Thursday, July 29, 2010

Toddlers and Tiaras

Oh my. Yes, I have to comment. That show is like a train wreck from which you can't really avert your eyes, eh?

I was dog-ass tired yesterday for reasons that probably have something to do with my pushin'-forty hormones, so rather than do something cerebral, like read, or something necessary, like Swiffer the bathroom, I instead flipped through my round of favorite channels (Fox News, Food Network, The History Channel and TLC, in case you're interested). I landed on Toddlers and Tiaras, the TLC reality show that showcases families who have their little girls compete in glitz beauty pageants. If you've never seen the show, you should, if only for reasons of anthropological study. Those moms are a whole different kind.

So, you take a reasonably pretty little girl. You add a hairpiece, fake teeth, spray tan, a couple of outfits that cost hundreds of bucks or more, fingernails and more makeup than you'd see on a vegas showgirl. Then, you pay a coach to teach them how to present themselves on stage, which often resembles a "dance" you would see in the red light district. Picture six-year olds whipping off velcroed skirts to reveal the bikini beneath, while shakin' the "money maker" for the judges. (Which gives me pause as well...what 45 year old man wants to witness this? But I digress.) The kids also get to absorb all sorts of wholesome messages such as, "I'm the prettiest," or "I look good," or "It hurts to be beautiful," which one mom said about ten times in one show.

By far one of the funnier moments of irony was watching the awarding of the prize for "Best Hair." Best Hair? When their hair isn't even their actual, you

The part I admit, I love the most is that the parents don't realize the show is making fun of them. TLC crafts the show in such a way that you can't help but see how out of touch the moms are. For example, they might have the mom saying, "Oh my daughter just loves to be on stage," and meanwhile, they show a frothing, rabid little girl screaming, "Noooooooooo! My dress is itchy!!!!!" I could laugh if I didn't feel so sorry for the kids. Last night, there was a clip of a mom estimating how much money they spend on pageants per year. The dress for the current pageant alone was $1100. Mom estimates, "Around 10 thousand." They asked the dad the same question. "Probably a couple thousand?"

Although I shouldn't talk about that. I wouldn't want to see the disparity if someone asked my husband to estimate how much I spend on homeschooling per year.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Last Organizing Post of the Series

And now, for a word about bookcases. Plenty. That's my word! I have more than 1,000 books in my house. I actually counted them and I'm sure that says something about me. Probably not flattering, either. I know I'm not alone among homeschoolers in my endless acquisition of books. I even have numerous strategies for bringing books into my life. Among them:

* The public library, of course
* Paperback Swap
* The Amazon Kindle
* Freecycle

and naturally, bookstores, both brick-and-mortar and the on-line version. Amazon loves me. To prove it, they give me One-Click Buying and, should that seem too slow, Books In 60 Seconds on my Kindle. Really good for reading. For addictions, not so much.

Anyway, all those books need a place to be (yet another reason I love my Kindle). In my homeschool room, I have two bookcases and three cabinets. One of the bookcases is depicted above. That one is small. It's only about 4 feet tall. I'd love to change it out for a big, nice Pottery Barn modular unit, but that's not in the wallet for now. What is infinitely useful, but always scarce are bookends. Depicted above, you can see two fancy finial-type bookends; pretty, but I need dozens. Staples sells the cheap version, also depicted. They work pretty well. I have about twenty sets in my house, but I need about ten more. Tottering piles of books that flop over really work my last nerve.

My aunt once gave me a cute little doorstop, which I then used as a bookend. On the inside was a brick, but it was wrapped in fabric and decorated with tiny pillows and bolsters to look like a miniature sofa. Very cute! I don't really enjoy craft projects like that, but if I did, I would make a bunch of them. Or, if someone who is really crafty is stumped for a Christmas gift for me...

The cabinets in my homeschool room hold games and toys, curriculum and crafting materials/art supplies. Sometimes I manage to have these pretty well-organized. Other times, not.

So, you see, although I have a pretty good rep for being organized, I don't always have it all together. Nobody's perfect. If you find yourself buried in a disorganized mess, you can use my ideas to chip your way out of it. But you can still keep it real.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Organizing the Homeschool Room Part III

Okay. Sorry I missed a couple of days on our organizing theme, but my daughter and I took a little trip down to Williamsburg, VA. Wow. What a nice place if you're into Early American History! The only real drawback was that it was 478-degrees. Okay, 105. But it was really astoundingly hot.

The picture above is my son's desk area. Each of my kids have a set of plastic drawers next to their desk for holding their curriculum. I like my daughter's best; she has six drawers. The boys have four-drawer organizers. I don't like it as well, because I have to lump some things together, such as materials for spelling, vocabulary and grammar in one drawer. It's a bit more fumbly than I really want it to be. The drawers come with wheels you can attach to the bottom. I found it was better for me without them.

There are also small desk-top plastic drawers that work nicely for staples, tape, erasers, pushpins, paperclips, etc.

Ideal for each desk area, if you can outfit them each as such:

* Trashcan
* Tissue Box
* Desk lamp
* Pencils/pens
* Scissors/ruler
* Bulletin Board/Dry Erase
* Curriculum Drawers

Each of my kids have a mailbox on their desk. These are discontinued now at Pottery Barn Kids. They are probably kind of corny, but my kids love discovering a little treat or note in there. When I'm on top of it, that is. Sometimes they ask for something in the mailbox and I make them leave the room so I can put something in there, which they then come in and take out, which kind of takes the thrill out of it a little bit, but oh well! (How'd you like that sentence?)

Two of my kids also got cute little Pottery Barn desk lamps back when I was ambitious about having the homeschool room just sickeningly cute and matchy-matchy. Reality intruded later. My youngest has a simple black desk lamp from Staples. So much for matchy-matchy!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More on Setting Up the Homeschool Room

Sometimes, the simplest solution proves the most elusive. For years I've been confounded by pencil/pen holders. Don't laugh! I bet it's true for you, too! You know how it is. You need a pencil, but they are broken, or their erasers make a mess of things or the only writing utensils in the cup are one dried-up marker that came with a Happy Meal, a lipliner that you haven't used in ten years and the cheap pen that exploded blue goo all over the bottom of the cup. So, let's just make a clean break before the fall session begins. Throw away any pencil you hate, recap worthless erasers or chuck those pencils because they only tick you off when you use them. Toss all pens that don't write and all dried-out markers. If the cup is ugly, chuck that, too.

I realized that my Mason Jars (pint sized) were pretty and perfectly suitable pencil cups. I also realized that what makes more sense is to have three cups: one for pencils, one for pens and one for markers. And by the way, the only pencil worth having is the Ticonderoga pencil. I love these pencils so much, I will even walk all the way to another room in search of one. The erasers do their job smoothly and neatly and the pencils write nicely and sharpen well. The worst pencils I ever used were Staples brand pencils. Their erasers were horrid!

Holding Curriculum

I use magazine files to hold floppy curriculum or multi-part worktexts neatly. Some, as the black files seen in the picture, are utilitarian and can be picked up most anywhere: Target, Walmart and office supply stores. Others have a more decorative look, like the green files in the picture, which I bought at Michaels. The utilitarian version is less expensive and the nameplate made it easier to label. The decorative version didn't take well to labeling, but it looks a little prettier on an open bookshelf. At this point, I have quite a few magazine files, so if I was starting fresh today and owned none I would probably pick up five or six of the utilitarian style.

I will post another few pictures and ideas tomorrow. I hope this effort is helping someone. :)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Organize Your Homeschool Room

For the next week or so, I'll be doing a series of posts on how to organize a homeschool room. Now, I know not everybody has a specific room that is for homeschooling, or that your homeschool room is also the Dining Room or Oma's bedroom when she comes, but still. This past week, I've been up to the waist (or is it waste?) in old paperwork, former spelling tests, filled-in worktexts and of course, books, books, books! I'm organizing our schoolroom and putting all the new books and curricula in place, which leaves the less-palatable task of removing the books and curricula that was there before.

But, it turns out I've learned a few things in the past eight years about how to set the room and desks up effectively and (relatively) inexpensively. I know the best way to hang maps on the walls, how to afford a desk for everyone and what method of organizing their books and texts works best for me. So, come with me on this little journey as we explore setting up the homeschool room.

In my first photo above, you see laminated maps hanging neatly on the wall. (If you're keenly perceptive, you'll also notice that they are out of level. More about that later.) My favorite product for hanging posters neatly on the wall is 3M Command Adhesive Poster Strips. (No, they're not paying me to say that, although I would take it if any 3M CEO's out there are looking for an advertiser.) I would also recommend that if you are going to hang two gigantic maps on the wall, don't get all giddy about it and struggle with hanging it yourself, convinced that you can eyeball-level it at close range. You can't. Wait till you have a second pair of hands to help you get that puppy on there straight as a Baptist preacher.

Looking back at the photo, you'll see what passes for desks in our schoolroom: Black 20X48" Folding Tables from Target. You see, only my glorious firstborn lucked out and got an actual desk, like firstborns everywhere, but I came to my senses for the next two. I don't have the exact price any longer, but the tables were around $30.00. The only disadvantage I've noticed is that they shake like a chilly Chihuahua when the kids erase a mistake. A fringe benefit is that they can be called downstairs for extra dining space when Aunt Marge and Uncle Frederick come for Thanksgiving.

By the same logic, folding chairs work nicely for desk chairs.

Come back again tomorrow as I throw out a few more organizational bones.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fabulous Foraged Food!

Blackberries! The deer have it right - there is no better time than summer to live off the land. My children love to go blackberry-picking in late June and July. We live on ten wooded acres full of blackberry bushes.

Picking blackberries is a wonderful bonding family activity. The walking, hunting and picking also burns calories (which you will earn back exponentially when you make the Cobbler below!) It's educational; I appreciate my children making the connection regarding the origin of their food.

How Do You Pick Them?

To pick blackberries, you will need:

*Blackberry bushes
*Clothing to withstand thorns and Poison Ivy
*Gloves, maybe
*A hook of some sort, to pull far away branches closer
*An optimistic collection vessel
*Cooperative children

Poison Ivy likes to hang out in the same places as blackberry bushes, and they even look similar, so be certain you can identify this insidious weed beforehand. (Poison Ivy leaves never have "teeth" on the leaf edges and do not have thorns.)

My kids and I use our marshmallow-toasting hook to pull in the branches, but lots of tools (hoes, rakes), or even a stick, could work for this job. Pick carefully, avoiding the thorns. This is where gloves could be handy, but I like to live dangerously, so I pick them with my delicate, white-girl hands. Avoid snakes, bees and overexposure to the God-forsaken heat. Mosquito protection can also come in handy. If you see a huge, hairy vine that looks like an anaconda with plugs, get the heck out! It's the mother-of-all-Poison-Ivy vines. Ask me how I know.

When you have brought home your delicious bounty, you can make it into Blackberry Cobbler. Although my husband whines, because this recipe is not a copy of his Mommy's Blackberry Cobbler (which is actually a pie), he nevertheless devours it. And you simply must have a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or at least a generous glop of whipped cream with the cobbler!

Blackberry Cobbler

1/2 + 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 egg
3 T melted unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/2 t salt
2 t baking powder
1/4 t ground cinnamon
about 2 cups fresh blackberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 12x9x2" casserole dish. In a bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar and the egg; mix well. Stir in the butter. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add into sugar/egg combination, alternating with milk. Mix well. In a separate bowl, combine clean, drained blackberries with remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon. Place the berries in the bottom of the casserole dish, then top with the batter. Bake 30 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

Happy foraging!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Favorite Things

When I was a child, this was one of my favorite books. As an adult, my mother managed to score a copy at a yard sale after I mentioned to her how much I had loved that book and how much I would love to read it to my own kids.

In The Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa by Caroline Rush, a girl's pet hamster, Hammy, tells her a series of stories involving his grandfather, Mr. Pengachoosa. The stories are witty and imaginative and always manage to tie in with something happening in their real world. My favorites are "The Hunt," "The Wind Birds," and "The Snow House."

I had several hamsters over the course of my childhood. I remember sitting with my various hamsters and silently willing them to speak to me. In the book, Hammy explains that the reason not everyone hears hamsters is because " have to be a very still sort of person..." I would sit there thinking, "I'm a very still sort of person! Surely I can hear my hamster talk!"

I now share The Tales with my own children.

So, Dear Readers, do you have a favorite book from childhood that you are sharing with your children?

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I almost forgot there was such a thing. The crunchy grass seems to be stretching up, drinking deeply. The 100-degree heat has prematurely grilled the grass. We've struggled to keep our precious plants watered. But today, at last, the rain has come, quenching the gasping landscape.

We usually complain about rain. It spoils our picnics, soaks our sports and makes a mess of proms, weddings and Easter Sunday. Yet when the rain tarries, we start to see rain afresh. We pray for it, long for it, sigh for it's absence. We want the rain to come, to satiate the vegetables, placate the pachysandra.

In a similar vein, today Kelly and I went to a friend's funeral. The young husband of a fellow homeschooling mom gave up a valiant battle against cancer. He died on Independence Day, prompting the pastor to remark, accurately, that it was his first Independence Day of true Freedom. The rain that came today is like the rain coming into the life of my friend. It brings the clouds of sorrow, but it brings cleansing tears. This young man doesn't have to fight any more, doesn't have to hurt or struggle. It is a dark cloud for my friend and her daughter, even as it quenches the dessert of the unknown, even as it washes the painful path of loss.

It seems to me that death could have been better designed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


In the past five years, I've learned something about windows and balls. I've had two incisive lessons. What I've learned is, it doesn't take a hard baseball to break a window. Even a relatively small ball, say a soft-sided juggling ball or a super-bounce rubber ball, are a smashing success. And I do mean smashing.

My first lesson took place five years ago, in the Family Room, with Professors Kyla and Collin. They deftly demonstrated that a super-bounce rubber ball can, in fact, shatter a window. Since my darling husband is many things, including a procrastinator, the window is still broken. Although both children served punishments for that mishap, the lesson apparently did not stick with Collin. Or else he didn't think it applied to juggling balls.

Collin and Mason were in charge of the second demonstration. They were in the Studio, which is essentially our homeschooling room, the long bonus room over the garage. Even way back on the other side of the house, I heard shattering glass. Moments later, a stricken Collin came in with the confession.

At least he was contrite. Grief-stricken, even.

They are both serving time, living out the summer without the dubious benefit of DSis, Wii, computer or TV. Personally, I wish it was like that all the time, because I have been amazed and impressed with the worthwhile uses they find for their time without electronic distractions.

So, here is my Studio window, custom-designed to match my Family Room window.

P.S. I should mention that philosophically, taking away electronics is not what I normally do to correct poor judgement. I see no connection between the two. DH felt the need to exact some sort of punishment and so he chose this. They do also have to work to pay restitution, but it wasn't realistic to have them work to pay for something so expensive and it wouldn't have been fair to Collin, since he can work much harder than Mason. On the whole, though, we almost never use "grounding" in the traditional sense.


I really dig that new picture in my header, but I have no bloomin' clue how to make it smaller than Goliath. Bear with me while I figure that out. I'm not the least bit techy.

The book I read this past week was Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I found it fascinating! It certainly inspired me to do well in my homeschooling endeavors, as well as my self-education efforts.

In Outliers, Gladwell examines the factors that shape people, or groups of people, into exceptions in their field. It examines individuals, (Bill Gates, Bill Joy, The Beatles) as well as population segments, such as professional hockey players and the success of Asians in mathematics. The findings are striking and, often, surprising. It's not necessarily amazing talent that defines the successful, and not necessarily pure brain power. Practice, it turns out, really does make perfect, as it has been found again and again that the most successful have put in thousands of hours of practice - right around 10,000 hours, in fact. The 10,000-hour rule was exciting to me. It demonstrates how mastery is achieved by anyone committed to the time and effort to become exceptional.

I also found the findings on longer school hours (mostly in other countries) very interesting. It showed very plainly the set-backs incurred by a long summer break. It validates my belief that my kids should continue with Math, at the very least, throughout the summer.

Two thumbs up for Outliers. It's a fascinating book that demonstrates that success is achievable for anyone with the chutzpah to seek it.