December 13, 2014

Our Favorite Books

Holley Home, Twin City, Georgia

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 3, 2014. Also, unfortunately, the photo is not of my house.

I love to read, but I am the slowest reader you’ll ever meet. Couple that with very little free time, and I don’t have a very long reading list from my past year, but I thought I’d share a few titles I’ve enjoyed and a few of my boys’ favorites too.

“…And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer – If you liked Gone with the Wind, you’ll enjoy And Ladies of the Club. It’s a story about several families in a small Ohio town right after the Civil War. It’s about their lives, their mistakes, and their triumphs. It’s a meandering novel that somehow kept my attention through its very human-like characters. It does have a very slow beginning, and I almost gave up on it, but I’m glad I kept reading because once I got used to its pace, I was lost in this little town and its inhabitants. It also delves into the politics of the day quite a bit, which got a little tedious for me, but it showed me that nothing has changed either.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson – I felt like I was reading a movie when I read this very light and fun book. It reminded me a little of Sweet Home Alabama, but it’s more intelligent than that. It’s about a woman growing up and making better decisions. It’s about two families who are in in feud, but the main character is an important link between them. It’ll give you a glimpse into what it’s like to live as a deaf and blind person as well as what it’s like for the family caring for that person. It’s very predictable, but if you just want to be entertained, that’s not a bad thing.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – This was by far my favorite book I’ve read this past year. It’s been made into a movie, and I haven’t seen that yet. I want to savor the memory of the book before I watch it. This book is on one level about the immigrant experience, but it’s also a universal story about family and growing up. It spans two generations, but most of the book focuses on the son of two Indian immigrants who settle in America and how he spends most of his life trying to extract himself from his Indian heritage, but as an adult he begins to understand his parents and their experience better. It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking and not predictable. I think any adult could identify with some of these universal themes.

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. – I’ve been reading this book for research on a magazine article I’m writing, and I have found it fascinating. Unlike other self-help or “how to be happy” books, Lyubomirsky has been studying what really makes people thrive for over twenty years. This book draws on real scientific evidence, and yes, some of it may seem like common sense, but much of it is enlightening. There is a quiz to help a person understand what might work and not work for him because, of course, there is no magic formula on how to be happy. There’s also an excellent chapter on depression and the best therapies that have proven to be the most beneficial for people. Whether or not you consider yourself a happy person, you’ll learn a lot from this book.

Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown – My eight-year-old is in love with all things Star Wars, and this book about a young boy entering Jedi Academy and facing many of the same problems any middle-school student would have has delighted my son. It’s written through the main character’s own comic strips, journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings, which makes it fun. We finished reading it together, and my son immediately asked me to start it again. (I’m happy to discover there is a sequel to this book, and I’ll be ordering it soon.)

My five-year-old doesn’t give me many breaks from reading books about dinosaurs, but thankfully he has a few other favorite books that we’ve read together, oh, 200 times? That’s not much of an exaggeration, and if you’re the parent of a small child, you’ll believe me.

He loves the three-book gift set that we received years ago. The books Little Pea, Little Hoot, and Little Oink by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace take a spin on those things that all children hate to do such as eat their veggies, go to bed, and clean up their rooms. But in the case of Little Pea, she has to eat her candy, Little Hoot has to stay up all night, and if Little Oink wants to “grow up to be a respectable pig, he has to make a mess, mess, mess.” The illustrations are beautiful, and after reading these books so many times, I still enjoy them too.

I hope you get all the good reading material you want these holidays. Happy Reading.

December 10, 2014

Holiday Sale and Free Gift

w14saleI want to let you know that home / school / life magazine is on sale for the holidays. I think this is a great deal, and if you’ve been thinking about subscribing but haven’t, you won’t have anything to lose. (Current subscribers can also take advantage by renewing their subscription now.) A yearly digital subscription is just $10 from December 10-24th. That’s four issues filled with homeschooling how-to, family interviews, engaging features, unit studies, tons of book recommendations and much more. My feature for the upcoming January issue is on the science of happiness — such interesting stuff!

And what’s even better, if you subscribe, you’ll get a FREE issue of Art Together: Color, which is the e-zine I have blogged about in the past. I’ve found it very useful in my homeschool. Our art columnist, Amy Hood, does these e-zines, and she was kind enough to partner with us for this holiday deal.

Go to homeschoollifemag.com/elf to purchase your subscription, or just click the graphic on the left.

November 24, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Rube Goldberg Machine

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 19, 2014.

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A Rube Goldberg machine is a complicated machine that performs a simple task. Two years ago, I found a video of a very enthusiast little boy who made a Rube Goldberg machine and posted it online. I loved it so much, I shared it on my blog. My son and I watched it several times, and it never failed to delight us. Audri’s excitement is infectious.

At the time I thought my son would probably like making one himself, but he was only six-years-old, and I didn’t say anything. If it were my idea and not his, it would surely fall flat. Besides that, I wasn’t sure I could even make one – they seem complicated!

Fast forward to late last week when my five-year-old wanted to show me what he made. I went into the living room to find that he had set up several items, and he showed me how a ball would go from one item to another and knock them over. Nothing was actually attached to each other, so I knew it wouldn’t work. He was just pretending and walking the ball through the course.

After he demonstrated this to his brother and me a couple of times, I told him he might want to watch Audri’s video. My eight-year-old could remember the enthusiastic little boy and that machine, but my five-year-old did not. So I found the video, and they both watched it several times. It was just as exciting as the first time we saw it.

After that, my eight-year-old said he wanted to make a real Rube Goldberg machine. I said okay, and we dedicated this past weekend to making the contraption. I did my best to let my son make all the decisions. I kept my mouth shut even if I knew he would fail.

And fail he did. His first idea was to use his scribble bot (a lightweight robot that moves some pens around on a piece of paper) to knock a heavy ball off a table, and that was supposed to knock a bottle of water over and into a funnel. The funnel was attached to a pipe and the water was supposed to go through the pipe and eventually come out where a pinwheel (which was spinning because a fan was blowing on it) would carry that water over into a bowl.

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As you can imagine, there was a lot wrong with this machine, but my only request was that he do it in the kitchen where I knew the water wouldn’t hurt the floor.

There’s so much to be learned from failing, and my son was having fun. He was thinking, problem solving, and trying things out. It didn’t take him long to see that nothing quite worked right and using water wasn’t a good idea.

My husband suggested he use a ball and gravity, and my son agreed. At this point my son also wanted to look up some other videos of Rube Goldberg machines to get ideas, so we spent some time doing that.

While watching the videos, I told him to think about what those machines used that we also had on hand. We don’t have pulleys or dominoes or large equipment, but we do have toy tracks, lots of balls, blocks, pieces of wood, string, popsicle sticks and other small items. I suggested that we take all these materials upstairs to our big room and look at them and see if it inspired anything.

At this point, it was getting close to lunch, and my son’s patience was waning. He sat in the room and fumbled around, not accomplishing anything. As he gets older, he is getting more patient and realizes that it takes time to build things, but that doesn’t stop him from getting frustrated or fussy. He wanted more of my help, but I knew at this point I’d just be taking over, if I did that. Instead, we opted to have lunch and try again the next morning.

The next day after breakfast, we were both fresh and ready to build this machine. I reminded my son that using gravity – starting from a high point – would help a ball gain momentum, and I reminded him that whatever we put into motion had to hit something else and put it into motion. I reminded him how in the videos we watched, sometimes a ball would pull a string, which would release another ball, etc.

I got him started by putting a spiral racetrack up on a box and connecting that to a ramp. The little car hit a ball at the end of the track and sent it down a ramp.

That was enough to get my son’s own ideas going. By now I had more ideas of my own, and I think I could help set up a course that would have gone clear across the room. But I kept my mouth shut and let my son do his own thing. (That was so hard to do!)

It took a long time to set up his last three steps – the ball hit another ball tied to a string. That string pulled away a popsicle stick and released another ball down a slide. That ball hits another ball that then rolls across the floor to hit and ring a bell.

It’s not a long, complicated machine that you might find if you search for Rube Goldberg machines on YouTube, but it’s my eight-year-old’s first Rube Goldberg Machine. After much trial and error, he finally got it to work, and during the process I heard him say, “If it doesn’t work, just try again.” Yes! He may be happy with his machine, but I’m happy about what he’s learning through this whole process.

Here’s a video of his final machine. All pics & video taken with my new smart phone. ;)

November 16, 2014

New Smart Phone Convert

red maple treeNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 5, 2014. I don’t have a photo of my smart phone, so I’m sharing an unedited photo I took with my phone — some beautiful autumn foliage I found recently.

Last week I checked off another year and turned 43 years old. For my birthday, my husband bought me a smart phone, and he bought himself one too. Actually, my birthday was just an excuse to finally upgrade our “dinosaur” phones. That is, we’ve never had anything other than a basic, cheap cell phone that could only make phone calls.

Though we love all things tech, my husband and I could never see the benefit in paying high monthly phone prices or spending hundreds of dollars on a phone, but recently T-Mobile came out with some competitive pricing. Also, my husband has increasingly needed texting ability for his work, and he wanted me to have a more portable camera so that I wouldn’t have to lug my Nikon around anymore. (Although, I love my Nikon, and I will still lug it around sometimes.)

I knew this day was coming because my husband has been researching phones for, well, years, but recently the conversations about cell phones had been increasing. Since I had no interest in doing that kind of research, I usually just nodded and said, “Whatever you think, dear.” But even though a big part of me wanted a smart phone, another part of me didn’t.

I certainly didn’t want to become one of those people with their faces always buried in their phones. I was afraid it would be too tempting to always check my e-mail on the road, or see if anyone has tweeted me. When I’m outside, I don’t need to know those things.

Now that I have a smart phone, however, I understand why people’s faces are always buried in them. First, there’s a huge learning curve trying to figure out how to use one. I have spent the past few days with my face buried in my phone not because I’m wasting time on social media but because I’m trying to figure out how to make a phone call! And how to get to the things I’ll really use like the camera – which I found easily, but then where do the photos go? And how do I get them to my computer?

I’ve never had the ability to text someone before, and it is fun, but I also don’t see why it’s so popular. It takes so darn long to type out a message on that tiny keyboard that it would be much quicker to just call the person. But while I was typing, I discovered the emoticons available on my phone – those little smiley faces and pictures that you can insert into your text. There must be hundreds of them to choose from! No wonder people have their faces buried in their phones.

I’m still not sure how to use all the features on this phone, but now that I’ve had it a few days, I’m glad to discover that I check my e-mail and twitter about as much as I used to. But I’ve also discovered that it’s fun to have access to these things while I’m waiting in the car for my husband who is in the store, or I’m waiting at the doctor’s office. I’m a smart phone convert now.

I’ve also realized that when you look at someone with their nose buried in a smartphone, it may look like they aren’t connecting to the world around them, but actually, a big part of our world is online and we connect to each other on these devices. While sitting waiting somewhere, I have caught up on interesting articles and my friends’ lives…something I couldn’t do at home because there’s always more pressing things to do here.

This afternoon my husband and I were trying to make calling each other on our phone a little easier, and we played around with the ability to make a different ring tones depending on the person who is calling. We were sitting on our bed with our boys, and we were all laughing at the silly sounds the phones can make. My eight-year-old especially likes it when my phone croaks like a frog each time I get a text message.

Yes, we have finally joined the club of smart phone users.

October 28, 2014

mindful homeschooling

Well, I promised I was going to announce it whenever I published something in my mindful homeschooling series on the home / school / life blog, but I think I’ve failed to do that. I’m making up for it by giving you links to all my posts so far. The last one was posted today. :)

Mindful Homeschooling: Find the Beauty

Mindful Homeschooling: You Have All the Time You Need

Mindful Homeschooling: Find Peace In Your Home

Mindful Homeschooling: Let It Go

Mindful Homeschooling: What My Children Have Taught Me About Pursuing My Personal Goals

I hope you enjoy them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

October 15, 2014

a few small things

I think the last few months have surely been the busiest of my life. Fortunately, I love everything I’m doing, or I would be a little more batty than I am right now.

First, I’m happy to tell you that the fall issue of home / school / life magazine was released yesterday, and I think it’s excellent. Of course, I’m biased, but I’ve heard from a few other people who aren’t biased, and they think so too, and that makes me happy. I wish I could take credit for the wonderfulness of this issue, but my editor-in-chief did most of the magic with two fabulous articles — one is about the 10 best cities in the U.S. to homeschool in. She set certain criteria, did tons of research, compiled it together and scrutinized the data to come up with this list. Though we’re not planning to move, I now have some town envy for sure! She also wrote a great piece about asking yourself important questions that will be helpful to you as you enter and navigate this homeschool journey. I’m pulling out my journal one night with that one!

I also love all the columns in this issue, especially Amy Hood’s tips on visiting an art museum with kids and Patricia Zaballos’ letter to her beginning-to-homeschool self. She sure knows how to comfort the frazzled homeschooling mom!

As for me, I wrote an article about how to become a better family photographer. If you’re a novice behind the lens, you may enjoy it! And something about writing this feature stirred up photography in my life (before-hand I had pretty much put it to rest for awhile) because suddenly I found myself with three photography clients. What fun it was to take photographs beyond the family snapshots I had been taking! You can see my work on my photography website.

And this brings me to my next piece of news: I started a Facebook page for my photography. It will probably remain mostly personal work, which is what I intended my photo website to be, but I also wanted a way to connect more easily with my clients and share their photos. If you are interested, I’d love for you to follow me there.

Between all this busy-ness, I have not neglected my homeschooling duties, and my eight-year-old has been delving into some new interests. I already told you about our adventures with tardigrades. We also recently had the opportunity to visit a Makers Faire near Atlanta, and I wanted to go to that because I knew there would be a lot of robotics groups there showing off their latest creations. That’s because my eight-year-old has been interested in robots lately! I wish it were easier to support this interest faster, but since good robotics kits aren’t cheap, he’s going to have to wait a little while for his wish to come true on this one. Anyway, I’ll be sure to write about an easy scribble bot we assembled with a kit from the faire, and I also have a surprise continuation of a project that I thought was finished: growing mushrooms. You can read about part 1 here, and I’ll fill you in on part 2 soon. (Of course, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know all this.)

I’ve been trying to support my five-year-old a little more with his drawing interest by displaying his work and also creating a corner in his room with art supplies and space to work! I’ll write about that, eventually.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready for out-of-town guests. (I told you I’ve been busy, right?) So if you don’t hear from me for awhile, that’s why.

I hope you are having a wonderful fall season! Please write me and tell me what you’ve been up to.

October 10, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Tardigrades

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via flickr creative commons https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3 This image is the closest to what we saw through our microscope.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

My family and I have been enjoying watching the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is a documentary series that explains the principles upon which science is based. It’s a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It uses storytelling and special effects such as Sagan did in the first series, but it’s all updated, and it’s a beautiful show.

In the second episode my family learned about tardigrades, and my eight-year-old became very excited. Tardigrades, or “water bears,” have to be one of the most amazing creatures on earth, and they are everywhere, but my family had no knowledge of them until now. This is because they are only .5mm – 1.2mm in length. They are big enough to see under a low-power microscope, but not big enough to notice when we’re walking through the woods on one of our hikes.

What is amazing about tardigrades is that they can live in conditions that would kill most other living creatures on earth. They can live in freezing temperatures (just above absolute zero) or in boiling water. They can withstand pressures that are far greater than that of the deepest trenches in the ocean. They can go up to ten years without food or water, and they have survived the vacuum of outer space. Because of these abilities, they have survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions.

Their secret is cryptobiosis, which slows down the tardigrade’s metabolic processes. Without water, according to wired.com, “it can dehydrate to 3 percent of its normal water content in what is called desiccation, becoming a husk of its former self.” When you add water, they come back to life.

See why we were amazed to learn about these tiny creatures? My eight-year-old looked them up online, so we were able to view some photos and film taken of them under high-powered microscopes. We read more about them, and we also learned that it’s easy to find tardigrades in our backyard, so my son wanted to do that too.

We learned in Cosmos that they live in moss or lichen, but according to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC), tardigrades can be found almost everywhere. The center also said there are over 900 described species (though I have read over 1,500 species on another site), and they have been found in the mountains, ocean, rain forests and the Antarctic. That site also mentions that “Live tardigrades have been regenerated from dried moss kept in a museum for over 100 years!”

First my son wanted to gather some moss in the backyard, which we did, and we looked at it under our microscope – no tardigrades. So then he wanted to look up “what is the best kind of moss to find tardigrades in.” We tried that and found something more helpful – complete instructions on how to find and care for tardigrades.

We learned that we would probably have a better chance of finding tardigrades in lichen and that once you get a sample, you need to soak it in distilled or rain water for several hours or overnight. My son gathered some moss and two small containers of lichen and let it soak in rainwater for 24 hours.

The next day my eight-year-old wanted to look at the moss water first. You’re supposed to squeeze out the moss and then put the water in a shallow dish such as a petri dish and then spend about 15 minutes looking at it under the microscope.

We found nothing in the water with the moss, but when we looked at the water with the lichen, we found some tardigrades almost immediately.

We were surprised to see that they are translucent. What we saw was a reddish outline around their body. We could make out their eight legs, but we couldn’t see the claws. We also saw their tubular mouth. My son said they looked like little, chubby caterpillars to him.

We also found all sorts of other wiggly things in there too! We haven’t identified those other creatures yet, but I think one is a nematode, which looks like a worm, and tardigrades prey on them.

I left the microscope and the tardigrades on our table so that my son can observe them for a few days before we release them back into the yard. My son is fascinated with the microscopic life in this tiny dish, and now he says he wants to learn more about bacteria. You never know where this might lead.

September 30, 2014

Nature Watch: Fowler’s Toad

We feel very lucky to get a lot of toads in our yard, and we see these fowler toads quite often. My eight-year-old doesn’t hesitate to catch them, but I’ve taught him to be very gentle, and since he loves animals, he doesn’t want to hurt them.

Nevertheless, he learned a good lesson when he turned the poor toad over to look at its belly. As a defense, some small animals will pee on predators, and sure enough, that toad peed on my son, and it worked! My son let him go right away after that!

What backyard discoveries have you made lately?

September 29, 2014

Georgia Food Tours: Agro Cycle Tour

Agro Cycle Tour-4

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 24, 2014. I think these tours would be awesome for older homeschooled students who are interested in farming, food and/or bicycling. If you’d like to see all the images I took on this tour, click here.

Last week I had the pleasure of tagging along and photographing an Agro Cycle Tour in Monroe, Georgia. Mary Charles, the owner of Georgia Food Tours, organizes these cycle tours three times a year, and she’s been coordinating walking food tours of downtown Athens for several years. She has also expanded the tours to Roswell as well.

Mary Charles hired me to photograph the cycle event, and though I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, I knew it would probably be fun – as long as I didn’t have to ride a bicycle. Lucky for me, they were kind enough to drive me to the different stops on the tour.

I met Mary Charles and her crew in the Windstream parking lot early one rainy morning. There were quite a few people signing up for the tour, getting their bicycles checked by the mechanic, and listening to Mary’s brief orientation. The rain didn’t seem to bother too many of the bicyclists, but I was glad that I thrown my rain jacket in my bag at the last minute.

Agro Cycle Tour-14

The first stop on the tour was Foster-Brady Farm, which I had never been to, but I was delighted to learn about. Since I arrived before the cyclists, I had a few minutes to wander around its historic buildings, including a beautiful little church. According to its website at foster-bradyfarm.com, this is a popular venue for small weddings and photo shoots.

Agro Cycle Tour-36

The farm used to grow cotton, wheat and other cash crops, but now it’s a Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) farm for produce, timber and wildlife habitat. They sell their produce to local restaurants and markets. In 2003 Foster-Brady Farm was honored with a Centennial Family Farm Award, and the Georgia Association of Conservation District Supervisors honored it as a Conservationist of the Year in 2013.

Agro Cycle Tour-51

The next stop was Darby Farms, and though I was too busy taking photos to listen to very much of the farmer’s talk, I did catch that owner Daniel Dover was once a computer scientist, and he turned to farming after years of struggling to find a diet that didn’t hurt his body or mental health.

Agro Cycle Tour-80

Dover raises poultry, pork and beef, and all his animals are fed a non-GMO, corn/soy free diet, and they rotate the animals every few days to a new area on their 50+ acres of pasture and mixed hard wood/pine land. This allows the land to heal as well as gives the animals a healthier way to forage. Dover said all his Thanksgiving turkeys were sold, but you can buy other poultry and meat from him by checking out his website at darbyfarmsga.com.

Agro Cycle Tour-100

The third stop on the tour, which was optional for bicyclists who were ready to head back to their cars and lunch, was Down to Earth Energy, LLC. According to it’s website at downtoearthenergy.net, they are a “Georgia-based biodiesel research and batch continuous production facility serving the southeast region of the United States with clean, safe and cost-effective fuel for commercial fleets and the agriculture industry.” If you have bought Smarter Starter Fluid at Home Depot, you’ll be happy to know that you’re supporting this up-and-coming local company.

After all this, the bicyclists ended up at the beautiful William Harris Homestead for a festival with great food, bluegrass music, shopping, sheep herding demonstrations and more.

You never realize just how beautiful Georgia is until you get lost on its country roads while someone else is driving. I love taking photographs, the countryside, and good food, so this was great fun for me, although it was a tiring workday too. If it sounds fun to you, be sure to check out the Georgia Food Tours website at www.georgiafoodtours.com. And rest assured, you could join the bicycling tour by car too.

September 25, 2014

Nature Watch: Praying Mantis

One thing I love about homeschooling is the ability to cut our lessons short and let my kids explore the yard, especially when I feel like they’re getting more learning out of that than they could any other way.  The other day I did just that, and it was lucky I did. Look what my eight-year-old found. There were actually two beautiful praying mantises in the yard that day. This is one of them.

My son watched it a long time. Finally he did a little experiment without me knowing! He dangled a daddy longlegs in front of the praying mantis, and he watched it lunge for it and then eat it!

Poor daddy longlegs. Lucky praying mantis.

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