Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Creative Spelling Is Not Wrong

In educational and homeschooling circles, there can be some pretty heated debate on the topic of creative spelling. ("Creative spelling" is allowing a child who is just learning to write/read to spell things how they think they might be spelled and not correct them.)

Here's what I love about creative spelling:

1. It allows for independent writing. My six-year-old can experiment with writing, making lists and maps and messages used in her various imaginative games, without needing to ask me "how do I spell...?" This gives her a real sense of ownership, making words and letters tools of play and not just school.

2. It gives my student a chance to demonstrate her understanding of the phonics rules we've learned so far. Trying to sound out a long word and write down the sounds she hears is a fabulous mental exercise, and tells me which rules need review and which have been mastered.

3. It provides an accurate snapshot of where she is with her language skills. When I look back at a paper from two months ago and compare it to today's, I can really see how much her facility with words has grown.

Six-year-old's creative spelling of "inspector"

Now, to be clear, I do espouse a lot of the principles of classical education, and our homeschool curriculum looks more classical than anything else. And classical education does tend to discourage creative spelling, from what I've seen. I understand the reasoning behind it -- if mistakes are not corrected, the student starts to think that their "creative" spellings are the real spellings and that can be a bear to correct down the line.

We address that concern in several ways:

1. We learn phonics and spelling rules, so that over time those rules are incorporated into the creatively spelled words. It turns out that there are very few true exceptions to phonics rules, as long as you learn all of them, so eventually you will have the tools to correctly spell just about any word without ever having memorized a sight word.

2. We read a lot. For the typical non-dyslexic student, the best way to teach spelling is to read read read read read. Having seen the word correctly spelled a zillion times, the child inadvertently memorizes it (again, without flash cards or conscious memorizing) and can recall it at will.

3. We do practice writing every week, both in copywork and in our weekly letter to a friend or family member, that does use only correct spelling.

I am a vigilant defender of correct spelling and grammar. And I do strongly believe that children need to learn the right way to write and speak if they are to be taken seriously as adults. But along the path to that ultimate goal, creative spelling does have an important place.

Friday, October 29, 2010

This Moment: Clouds


Just a little moment from the past week that I want to pause and savor. Check out all the simple, special moments being shared every Friday at SouleMama.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Simple Autumn Supper: Butternut Squash Soup

I've been developing this recipe over the past month, and have discovered many variations that work -- but this one is the clear winner. Its texture is sublime, and the flavors are like autumn distilled into a soup. Truly heavenly -- and perfect for a Meatless Monday!

Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut Squash Soup

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large apple, any variety, cored and cut into chunks
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 white onion, coarsely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1/2 stick of butter
24-32 ounces chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste
(optional) small amount of goat cheese

Melt the butter in a large heavy pot (I use my Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the squash, apple, sweet potatoes, onion, shallot, and celery and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. When the onions are softened, add enough stock to cover all of the vegetables. Put the lid on, but make sure it's vented -- I put mine on diagonally to allow steam to escape. Lower the heat a bit and simmer until all the vegetables are tender -- 30 to 40 minutes.

Puree the soup either using an immersion blender or by removing in small batches to a regular blender. Return to soup pot and add salt and pepper as necessary (if your stock is already salty, you may not need any additional salt -- I only add pepper).

For added creaminess, add a dollop of goat cheese to each bowl as you serve. Autumn in a bowl!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sound Science

This week, our science topic is "sound." We're learning a little bit about how sound travels, the silence of outer space, and demonstrating how the human ear works. Today we did two really fun experiments out of our new book,The Usborne Big Book of Experiments.

Can you hear me now?

The first was to build a two-cups-and-a-length-of-string-a-phone. Which probably has a better name than that, but you get the gist. The kiddos were amazed that it actually worked. The particularly neat thing was that they could literally feel the vibrations of the string, which was a great demonstration of sound waves.

Drum and candle

The second involved building a sort of makeshift drum, and then using the air vibrations created by the tapping of the drum to blow out a candle. I couldn't even count the number of times we relit the candle and repeated this experiment. A winner for sure!

Tap tap


Friday, September 3, 2010

This Moment: Painting the Water Lilies

No words, just a moment from the past week that I want to pause, savor, and remember. A Friday tradition instigated and inspired by Amanda over at SouleMama.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Teaching Patience (With a Sweet Reward)

Last week, which was supposed to be a completely school-free week, my two littles decided they just had to do a science experiment. Like, right now. This is the sort of enthusiasm I just don't have it in me to squash, even if it wasn't on my clean-the-house-and-get-organized-before-school-starts agenda.

They found an experiment in our new experiment book for growing crystals. But the one in the book just had them grow crystals with "washing soda" (it's a British book). Boring! OK, they probably grow faster, but honestly... wouldn't you rather grow crystals with sugar? Yum.

So I found a recipe online, and we made up our super duper sugar syrup. We put 2 cups of water on to boil, and gradually mixed in 4 cups of sugar. Yes, you read that right. Twice as much sugar as water. Oh, and some blue food coloring.

Sugar syrup

We carefully poured into jars, and dangled strings into each jar (strings that had been rolled in sugar and tied to a pen to suspend them over the jars). And we watched. And we waited.

Day 1

It's six days later, and we are still watching and waiting. We have crystals now (yay!), and if we wanted to, we could yank out those strings and enjoy some delicious rock candy right this very minute. We could! But, see... if we wait a bit longer, the crystals will have more of a chance to form, and the candy will be bigger.

Crystals forming, day 6

In other words, I have created the ultimate test of patience. This is called delayed gratification, people, and I am watching it unfold day by day. So far, the lure of future candy is still greater than the desire for candy now, and the jars remain undisturbed. But when will we be unable to resist any longer? How long will we let the crystals grow?

Crystals on top

Man, I hope these kids cave soon. I could really go for something crunchy and sweet...

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Closer Look

We have the coolest new toy. For months now, I've been wanting to get a simple microscope. No preparing of slides, no mega-powered lenses, just a simple tool for looking closely at stuff. So I saw a good review for the Zorb in a homeschooling resource catalog, and thought that sounded just about right. It's small, it connects directly to the computer, and you can save pictures of what you see. Cool.

Pumpkin leaf 2

Then I saw it was only $29 at Amazon and clicked "Buy Now." An impulse buy, to be sure.

Hey, sometimes I have good instincts.

Man, this thing is cool. I mean, cool. I can't even tell you how many lightbulb moments we've had around here in the past few days. And not just from the kids! Even my husband confessed that only now does he truly understand the difference between woven and knit fabric.

See? Woven:

Woven fabric

And knit:

Knit fabric

At 35x magnification, those fabrics look really, really different.

You know how a strawberry has its seeds on its skin? Yeah, they look like this:


Ever wondered how sharp a thumbtack really is? It's this sharp:


And granulated sugar really is made up of little crystals.


It's amazing how much knowledge can be right in front of you, if only you take a closer look.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This Moment: Sorting the College Mail

The great college mail sort

No words, just a moment from this past week I want to pause and savor. Inspired and hosted each week by Amanda over at SouleMama.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Fruit Fly Trap

Fruit fly trap

When we got home from vacation, someone had moved in in our absence. Fruit flies. Lots and lots and (shudder) lots of fruit flies. Can you say, gross?

Our fault -- we hadn't taken the last trash out, left some fruit in the fruit bowl, etc. In other words, we ran out the door without thinking too clearly and about what we were leaving behind. Oops.

So yesterday, as part of my efforts at trying to get life back to normal around here, I put together a fruit fly trap. Let me say, we have tried various versions of this many times before with very little luck. I was not optimistic, but I was desperate. Lo and behold, this time it really worked.

I mean, really worked. And since following the various instructions you find online to the letter had never yielded much for me before, I'm sharing with you my magic recipe for trapping fruit flies. Because I am no longer waving my way through a crowd of fruit flies to get to the sink, and that makes me happy.

In a vase or other narrow-necked vessel (a beer or glass soda bottle would work well), put the following mixture:

2 teaspoons of honey
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
a couple of strawberry tops

Then make a paper cone funnel with a small hole at the narrow end, and stick it in the bottle, narrow end down. Tape all the way around where the bottle meets the funnel to make a seal.

And wait. Mwahahaha. They will be helpless in the face of your sinister plans. None shall survive, I tell you! [cue organ music]

Monday, August 16, 2010

Things I Learned On the Road

We just got back from a family road trip to Wisconsin and back. It's been a crazy, crazy 10 days, and now I am launching into full end-of-summer panic mode, but first, I just want to pause and reflect on what I learned on this latest adventure.

1. My extremely tall two-and-a-half year old can, in a pinch, still sleep in a Pack n Play. And he will insist that he fits, even when his head and feet are literally pushing out the mesh at each end.

2. When looking at colleges, there really is no substitute for actually looking at colleges. Also, college campuses tend to be great places for little kids to let off steam.

3. Six people can share one bathroom. Comfortably.

4. Driving seven hours in one day is a cake walk compared to driving twelve hours in one day. CAKE WALK.

5. A five-year-old can hike quite a long way if there are chocolate chip pancakes waiting for her at the other end.

6. The best way to get a 17-year-old to do her summer reading is to remove her from her friends and stick her in a rustic cabin for a week.

7. My two-year-old son sings himself to sleep. (He sleeps with the door closed at home, so I had no idea.)

8. Mad Libs are a great way to teach the parts of speech.

9. Twenty Questions? It needed improving. So my five-year-old turned it into 105 Questions. And the starting question isn't "animal, vegetable, or mineral," it's "solid, liquid, gas, or plasma."

10. There are a lot of wind turbines in Indiana. A lot. I know some people think they're eyesores, but I thought they looked so graceful as they slowly turned. Very cool.

Wind turbines in Indiana

11. I am apparently the only person in my family who suffers from feeling like her organs are being squashed after sitting in a car all day. And if you use a term like "organ squashage" to describe said feeling, your 17-year-old might actually go into convulsions.

12. Based on the farms I passed along the way (and it was a LOT, people), we eat only two things in this country: corn and soybeans. We may think we eat other things, but primarily it's going to boil down to corn and soybeans.

13. If a huge fish has been lurking under a pier long enough to have earned the nickname "Sneaky Pete" and a reputation for frustrating fishermen, a two-year-old is not going to be able to catch him with a piece of hot dog on the end of a "Pirates of the Carribean"-themed fishing pole. This will not prevent him from trying, however. Every day.

14. A quiet cottage on a lake is the perfect place to embark upon a new creative endeavor.

15. Cooking for six people in a postage-stamp-sized kitchen with a tiny apartment-sized stove and no dishwasher forces creativity, but can totally be done.

16. After living with a dishwasher for many years, it's actually kind of nice to hand-wash dishes.

17. A garden, left largely to its own devices for 10 days of August Maryland weather, will outgrow its raised beds and attempt to transform your backyard into a jungle.


18. The legendary Garlic Cheeseburger (aka. GCB), as frightening as it sounds, is actually pretty good. Also: it's a cheeseburger on garlic bread.

19. A little boy, who has been up with the sun (or before!) every day of his two-and-a-half years of life, but who has been traveling and sleeping in strange beds for ten days, might be tired when he gets home. He might be so tired that he sleeps past 9 AM for the first time EVER.

20. The ability to identify poison ivy is one of those lifelong skills that really comes in handy.

Poison ivy

21. Travel is exciting and full of surprises, but the best part is how much it makes you appreciate being home.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Our Kindergarten Curriculum

Last year, when I was researching homeschooling, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading through homeschooling blogs, trying to get a sense of what homeschooling really looks like. I was thrilled to stumble upon the Not Back-to-School Blog Hop, hosted last year by Darcy at My 3 Boybarians. This year, it's being hosted by Heart of the Matter, but the gist is the same -- each week, participating bloggers post about a particular theme related to their homeschool. And this year... um, I guess I have a homeschool. So here we go.

Curriculum week! Since I have been researching homeschooling in general and particular curricula for quite a while now, it was exciting to finally take the plunge and place those orders. Here is what we've decided to use for our kindergarten year.

(Please note: I do have a two-year-old at home as well, who is along for the ride on all these adventures. I do not have any particular curriculum I am following for him, besides including him as much as possible on his own level with whatever I am doing with his sister. He is learning so much just by osmosis, that I will not pursue anything formal with him until next year at the very earliest.)

Math - We're using RightStart, level A. We have completed 13 lessons so far, and absolutely love the program. It takes the time to build an intuitive sense for numbers, and I am amazed at how well my daughter is already able to do mental addition. The manipulatives are also wonderful, and serve as a great diversion for curious two-year-olds.

Reading/Spelling - We are using All About Spelling (level 1) as both a reading program and a spelling program. The whole concept of teaching word-building tools to both decode (read) and encode (spell) words makes so much sense to me. It always struck me as odd for these two skills (which are two sides of the same coin, really) to be taught separately. I can see how much it has helped with her reading already, and am pretty sure we will be moving on to level 2 by mid-year. The program is also sensory-rich, with a lot of word-building using magnetic letters. This really helps to keep my girl engaged. She is also doing independent reading to me every day, as well as reading for her own pleasure. She particularly loves the Dick and Jane books, and -- get this -- the McGuffey readers (first published in 1838). Oh yeah, we're kickin' it old school around here...

McGuffey Readers (used for $10)

Grammar/Language Arts - We have been playing a great game called Very Silly Sentences to learn the parts of speech, and also doing MadLibs on our many road trips this summer. Once we get into a nice routine this fall, I will gradually blend in First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind, but at a relaxed pace since it is technically for first grade. We'll just see how it goes. And in terms of literature, we're going to keep doing what we have been doing every day for the past several years: read. Read, and read, and read. I generally read things aloud to her that are far above her official grade level, and she has the vocabulary to show for it. Some of last year's read-alouds included The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Hobbit. Some of the titles I have lined up for this year:

Magic or Not?
Little House in the Big Woods
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Alice In Wonderland
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Totally subject to change based on the whims of the moment, of course, but this gives me a place to start if we're ever stuck for a book.

Handwriting - The preschool where she did PreK last year used Handwriting Without Tears, and since it seemed to be working for her, I just went ahead and ordered the next workbook. So far so good. She is still writing a hodge-podge of upper-case and lower-case letters in a variety of sizes, so my goal for her for the year is to be able to print legibly using appropriate case. Ha! It's good to dream big. In any case, we'll keep working on it.

Budding activist

History/Geography - Not to put down the importance of learning about community helpers or anything, but she already did that, for the past two years in preschool. She's learned about firefighters and police officers and all the usual preschool social studies jazz. Important, for sure! But we're skipping over the usual kindergarten social studies curriculum and going straight for history and geography. And to paraphrase Julie Andrews, the beginning is a very good place to start, so we're using The Story of the World Volume 1 (Ancients), supplemented with additional reading from the library. Very fun! We are also making a timeline to make sense of the chronology of history, and using mapwork from the SOTW activity guide to incorporate geography studies.

Science/Nature - This is the one subject for which we are not using a curriculum at all. My girl is naturally very science- and nature-oriented, so I am simply following her interest. We are reading a lot, checking out DVD's from the library, going on field trips, etc. She will also continue to work on her nature journal on our frequent nature walks, and keep her birdwatching log book. In some subject areas, having to make it all up myself would give me an anxiety attack, but in this arena, it feels very freeing. This is one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling -- I get to indulge her interests and allow her to dig as deep as she wants into the areas that most interest her. Should be fun.

Physical Education - Since I'm not exactly a paragon of virtue when it comes to exercise, this is definitely an area where we need outside structure! She just started a twice-weekly tae kwon do class, and will play on a soccer team in the fall. When soccer is over, I'll see whether I think the TKD is sufficient, or whether we should look for some other kind of winter activity (gymnastics, maybe?). For now, I think she's all set.

Whew! So that's our curriculum choices. I am really excited to dive in truly full-time when big sister starts her [gulp] senior year in high school. Oh, what a year we have ahead of us...

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Day in the Life of Our Homeschool

We've been dabbling here and there through the summer in our kindergarten lessons, getting a feel for each subject and curriculum in a low-pressure, fun way. But I was getting nervous about how it was all going to come together when we had to really sit down and "do school" for more than just a half hour at a time. So I planned this week to be our first "official" week of school, so we have time to see what works (and what doesn't!) and tweak the schedule before Fall. Also, big sister is away at the beach, so we won't be tempted to pester irritate play with her instead of buckling down.

So since today was our first day of doing a full day of school, I thought I'd share what a day in the life of our brand-spankin'-new homeschool looks like. Veterans, feel free to laugh heartily at my inevitable hubris, but so far it seems to be going really well!

If you don't hear from me again by next week, send help.

Here's how our day played out, roughly speaking...

7:00 AM - Both kids were up and we made our way downstairs. They both immediately seized the rulers I bought yesterday (and craftily left on the kitchen table, all part of my master plan, mwahahaha), and ran off to measure everything in the house. Listening to the two-year-old shout out "One... two... three... EIGHTEEN INCHES!" was priceless.

Running rampant with rulers

7:30 AM - They wandered back into the kitchen in search of breakfast. Thankfully, by this time I had made my coffee, retrieved my newspaper, and employed one of my favorite tricks for ensuring a peaceful start to the day. I'd covered the kitchen table with paper and set out markers and colored pencils.

A clean slate

Inevitably, this leads to at least a full half hour for me to wake up, read the paper, and drink my coffee. Essential to everyone's sanity.

Coffee and newspaper

Ahhh. I also looked over the plan I'd made for our week. I figure planning out every hour of every day is a level of detail that feels too rigid for me. However, flying by the seat of my pants feels a little too loosey-goosey. So I came up with a weekly plan, so each day can unfold as it may, but I have an idea of what we need to accomplish in order to stay on track. It's stapled to the inside of a folder in which I have already copied all the worksheets, etc. that we'll need for the week. I think this will work well for our style, but I'm sure it will require tweaking until it fits just right.

Weekly plan

So while we were also eating breakfast (and some of us were getting appropriately caffeinated), our resident kindergartener was illustrating (and narrating, I might add) a Lion King-based story so elaborate, it would make your head spin. Pretty cool.

An elaborate Lion King story

8:30 AM - We headed upstairs for me to shower and us all to get dressed and ready to take on the day. The kiddos get to watch a show while I'm in the shower, a routine that evolved when I was still trying to keep a young toddler from unrolling the whole roll of toilet paper and other such nonsense while I was otherwise engaged. But hey, it's Backyardigans! Who doesn't love the Backyardigans?

Mommy's shower time

9:00 AM - Report to the schoolroom! Okay, it's not a schoolroom. It's just the family room. But I put all our school stuff in this corner, so at least it's not exploding all over the house. For now. In reality, we "do school" all over the house, but I love having a home for all our books and manipulatives and such.


For instance, we often do math on the floor. I don't know why, she says she thinks better on the floor...? Whatever, as long as she's focusing, I really don't care. By the way, we are using RightStart math (level A), and so far love love love it.

RightStart math

Little brother loves the geoboards. Which worked out well, since we didn't need them for this lesson. Shh, don't tell him he's just playing! He will tell you quite seriously that he is "doing math too!"


Had to move to the coffee table for our rectangles activity...


9:30 AM - Math was over, and the two-year-old was getting restless (and distracting). So we attempted to watch an Eyewitness DVD about plants, which is our science subject for the week. There was a lot of horsing around and not a whole lot of paying attention, but this just tells me that they needed to let off steam. No worries, they both had a few "hey, that's a cool plant!" moments, so I'm gonna call it good.

We talked about the parts of a plant, which she already knows (the kid's a gardener, after all), so she colored and labeled a worksheet.

Plants worksheet

By the end, there was a major case of wiggling going on, so I declared recess.

Bike ride!

10:30 AM - Bike ride to the playground!

Morning snack (al fresco)

Snack under a tree!


Our daily dose of Vitamin D, as well as some much needed running around time. Amazing how much calmer and focused they were when we returned.

11:15 AM - Reading time on the couch. I selected the book about plants, but then they each chose a few others to add to the pile.

Pre-lunch reading time

11:45 AM - Free play for the kiddos while I make lunch. Spaghetti and meatballs was requested, and since I didn't have any bread to make sandwiches, I didn't have an easy alternative to offer. So spaghetti and meatballs it was.



12:15 PM - Lunch. During lunch, I read them a poem I had printed out: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Bed in Summer." It's about the unfairness of having to go to bed when it's still light out. They loved it. The two-year-old asked me to read it over and over and over. Then the five-year-old grabbed the paper and read it herself a few times (based on a combination of memory and sounding-out). Very fun.

Lunchtime poem

12:45 PM - Time for the two-year-old's nap. We went upstairs and read a couple of books. As usual, the five-year-old said goodnight to him by declaring him to be the "best brother in the whole wide universe," and he fell asleep to his CD of folk songs from Appalachia.

1:00 PM - With little brother asleep, it was time to really focus. Phonics time. The program we are using is called All About Spelling, and was initially developed as a spelling program, but a lot of people also use it for phonics. It's a wonderful curriculum, and we have both really enjoyed using it. But it does take focus. And time. I think it took us an hour to work through the lesson, but it was worth it. It's meaty stuff.

All About Spelling

2:00 PM - Time to unwind a bit. We have been reading the second Harry Potter book for the past few weeks, and really needed to get past the scary part. (Note to self: do not stop reading at a point where a child may be in danger. You will get woken in the middle of the night by a child having a basilisk nightmare.) We read for over an hour, and were able to get everyone safely out of the Chamber of Secrets... phew!

6 pages from the end!

3:15 PM - Little brother woke up from his nap, and wanted to join in on the reading fun. So we spent the next 45 minutes reading picture books on the couch.

4:00 PM - Tea time, otherwise known as afternoon snack. (The kids get decaf tea that is more milk than tea, but they adore having tea just like Mommy.) They watched a few videos from the They Might Be Giants Here Comes Science album, and we talked some more about photosynthesis.


And that was our day! I can't wait until tomorrow.

Friday, July 23, 2010

This Moment: Farewell to the Sea

Farewell to the sea

No words, just a moment from this past week that I want to linger with just a little bit longer. This Moment is a series hosted each week by SouleMama -- thanks, as always, Amanda!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A New Doll

When we were in Maine, we all had great fun rediscovering some of our old favorite children's books. Not only are many of my own childhood books still on my parents' bookshelves, but many books from my oldest's early childhood have made their way there as well. I deliberately brought very few of our books with us, knowing the kids would appreciate the variety.

I was charmed all over again by the original Little Golden Books. One I had forgotten was the sweet story of Kitty's New Doll. (We read the version with the original illustrations, but the new edition available now seems equally charming, and the story is unchanged.) In it, Kitty surprises her mother by declining a doll with all the latest features, and instead selects a simple rag doll, preferring to use her own imagination to animate her new friend. Lovely.

kitty's new doll

And so my five-year-old started talking about making a rag doll. She made it very clear that a) she had to be a cat (like Kitty's), and b) her face and clothes had to be painted on, just like the rag doll in the story.

A new doll

She drew the pattern on paper, I cut it out and machine sewed it, and she stuffed it and painted it.

Painting on face and clothes

Her very own simple, imagination-powered doll. Like Kitty's, but even better.

Finished doll