Archive for ‘My Newspaper Columns’

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.

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 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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 12, 2014

New School Year

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 10, 2014.

September always feels like the real new year to me. It’s a time to regroup, plan a new schedule, and there’s that refreshing feeling that comes with the anticipation of cooler weather. Now that I have kids, and by coincidence both their birthdays are in late August, this time of year definitely feels like a walk around a new corner.

My boys just turned five and eight, and I know I say this every year, but I can hardly believe how fast they are growing. They are at fantastic ages. They are interested in the world and learning new things. My older boy is slowly catching on to the fact that not all of life is a bowl of cherries, and we have to contend with his bad attitude about certain things, especially when he’s helping to clean the house, but none of that surprises me. I will not take for granted these easier days of rearing young children because I know it’ll only get more challenging the older they get.

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we can start school whenever we want, and I choose to start after Labor Day. Since my eight-year-old is starting 2nd grade and my five-year-old pre-K, we have a lot more to do this year, but none of it is a drastic change. I had been doing reading lessons throughout the summer and a little math, and we already started working through a book of science experiments, which is a huge interest of my older son. Add to that a little more math, handwriting, a readaloud, art projects, and my son’s own projects, and you’ve 2nd grade.

So far my five-year-old has made school easy for me. He demands his “reading lessons,” which is only two pages in some workbooks while his brother works on the older version workbooks. I am sure his eagerness has a lot to do with sitting and watching his older brother do his lessons these past few years. I am glad I haven’t pushed him to start earlier, but instead I watched for clues that he was ready.

I also asked my eight-year-old to sit with his younger brother and take him through all the lessons on starfall.com. If you aren’t familiar with this website, it’s a wonderful tool for teaching younger kids to read, and a lot of it is free. The learn to read section has 15 rows of phonic lessons, and it uses little games, interactive books and videos to teach the letter sounds and decoding techniques.

I went through all these starfall lessons with my eight-year-old when he was four, and now I think his younger brother could learn from them, but my main purpose in asking him to teach his younger brother was to give him a little review. And it’s working. He even told me the other day that it’s been helping him. (Sneaky Mama.) And it’s been fun to watch him in the role of teacher. He’s a natural at it, and so patient!

My eight-year-old will be starting a new pottery class soon, and more play dates will be added to the calendar when the weather cools off. I want my five-year-old to take a class too, but I haven’t quite decided what yet. I am somewhat mourning the end of the more laid back days of summer while at the same time looking forward to seeing people and doing more intentional learning with the kids.

I always think to myself that we will have to take homeschooling year by year. We will have to assess what seems good for the kids each year. I’m glad that so far they seem to be thriving in this atmosphere. I’m grateful for the friends we’ve made, and I’m grateful for the chance to tailor my kid’s educations to their abilities and needs. As I watch their imaginations flourish, and they get a chance to do things we wouldn’t have time for if they were in school, I’m grateful we can do this another year. If we’re lucky, we can continue for many more years to come.

September 4, 2014

Anniversary in Blairsville

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on August 13, 2014. Our anniversary was in July. Yep, I’m that far behind.

Somehow, my 10th wedding anniversary snuck up on me. My husband and I are both looking at each other and saying, “10 years?” It’s gone so fast, yet in other ways, it seems like it’s been much longer. Though we’ve had our ups and downs, I’m thankful I married him, and I feel lucky to say that.

My husband says our boys are getting older, and it’s time to make some memories. So at the last minute, we decided to go on a short trip to the mountains to celebrate our 10th year.

We found a sweet cabin near Blairsville, which is only two hours away, but neither of us had been to that town before. It’s small but big enough to have everything you need, and it’s a great central location for exploring the sites and trails of the mountains.

Our first stop was Brasstown Bald. If you have never been there, you have to go. It’s the highest mountain in Georgia at 4,784 feet above sea level. From the observation deck, you have a 360-degree stunning view of four states: Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. You can see part of the Smoky Mountains from there.

view from observation deck and Brasstown Bald

There’s a short .06 mile paved trail from the parking lot, but it feels much longer going up because it’s very steep. If you can do it, it’s a beautiful trail with lovely foliage. For those who can’t handle the trail, there’s a shuttle that will take people to the top, and there are elevators to the top of the observation deck. There’s also a very nice museum at the top. It’s a federal site, and the cost to enter is $5 per person 16 years and older.

Vogel State Park

We all wanted to see some waterfalls, so our first stop was at Vogel State Park to see Trahlyta Falls. While the park is located in a gorgeous setting with a small, pretty lake, we were not impressed with it. It was too crowded, and the infrastructure needs to be updated. It’s one of Georgia’s oldest and smallest state parks. It is a good base for those going on some of the longer hikes though.

Trahlyta Falls

I read online about a longer but easy trail I wanted to take with the boys, but once we got to the park, there were no signs pointing us to the trailhead, and the map didn’t help – at least for this impatient family. So we took a short trail around the lake and down a path to the falls. Trahlyta Falls, which you can actually see from the highway, was not a disappointment. Really, how could any waterfall be disappointing?

Helton Creek Falls

We also went hunting for Helton Creek Falls, and we finally found it, although we got a little worried along the way. There is one sign on Highway 129 directing you to turn onto Helton Creek Road, which will take you to the falls. This is a narrow road through a heavily wooded, residential area, and once the neighborhood ends, it becomes a windy dirt road that seems to have no end in sight. At one point, it forks, and there’s no sign, but if you go, stay on your right, and you’ll finally find a sign and parking area for the falls.

The first falls you come to at Helton Creek.

Counting tree rings.

There’s a short, easy trail down to the falls, and you’ll actually find two falls. Keep going after the first one because the second one is bigger – about a fifty-foot vertical drop. The trail and both falls are stunning and worth the hassle of finding the place. We found lots of salamanders here! This was my favorite place we went during our brief stay in the mountains.

Can you find the salamander?

Since we were so close to Track Rock Gap Petroglyph Site, we thought it would be fun checking it out too. Creek and Cherokee people from at least 1,000 years ago but possibly as far back as 3,600 years ago carved art and symbols into these boulders that you can view a short distance from the road.

There are over a 100 carvings in these rocks, but most of it was very difficult for us to see. Still, it was worth going because according to the Forest Service’s website, “It’s one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southeastern United States and the only such site located on public land in Georgia.” If you go, I suggest reading about it online first so that you’ll understand what you are looking at.

I thought we would do more hiking while we were in the mountains, but I learned quickly that the steep trails are much more difficult for my boys’ little legs than the flat trails at Ft. Yargo. Since it’s so close to home, however, we know we’ll be able to take many more trips back there and collect even more good memories.

We found this luna moth at Vogel State Park. A nice bonus.

August 12, 2014

What We Watch

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 30, 2014.

It seems like I’m in the minority when it comes to the amount of television I let my children watch. Most of the parents I meet will surprise me by making comments on how they’ll let their children watch “20 minutes of a movie” at a time or one “thirty minute show” while they are taking a shower. (I kind of think they’re crazy.)

I used to keep silent, but I finally wrote several detailed blog posts about how much T.V. we watch, and now more moms have been willing to tell me that they let their kids watch T.V. too, so I know I’m not alone. It’s not like we let them watch all day long, but when you homeschool, and your days are full of cool activities, field trips, play dates, lessons, reading and more, television compliments your busy schedule. It’s a time to relax as well as a time to learn.

I am amazed by the educational benefits of television these days. When I was young, I loved the occasional Marty Stouffer’s Wild America, but now we have Apple T.V. and Netflix, and beautiful, thought-provoking documentaries are available whenever we are ready to sit down and watch – and that’s the key to today’s technology. We can access it when we’re ready for it. We don’t have to wait a week to see our favorite show.

Recently Apple T.V. has acquired several channels that offer free programming. (We have to pay $8 a month to access Netflix, but that’s worth it to us.) One of the free stations is PBS. PBS offers most of their programming on Apple T.V. for a certain period of time, so you have to watch it while it’s available, but generally the shows are up there for several weeks or months, so we don’t have to worry about missing something.

We have watched every single PBS Nature program on there with the boys. We usually do this at lunchtime. Although I don’t consider watching T.V. a substitute to going out into nature, it makes a great compliment. We take our boys out into the woods as much as we can, but every single day they are learning something about nature and animals through those programs. I think it has been a great way to instill a respect for nature in our boys.

We were thrilled to see that the GPB show Georgia Outdoors is available through Apple T.V. (and it’s online), so we’ve been watching an episode everyday for a few weeks now. What a wonderful show! The narrator, Sharon Collins, has taken us on tours of the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia’s waterfalls, its coastline, and there’s a great episode about fly-fishing in Georgia.

Collins talks about the history and ecology of each place she visits in Georgia. The show is introducing us to lots of places we’re hoping to take our boys, and we’re learning about places we weren’t aware of. I think we’re all so proud to live in such a beautiful state after watching this show, and that’s a great thing to instill in my little boys.

While my boys are young (they are seven and four now), nature programs seem to interest them the most, but we have watched some science programs and history programs, and there’s more waiting for us when they get old enough.

In the evenings, we watch other kinds of shows on Netflix. Stuff that’s family oriented, but more for fun. We’ve watched Everybody Loves Raymond, The Andy Griffith Show, Family Ties, and we have even watched a few episodes of Duck Dynasty on the A&E channel on Apple T.V. That may not suit everyone’s taste, but I think it’s hilarious.

Believe it or not, these shows have led to some great conversations and learning opportunities. It’s not that we have serious, adult-talk; we keep it on a seven- and four-year-old level, but I think it has been a good experience for my sons because we watch with them.

For example, we talked about history while watching The Andy Griffith Show and how the roles of men and women have changed since then. My seven-year-old liked the character of Michael J. Fox in Family Ties so much that he wanted to learn about the actor, and that led to a mini-lesson about Parkinson’s disease.

My boys also have opportunities to watch children’s programming by themselves, and I’m grateful to have Netflix so that they don’t have to be bombarded with ads for toys while watching them. Not to mention all the shows they watch are very educational, and even some of their most recent favorites like Ninjago and Super Heroes teach good lessons.

I grew up with a lot of television shows, and I have nothing but good memories of watching them. As I look back on my childhood as an adult, I can see how I learned from my parents, my teachers, my friends, and those shows. As long as parents are monitoring what their children watch, and they use it as a compliment to a lot of other good activities, I think television is a phenomenal way to learn, relax and be entertained.

July 19, 2014

Summertime

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 16, 2014.

Last summer flew by, and I hardly had time to stop and think about it. That was probably because it started out with a long emergency trip to Chicago to help my mother-in-law who had been in a car accident. (She’s okay now.) In addition to that, my son was in several summer camps, and while I enjoyed hanging out in town with my younger son, it just felt like the summer went by in a blink.

I’m happy this summer has been a little different. Though it’s been quite busy, and I’ve had work to do, and I’m driving my son to and from camps frequently, I’ve been a little more intentional about taking breaks too.

I’ve scheduled less play dates, I’m reading a good book, and I sit on the front porch sipping iced tea for a few minutes each day. I’ve even started sketching as I’ll explain in a moment. So we’re half way through summer now, and I feel like I’ve had a few chances to pause, look around, and enjoy it.

My seven-year-old attended three summer camps this year. It’s the first time he has been old enough to attend the full-day camps that go from about 9a.m. to 3:30 or 4. Last year he was in half-day camps. All of them have been great experiences for him.

It’s felt strange to be at home without him all day. As homeschoolers, we’re used to having our kids around all the time. It makes the day quieter to have just one boy at home, and it’s nice to give the four-year-old my full attention when he wants it, though he likes to play by himself too.

My seven-year-old’s favorite camps were the pottery camp at Good Dirt Studio in Athens, and the camp at the botanical garden.

Though he liked the camp at the nature center, he doesn’t care to go swimming, and he came home each day quiet and exhausted from not eating enough. I was happy that the folks at the botanical garden seemed to take a little better care of him by making sure he was eating and drinking. (Or maybe my reminders before camp finally got through to him.)

Each day after the botanical garden camp, he was full of energy and gave us a full account of his day, which, as he told me, was full of everything he liked to do, such as wading through streams to catch fish with a net, taking hikes, watching puppet shows, and touring the green houses. He even got to bring home a little plant.

We’ve had a few chances to go on family hikes, and we’ve hiked with just the four-year-old while his older brother was in camp. Because my four-year-old loves drawing so much, I got him a sketchbook and one for myself too. Even though I can’t draw worth a hoot, sitting down by some flowers to sketch them has been quite relaxing. It’s helped me slow down and enjoy the summer.

I have helped my older son create and build numerous things, but I was feeling like I was leaving his younger brother out. I love that our sketchbook habit encourages his interest and gives us something to do together. Though lately he has wanted me to sketch something for him so that he can color it – oh well. That’s good too. It’s his sketchbook, so he gets to choose what goes into it.

Now that camps are over, I’m glad to have half the summer before us to sketch and make things and take day trips. I will continue doing reading lessons with my oldest boy, and I plan to review this past year with him one day over a slideshow and give him a “certificate of completion” for the first grade. We also have birthdays in the August – I have no idea what we’ll do for that, but I know we’ll have fun.

I hope your summer is not too hot, just long enough, and full of relaxing moments.

June 20, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: My seven-year-old and his pottery

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 18, 2014.

My seven-year-old loves to build things. Mostly, he uses cardboard because we don’t have access to many other materials, but he also loves using clay. For the past three years, I’ve kept air-dry modeling clay on hand because it’s cheap and the boys love it. (I like it ten times better than Playdoh.) The seven-year-old takes his clay building very seriously, and he’s sculpted some pretty cool stuff.

When I found out a homeschooling class was being offered at Good Dirt Clay Studio in Athens, I jumped on it, and to say that my son loved it doesn’t do it justice. He even opted to go there instead of his homeschool science class at the nature center, which has always been a top priority with him.

I wasn’t sure how he’d feel in the big studio with all the different people coming and going, but after one class, his eyes were beaming, and I could tell he was in heaven. I loved how the class taught him some sculpting techniques as well as taught him how to use a potter’s wheel. All the pieces were glazed and fired too, so he got to learn about the whole process. The teacher also made the students spend the last 30 minutes cleaning up after themselves – that’s always an excellent lesson.

He ended up outperforming the older kids in the class by making many more pots than they did. I don’t know if this was because they were talking too much, or they were going for perfection or what. My son’s pots aren’t perfect, but they are all beautiful and useable – they have almost replaced the plastic kid’s ware that we usually use.

I love how my son wanted to use the air-dry clay at home after the class, and he used the techniques he learned from his teacher. In the past, he has gotten frustrated when small pieces fell off his sculptures, or they would easily break. Now he instructs me on how to make a pinch pot and how to “slip and score,” and his work doesn’t fall apart as easily.

rhino made in class

dinosaur made at home using same techniques

I don’t know how long he’ll continue to enjoy making pottery, but his father and I want to support all his interests. Learning any skill is a good thing in my book. The pottery classes aren’t cheap, but they aren’t so expensive that we can’t swing a class here and there.

We also thought he would have fun going to some pottery sales and meeting the potters who sell out of their homes. We are lucky to live in an area rich with this type of craftsperson. About twice a year, they collaborate and have open houses to sell their work.

Last weekend we went to Geoff Pickett’s open house, and we were delighted when he gave us a tour of his studio, kilns, and my son even got to see his potter’s wheel and asked him a question about how he made a vase.

From there, we went to one other sale, and we ran into our son’s pottery teacher. She thrilled him by complimenting him in front of other potters. She said how quickly he learned how to center the clay on the wheel, which is one of the hardest things to get right.

I’m struck by how kind and generous these artists are, and it’s clearly a good community to belong to. I don’t know if my son will continue to learn about pottery, but I’m happy that he’s happy, and I only see good things coming out of the experience.

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