Happy Boo Day


This column was originally printed in the October 26, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Happy Halloween and Turning Forty

When you’re a child, having a birthday on Halloween is a pretty cool thing.  Besides cake and presents, you also get to dress up in a funny costume and go trick or treating.  You get invited to parties, and though they aren’t for you, everyone pays you special attention.

When you’re an adult with children, having a birthday on Halloween is a pretty cool thing, but only because it’s easily forgotten.

My five-year-old is so excited that Halloween is coming.  He decided several weeks ago that he wanted to be a ghost.  Since I’m not a crafty person, we went to several stores the other day looking for a costume.  Why are ghost costumes so hard to come by?  Sure, we could just throw a sheet over his head, but I wanted something more creative.

We finally found a ghost costume his size, but it has a scary mask with it.  He doesn’t want to wear the mask, but he’s happy with the rest of the costume.  I tried talking him into wearing make-up or at least a white hat, but he doesn’t want that either.  So, his costume may look a little incomplete, but he likes it, and that’s all that matters.

As for my two-year-old, I’m hoping he’ll be happy with the Peter Pan hand-me-down.  Since it’s a non-frills costume (which we needed when the eldest was this age), I’m hoping it’ll work well for him too.

We’ve done a little decorating.  “Little” is the key word.  As I said, I’m not a crafty person, and decorations tend to stay subdued at my house.  But we’re slowly adding on to them each year, and my son and I have made a bat and pumpkin out of construction paper.  We strung some pumpkin lights in our activity room and a few paper ghosts on the front porch.

I’m happy to report that the small pumpkins my son grew this summer and harvested in August are still firm enough to sit on the porch without attracting flies.  Unfortunately, his second crop of pumpkins is not going to be ready for the holiday.  The plants are flowering right now, and I doubt they’ll survive the winter, but you never know in this unpredictable Georgia weather.

We still have to visit a pumpkin patch, attend a Halloween carnival, and read more Halloween books.  But behind all this ghostly activity, I am aware that I will be reaching the summit and climbing “over the hill” on Halloween.

Once she reached the age of forty, my grandmother told everyone she was 39 for about 42 years…until the day she died.  My mother takes a different approach. Sometimes she’ll tell people she’s older than she really is because she wants them to think she looks great for her age.

At least for now, I don’t mind telling people I’m forty.  I think I’ve earned my age, and I’m looking forward to this next decade.

Perhaps some will argue with me (and I welcome that because I’m still learning on this journey), but I think by the time you are forty, finally you have a grasp of the myriad of emotions, possibilities and disappointments that life offers.  You have probably lived enough to see or be touched by most of them.

At forty I know I’m extremely lucky.  Though I have lived through heartache, disappointment, lonely times and humbling times, I have kept healthy, and I have not suffered severe tragedy.  But I’ve watched disease and tragedy touch the lives of loved ones, so I know how easily it could happen to me.  I try not to take my life for granted.

Not all my dreams have come true, and this still stings.  But I hold onto this tiny card I found in the packaging of my one of my son’s toys: “You know what? Not all dreams come true. But that’s okay because you can always make new dreams.” It’s attributed to “Katie, age 4.”

It doesn’t surprise me that such wisdom comes from a four-year-old.  I have gained more wisdom from rearing young children than I ever had in my previous, childless life.  And the best perk of homeschooling is that I get to explore the world and learn along with them.

They have taught me that happiness is truly in the small details.  It’s in the everyday routine and the little discoveries we make along the way.  I think this is why I love photography too.  It has given me a keen eye for small details, light and shadows.  Everyday objects come alive in the right light.

If there’s anything I hope to instill in my boys as they grow older it is not to forget those feelings of wonder.  I want them to hold onto their curiosity.  The world begins to get darker as we grow older, but that doesn’t mean those small joys are gone.

So I’ll be sneaking candy, lighting jack-o-lanterns, and following my boys’ lead on my birthday.  Hopefully there won’t be any trickery.  Just smiles, giggles and treats.

Happy Halloween to all of you!  May you receive lots of treats and no tricks this holiday.

A Kindergarten Child-Led Project: Seeds, Plants, Gardening

The five-year-old grew two pumpkins by himself. I’m a proud mama.

Most kindergarten curriculums include a study of how seeds grow into plants.  I did not have to do anything to entice my son into learning about seeds.  He is obsessed with them.  Whenever he gets a chance, he’ll pull seeds off trees or plants – at church, at a park, grandma’s house or our yard – and he puts them in his pocket, telling me he wants to plant them as soon as possible.  He has done this so many times that I almost want to pull my hair out, but I don’t.  I just smile and say, “Okay.”  Sometimes I have helped him plant the seeds, but usually I just let him plant them wherever he wants, hoping knowing he might forget about them.  Since I’m a “green pinky” gardener, I usually know that the seeds he has won’t grow under the conditions in which he plants them in, but that’s not the point.  The point is to just let him have fun planting his seeds.

But I have assisted him in planting seeds under conditions that I knew hoped would grow.  Earlier this summer, we planted tomatoes, and to my surprise, he was very eager to take care of them. Since I have my hands full with two boys, I didn’t plan to plant much else, but he insisted that we plant pumpkins.  So we did.  Or I should say he did.  He planted those pumpkins, and he took care of them all summer.  He watered them every night!  I think it was quite late summer before he finally started to let his little brother do the watering, but he was still eager enough most evenings.  (He lasted longer than me.  Usually by mid-August, I’ve had enough of gardening.)  I was very proud of him.

Since plants are an interest of his, I have used the opportunity to teach him more about seeds, plants and gardening.
 This has been over a long period of time.  As I wrote about in “Learning Is Like a Chain Link Fence,” I believe the best learning comes from doing and studying something at our leisure, over time, and when we need to learn about it for a purpose.  I’ll continue to teach my son about planting, seeds and gardening in the future.  This is an easy subject for me since I enjoy gardening myself.

Here’s a list of additional projects and resources that I’ve used to teach him about seeds and plants.  And you can scroll down to see our pictures.

  • I found a “Plant: Life Cycle” Poster (see photo above) for less than $3 at a nearby teacher supply store. Though my son and I enjoy making our own educational posters, I have no problem spending a few bucks every now and then. (Actually, the price was probably the same as making one of our own.)
  • We have read and added the books How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan and From Seed to Plant by Allan Fowler to our home library.
  • Using this Martha Stewart tutorial, we tried to sprout some beans in jars.  We successfully sprouted some pinto beans, and one of them is still growing in our garden! Photos and more information below.
  • At my son’s request, we have tried several times to plant seeds from the fruits or vegetables that we eat and cook with in the kitchen.  I don’t think we’ve gotten any of those to grow yet.
  • Other than this, I have let my boys play in the garden, tend the garden and plant anything they want.  If it doesn’t grow, it’s just another lesson.

Nothing teaches a child about Earth’s bounty better than gardening.

My boys have been participating in gardening and growing plants since they were babies.

We’ve also taken advantage of local farms, and I plan to visit more as the boys get older.  We went strawberry picking last spring.

Our seed sprouting project:

Our seed sprouting project had a lot of false starts.  Thinking I could remember back to my kindergarten days, I thought we could just throw some seeds in a jar of water and watch them sprout.  Ahem….This didn’t work.  Then I tried Martha Stewart’s Garden in a Jar project.  The black beans didn’t sprout at all but that may be because they were old beans from my pantry.  The lima beans and pintos (which I bought new) started to sprout, but the limas stopped sprouting and got moldy, so I threw them out (too much water?)  The pintos were a success!

This method is simple:  Lightly wet a paper towel and put it in the bottom of a jar, place the dried beans on top of the towel and then cover the jar.  I used regular dried beans that you can buy at the grocery store.  You may need to mist the beans periodically, if the towel dries out.

Pinto bean success!  My son planted these sprouts in our garden, and one of them is still growing. I doubt it’ll make it through the winter, though. Yet that is a lesson in itself, no?

At my son’s request, we have tried planting some other things.  This lettuce was a success.  We also planted some in our garden,and though I’ve had a lot of success with lettuce over the years, I’m sorry to say that crop didn’t grow.

What kinds of things have your kids done to learn about seeds, plants and gardening?

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REVIEW: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons

Earlier this year I decided to try Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons for my then four-year-old.  (We started three months before his 5th birthday.)  If you look up the reviews on this book, which is also called the Distar method, they are mostly favorable, but I could see that it doesn’t work for everybody.  That’s not surprising because nothing works for everybody.

Fortunately, my son loved the lessons when we began the book, and I liked the book because it was easy for me to use.

There is an eighteen-page parent guide at the beginning of the book, which is important to read, and in each lesson, there’s a script that parents are supposed to follow exactly.  At first this looked daunting, but after reading the guide and doing a few lessons with my son, I saw that it was beneficial.  During the early lessons, I kept to the script fairly well, though I changed some of the words because I knew my son would understand me better with my changes.

As we continued on with the book, I didn’t have to read the script so closely because it’s very repetitive, and by then my son knew what he needed to do.  However, I glanced at each lesson beforehand to see if there were any changes.

What I like the most about 100 Lessons is that each lesson builds on the one before it, and it introduces new letter sounds gradually.  It helped that my son already knew all the sounds of the letters before we started this book, but the way it’s taught, you could potentially teach a child who doesn’t know any phonics. 

I have a feeling that if my son had not known the sounds of the letters, he would not have liked it.  Since the beginning lessons were very easy for him, it built his confidence and showed him that reading lessons were not scary.  As he sounded out words with these sounds, he was delighted that he could read!

A couple of points about how this book teaches reading:

  • The book teaches the child to sound out words by blending the sounds together instead of pausing between sounds.  For example, we usually teach kids to sound out the word “mat” by saying “mmm (pause) aaa (pause) t.”  The Distar method says not to pause.  Say “mmmaaat.”  This simple technique helped my son hear the word, and he was able to decipher it quicker.
  • The book also uses an altered orthography or symbols to help the child read.  That is, if the sound is a long A, such as in the word “lake”, there is a line over the A, and if it’s a short A sound, such as in the word “cat,” there’s no line.  Silent letters, such as the E in “lake” are printed smaller.

The altered orthography worried me at first because I wondered how my son would transition to regular books with regular print, but quickly this worry faded.  My son was so excited that he could read!  He said, “I can read in this book, but I can’t read in those.”

Three things I liked about the book:

  • The silly pictures: My son would read the stories in the book, and I would keep the accompanying picture covered until he finished. He always looked forward to seeing the picture, so this gave him an incentive to finish the lesson.  (Yet I can see where the pictures and stories might not interest older children.)
  • The book gradually introduces many irregular words or “sight words,” and since there’s so much repetition in the book, my son has most of them memorized now.  This is why I didn’t worry about the altered orthography.
  • The book also requires the student to write two or three sounds at the end of each lesson.  Fortunately, my son was already writing well and enjoyed this part too.  It’s a good reinforcement of the sounds and practice of writing.

Making my child excited about reading is the first step in getting him to read.  I’m grateful that 100 Lessons got us on the road to reading.  Yet, as we got further into it, things changed.

Once we got to around Lesson 50, the lessons got harder.  It wasn’t that my son wasn’t reading well.  He could do the lessons, and he was learning, but while we did the lessons, he would squirm in his seat, start talking about other topics, and act silly.  It was very hard for him to focus on the lesson.

I should interject here and say that the book claims these lessons will take only twenty minutes a day.  The first few lessons took only twenty minutes, but as they get harder and there’s more reading involved, they take much longer.  And when my child could not focus and kept squirming, I think we spent closer to 45 minutes completing a lesson.

Suddenly it became a lesson in patience for mama!  Fortunately, this was about the time we were going on vacation to Chicago, so we took a break.  After returning home, I looked up 100 Lessons on the Internet and began to read what other people’s experiences were.

I found one person who said a tutor recommended this book for her child, but emphasized that the lessons should remain light and fun.  Another man described his little girl as squirmy and unable to focus too.  He gave her incentives to finish each lesson, which worked.

Reading this renewed my patience with my son, and I regained my equanimity.  Here are some tactics I employed:

  • I made sure we had plenty of time to do the lessons.  I didn’t rush my son through them.
  • I gave my son “wiggle moments” when he got too fidgety, and he loved that.  I’d count to three and then we’d both wiggle for a few minutes.
  • I was also more likely to take a day off from a lesson if we were busy with errands whereas in the beginning, I kept a tight daily schedule.

With this new strategy, we inched our way up to Lesson 70 where we reached another plateau.  At that point, the book became monotonous.  Since my son was reading quite well anyway, I decided to take another break from the book.  Now I feel we probably won’t go back to it. I’ve searched my shelves for all the early readers in my house, and my son seems excited to be able to read real books with more lively illustrations.

Above is a photo of part of Lesson 69.  My son completed through Lesson 70.

At the end of 100 Lessons, it states that a child who successfully completes this program will be reading at a second grade level.  Considering that my son is only five-years-old, I feel confident that I don’t have to push him to finish it right now.  He is happy that he’s starting to read, and he’s reading early readers.  I couldn’t be more pleased.

If you have a young child who is struggling with reading, I highly suggest giving 100 Lessons a try.  I’m not sure it would interest older students because the stories and pictures are silly, but it never hurts to try.  Also, I found the book used online for $11, so it doesn’t hurt the pocket book either.

Have you tried Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons?  What was your experience with it? UPDATE: I will be posting an update of our experience with 100 Easy Lessons this January 2014. My son is now seven, and we are finishing the book!

UPDATE JANUARY 2014: We have finished 100 Easy Lessons. Read about our experience with it two years later here: 1st Grade Homeschool Reading

The Ultimate Field Trip: Edisto Island, South Carolina

I usually don’t share so many photos, but I can’t help myself.  Recently I had the opportunity to take my boys to Edisto Island, South Carolina for a few days.  I think vacations can be the best learning opportunities of all.  This trip was no exception: from learning patience (the first day was stormy) to getting to touch real, live ocean animals. Anyone who follows my blog will know that my five-year-old has always been crazy about ocean animals, so this trip to the beach was extra exciting.

We’ve been to Edisto Island once before when he was one-year-old, but I’m so glad we got to go back now that he’s five.  And it was my 2-year-old’s first trip the ocean too, so that was really exciting too!  If you’d like to learn more about the island and our visit, please click over to my newspaper column at the Barrow Journal.  Below I’m going to share some of our photos and discoveries.  Thanks for taking a peek!

One lucky thing about the storm was all the shells and critters that were washed ashore!  Above is a horseshoe crab. (It was not alive.)

We found so many shells.

The starfish were so cool.

The condo we stayed in overlooked a lagoon complete with an alligator (we only saw him once), beautiful white egrets, blue herons, fish, turtles and mosquitoes!

We also went to Charleston, South Carolina (my birthplace).  Above is a photo at the Children’s Museum in Charleston.  A wonderful, inexpensive place, if you visit Charleston with your kids.

We saw lots of boats on our trip too! (Since my father loved boating, I felt right at home.)

Where are some places that you have taken your children on vacation?  What kinds of discoveries did you make? 

Learning Is Like a Chain Link Fence

A bit of homeschooling philosophy: Learning is like a chain link fence.  

Not a crummy, dusty fence in a barren lot, but a fence with bends and dips and muscadine grape vines interlacing it.  Every time we learn some small fact, we add a link.  We build a fence of knowledge and wrap it around our minds.  As we add more links, the fence gets bigger and so does our mind.  It’s not a fence that blocks out anything….no no…It doesn’t block anything out unless we stop adding links to it.  It’s more of a container with wild grasses, ideas, questions, fruit and nectar growing inside and overflowing…


I don’t purport to say that this is an original concept.  Not at all.  I’m only reporting on what I’ve been witnessing with my child, and in addition, I am a writer, so I like to think in metaphors.

I’ve been thinking about this as my child asks me questions…

  • What did the Native Americans do?
  • What is inside Jupiter?
  • What is inside our body?
  • Can we plant pumpkin seeds?
  • Did he die?
  • What is God?

…and I endeavor to answer.

For the Native American question, I was prepared.  Last year I bought a really cool book titled The Very First Americans.  It introduces many of the Native American tribes.  It’s general but full of good information for that first question.  It’s the first link in my son’s understanding of Native Americans.

The question, “What is inside Jupiter?” came as a result of our study of the solar system.  My son has told me that Jupiter is his favorite planet.  To answer that question, we looked online, and once I said “gas,” that was enough for my son.  But…but…but… I was tempted to add on to that, read more of the website or at least explain what “gas” is.  But he didn’t want to know all that.  He just wanted to know what was inside Jupiter.  It’s another link in his knowledge of the “The Solar System.”

“What is inside our body?”  He has asked this question in many ways over a long period of time, so I know that it’s something that truly interests him.  When we went to the toy store to pick out his birthday presents, he picked (all by himself) a human anatomy model.  He loves it, and we’ve dissected it several times. He also requested a book on the human body, which I got for him, and he’s even watched a long National Geographic documentary on the human body.  So I haven’t had to answer that question.  He’s been finding out for himself.  He’s got a lot of links on his knowledge of the human body.

My son loves plants and planting.  This summer I was going to keep gardening at a minimum since I’m so busy with the kids, but my son delighted me by becoming the gardener.  He helped me plant some tomatoes, and then at his request we’ve planted pumpkins, beans and lettuce.  I’ll talk more about his study of plants and seeds in another post, but suffice it to say, he has many links on plant knowledge too.

“Did he die?”  It might be a strange question for a five-year-old to ask, but I don’t think so.  As we begin to tell him about history and time, it’s inevitable that he must learn about death.  So this question pops up a lot when we’re reading books or watching T.V. with people he’s never seen before.  It must be his way of figuring out many things all at once, including time and life and what those mean.

“What is God?”  I have talked about God before, but the first time my son asked me about it, I got very excited.  There’s so much I want to teach him and share with him. My beliefs.  The beliefs of others.  I want to hear what he thinks too.  But I remembered the Jupiter question, so I treaded softly.  I told him in as simple of terms as I could muster, and then I read the book I’ve been saving, In God’s Name by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.  I think by the end of the book, he was bored with the subject.

I pondered that for a few days.  I wasn’t satisfied with how I answered him, and I thought of other ways I might approach the subject.  How can I be more prepared next time?  But that is when I realized that learning is like a chain-link fence.  At first I thought “learning is like a chain with links,” but no, that wasn’t good enough.  We take our knowledge in many directions.  We make decisions.  One by one, we add a little knowledge.  We build on it.  The more we study, the longer it gets.

I thought, that was his first link in the God question.

Remember: It’s not a fence that blocks out anything unless we stop adding links to it.

I don’t expect my son to remember all the details he’s learning.  I certainly had to brush up on my knowledge of the solar system before I taught it to him.  But I do know that learning something over time, repeatedly, especially if it’s something we’re interested in, will help us in mastering that subject.  Students are told by their professors to start studying right away and not wait until the last minute! A cram session the night before an exam does little for long-term retention.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself more than anything.  If I fear I haven’t answered a question well, I shouldn’t worry too much.  My son is building a fence of knowledge that he’ll piece together over time.  By mostly following his lead, I hope that if we don’t master long-term retention, we’ll at least foster a love of learning, and we’ll find some surprises along the way…

What is your metaphor for learning?

Music Appreciation with Beethoven

Or An Example of Child Led Learning…

Note: This column was first published in the Barrow Journal on September 28, 2011.  You can view the online version by clicking here.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, my husband and I took advantage of the free music concerts at UGA.  One of the concerts my husband wanted to attend was a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  It was during that concert that I felt my baby move for the first time.

Fast forward a few years until my first born is five-years-old.  He loves the cartoon Little Einsteins, which features music by a famous composer in each episode.  Out of all the music he hears on that show, he begins to hum (constantly) Beethoven’s 9th symphony or the part we are most familiar with: “Ode to Joy.”

Is it a coincidence, or is that just a catchy tune?  Obviously it’s a catchy tune, but I’ll always wonder if that prenatal exposure might have given him a predisposition to liking that music.  Anything is possible, right?

So our house is full of Beethoven these days.  I don’t think my five-year-old’s renditions of “Ode to Joy” are what Beethoven had in mind for his work, but I can say that forevermore I’ll be able to identify at least one piece of famous music.

I am not musically inclined.  I love listening to music and I like a variety of genres, but I am hopeless when it comes to remembering even the simplest lyrics.  I can carry a tune only so far, and you don’t want to know about my attempt to play the flute in the fifth grade.

My husband, on the other hand, while not a musician, is much more knowledgeable about music.  While I would rather listen to talk radio, he keeps his iTunes library neatly organized into categories and genres.  He listens to everything from classical to hard rock.  He likes to look up information about musicians, and sometimes he relaxes by watching excerpts of concerts on YouTube.

When my son first began to hum “Ode to Joy,” I couldn’t name the tune even though I had heard it hundreds of times. (Yes, I’m that pitiful.) I told my son to ask his father about it. So that evening my husband pulled up a YouTube video of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  Then my little boy started to ask questions.

“Is that Beethoven?” he asked as he pointed to one of the musicians.

We had to explain that Beethoven lived a very long time ago and that he died a very long time ago.

Pointing to another musician in the symphony, my son asked, “Is he dead too?”

While it’s fun to find learning opportunities in a child’s interests, it is difficult to balance what we adults want to teach with what a five-year-old really wants to know.

“No,” we said, “he’s not dead.”

Then we found a photo of Beethoven, and this made my son very happy.  And then he patiently listened to that whole section of the symphony.

Since he was so interested in this music, I asked my son if he’d like to do a project on Beethoven, and he was enthusiastic about the idea.  He wanted to make a book, so we printed out a photo of Beethoven, wrote a few facts about this life, included a map of Germany with an arrow pointing to Bonn (where Beethoven was born), and then we added the sheet music for “Ode to Joy.”  We punched holes in the side of the paper, tied the pages to together and voila – a little book to showcase his obsession.

My son continues to hum, chant, and create odious lyrics for “Ode to Joy.” He also tries to play it on our small piano, and when we go somewhere in the car, he requests Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which my husband is more than happy to play on the stereo.

I can’t complain that my son loves Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  Will it turn into something else?  A musical talent?  I have no idea.  But I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

{Pointing to Bonn, Germany, which is where Beethoven was born}

What is your child’s latest obsession?