the ceiling in order to make more room in our terribley over-crowded cupboards. Good for the part about creating space. Bad...too many bads. They would block my view to the rest of the house, our pans are seriously ugly. Pure utilitarian. Not copper. We would require new pots. That would need quite a budget. Mmm, but copper pots are so pretty. They need what? Polishing? Ha! I'll take utilitarian, thanks anyway.

Instead, thank you to my father and my friend, Rebecca, for the winning idea, the insane idea. The project in which we turn the hall closet inside out to create a pantry in the kitchen. Easy as pie. The sort in which you convince 4 and 20 blackbirds to calmly crawl into a piecrust while you cover them up with another layer of dough and stick them in the oven. And the miracle, when you are finally finished and everyone is still in one piece, ready to sing...or cook.

Thank you to my mother, for her extreme painting sessions, I appreciate it! The pantry itself, and its matching bookshelf, came unfinished. I wanted them really really kitchen proof, so I undertook to know exactly how to paint new wood intended for kitchen use. It involved a lot of primer, sand paper and time.

Then the cupboards and walls, naturally, needed repainting, so they would be as pretty as the pantry. This too, involved sand paper and coat after coat of paint. Everything was done in cream, with just the one plum accent wall. I wanted a vintage look, but I was sagely talked out of distressing, I think. The French lace curtains and burnished sort of knobs on all of the drawers and cabinets convey the feeling nicely.

 Oh; and you can see the spice jars, all set to be used in my summer Indian cuisine lessons.

But finished? Oh no, not hardly. There is the hallway that needs repainting, since it now has a splotch where the hall closet once was. I thought I'd paint it to match. Then I looked for the paint; MIA. Then I realized there was some new (unfinished) woodwork above the old closet and below. Then I looked at the rest of the woodwork, all full of nicks and dents. It really needed to be sanded down and all of it painted to match. I accomplished this before my family came for Easter. Then I went back to real life. Now if I can just decide on a color to redo the hallway. Though I am pretty sure that when I come to the end of it the living room's paint is also going to look old and scratched up and...ready to be repainted. 

The children took full advantage of the extra free time when lessons were over and the weather was too gross outside. They were very busy making apples into swans:

Learning tunes on the piano via HD Piano, and how to play harmonica, drawing, making pop-up cards and doing experiments I do not necessarily endorse.

I am glad the weather and I have turned to gardening.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Green Again!

Here is the first produce out of our garden this year, this was April 28th. The chives, oregano and thyme simply returned, like the tulips and now the irises. Joy! This is a "bouquet garni" tied up for the soup pot.

And we can finally play, eat and experiment outside again!
 My youngest and his little cousin.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Small Things Yarn Along

I picked up this book while dusting the other day and had a look back through it; it is all about the lost arts of housekeeping. (No, I did not stop dusting to read it...or not for long.) I brought it home when I was a young wife and mother-to-be in France, the country of the spotless and the creative.

I saw it, years ago, as my ideal of making things around me as beautiful and old-fashioned as the whitest, prettiest vintage linens you could imagine. A house that smelled good, was nicely appointed, and held all of the warmth and welcome of a really happy place. I guess I wanted to be Tasha Tudor years before I had ever heard of her. 

The hat is one of a recent set of baby things I've been happily working on. I love the yarn, a cotton and maybe bamboo blend. Baby projects are so nice, as the recipients are adorable and their mothers happy with a new bit of fluff I've created for their heads or toes.

Monday, March 21, 2016

How it All Started

I am supposed to be writing a speech. A short one about homeschooling and what it is, and to introduce myself. It is for a panel on education. I've never been on a panel. All I have to do is remember why we began this journey.

That's easy; it all started in France with "la maternelle," or public school at age 3. It was a good fit for my daughter, the teachers were caring and wise and patient. She learned to say very interesting things like "caca boudin," which roughly translates to "sausage poo," and the whole class waltzed in sweet ball gowns and tuxes made by one of the grandmothers, for the end of the year program.This, despite the fact that the entire class had come down with chicken pox in the last two months of the school year. The teacher/headmistress was desperate; "forget the two-week quarantine, I have to teach them to WALTZ!"

Her little brother, Duncan, came down with the chicken pox and had to be left with a sitter for the first time ever, while we went to the event and I fretted the entire time. He missed her so much during the school day, she was three and he was eighteen months old. My little girl cried each day when I dropped her off. It felt wrong. It felt awful and heart-wrenching. Apparently, when Daddy took her, she was as happy as can be, skipping off with her friends to play. What struck me at the time was that I was divvying up the family only because "school was where a child should be to be properly socialized." I had already fought this battle when my husband and I made the decision for me to stay home with the children when they were young, instead of offering them the opportunity for proper baby socialization in a state-run creche. (As well as giving me the chance to go out and be a productive member of society.) I was in France, holding out until the age of three had taken a lot of going against the tide already. On one hand, the government gave an incentive to women to stay home via a monthly stipend you could collect if you had at least two children. In reality, there were very few women with good jobs who chose to give them up to take advantage of this. I had left work after just one baby. There had been looks and remarks from the family, job offers turned down, and parties where the question and answer of where I worked led to an embarrassed silence from the other person. "I stay home with my children." "Ah." "Not forever of course." "Wow, I don't know how you do it. I would go crazy. Is that Sophie over there? Sophie!" I was out of the loop and it stung sometimes. This odd mix of having chosen to stay home and having to give up my littles to school anyway was, well, odd.

A year later, we moved to the United States. Now Cate was four, Duncan was almost three and I was expecting our next baby. I had become accustomed the the new reality that would have soon been mine; two off to school each morning and time alone with my new baby. It didn't sound that bad. They would both go only half days, so we would all be home together again at noon. (This too, was considered a heresy, but the law allowed it, so they had to go along with it at school. The rest of the kiddies were there until 4:30, or 6 if both parents worked and they used the after-school daycare.) And, after all, in the "maternel," as the 3-6 year old section was named, Cate had learned to write and make macaroni picture frames and could sing a million cute songs in French. I missed her terribly each day, but she had friends at school and it was what everyone else in the town did, so we did too. It's what the entire country did. I had met no exceptions.

But what would happen now? I clearly needed to find a good school to continue this fabulous start! We moved here in May, so I had months ahead of me to search, and months of time with my children and no one else. It was so much fun to plan outings and be the one teaching them the days of the week, how to swim, going to the fabulous libraries together. However, from my hotel each day, I also set off on preschool visits. The gambit of ones I saw ran from basement church Sunday school rooms (and not even my own church) to private homes turned into schools (also in the basement). The one we finally settled on was one that came the closest to emulating the organized, calm atmosphere of a French "maternel" classroom. It was very nice, a place I could see my kids enjoying. In the back of my mind and the bottom of my heart there was a nagging, "wouldn't it be nice to just keep them at home?" However, I was no teacher, I barely had the patience to help get their socks and shoes on and get us all out the door! No, they needed to be in school and be receiving a decent education. But when we returned home and consulted the tuition fees, for two, our jaws dropped. There was no way. It was a Montessori school and out of our budget. By a lot.

We did find a place for them run by two really wonderful teachers, who had once been Catholic school teachers, in a good neighborhood. I had not realized at the time that it was on the other end of town from our new house, but the drive was about ten minutes, so not too bad. My munchkins did well there, but they did not always want to go, especially Duncan. Then it was off to kindergarten for Cate, and it was an all-day school. She was so tired at the end of the day, poor baby, and I was determined to do our French correspondence program and it really was all too much for her.

By this time, I had made friends, and some of them were insane women who homeschooled their children. My reaction; "That sounds really nice. Too bad I am completely unfit for something like that." As the PTA meetings,  cupcake baking, driving across town twice a day for preschool and the daily kindergarten pick-up rush accumulated, my joy in the whole "school life" declined. Besides, my friends were having way more fun than we were. They were off to the park for playdates, could let their kids sleep in in the mornings (our school started at 7:50) and they were not preoccupied by dates and deadlines for frozen-food fundraisers. I had to kick them out of our house on weekday afternoons so I could feed everyone before getting them to bed early enough to get up early enough to get to school on time. Ditto for lunch and naptime. Pre-school was from 9-12, and kindergarten let out at 2:30, and one had to be in the parking lot by two if you wanted a spot, or on foot, in the nicer weather, which still meant leaving home at 2. What normal nap time ends at 2:00, when lunch is at 12:30? This rhythm stunk. 

I held on, though, and as I volunteered each week to give French lessons to a class of kindergartners, I came to appreciate the wonderful teachers and classroom aids. I also liked the diversity of Cate's particular classroom, there were children in wheelchairs, deaf children, I tried to do all I could to be supportive of the school and staff, which translated to accepting a position with the PTA for the following year. As I attended meeting after meeting, I learned that the position (VP) involved one thing; coordinating a part of the fund-raising for the year.  And each other position was to coordinate another sector of the same; frozen food, gift wrap, chocolates, roller-skating nights, book sales, donuts, fall fun day, spring fun day, Christmas bake and jewelry sale, and so on. Was that all? Was there not to be an opportunity to discuss education, at some point? To be a voice for students and address their needs? Was selling wrapping paper my new goal in life? I tend to get a little overly zealous, so I took a deep breath and thought; "well, this was a support role, I would take it, next year would surely bring more opportunity for involvement."

Then I heard it. It was a Friday afternoon in the springtime, before the final Fun Day of the year. The principal came over the loud-speaker, as he did at the end of each day, to do announcements. I was not usually in the building by then, but we had lingered a bit after French to tidy up and this is what he said, the words that sent me careening down the homeschool rabbit hole; "OK, kids, you have all been given raffle tickets for the drawing next week. I want to you get out there after school today and SELL, SELL, SELL!"

Silence followed by a bell, in the classroom and in my mind. A numbing, vibrant silence. That was it? Not a word of encouragement to read a book or have a great, sunny afternoon outdoors? My rebellious inner me was stoked to a hot fire. I returned home, gave the kids a snack, and sat down to write a letter. I sent a copy to the principal and to each member of the PTA. I asked whether there was not any incentive or doubt or action in place to put education over fund-raising. What encouragement were we giving teachers to care properly for the academic and social needs of our children? Did they really need to go to training sessions sponsored by McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut? (See note below). Could we not support them in a more meaningful way? In an earlier meeting with the principal, I was told that he chose not to ever question or disturb the PTA members, they had, after all, raised enough money to replace all of the computers in the library. (This failed to impress; I did not wish for my 5-year-old to be anywhere near a computer.) My big question; in what way is it right to turn our children into little beggar/peddlers every couple of weeks if the whole point of compulsory education is to allow them a chance to be children and have access to education before they have to worry about supporting their families? The role seems simply to have suffered transference and we are asking them to work to support the school instead of their own siblings and parents.

After waiting two weeks for a response from the principal or members of the PTA and wondering about the remote possibility that I too, could make this work, this homeschooling thing, I quit. I sent a copy of the previous letter to the teachers too, so they would know I was not denouncing their work nor that of public education. I announced my intention to homeschool the following year and did not look back for a long, long time. 

Of course I cannot say this at the panel today, after all, most of the other members are in public and private education and might be offended. That is not today's exercise or purpose, but it is good to have the opportunity to remember and resolve to give the kids something that can be found nowhere else. A chance to thrive in freedom. A chance to grow up without constantly needing to hurry up. My chance to continue my role as a mother and mold them, for a little while, in a way that suits both our beliefs and their needs.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Little Nostalgic...

...for the days when I was homeschooling five kids, making candles, taking hikes, having all the time in the world and not knowing it.

Immerse yourself in the joyful chaos that is the gift of today.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sled, Experiment, Build

February is always the month where spring starts to sound like a really good idea that is really far away. I love the winter though, and there is not quite enough snow and cold here anymore. Here is a tribute, then, to what can be done when homeschooling in the winter months, with or without the snow.

Remember the Elephant Toothpaste Experiment I told you about a week or so ago? Here is what it looked like in my driveway:

As soon as a fresh batch of snow came, we raced to the hills before it all melted:

The snowman was so heavy they could not lift the balls to stack them; so they put 3 arrows in and called him a casualty.

And when a visiting carpenter offers to allow a helper to learn his trade, what do you do? Call a halt to school and let it happen!

Well, some preferred to take advantage of the free day to finish a novel...

Jack Frost stays busy and I delight in the landscapes we find in the morning:

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Journey Through Time in Rhythm and Rhyme

This is it, the one poetry volume you need from pre-school to high school and beyond. It contains a beautiful selection of classical poetry as well as poems and verses you may never have heard before. There are ballads that last for pages on end for older children to learn, finger-plays, blessings for meals and teachers and everything in-between; a Wordsworth, easy to memorize and digest, poems about trees, about parts of speech and numbers.

Because, did I mention? It is written for use with a Waldorf curriculum through all the grades. It does not specifically say so, but what other collection of poetry starts with morning verses and works its way through farming and building, gems and minerals, meandering through history, imagination and ends with "prayers, praise and contemplation?" As well as including verses by Rudolf Steiner for morning, seasons, teachers and more?

The cover is lovely, a slightly haughty pied piper dressed as a court jester leading an array of prettily-clad children around the back of the book. (The piper's stockings look hand-knit, so, naturally, I find them irresistible.) If that is not enough to entice you, there is also a verse from Roy Wilkinson that I particularly love; "Hymn to Prometheus," and Hymns to Osiris and Ra from "The Book of the Dead." The thing I find so fascinating about ancient prayers is their absolute similarity to the ones we use today, the language, the sentiment, the form.

Here is the book on amazon: I have an affiliate account with them, so if you order directly leaving this page, it earns me a small commission, which is much appreciated. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

January Lesson Ideas, Fun Experiments and Encouragement

When the weather is dismal and energy levels inspire more to crawling back under the covers than to deep study and hard work, the homeschool blues or dropping it all seem to be the only options. Courage, fellow homeschoolers, the season will soon be turning and you will be glad that you have persevered and finished up the lessons you intended to complete before the weather turns beautiful again and outdoor adventures beckon. You can do it!

Think of:
All the books you ever wanted your kids to read. Make a list, start with your very favorites, and curl up for reading time, out loud or individually. We are into the second book in "The Wrinkle in Time" series for one of our read alouds. Another is a history series that they are all enjoying; "A History of US," by Joy Hakim, Oxford Press. I take advantage of the lack of enthusiasm to venture out in the winter months to spend lots of time reading, and a little extra on writing and doing math. 

Science...move on to an experiment once a week. The Waldorf method is to do the experiment one day, not discussing it, just letting it sink in until the next day when it gets explained, analyzed and recorded. Some fun online sources: from the Chicago Science Institute: how to build an electric motor,  mix up chemicals and create explosions, (recipe at the end): Genius Joe or here: for a tutorial on how to make stalactites from hand warmers, super cool, according to the kids.

Foreign language burn-out? Try music from another country...and dancing to it. If they are old enough, give Duolingo (on phone or computer) or a similar ap a whirl; our library system has one we can sign up for called Mango. I love it! This is not a complete course, but it can be a fun supplement, or intro to a new language. In Latin, Charles and Valentine and I have found that the program we prefer is the Cambridge Latin Course, so we are sticking with that one. We turn to Wheelock's Latin for more in-depth explanations of grammar at times, or different texts. In Spanish, we have gone back to a basic CD in order to improve pronunciation. I dug out a high school text book to show them that they are doing well; they had at least heard and attempted to use most of the vocabulary in the book already.

For opportunities out of doors, look up your local environmental organizations. Around here, even in below zero temps, there are eagle-watching days, hikes at the marsh and snow-shoeing, all for free. Bundle up and head out to a museum or the library just to be somewhere else for a day. 

In our home this week:

At school, Valentine was bored to tears in math and consistently at over 100% in her class. After much deliberation and reassurance from our tutor, she decided to join the honors class. She is her father's child where this subject is concerned. I am happy for her. 

Gael is making progress in spite of himself. His reading and writing are coming along to the point, not of grabbing a book and reading it, but to where he has the confidence to try to read aloud to me and will actually look at the words on the page instead of saying, "I told you I don't get it. I don't know. I can't." I write new little rhymes for him each day, or silly stories, adding on to the lines from the day before. He does copy work from known poets too. This week's poem is "The Oak and the Reed," by Margaret Morgan. I find most of the poems I use from the book in this week's book review: "A Journey in Time Through Verse and Rhyme." 

Happy Winter!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Home Yoga

With a wicked snow storm assailing our eastern coast in the U.S. and the ground in the Midwest converted to a frozen tundra, not to mention the air that turns boogers to icicles, the urge to leave one's home for anything has dwindled away to not very great at all. It is the time of private yoga once again. 

My favorite online, free resource for yoga video workouts of all levels:     Do Yoga With Me

See below for how to use a yoga video.

You don't necessarily need a season for a yoga home practice, but for me, this is when it all begins again each year. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy New Year 2016!!!

I wish you a joyful, peace-filled, healthy, prosperous new year, from my family to you and yours. May the light of a hundred suns shine gently upon you, filling your days and mind with happiness, fresh ideas and love. 

I write to you with a brand new pair of eyes today; or rather, the left one is new, the right one is adjusting to the cataract operation that altered the left. I have been away from the screen, from reading, from exercise, for what seems like a string of eternities, but has really only been since Tuesday last. 

In the interim of the holidays and surgery, there has been so much going on.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Joy is in the Air...

...and I love it all; the Solstice, the dark, the candles, Yule, Santa and the manger waiting for Baby Jesus. The tree is up, there is chocolate bread baking in the oven, cookies made and it is 22 degrees, so it is feeling more like the holidays are almost here. 

I am not writing with news of great lesson accomplishments or new break-throughs in teaching. A big, bad cold has wound its way through each and every child the past week and slowed things down, except for the oldest who was in the middle of finals at college. 

No, today I am writing to pause and give thanks.