Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lucky Homeschoolers

How did people homeschool before the Internet? My hat is off to those early pioneers who did it secretly and sometimes illegally, with no readily available resources, texts, how-to books, websites, yahoo groups. All by themselves. Really, I would never have been so brave.

I have a few examples of how lucky we are. We've been studying ancient civilizations and recently moved from Egypt to Mesopotamia to India. I went to one of my new favorite web sites and found a link to a website that showed actual pictures from an archeological excavation of Mohenjo-Daro. So my kids got to see what we had just read about in A Story of the World. They saw what this almost 4000 year old civilization looked like, the citadel, the baths and what an excavated site looks like. It was really cool. Can you imagine having access to that sort of information when we were kids? Or worse, can you imagine NOT having access to it?

Later we went back to that same website and looked up solar eclipses. We watched a webcast of a solar eclipse in Turkey from, if I remember correctly, 2004. We are also compulsive googlers. My daughter is the questioner in the family - a constant stream of questions I could never answer without my computer. She woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago, the sleep still in her eyes and asked "Mommy, how old is the universe?" Google to the rescue. 13.7 billion years.

And then there is the library system, which I access through the web. When she asked in the car (one of my most vulnerable points for question answering, there's a whole lot of I-don't-know-s going on there) where the song "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" came from, I googled it first and then logged into the library system to get some books and recordings. We can request from a whole group of libraries, 70 of them I think. It's an amazing collection, right at our fingertips. We also have a compulsive requesting problem. Luckily, the library sends us friendly email reminders when we have items to pick up and when items are due.

There is a touch of TMI here - too much information. But, really, these kids can learn what they want when they want. Isn't that what it's all about?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Best Face Forward

This is the happy little face that greeted me yesterday morning. So clear of eczema that I almost cried. Instead I grabbed the camera to document it. This is the clearest our little man has been since last October, at least in the face. He still has a bit of eczema behind his knees and in his elbows - yesterday was humid so those areas are sure to have increased a bit.

But the face! When I think back on it, especially how bad it was this spring, it amazes me that he could ever have smiled. Here's the face we were accostomed to seeing. He went through such a tough time, so many nights of scratching and bleeding.

When the entire family was infested with oak mite bites this summer, , our oldest got up one morning, scratching incessantly and said "Now we know what it's like to be the Little Guy!"

I don't know what has cleared him, any more than I am certain what triggers him. He snuck corn chips at a party this weekend, so can he really be allergic to corn? Has he outgrown any of his food allergies, are we up to the consequences of a challenge gone bad? Will he flare up again once the neighborhood lawn chemical warfare begins in earnest fall treatments? Will his face explode in red, itching oozes once he gets his next cold?

I'm taking the good. I'm remembering this day when he didn't ask for a kleenex from the back seat to mop up blood from his eczema zone.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Walk in the Woods

I was in the mood to hear some frogs yesterday, so we chose a forest preserve with a slough for our hike. The kids seem to prefer bike rides to hikes, but I wanted them to get out of their crankiness by feeling the earth a little closer up than on a bike.

It was a hot day, so the walk wasn't long. We stopped a lot along the way, looking into snake holes, collecting acorns, peering at spider webs - poking through the abandoned ones. The leaves are starting to change and the black walnut trees had their very un-walnut looking fruit hanging for the picking.

There was no path cleared to the slough, so we walked through a nicely maintained savanna to get there. Obviously this preserve has a corp of volunteers that have been restoring and reclaiming it from the buck thorn, native grasses and wildflowers are growing in the spaces between the trees.

While the boys headed back to the car to use the porta-potty, I watched my daughter wade through the cattails in search of the animal she could hear in there. She was completely lost in her task, oblivious to anything around her. I sat on a glacier-littered stone and thought of the hours I spent as a child doing just as she was then. There was a creek running through the neighborhood where we would make boats of out leaves and float them, catch frogs, toads and salamanders, make houses for bugs, larger structures for ourselves and generally get lost to the world for hours at a time. There was also a slough down a meandering path across the road and my family would hike it every weekend, cross country skiing in the winters.

My girl turned around after about 20 minutes to make sure someone was still there with her. I would never have had to do that, my mother would not have been there. We could just walk out our front door to get to the wilderness around us. We lived with the mud, the bugs, the birds and snakes. The snakes! My parents yard was full of snake and chipmunk holes. Where I now live, holes in yards are almost as evil as dandelions.

My children have to be loaded into the car for the same outdoor experience. It makes me wonder if we should move even farther away from our friends and activities so my kids can gain that eight intelligence, be in touch with the natural world.

My girl never found her muskrat in the cattails, but she did get to pet a horse on the way back through the woods. And she felt the earth beneath her feet, smelled the season turning to fall and took a nap when we got home.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


If all goes according to plan today, I will have posted our final 12 egg coddlers on eBay. If these all sell, which they probably will, that will mean we've sold about 60 of them.

This is a fine example of an egg coddler, although most are more elegant than cute. To make coddled eggs, you break the eggs into the ceramic vessel, add herbs, cheese or whatever suits your fancy, place the coddler in a pan of gently boiling water up to the rim of the coddler and wait for 6 or 7 minutes. The eggs gently cook. And toast and enjoy.

Why we have so many of them is another issue entirely, and all my fault. Mark and I were wandering through an antique store one day pre-children and I spotted one. I hadn't had coddled eggs in a long while and decided to buy it. Mark had never had coddled eggs and became fascinated with the coddlers. He started collecting. He has a collecting thing.

Collecting then meant going from store to store and hunting them down. It was partly the chase that got him engaged and partly the sheer number of patterns out there. We ended up with maybe 80 of them. Now we are selling our collection of collections to gain more peace in our lives. Some of the more common patterns don't sell, so we can still have eggs on Thursday nights.

I'm always amazed by eBay and how it has changed the face of collecting. Within minutes of posting new coddlers, I'll have a bid or a bunch of watchers. These people must have their favorite searches linked to their blackberries. It's no longer necessary to go from store to store, searching for a needle in a haystack. There are so many collectors of so many things and so much for sale, it's mind boggling. Selling things can be every bit as addicting as buying them. I like to think selling is a little healthier than buying, but I suppose it could be a bad habit too. If all the furniture, pets and kids get sold, we're in trouble.

As long as our items sell and get to their new homes safely, I'm happy. My house is less cluttered, our checking account a little less lean and someone out there got a good deal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Yesterday was my day to be sick. We all had a cold in turns, the youngest had it in his lungs and required nebulizer treatments for a night and day. I had it in my lungs, but had other symptoms too, so maybe it was something else. West Nile? It doesn't really matter, I spent the day like a beached whale on the couch.

You would think this would have been the perfect opportunity to catch up on all those little things that have been nagging at me. I have a list a mile long - phone calls to make to find a place for our wayward boys to play during girl scout meetings, items to list on eBay during the no-listing fees month, updating our checkbook with Quicken, calling friends and family.

I got nothing done. Except things that weren't on the list. Our office was a complete mess, a pig-sty with guinea pigs included! My one expenditure of physical energy involved cleaning up this tiny space, vacuuming and dusting so the kids can use MathScore up there. That computer has a number pad, which is a critical component of the program. After that, I collapsed again.

I think I'm phone-adverse because in my former life I spent entire days on the phone at work. Of course, it's been 7 1/2 years since I had that job. I think the statute of limitations has run out on that excuse. I finally made some of the phone calls in the afternoon - easy enough to do from the couch. The problem is, there are always a million other interesting things to do than what I have to do. I need to find a way out of my procrastinating self, it's probably a learned behavior and one I don't want my kids to pick up.

Mark went to the library for me to return many things, pick up others on hold and fix a DVD problem. He had one of those annoyingly funny conversations with the librarian.
"We checked out this DVD, but can't watch it because it's locked."
"You have to check it out for us to unlock it."
"We checked it out, but it wasn't unlocked."
"Once you check it out, we'll unlock it."
"Somehow it happened to be locked when we brought it home."
"No, you need to check it out first and then we'll unlock it."
Silence, followed by "Oh, this one is already checked out!"
More silence, followed by "You should always check to make sure the DVDs are unlocked before you leave the library."

Maybe these kinds of conversations are what lead me to procrastinate?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Testosterone and WMD

Four new boys and one lone girl moved onto our block in the past month. That brings our total to 27 boys and 15 girls, although some of them are babies and can't contribute to the outdoor noise much.

The weather was beautiful this weekend and for two entire days a posse of boys ran around the neighborhood chasing, screaming, running, jumping and generally having a great time. While relaxing on the front porch, I saw these cherubs with multiple plastic machine guns, rifles, pistols, daggers and, somewhat alarmingly, one bloody chainsaw. The chainsaw, I'm pretty sure, belonged to one of the dads.

I have a thing about guns. I don't like them and don't allow them in the house. I know it makes little sense that I'll allow light sabers, swords, and knives of all sorts but won't allow guns. When my oldest received a red-capped pistol for his birthday, I chose to see it as a sign of maturity that he didn't even ask to bring it into the house, he just put it in the toy box on the porch at the end of the day. Of course, this could just be a sign that he understands my neuroses. Like the time this past spring when friends brought dinner to our house as an generous, supportive gesture. He said "Wow, Mommy. Even your friends know you've flipped out."

Watching the boys this weekend have so much fun with these weapons didn't change my mind about guns in the house. But it did ease my mind about weapons of mass destruction as playthings. These kids clearly knew they were playing, the violence was all imagined and involved many creative and athletic manoeuvres. Scooters, bikes, sticks, skateboards were also part of the mix. No one got hurt, no tears were shed and at least my two boys slept well after all that hard play.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Heat is On

Why is it so much harder to get used to the chill than it is to get used to warmth? We've put up a good fight here, but have resorted to putting the heat on. And closing the windows at night. I'm not willing to give up my evenings on the front porch. We still have Indian Summer to look forward to and it's not time to put away the shorts just yet. Today I'm mourning for my favorite temperature range: 68 to 75 degrees. Anything beyond that and I'm either too hot or too cold.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Apple Picking and Cold Brains

Nothing quite says fall to me like picking apples. The cool air, the bright sunshine, and the bees all work together to bring me to a happy place. Luckily it was breezy yesterday and this year's mosquitoes weren't as ferocious as they have been.

We go to a place in Malta, near DeKalb, called Jonamac Orchard. Even though they spray their apples, it's such a nice experience that we forgive the chemicals. They have a lot of different varieties, a nice barnyard play area that you don't have to pay to enter during the week, the use of wagons to lug your children and/or your apples, a picnic area and lots of trees. We've been coming back for about 5 years now.

Unfortunately, I have a bit of a cold and it has deadened a number of brain cells. We got pretty lost on the way there due to a missing street sign. The intersection was being re-worked and was completely torn up. I imagine the enormous new housing development caused the need to widen the road, but that's a poor excuse for not labeling the street. We drove several miles in the wrong direction. When we stopped to ask and were directed back to the intersection, my children growled and blamed George Bush. No comment.

We picked a bushel of apples, eating a number of them in the process, played in the corn bin and the hay bale maze and headed home. Here's where we got lost again, very close to home, picking up our weekly vegetable box from Angelic Organics. As the sun was blazing directly in my eyes, and as I had been complaining about it for 5 or 10 minutes, I have no explanation for why I believed myself to be driving east.

Later that evening, we went to the Office Depot to get two spiral bound copies made of handwriting practice sheets I had done at home. We've never really focused on handwriting before, but it's become necessary. The kids are done with their Handwriting Without Tears workbooks, but I'm not willing to let them move on to cursive when I can't read their printing. So, I made up about 40 pages of animal idioms for them to copy. Here's an example: "When my brother left the toilet seat up this morning, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. My mother turned him into a toad."

Of course, after a lengthy discussion with the nice woman at Office Depot to determine that kind of binding, I failed to tell her that I needed two copies. She made one beautiful workbook from my original and then had to take it apart to make the two copies I should have asked for in the first place. My three monkeys, meanwhile, were trying out every last sharpie in the bin. They got very excited and actually fought hard over the left over bits of coil from the spiral binding.

I put myself to be early last night and had an extra cup of coffee today. I'm hoping for an improvement.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

History Day

Today we went to the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park. It has to have been 20 years since I was there - and what a gem it is! We hiked about six blocks from the parking lot because parallel parking a Volvo station wagon with three backseat drivers is not my idea of fun. And parking on a university campus is notoriously bad.

Once we got there and paid my suggested contribution, the place was a fantastic compliment to our slow progress through The Story of the World. Many artifacts from Mesopotamia, implements used to make the cuneiform writing, a replica of a stela showing the Code of Hammurabi, remnants of carriage wheels, etc. The Little Guy particularly enjoyed the touch screen interactive computer set up. We'll be coming back.

The problem we had with the Story of the World last year was mine. I couldn't just follow the plan and the suggested additional reading and projects. It took us 9 months to go through 6 chapters. I had to get every possible book on Ancient Egypt, for example. Folktales, mythology, many books on mummies and pyramids, DVDs of explorations and reenactments. Then we did every last project I could find, making clothes, meals, pyramids out of sugar cubes, checking out loan boxes from the Field Museum. I killed the poor kids with it.

I have a history of doing this. When the older two were interested in American Indians, they were maybe 3 and 4 years old. I checked out every possible folk tale of many different Native American tribes. Creation tales, fables, folk stories, you name it. After about 30 books, no exaggeration, Buddy said "Aren't we DONE with these yet, Mommy?" But there are so many good books out there, so many great resources through the library system, I can't help myself.

This year I'm trying to do things differently. They don't need to know, nor are they particulalry interested in, every last detail. They just need to know enough to recognize their own interests. Then they can do the complusive, exhaustive research on their own.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Math Revisited

This is the second day in a row we've used dice for math practice. I dislike the word drill. The kids take turns instead of competing for an answer. I've learned that our Buddy gets too caught up in the competition to remember even the most basic of math.

This worked today, but for the occasional too vigorous roll onto the floor or the fit of giggles as they came up with a smarty-pants negative number answer. The Little Man was playing his Jump 'tart with headphones on and didn't ask to join in.

This is, however, something considerably less than a permanent solution. Interesting, though, that the two are on the same level with dice practice instead of a workbook apart on paper!

Six Years Ago

I decided on a peaceful image for an unsettling day.

Six years ago, I was watching the Today show, as I did every morning. My sister called after the first plane hit, not because of it, but because she had lost her high powered job. We shared those first moments after the World Trade Center attacks. I was glued to the TV. I remember my kids, who were only 2 and 3, getting up late, changing them on the bed and having the TV on. How long was it before I realized they, too, were staring at the planes flying into the buildings over and over again in TV reality? 10, 15 minutes? On such impressionable minds!

We went shoe shopping, because that's what we had planned to do that day. The shop was right along the train line and we watched commuter train after commuter train packed to the gills bringing people home from downtown Chicago. The skies were eerily quiet, the trains eerily busy.

For days I would set the kids - only two of them then - up for lunch in front of a video and go to the other TV to catch the latest news. I didn't sleep well. The sound of the firefighters and rescue workers alarms ringing after they had been killed when the towers fell wouldn't leave my head. It was a constant high pitched whine. Weeks later I stopped watching TV news all together. I still don't watch it. I can't stand the images in my head.

I remember talking to the kids about 9-11, telling them that the planes only flew into the buildings once, not over and over again like instant replay on the TV. I remember trying to tell them that they were safe while not entirely believing it myself. I don't know if they felt unsafe, probably they just felt unsure because we were so unsure.

For a time after 9-11, I actually contemplated putting them in school. I took them regularly to a Mom's Morning Out program at a local church. Then Buddy started acting out, hovering over other children as if to bite (he never actually bit)and eventually striking out at a caregiver. That brought me to my senses and I brought them back home.

Six years is such a long time ago, we didn't even have a digital camera back then. We didn't have Little Man back then. And I didn't have any grey hairs...

Monday, September 10, 2007

We Believe in the Power of the Clorox Wipe

Although, I suppose it could be any old brand of wipe. As environmentally uncool as the wipe is, our house would not be habitable without it. Little Missy has the job of wiping down the bathroom sinks each day and she uses the wipes. I use them in the kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms (two boys, enough said).

The Little Man poured almost a pint of maple syrup on the sun room floor, dumped washable paint in the dining room, used an unidentifiable stamp on the foyer wall and 'pilled his juice in the kitchen. We buy the wipes in huge tubs at Costco.

Someday I'll write an ode to the Clorox Wipe, but not before my ode to the library. And to Roomba, the hardest working member of our household.

Sleepy Heads

One of the major changes we have made to our lives this year is that I actually wake my children up in the morning. There is something so delicious about a child sleeping that I have never done this before unless it was absolutely necessary - like to get to Girl Scouts and Writer's Workshop last year. The problem with this approach is that those mornings were simply terrible. Bad karma for the whole house.

The other issue is that I can't complain that our kids don't have any time management skills if we don't help them manage their time! We spent a lot of time last year going to this class and that activity, sometimes three in one day. It was exhausting. And it was emotionally draining because we were always late, or just barely on time. I turned into the Wicked Witch of the West just to get us out of the house.

So, now I wake them up every day at the same time. And now I get up every day at the same time. We have routines - what a concept! Little Missy here actually combs her hip length curls every day. The dishes get done, the house is vacuumed, math, science, reading, history, etc. are all on schedule. Now, I realize that most grown-ups understood the power of routines and schedule long before me, I'm just celebrating our victory over chaos! The Little Man still gets to sleep in as long as he likes, but he needs more sleep at his age, especially as he refuses to nap most days.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Great Math Search

We are searching for the perfect math program for the older two. We took a math games class last year from Kathy Wentz of the Johnsburg Library. It was fabulous and the kids really learned a lot. We try to duplicate that at home, but it is difficult to play any kind of games with the Little Man around. We have a nice workbook program which progressed them along in a logical manner, but they dislike it.

I've added computer games to their math assignments, which is at least a fun way of doing math, but I'm not convinced they are getting any faster at memorizing their math facts this way. I'm interested in doing a free trial of Mathscore, as the Homeschool Buyers Co-Op has a discount currently offered.