Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Surprise Spice Muffins

My mom used to make a version of these muffins. I LOVED the little bite of warm applesauce hiding in the center. 
I don't just limit myself to applesauce for these muffins. A spoonful of jam, preserves, pureed fruit, Nutella, or anything else you fancy turns a regular old muffin into something special.
I used pear preserves in this batch, so I cranked up the spice to complement the fall flavor. 

1/2 cup sugar
1 TBS flax meal
2 TBS water
1 1/2 cups flour (All Purpose or whole grain)
3 TSP baking powder
1/2 TSP salt
1/4 cup olive or coconut oil
3/4 cup Almond or other milk
1 TSP vanilla
dash of nutmeg
sprinkle of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a muffin pan with cooking spray, grease lightly or line with cupcake papers.
In a large bowl, stir together sugar, water, and flax meal until well combined. 
Add flour, baking powder, salt, oil, milk, vanilla and nutmeg all at once. Stir until just combined.  
Fill muffins cups 2/3 full. Add a 1/2 tsp dollop of filling to the center of each cup. As it bakes, the filling will settle into the center. 

Bake 25 minutes. Cool well. the filling will be hot. 

Hands-on Studies: Playdough Labyrinth

By the kids' request, we have been studying ancient Greek mythology. We used a variety of picture books, but the bulk of our study comes from D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths

I can't say enough about this anthology. It is beautifully illustrated, simply and appropriately presented for children, thorough and complete. 

I have found that my children sit and listen better when their busy little hands are busy. I often hand out art supplies and have them recreate or illustrate some aspect of the story. Reading during mealtimes is a popular choice, as well. 

They have painted Heracles' feats, drawn the hydra with markers, watercolored Aphrodite rising from the sea, and now, built a labyrinth-complete with Minotaur and Theseus waging battle and Ariadne waiting by the door- of homemade playdough .

Each kid made his own version. I love seeing the variations in their individual interpretations.

Gemini's is a bit more abstract.

Giving them something to do that relates directly to the lesson engages different parts of their brain, creates new information pathways, holds their interest, makes the lesson more enjoyable for everyone, preserves mom's sanity, provides inspiration and an outlet for their creativity, and knocks out 2 subjects at once. Everybody wins!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Racing Ramp

1 piece of scrap wood + 1 monkey bars + toy cars + little boys = super intense fun

Vegan Cinnamon-Flax Coffee Cake

My kids always light up when I tell them we're having cake for breakfast. I do, too, actually. Coffee cake always reminds me of my mom, PTA bake sales, coffee dates. There is something special about starting the day with a slice of cake. 

Before we begin:
Add 2 TBS of vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk of your choice. This is cheater buttermilk. It will curdle and thicken.
Add 1/4 cup water to 1 TBS flax meal. This replaces the egg you would normally find in a cake. 

For the cake:
2 1/2 cups flour of your choice. I used all-purpose, but you can use something else.
1 1/2 cups brown or raw sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Combine all dry ingredients. Add sour milk and flax mixture all at once. Stir till just combined. Do not over stir. 

Pour into prepared cake pan. 

For the topping:
1 cup flour
1 cup brown or raw sugar
1/2 cup flax meal
6 TBS melted coconut oil or butter substitute

Combine all ingredients. 

Spread evenly over the top of the unbaked cake.

Bake 45 minutes at 350 until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 
Cool 5-10 minutes. Serve warm. 

A Quick Lesson on Perspective

Perspective is everything. 

Here's a quick lesson I gave my 10 yr old on Thanksgiving, as I was trying to get him to take a decent picture of me. 

Here is a picture taken from waist height. He's two inches shorter than me. This perspective makes him look huge. 

This is the same picture, taken from a high angle. He looks teensy. 

Here's the final picture he took of me. Actually, it's supposed to be a picture of my dressy clothes. My head wasn't critical, I guess. 
We'll keep working on it. 

Harvest Chicken Salad and Pizza Bites

Harvest Chicken Salad

I don't cook or eat meat so much these days, but my husband occasionally does. This recipe uses a couple of pieces of leftover chicken and a handful of other ingredients to create a hearty, autumnal meal. 
This recipe makes enough for 4 generous sandwiches.

3 cup chopped, cooked chicken
2-3 TBS mayo
1 apple, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tbs minced red onion, for color
bread or rolls, to serve

Mix all ingredients together. Serve on bread or rolls. 

Pizza Bites

When we have just a couple of slices of pizza leftover, but not enough to make a meal or divide evenly among the kids, I cut it up into little bite-sized pieces and serve it as a side dish or snack. 
Everyone gets a little bit, and no one fights over who got what kind or how big so-and-so's piece is. 


Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Sugar, Egg-free Oatcakes

These hearty cakes have a mild flavor that serves as the perfect medium for rich toppings. 

2 cups milk of your choice
1 cup flour
2 tbs flax meal
3 tbs oil
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients. Cook by the 1/4 on a hot, oiled skillet or griddle until brown and crispy on both sides. 

Serve hot with your favorite toppings.

Makes 6 cakes.

Strawberry Cupcakes and a Mad Hatter Tea Party

What is the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? Frosting. 
For Gemini's 4th birthday Mad Hatter Tea Party, I adapted my Vegan Blueberry Muffins to make these moist, tender, juicy pink cupcakes.
For the sake of simplicity, I used store bought frosting. Vanilla or cream cheese frosting pair perfectly with these strawberry cakes. 

3/4 cup sugar
1 TBS flax meal
2 TBS water
1 TSP vanilla
1/4 cup olive or coconut oil
1 1/2 cups flour (All Purpose or whole grain)
1 TBS baking powder
1/2 TSP salt
3/4 cup Almond or other milk
approximately 1 pint fresh or frozen strawberries
1-2 TBS flour

In a large bowl, stir together sugar, flax meal, water,  oil (melted if solid), vanilla, baking powder, and salt.

Add 1 1/2 cups flour. Stir until just combined.

Add milk, stir until just moistened.

Do not over stir these 2 steps. Over mixing will make your cupcakes will be hard and chewy. Batter should be thick and slightly lumpy.

In a separate bowl, lightly toss berries in 1-2 TBS flour. This helps evenly distribute berries in cupcakes, and prevents them from settling at the bottom.
Fold into batter. Spoon into prepared muffin pan, filling 3/4 full. 

Bake at 350 for 15-22 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Cupcakes should be pale and very moist.

Cool slightly. Remove from pan. Move to a wire rack to cool completely. Frost, decorate and serve. 

The set up.
My collection of tea cups, a camping mug for the baby, tea, cream in a squeezy bottle, hats from the Dollar Tree, snacks. 

"Drink Me" Post It tags on Capri Suns

"Eat Me" egg salad finger sandwiches
Post It tags wrapped around tooth picks

Even the teapot is dressed up. I made this cozy just for the occasion. 

The Birthday Kid. Happy as a hatter. 

Party time! D was a good sport. <3

Gifts wrapped in kids' artwork. 

First Haircut

Taurus had his first haircut at 2 years and 4 months old. I was a little nervous about cutting his curls, but they are still going strong. 

He was intrigued by the whole experience. He kept turning around in his chair, trying to look at the scissors while I was cutting. 

Neither of us was traumatized by the experience, and now his hair stays out of his eyes. He looks good, don't you think?

Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal

This is-hands down- my kids' favorite breakfast. They ask for it every day.
I make it for them whenever I have blueberries on hand. It's healthy, cheap, filling, quick, and tasty. 

Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tbs flax meal
1/4 cup milk of your choice
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs butter or margarine
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen. 

Combine oats and flax meal in a medium-sized pot. Add water to just cover. Cook over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Lower heat.

Stir in milk, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and vanilla. 

Last, fold in blueberries. Heat through. Serve. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mushroom Pot Pie with 3 Ingredient Crust

Pot pie is one of my favorite comfort foods. This meatless version is features a tender crust, nourishing vegetables, and a rich gravy. 

Pot pie is a simple dish, consisting of two parts: a stew and a crust.

You can use any kind of stew that you like. In this recipe, I'm using a mushroom stew.

Pie crust is an art. My recipe calls for only 2 ingredients and a little water. A remarkable pie crust takes a bit of practice, but is a skill worth acquiring. 

For a vegan version, use a vegan butter substitute in the crust.

1/4 cup olive oil
6 carrots, sliced
1 potato, cubed
1 onion, diced
1 pint mushrooms, sliced
pinch of salt
1/4 cup flour
1-2 vegetable bouillon cubes or soup base to taste
approximately 2 cups water
1 bag frozen peas

Heat oil in a large pot. Cook carrots, potato, onion, and mushrooms till tender. 

Sprinkle vegetables with flour. Cook and stir over high heat for 2 minutes. 

Add bouillon cubes or soup base. Slowly stir in enough water to make a gravy. 

Cook and stir until gravy is thick and bubbly. 

Stir in peas. Remove from heat. Set aside. 

2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup butter or substitute
1/4 to 1/2 cup water, or as needed

The key to a good pie crust is cold butter. Real butter is quite hard, which makes for a fine crumb and a tender crust. Substitutes tend to be softer, resulting in a pastier crust. If possible, you may prefer a stick form over a tub, or chill it in the freezer before beginning. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, mash butter into flour with tips of fingers, pastry cutter, 2 butter knives, or a fork. Continue mashing until fine crumbs form. These tiny chunks of butter will melt in the oven, creating flaky, buttery layers. Avoid using the whole hand, as the heat will melt the butter.

Add in water, 1 TBS at a time. Gently stir until a soft ball just begins to form. 

Turn out onto lightly floured surface.  Remove 1/4 of dough for top crust. If kitchen is warm, place in the refrigerator. Roll remaining dough out to the general shape or the dish, slightly larger than the diameter. Do not overwork the dough. Rolling it out twice or more will result in a tough, cracker-like consistency. 


Fold dough gently into quarters. Lift and place in the dish. Unfold. Press dough into bottom and sides of pan gently. If you have cracks or gaps, pinch the dough closed, remove excess dough from upper edges, and replace to fill gaps. Prick with a fork a few times. This crust does not have to be pretty. It won't show on the final pie. 

Prebake crust for 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Dough should be firm, but not browned. 

Pour filling into pie. Roll out top crust. Place on top of filling. Score with a sharp knife to vent. 

Bake 15-20 minutes until top crust is golden brown. 

Cool 20 minutes. Serve hot and steamy. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Easy Homemade Vegan Hummus and Naan from Scratch

This simple meal takes little hands-on time, and makes a perfect, light summer dinner paired with a fresh Greek salad.
I had misplaced my recipe card, so I was looking online at various recipes. Naan is so simple, they must all be similar, right? Wrong. Most recipes called for 10 different ingredients, including yogurt and ghee, and required up to 4 hours of preparation time.
What. No. Here's my one-hour, 4 ingredient recipe. The easy-to-remember ratio is 4: 2: 1: 1


4 cups flour of your choice. I use bread flour.
2 cups warm water
1 tbs yeast
1 tsp salt

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together. Stir until a soft dough form. If dough is dry, add a little warm water. If dough is wet and sticky, add a little flour. 

Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

Turn out and work the dough with a little flour until it's nice and smooth. Do not overwork. Let rest. 

Heat a skillet, griddle, stove top grill, or fine mesh bbq grill. Or whatever. A flat heat source of your choice. 

If necessary, brush surface with oil to prevent sticking. 

Pinch off small handfuls of dough. Work each one into a large, flat oval or circle, like a little crust. Place on hot grill or pan. If will cook and rise very fast. Less than a minute on each side. Remove to a tray and allow to cool slightly. 

Serve warm with hummus. 

Place cooled leftover naan in a large freezer bag. Store in freezer. When ready to use, reheat in 375 degree oven for 10 minutes, or in microwave for 30 seconds. 


In my little town, hummus is a specialty item and sells for around $1 an ounce. This is crazy to me, because where I grew up, it's as common as peanut butter. It's essentially seasoned, mashed beans, and costs less than $2 a pound to make. 

1 pint (or one can) cooked chickpeas (garbanzos)
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp tahini, or substitute peanut butter, soy nut butter, sunbutter, almond butter, or any other nut or seed butter you prefer
drizzle olive oil
pinch salt, to taste

Start by cooking dry chickpeas. I use a crock pot or pressure cooker, depending on how far in advance I plan. Cook the whole pound and freeze all but one pint in canning jars or freezer bags.

Or use a can. 

Place all ingredients except olive oil in blender jar or food processor. Add a little of the liquid from the beans, to help it move. Blend until smooth, drizzling a little olive oil until you have a nice, creamy texture. 

Spoon into a bowl and serve warm with fresh naan. 

Easy Homemade Scented Play Dough

Play dough is so easy to make, smells better, feels better, and costs almost nothing. You can make it with items you already have in your pantry. 

The ingredient list is out of order, because the ratios are easy to remember- 2: 1: 1/2: 1/2.
2 cups flour- all purpose or bread flour work well
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cooking oil
a few drops of food coloring of your choice
Scents listed below (optional)

In a large bowl, stir together dry ingredients. 

Add oil, boiling water, color and scent (if desired). Stir until a soft dough forms. Knead until smooth, adding a pinch of flour if needed. 

Dough will be very soft and warm. It will firm a bit as it cools. 

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Because there are no preservatives, dough is not shelf stable. 


You can any essential oil, extract or candy flavoring that you like. Here are some of our favorites.

Tangerine Essential oil
Lavender essential oil
Peppermint essential oil or extract
Rose essential oil
Lemon essential oil
Orange essential oil
Grapefruit essential oil
Spice blend scented oil
Blueberry scented oil
Cinnamon scented oil
Chocolate scented oil
Citrus spice scented oil
Vanilla extract
Almond extract
Coconut extract
Lemon extract
Butter flavoring
Chocolate mint flavoring
Apple flavoring
Grape flavoring
Cherry flavoring
Watermelon flavoring

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Strawberry Preschool

This year, I have two preschool aged children to keep busy, entertain, encourage and enrich. These two are a dynamic little duo. If I don't find them something to do, they will find themselves something, and I probably won't like it. 

I have been collecting quiet school time activities for them for at least a year. But, I had no plan to use them. I found myself pulling the same 3 items out of the closet over and over. 

The first thing I did was make a little structure for their day. 

1. School time activity
2. Coloring/art/craft
3. Read stories
4. Free play in playroom
5. Free play outside

Next, I took inventory of our available materials. I made two numbered lists. One for non-messy school time activities, one for artsy-crafty type activities. 

PreK Activities
1. Tangrams 
2. Sandwiches  and cookies
3. Magnets-letters, numbers, shapes, with small, metal trays
6. Puzzles-wooden board and small pieces
7. Shape Sorter
12. Crayons and coloring books
13. Hammer and tack nails
15. Pipe cleaners
17. Beans and Rice boxes- tubs filled with dry rice or beans, and miniature sand toys

Creative Activities
1. Crayons and paper
2. Cut and paste
3. Craft Kits
4. Stamps and paper
5. Stickers and paper
6. Water colors
7. Finger paint
8. Markers and paper
9. Play dough and toys
10. Colored pencils and paper

Most of these items came from the Dollar Tree or Target's Dollar Spot. Many were gifts. Keep your eye out for things that look like fun, whether they are meant as toys or not. 

I have a planner for the first time this year. I made sure I had a space for the toddlers. I scheduled in one of each type of activity each day. Yesterday was cut and paste (I just introduced scissors and cutting paper. I gave each of them a used piece of construction paper and a pair of safety scissors), and wikki stix  (we got these in kid's meals). Gem also requested some Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head time, so they also did that. 

That takes care of most of school-at-the-table time. Now they need some Mom Time. 

We go to the library every 1-3 weeks. I check out 8 picture books - 4 of my choice and 4 of Gem's choice. I have over 200 children's books downloaded onto my Kindle, many of them picture books. The little people have a reasonably substantial collection of books in their shelf. 

We have a quiet snuggle, and read together. 

Each day, we read 4 books. 
1 ABC book
1 Counting book
2 story books 

Last, I set aside a little time each day to sing songs, do finger plays, and otherwise connect with the tiniest of these. I have The Little Big Book for Moms next to my chair for inspiration. We have a few other books of this same sort. 

Snacks, meals, naps and joining in with group art, science, literature, music, game time and religion lessons round out their day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How We Create Our Own Science Units. You Can, Too!

Our resident toad

I have never found a formal science curriculum that I liked. At least not enough to pay the sticker price for. 

Instead, we use living books and documentaries, nature studies, community classes, human resources-including me, museum exhibits, and any other resource we stumble upon. 

The wonderful thing about science is that it's everywhere. We are science. Our very existence- our bodies, our homes and gardens, the night sky-all science. 
I love science. 
Green anole
When my little ones were little, I read to them from the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Science. The bright graphics and simple explanations were perfect for holding the interest of 2 little boys and sparking lengthy discussions and little imaginations. While it certainly is not a curriculum, it was a lovely resource. 

As my little people have gotten bigger, I have felt the need to add a more structured approach to science. More than a year of research had failed to yield a program that fit well for us. I began to despair.

Then I discovered Netflix. More specifically, I discovered the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. Whoa. Half an episode in, I knew what we needed to do. Create a science unit around this series.
I mapped out the original series. Not only dinosaurs, but the entirety of natural history is encompassed in the Walking With series. 
Walking With Monsters shows the pre-dinosaur giant insects that I had not contemplated. And wish I was still ignorant of. It's horrifying. I had to leave the room.
Walking With Dinosaurs comes next.
Walking With Beasts brings us into the age of mammals.

Walking With Cavemen  is newly released. We'll be watching it tomorrow. I'm excited.
After finishing the series, we watched other documentaries about dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. My favorite was Chased By Dinosaurs. It sounds cheesy, but it was highly visual, intensely dramatic and tremendously fun. 

In addition to the documentaries, the kids drew pictures, invented games, asked questions and researched answers, we read stories, they purchased, played with and identified toy dinosaurs, and enjoyed rousing games of Dinosaur Bingo.

Skipping stones, learning about weight, mass and surface tension

This experience brought our science studies to life in a new and exciting way. Much more than loosely organized experiments, discussions, classes and dry textbooks ever could. We have to continue making our own units. 

Picking wildflowers and identifying native plants
I have since developed a scope and sequence which I find logical. It begins as a rough outline, and I will fill it in as we go.

I. The Cosmos

    A. The Universe
        1. Stars
        2. Galaxies
   B.The Solar System
       1. The Sun
       2. The Planets
       3. The Moon    

III. Planet Earth
     Physical Geography

IV. Life on Earth 
     A. Evolution of Life
        (this is where the Walking With series fits in. We will watch it again)
     B. Aquatic Life
     C. Land-based Wildlife of the Current Era

V. The Human Body
    A. Anatomy, Systems, and Cells
    B. The History of Modern Medicine
    C. Alternative and Traditional Methods of Healing
    D. Nutrition and Various Methods of Agriculture (Organic/traditional vs Commercial/Industrial)

VI. The History of Science

VII. Technology

Clearly, I'm still working this out. As I continue researching my materials, I discover more topics I want to cover. Right now, I'm looking at about a 5 year cycle. Because I have kids of varying ages, I will repeat the whole sequence a couple of times, adapting and adding resources for various ability levels.
I'm not ruling out a formal science study at a later date. But for now, this is working for us.
Identifying native birds
The major change this year is that I'm switching from a video-based spine supplemented with stories and activities to a living book-based spine supplemented with videos and activities.

What is a living book? A living book is a book written to convey specific information to a specific audience. It is not a textbook. 

I am fortunate to have access to a wonderful library system with friendly, helpful, knowledgeable librarians and state-of-the-art online access. This is a homeschooler's dream. In fact, early in my homeschooling career, I seriously considered using library resources exclusively. This is quite possible. But then, I discovered Rainbow Resource Center, and that's a whole other thing. 

Sprouting seeds

So, how does one design a science unit?

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? It isn't.

1. Decide what you want to study.
    You can write out a full sequence, like I did above, or you can just choose a single topic, like I did last year. Ask your kids what they want to learn about. Watch them go through their days and surprise them with something you know they will love. Choose a topic that you want to learn about. Choose a topic that you have specialized knowledge of. Sky's the limit here. 

2. Familiarize yourself with your resources.

   Do you have Netflix, Crackle, Hulu?

   Have you been to your local library? Neighboring libraries? The library in our little town is not the one we use for school. We use a neighboring system. The local library is small, and underfunded. It is well stocked with classics and within walking distance. In a pinch, it will do. But for a science unit? Not really adequate. Fortunately, there is a branch library not far from D's work, so if we can't make it to the city, I can preorder online, and he can he can swing by the pick up window on his way home.

   What local resources do you have access to? A state park, nature station, national park, interpretive center, science club, physics lab, university, planetarium, museum?

   Search for websites and online communities based around your topic of choice. Whatever it is, there are going to be people dedicating their lives to it. 

Ask around, visit, get familiar. 

3. Start building your unit.

    What this looks like is going to vary wildly depending on your topic, and the resources available to you. 

   You will need a spine. What inspired your interest in this topic? Perhaps you can start there. For our dino unit, it was the Walking With series. I started with that, and built off of it. For our cosmos unit, I am creating a book list from texts available at the library.
4. Flesh it out.
    Now you know where to start. Add in the goodies. Added to the basics - a book about the sun, 3 about the solar system, one for each planet, and one for the moon- I am including some fun story books for the younger set, some astronaut-themed crafts, a book of space projects and experiments, numerous documentaries, and at least one trip to the planetarium. 

5. Schedule it out.
   You may choose to be more free here and simply work through your resources at will. But if you want to have a bit more structure/planning/control/accountability, you may wish to organize your resources and schedule your lessons out over time. This could mean choosing one episode of a series, choosing one chapter of the text or reference book of your choice, one fiction book and one field trip per week. Or it could mean choosing a selection to read each day. Or it could just be making a nice list of topics to cover, books and materials to use, in no particular order. Or whatever. It's up to you. 

6. Get started.

Read a book together. 

Hand an appropriate-leveled book to your older kid. Discuss it after he's read it.

Draw a picture and talk about the planets. 

Watch a documentary together. Pause it when someone wants to talk about something they didn't know. 

Hand out water colors and have them paint a picture of what they just learned.

Use Wikipedia For Kids to answer questions you don't know the answers to. Teach your kids to use it, too.
Take a trip to a place where these things happen. Talk to people who know more than you ever could about it.

You may have noticed that none of this is super expensive. That's part of the appeal. I'm not crazy about spending a ton of money on something that isn't really what I want. Building a science unit for your kids allows you to teach exactly what you want, how you want, with little to no cost.

Sounds good to me.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Vegan Blueberry Muffins

3/4 cup sugar
1 TBS flax meal
2 TBS water
1 TSP vanilla
1/4 cup olive or coconut oil
1 1/2 cups flour (All Purpose or whole grain)
1 TBS baking powder
1/2 TSP salt
3/4 cup Almond or other milk
approximately 1 pint fresh or frozen blueberries
1-2 TBS flour
Optional: Cinnamon sugar

In a large bowl, stir together sugar, flax meal, water,  oil (melted if solid), vanilla,, baking powder, and salt.

Add 1 1/2 cups flour. Stir until just combined.

Add milk, stir until just moistened.

Do not over stir these 2 steps. Over mixing will make your muffins hard and chewy. Batter should be thick and slightly lumpy.

In a separate bowl, lightly toss berries in 1-2 TBS flour. This helps evenly distribute berries in muffins, and prevents them from settling at the bottom.

Fold into batter. Spoon into prepared muffin pan, filling 3/4 full. If desired, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350 for 15-22 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Muffins should be pale and very moist.

Cool slightly. Remove from pan. Serve warm. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

A new school year with new curricula and an old approach

I haven't talked much about our homeschool. For the most part, it's just putting one foot in front of the other. Reading the books, discussing the lessons, giving instructions, watching and listening and checking.

This year, though, for the second time, I've had to reconsider my methods.

I started out, when Sagittarius was 3 and hitting milestones in an atypical fashion, as an unschooler.  We worked on things as he needed and wanted them, I made lessons on the spot, we spent a lot of time out in the community, at museums, at the zoo, at art galleries, at the library, at community events, at the university. We knew all the docents, all the librarians, all the zoo keepers, all the zoo animals by name, many local musicians, artists, craftsmen, and professors.

Educational opportunities abounded. I followed his lead, but mainly I guided him. I decided where to go and who to speak to. I asked questions and explained things. It was a wonderful, enriching experience for both of us.

At home, things didn't progress as smoothly. Sagg was indecisive. He couldn't choose a topic at the library, let alone a book. Not even a picture book. His writing skills were very poor and not progressing with the child-led methods we were using. He thrived in math, but wouldn't read aloud, even as mastered his phonics lessons. His spelling was atrocious, and not improving with the spelling program we were using. Putting pencil to paper was painful for everyone.

Complicating things further, I had another child, and then another, we had moved out of the city, downgraded to only one car, and no longer had ready access to all the resources we had been using before. I could no longer be the activity director. I needed Sagg to step up and develop some interests. He didn't. I found it increasingly difficult to use a child-led method with a child who refused to lead.

I first began looking for a writing curriculum. Sagg needed more instruction than I was providing. In researching materials, I stumbled in classical schooling. I had heard of it, read about it in the past, liked the concept, but at that early stage, had found it too complicated, to inflexible, too time consuming, and rigid. Now I found that same structure comforting and promising. We needed something more planned and rigorous. This looked perfect.

We jumped in with both feet. Grammar, writing, lots of copywork, worksheets galore, and tons of reading. We were already using the Story of the World. I added an activity book. We answered questions, wrote narrations, and colored maps. My kids' education was rock solid. They both progressed amazingly. It was wonderful. 

It was also exhausting. We added yet another baby. The toddler had speech problems. The 1st grader-while extremely bright and a very quick learner- had a short attention span. The 4th grader's learning problems were, for the most part, behind him. His days dragged on and on often ending at 5pm, with the longest day spanning 14!! hours. 

Burn out set in. I cut back the writing and copywork, set aside the history twice, never did settle on a science curriculum, and eventually ended our school year early, because no one's heart was in it, and nothing was moving at a pace that was benefitting anyone.

Where was the love? Where was the laughter? What happened to the joy of learning? School work was turning into drudgery. Repetitive lessons were preventing us from having fun and engaging each other in enriching experiences.

It was time for a change, again. 

While I love classical methods, and the progress I've seen in my kids is undeniable, the more-is-more aspect is smothering the life out of our little school. I miss the days of freedom and fun. Let's bring some of that back, shall we?

First up is writing. 

I didn't feel that my soon-to-be second grader was ready for the intense repetition of Writing With Ease. Sagg had seen such great improvements with it in 3rd grade, that I had ordered the full set. But, it just wasn't working for us anymore. The optional exercises in First Language Lessons would easily meet my 7yo's needs without straining his brief attention span. Less is more for this kid. 

I found Imitations in Writing from Logos Press. Similar method, much slimmer books. No copywork, more freedom for creative expression. Perfect.
This series starts around 3rd grade, which turns out to be an optimal time to begin formal writing instruction in my opinion and experience.

Next, math.

My original plan was to begin with Singapore Math, which at the time ended with 5th grade, and then switch to Life of Fred which then began at 5th grade.

Here we are, getting ready for 5th grade. Decision time.

I found, however, that now, both programs are comprehensive. Singapore now continues through high school and Fred begins in elementary. Uh oh. 

I have found over the past 2 years, that Singapore had become increasingly teacher-intensive. For 5th grade and beyond, we would need many more materials, and much more time from me, not to mention, the expense would triple.
That's the opposite of what I need. I have 4 students at 4 different levels. I need  Sagg to work more independently as the little ones require more of my attention. I want Sagg to have some much-desired self-reliance. I also don't have unlimited funds. I would not prefer to spend half my annual budget on a single subject for one child.

So, Life of Fred wins this one.

But what about Aries? Singapore worked so well for Sagg. But Aries is not a workbook kid. They just don't hold his attention the way a more hands-on curriculum would. Life of Fred is fun and engaging, mom-centered and hand-on. The lessons move quickly, and we can slow down or speed up as necessary. The books are a bit more pricey up front, but we can buy as we go, and reuse for the younger kids.

Life of Fred wins this one, too. We are now a Fred family.

For supplementation, skills practice, and just a change of pace, we will use Khan Academy, one of the great educational advances of our time. 

First Language lessons is going well for us. We already have the books. This is the highlight of our school day. Each kid gets one-on-one time with Mom, listens to stories, memorizes and recites poetry, gets a little writing practice, and I get to indoctrinate the minions in the grave importance of proper punctuation. Everyone wins. FLL stays.

We have used Explode The Code for 7 years. It's working just fine. It's staying, at least for now. I broke down Aries's lessons a tad, spreading them out and shortening them. 2 pages a day, 5 days a week. Bite-sized chunks.

We're returning to Ambleside Online's reading lists, instead of the ones I made based on Writing With Ease. Still plenty of classics. These alternate with twaddle of their choice from the library. I tweaked the lists slightly to better accommodate our own personal style and preferences, adding in complete series where they are available, rather than selecting out one book from the series. 

For history, I am still pleased as punch with Story of the World. We scrapped the activity book last year, in favor of more self-directed discussion, free-flowing geography using a globe and historical atlas, and getting the kids up to act out the stories as we all read together. This interactive approach is far more effective than coloring sheets. I have broken the chapters down into twice- and thrice-weekly readings, spreading things out without sacrificing progression through the materials. I will add narrations back in, if only occasionally. 

Science will need it's own blog post. We used Netflix documentaries to study the entire course of natural history last year. It was an amazingly informative unit, which sparked a plethora of discussion, and creative pursuits among the children. This year, we are studying the cosmos in a similar fashion.
 I have never been satisfied with a packaged science curriculum for the early grades. I have decided this year, that is because we have no need for one. We read books and watch documentaries and take nature classes and hike and learn, and none of that requires a textbook. So we're doing our own thing this year. Next year, Sagg will additionally have formal science texts, but will still participate in our family studies.
New stuff:
Sagg is now entering the Logic Stage, according to the classical model. New development requires the introduction of new topics.
In practical application, this means he's done with phonics, reading well, beginning to write original works, advancing to prealgebra, and finishing up grammar. (The previous stage is called the Grammar Stage, during which children acquire facts-grammar, phonics, math facts, handwriting, spelling-to be applied later in their education).

English From the Roots Up introduces Latin and Greek roots of words used in our modern English language. The cards are packed with vocabulary. Right now we are just reading a few at a time, and Ben tries to decipher definitions of words like photograph, telescope, and telegram. When he is familiar with all the roots, he will play Concentration and other games with the cards. 

The logic stage clearly requires an introduction to logic. 10 is a bit young for formal logic, and Sagg is more creative than logical, so we're beginning a gradual introduction with Logic puzzles


We are continuing our art lessons from, and playing with fun art techniques found on Pinterest.

After agonizing for much too long over music instruction, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I ordered self-teaching violin and drum courses.

I am adding a formal schedule of instruction for the PreK set, but I will address that in a separate post.

I had all of this floating around in my head and keeping me up at night. I finally caved and printed out a lesson planner. I am surprised at how much I have enjoyed setting it up and having everything in the notebook and out of my head. Phwew. This first time planning this way has been an enormous amount of work, and in truth is not finished yet, but I use the notebook every day, at least once, even on weekends. 

We are 3 days into our new school year. So far, I am thrilled with the more family-centered approach. My kids are much happier. They are enjoying their work, and pleased with the more relaxed atmosphere. 

We have more free time in our day. We will have a long school year- 204 scheduled days- but our school days are only 4 hours long, leaving more time for outings and fun, without sacrificing the quality of their education. 

It's going to be a good year.