Two basic items that make this Mama’s life simpler

I often have a messy house, and I often find myself at 5:00 in the evening with no dinner plans, so please know that I’m making no claims of mothering perfection here, especially on the mess and dinner fronts. BUT, I am making this claim: There are two items that make this mothering life a whole world easier. And that is no exaggeration. I mean it. I couldn’t imagine my days as a mother without these two items, and the great part is: they are both easy to find and not super expensive. What are these two magical items that make my home cleaner than I could have ever imagined (on some days…) and that make supper ready when we are ready for it, despite the so-called “killer hour” of 4:30-5:30 when everyone melts down?

The first is a…..basket. Mothers everywhere generally have baskets everywhere filled with all sorts of goodies and not-so-goodies, but this basket it different. This basket sits in our laundry room and is labeled “DONATE”. And any time I see a toy or book or clothing item or whatever on the floor that we could do without or that isn’t taken care of, it goes straight to the donation bin. As I fold laundry and notice a pair of shorts that are a little on the short side for my kiddos, they go straight to the donation bin. As I reach for the big platter at the top of my kitchen cabinet, I catch sight of a second gravy boat that has no need to be in my house, and (guess what?…) it goes straight into that donation basket. And about once a week, sometimes three times a week, and sometimes once every other week, that basket is full, and we place the contents in a bag, put it in the van, and then drop it off at a local organization in need. This sounds basic, but the key for me is that I have a designated place to put things we are ready to let go of at all times, which keeps me from putting it away for later to take up space or make another mess. It was only recently that I realized the key to a clean house (NOT saying I always have one, but maybe one day…), and that key is simple: HAVE LESS STUFF. Homes in magazines look beautiful and clean because there generally aren’t overstuffed dresser drawers and extra sunglasses and purses covering counters and overflowing toy boxes. Everything can’t be in its place if there are more things than places, right? And I am not a person who would ever stay on top of organizing if I didn’t have this basket, sitting and waiting and reminding me that there is a place for all of those extra stuffed animals and purses. Plus this basket reminds my family that it makes much more sense to share the stuff we have, especially when we have way more than we need.
And the second item making my mothering life easier? A big ol’ pot. This one is so simple. I am a morning person, and my kids, like most kids, are morning people, at least after-breakfast morning people. And I am not a late afternoon person, and my kids, like most kids, are not late afternoon people. We all tend to lose steam around here or lose tempers or hurt feelings or need a nap or need cuddle time or skid knees or fall behind on math lessons or need to talk out an important issue or learn a major life lesson right at the time I might need to be chopping and preparing dinner. SOOOO……I have found the secret to success on the supper front around here is to chop stuff up in the morning, throw it in a big ol’ pot, stir and season and check on it throughout the day as it simmers and makes the house smell like effort and goodness, and then when my role as mommy is at its most pressing, I can be the mama my kids need, and know that as soon as we are done talking things out or straightening out an argument or putting on the band-aid or learning about Mozart or whatever, supper is ready and waiting in the pot. And some days, I encourage my kids to come up with random goodness on their own to help throw into the pot. “What vegetables are in season locally and would taste good together?” Kids just love to be creative in the kitchen, and slow cooking really lends itself to experimenting, since you can usually fix things as needed, adding a little more salt when it was forgotten in the beginning or throwing in a few more potatoes along the way when kids (or parents) got a little too ambitious with the salt. I like to use a huge enameled casserole pot or an old-fashioned iron pot, but a crockpot works, too. And a plus here is that the kitchen clean-up is much easier after dinner when only one pot is used. My “poor” kids probably have stew, roast, chicken and dumplings, beans, soup, or something along those lines a few times a week. When they get older, I wouldn’t be surprised if the big ol’ pot goes missing at some point and I find a pizza pan in its place. But until then, I’m enjoying days of having the work of dinner done before the morning is over.

What makes your days simpler? 

Our Literature Notebooks

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of introducing kids to classic literature and other longer books of substance long before they are ready to read these books on their own. Just because kids don’t understand every single word or can’t decipher the sentences on the page without help does not mean there is not much they can gain from a good chapter book. Because we are a slightly big family, I’m often on the lookout for one on one time with my children. I think this is really important, just as important as quality family time and quality sibling time. So we decided to combine our love of literature with our desire to spend quiet moments alone with our children one on one.

So here’s the super simple model for our literature lesson time:

After each of our children completes a well-rounded Kindergarten curriculum, we begin working on literature notebooks with them as part of their elementary education. This does not necessarily coincide with the calendar year for Kindergarten, since our kids get to work at their own pace. We begin by naming a bunch of different books we consider of solid literary value to our children, and then they choose any of the books we name. I give lots of choices, and really, I’m just naming good books off the top of my head on that given day. If we own the book, then that is great, but if not, then we have fun making a trip to a used or local bookstore, or the library, or sometimes we order a book if we can’t find it locally. The book choosing is part of the fun; the kids don’t usually know what the book is about. They are just choosing an interesting sounding title, and so the book’s content is often a surprise to them. And then approximately five times a week (we like to be flexible around here), I find something constructive (hopefully!) for the other kiddos to work on, while I grab some time to sit side by side with the little listener and read aloud one chapter from the chosen book. And here’s something that I think is important, which many people strongly agree with and many people strongly disagree with: I read the words the writer put on the page, and I DO NOT stop to explain new vocabulary or ask questions or make points. Not only do I think stopping to explain or define interferes with the story and imposes my beliefs about the story on the child, but stopping to explain new words also implies that kids need that kind of explanation, when I think the best way to learn new words is by hearing them in context and letting their little minds remember them and use them on their own. This is not literary criticism time, but simply relaxing and reading and listening time. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t respond if they ask what a certain word means. It just means that I trust them to hear the story and to get it on their own level. And if their little mind wanders from time to time while I’m reading through a longer chapter, then that’s okay, and hopefully, that wandering mind has something to do with the adventure they are listening to in the book.

After completing the chapter, if I ask them anything, I simply ask, “What did you think?” and I just listen. And most of the time, that is the end of our literary lesson, but on special days, we come to the end of the chapter book, and then we get out my child’s literature notebook, which is one of those old school composition books. We use the ones with room for drawing on top of the lined pages, like this:

And then our kid gets to choose their favorite part of the entire chapter book. I just love this part, hearing what their little unique self picked out of hundreds of pages as their very favorite part. When my five year old chose a silly song from Alice in Wonderland as her favorite part, I just smiled and laughed, because that was so like her and such a unique choice. I would have chosen some dramatic scene, but this sweet and funny little girl of mine chose a song.

We find that passage in the book, and then they copy it straight from the book onto the lines of the notebook. They then make their own illustrations to show how the scenes looked in their own heads. Each entry is finished off with writing the author’s name and then listing herself as the illustrator.

Copywork is a practice which schools utilized a great deal in the early part of the last century and also well before that, and it is making a fantastic come back. I think it’s a great way to learn to write, remember, learn grammar, and also to look for value in literature.

It’s great that my kids and I get this one on one time. Most days it is a wonderful experience for me to read chapters to my kiddos, but on some days, it is tiring. How long is this chapter? And then I have to read another one to your sister? But it is worth it, I know, and I keep telling myself that, as mothers everywhere tell themselves about so many things which can be a little tiring at times. And one major plus about this for my kids is that when this is all said and done, they each have a notebook filled with all of their favorite passages from books they read in their childhood with their mother. I love this, especially since I am a slacker at keepsakes and scrapbooks. At least we have our literature notebooks.

Pictured above: my oldest daughter’s first literature notebook entry from her very first Narnia experience

Learning with a favorite board game (Free Printables!)

My kids’ violin teacher suggested we use Candy Land to practice violin, and I just loved this idea. So, one night I created an easy key and set of directions for applying our Suzuki violin practice tasks to playing this beloved board game. We played the game, and it was a success. Oh, and this mama went a little crazy and created two other sets of instructions for using Candy Land in our learning time. We now use this game to practice violin, our Classical Conversations memory work, and creative writing. As many creative teachers out there know, the possibilities are endless for using popular board games like Candy Land as learning tools because of the simple concepts and fun visuals on the boards, and also, kids love to win, or at least try to, so games are great in the home and classroom…and home classroom. At some point, after another cup of coffee, I want to go through our game/school closet and see what other activities we can turn in to school drills.

But look at this closet. (And this is after another crazy closet purge…) That will take a while. I’m hoping to get that done and to create a neat little binder with instructions for playing various popular games to practice school content. We’ll see…

Please feel free to download the free printable instructions on pdf I’ve created for playing Candy Land as learning practice by selecting the link(s) below, and please note: I am a big fan of Candy Land and its creators but in no way am I affiliated with Milton Bradley; I’m too busy braiding hair and molding little minds for a 9 to 5 gig. This was just for fun and learning and learning fun.

Have fun! And thanks to my girls’ violin teacher for the idea!

The Great Summer Music Challenge

Well, it’s been a while. I took a blogging break as we welcomed our baby boy to the family. Which means so many wonderful and amazing things for our family and for me as a mother, but in the small world of this blog, it means: we need a new subtitle. It’s still pretty different for me to think we are not just in a world of daughters. Things are going to keep on changing around here, and while I have so enjoyed the last seven years of being a mother to daughters and loved living in a world of no-boys-allowed tea parties and fashion shows, I am so thrilled to see what the next years bring as we add some more blue into our home.

Now that we are all settled in to being a family of six, I’m slowly, slowly getting back in the swing of things, which is why I’m sitting here typing, coffee in hand (coffee with soy milk in it, by the way, thanks to baby, but the sacrifice is well worth it of course. Of course.)

So, it’s summer! Which for our homeschooling family doesn’t exactly mean we are on a total school break, because, ya know, we like to keep things moving year around, so that when things pop up during the regular school break, we can afford to take days off when we choose and still get in our 180 full days of school. (I always laugh about that 180 days of school requirement that many states have, because really, aren’t our kiddos learning something and growing into themselves everyday?) Nevertheless, it is summer, so we go a little slower, a little different, we drop of few things, and we add in so much more creativity, flexibility, and fun.

What’s on our family’s agenda this summer is a team building, music mastering challenge. Let me know what you think. I should add a poll on here (if only I knew how…remember technology is not something I am generally comfortable around…) to see how many people think we can actually pull this thing off. I’m not really sure that we will, but I am sure about one thing: I am not going to cut slack here on this challenge. We are sticking to the plan. And if we are successful, then, wow, what a lesson about the importance and reward of hard work and dedication, but if we aren’t successful, then, wow, what a solid lesson on the importance and reward of hard work and dedication.

Okay, here’s our plan (this is a copy, with a few changes to names, of the poster hanging up in our home):


Everyday we are home (for at least two hours, not including bedtime and meal times…music mastering can’t be rushed, right?), we shall complete the amount of time below of concentrated music practice. Minutes of laziness and whining do not count…that includes Mama and Daddy, too! 🙂

Mama Bear: piano practice 30 minutes per day
violin practice 30 minutes per day

Papa Bear: 1 hour and 15 minutes of guitar practice per day

Sister Bear: 20 minutes violin practice per day
14 minutes piano practice per day

Girly Bear: 20 minutes violin practice per day
10 minutes piano practice per day UNTIL her summer birthday, 

                     then she goes up to 12 minutes of piano practice per day

Little Bit Bear: unlimited singing of “Let it Go” and all things Frozen to be completed, along with concerts on her American Girl doll’s violin

Baby Brother Bear: daily vocal warm-ups

In June, July, and August, each day the family is ALL home and this is not completed results in one STRIKE. Three strikes and we are OUT, as in OUT of our family fun reward day after August 31st, which is:

Breakfast at our favorite coffee and tea shop, rock skipping and duck feeding at a pond, followed by a lunch picnic, go to a store to pick up a NEW movie we all agree on and popcorn, then back home for snack dinner made by all girls under the age of 8 (yep, they get to make dinner by themselves!), kids get a bath with too many bubbles, followed by family movie and popcorn night and staying up after bedtime. Woah.

Remember, three isn’t a lot, and three strikes and we are OUT. Let’s stay in this challenge. Did I mention the girls get to make dinner?…

Sickness Clause: Parent or Doctor confirmed illness does not excuse time, BUT can change the rules a bit: in the case of an ill musician, a family member or family members may take on the patient’s practice time until the illness passes. No minutes may be lost on a given day. We’re serious about this challenge…

MARK ANY STRIKES BELOW WITH X’s (Remember any Summer break day, JUNE-AUGUST, on which we are all home, is required to be counted towards the challenge).


Let’s see how this goes. 

Why We Homeschool

I get asked almost on a daily basis why we homeschool our kids, and you know, most of the time, people are surprised with my responses. It seems that most people think we homeschool because we want our children to only learn about a Christian worldview or because we want to shelter them from nearly everything or because we have some kind of religious view against school systems. When in reality, we have many, many reasons we homeschool, not just one, and none of these reasons are what people tend to expect. It’s pretty difficult to remember and to list all of our reasons, since there are so many, and each day it seems I come up with another one, but, since there are so many questions that come at me about our choice to homeschool, I thought maybe I should try to explain a bit here. We really have three reasons that always seem to come to the top of the stack for homeschooling, and here they are:

  1. Hours in the day. Goodness gracious. These kids are pretty amazing, and I love being around them, and I believe that they gain much from spending most of their time with their family, specifically with the parents who are hoping to guide them as they grow into their individual self and to master the gifts they were given. And you know, my kids are young. They go to bed at seven, and not because I make them, but because they don’t nap, and they are done at seven, and so we like the idea that we spend more than several waking hours together a day. And don’t get me wrong, my kids are not locked in the house all day, never seeing anyone outside their immediate family. No, we are a part of a large homeschool group that meets for a day of school each week, the kids are in dance lessons, violin lessons, piano and art lessons, and we go to parks, museums, the library, and even to a local coffee shop as part of their educational plan each week. And when it comes to hours in the day, it isn’t just about what the kids are doing, but what they aren’t doing. By having an individualized school day, the kids can work through lessons efficiently. There’s little time spent waiting, bathroom breaking, being quiet while others are disciplined, or sitting around while others are finishing up work. Of course, with our growing family, there is always going to be some waiting for turns, but not on the scale found in a school. And I’m not saying waiting is bad for kids; waiting is a part of life. I’m just saying, that it is kind of nice to not have to work on school work for 7 hours a day, since the time it would take for lunch, recess, waiting, and moving between classes is not such an issue at home. We love having more time for extra-curricular activities, too. As someone who has worked in the field of the arts, I have to say that I value their music lessons just as much as their math lessons. (Hours in the day is one of my top three reasons, but for my husband, this is definitely reason number one).
  1. Academics.  I am passionate about challenging my children and packing them with as much knowledge and skill as their little minds can happily handle, which is a great deal. I have high standards for the education of my kids, and I really do believe that their young minds are capable of learning high level facts, operations, and grasping the wealth of wisdom and inspiration to be found in so-called  upper level literature, art, science, geography, history, and mathematics. We do have fun around here, baking and creating and coloring, but for the most part, most of our time is spent memorizing and listening, reading and sharing, and not so much on following the same directions on worksheets over and over again, or on crafts that are designed by someone else and ready to be put together, and definitely not on testing and box checking. It’s exciting to see a five year old talk about Joan of Arc and the parts of speech and the different types of stars. Goodness, what is she going to be talking about during her lessons when she’s twelve? That’s an exciting thought.

  1. Traveling Family. I grew up in a family that loved to travel. I was blessed with parents who thought it was important, beneficial, and fun to see the world, and to teach their children about the places visited. I am a history nerd, and when I think back to the times I learned the most about history, many of those times were spent at Williamsburg, in Colorado, in the Natural History Museum, at Yellowstone, and all sorts of other places far from home. My parents encouraged questions, and made sure our souvenirs were educational. I loved a book on first ladies purchased at Gettysburg, and read it so often as a child, studying the pictures and dates. I don’t think the book would have been as special to me as a little girl, if it has been purchased through a catalog. There’s something about being in the place where the event happened that really brings history to life for a child, and of course, this concept doesn’t just go for history, but for all subjects. I never liked science all that much, but most of what I learned and held on to, I learned from hands on museums and planetariums. We have the freedom with homeschooling to just pick up and go somewhere if there is something we want to see that corresponds with our learning, and our kids won’t be missing a beat, because we shape things around what we want to do. Our school comes with us. And having the freedom to travel as a family also makes for stronger sibling bonds. My brother and I were not always the sweetest of friends as kids, but on trips, we found a way to work together and get along, and I want that for my kids. I want them to learn to share the backseat, to share their souvenir money, and to share their school projects.

    So there they are: our biggest, clearest reasons to homeschool out of a sea of a million little reasons. But most people I know who homeschool would have a different list entirely. I’m in a world full of homeschooling families at this point in my life, and it is so cool to me how everyone has a different story, a different purpose, and a different inspiration. We’re all just trying to be great parents, and we all believe that teaching is a part of parenting and that you can’t separate the two, because whether mothers and fathers claim it or not, we are our children’s teachers. They do learn from us, good or bad. And that looks like something very different from family to family.

    Before wrapping this up, I wanted to include some other voices, some other reasons. I’ve asked some friends to contribute to this post and have a few responses from fellow homeschooling moms included below. I hope this helps to show why some of us do what we do. And if you have another reason for homeschooling, then please share it in a comment if you’d like. Let’s take away some of the mystery that seems to be out there. And thank you to my friends for their responses. If you have the time, please read on to see what some great homeschooling mothers have to say.

“It gave me the opportunity to cater to my child’s strengths and weaknesses. To allow my child to go at their own pace. Some subjects or concepts may have required a bit more time for my child to grasp where in a classroom full of kids they must move on. And allows my child to move at a much quicker pace on subjects or concepts that they grasp quickly while not having to wait on a classroom full of kids to catch up. It also allowed my family to form lasting relationships with each other and in this fast pace world those are the relationships that count. Mostly it allows me the privilege of choosing my child’s curriculum and peers. That is one of the things I valued most about homeschooling. There were times we changed curriculum midway. Not because of content, but because the style of teaching or format was just dragging my child down, and changing curriculum brought us a welcome relief. ”


“We homeschool for a variety of reasons.  God gave me these children to raise.  Deuteronomy 11 says “18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.”  I have more time with my children while they are young to teach them God’s Word and prepare them for life in the world.  We pray each year about whether to homeschool and God impresses it on our hearts to continue this journey.  There will come a day when my children would rather be with their friends than their parents.  While they actually want to be with us I feel like we should spend the time with them.  Our boys are three years apart which means they would be in separate schools/classrooms and have separate lives and friends.  They’re brothers and friends.  They fight but they also love one another fiercely and have a great time playing together.  The time they have at home together is so precious.

Our first son stayed home with me until he was four.  I’d received a lot of pressure from our friends and family to put him in school so we gave it a try for VPK.  There were some positives but mainly it confirmed our suspicions, our son would learn best at home.  He was miserable in school and I knew more school would make him hate learning.  We’re able to tailor the education of our son to his unique academic needs.  If he’s flying through math then we let him.  He needs more help with writing and spelling so we carefully and gently develop those skills.  He’s an auditory learner so I can read story after story and he just soaks up the information.  His little brother is an auditory learner as well (what a blessing) so at three he’s spelling like a kindergartner.  He just listens to older brother’s lessons and soaks up bits and pieces.  We learn division through cooking and experience world geography through food.  I choose the most meaningful activities that will teach/reinforce skills the most efficiently.  I don’t particularly cherish the drama associated with dragging two children out the door early every morning for school.  There’s a lot of rushing around and stress.  If we have a sick day we just make up the work later or snuggle on the couch with our school books.  School fits our lives instead of our lives fitting school.

The final reason we homeschool is so our children will be well socialized.  I know most people are so worried that homeschoolers will turn into weird hermits but I argue that there is nothing natural about putting a group of children the exact same age together.  Seven year old boys think bodily functions are the funniest thing in the world.  I don’t see how spending all day with a roomful of kids who think that way is quality socialization.  Well socialized children should be able to talk to adults and children, make eye contact, and make new acquaintances.  Homeschool field trips have taught my shy son to make new friends.  He rarely sees the same children each time we go somewhere so he has learned to get acquainted with whomever is there and find a common interest.  He still has his best friends over for playdates and we have a regular group at Lego club, Bible study, Awana, and Sunday school so he has to learn to function in a group but what I love about several of those groups is that they are multi-age.  Two of his more recent “new friends” are three years older than him.  The one room school house has merit – the older children look out for the younger ones which teaches leadership and the younger ones see empathy and patience modeled and learn to be nurturers themselves.  I would say that out of my 30 closest friends, only four are my age.  The majority are older and several are younger.  That is the real world and that is what I am preparing my children for.”


“Where to start!  There is so much I could say about homeschooling.  I have NOT always known I would homeschool.  It was only recently that I really began to know how important the freedom to homeschool my children was to me.  I am realizing that I have already taught them so much before we even started “school” formally.  In fact, I teach them every day.  My choice to homeschool is just a decision to be intentional about it and the result of a question to myself…. Who will ever have my child’s best interest more at heart than I will?  As we approach one of our most important milestones….. learning to read….. I am so amazed that “teaching” really is as simple as talking and practicing and exploring with my child every day.  Working with them makes me proud of my children and gives me confidence in the innate ability I have as a parent to learn my child’s abilities and learning styles.  I certainly don’t take educating my children lightly and it is certainly not always easy but I hope to teach my children things I never learned in school and open the world to them because they are the most important parts of my life.”

– Quote from a friend

Either I’m engaged with them or I’m not: cell phones and mothering

I have been putting off this subject for a while because I don’t want to sound preachy or unrealistic, and I also don’t like stepping on my own toes all the darn time, which I always seem to be doing. BUT, its a new school year for us, our second year homeschooling, and in the spirit of starting fresh and being optimistic about the fabulous environment I can create for my children this year, here goes: Cell Phones are a busy Mama’s little helper, especially if you’re a mom like me who tends to get lost on the road all the time. They help us multi-task, making it possible to get in a quick call to the insurance company while making our coffee in the morning, and then again in the afternoon. YET, do I really want my children to live in a world where their mama may drop them at any moment to pick up the phone, turn away from them while holding up a serious “Wait one minute while Mama talks on the phone” finger, and then chat away with the same old darn insurance company or maybe even with a dear Mama friend of mine? I’m not saying that I want to drop my friendships or stop taking calls from family and from well meaning businesses, BUT I am saying that cell phones have changed the telephone game, and as a stay-at-home-mom, I am not going to play by the new rules any longer. I want to go back to the days when people called a telephone in order to reach me, rather than people calling me. Cell phones make it possible for our phone to be a part of us, rather than a thing we can connect to on our own time and when we are available. When I was a kid, if my parents were busy, then they weren’t around to hear the phone ring or couldn’t usually get to it on time. Board game time and bike riding time were not interrupted by phone calls. But now, who cares if we’re busy or engaged with someone; the cell phone is in our back pocket, so let’s pull it out and do two things at once.

It is easy to say there’s something wrong when a family goes out to eat together, and all of them are playing on their phones, rather than talking to each other. But that’s the extreme, the extreme-norm,  but still the extreme, I think. But what about taking it a step further? What about the family who is driving down the road together, and the kids are in the back seat, maybe on tablets or watching a movie, while the parent driving the car is carrying on a conversation with a friend. We can all reach our destination without ever having to actually talk to the people we are buckled in next to or in front of. How sad is this? And I have to say here that I am guilty. I have three little ones, who are pretty close together in age, and we are at the point in life when the easiest parenting moments I have, my biggest break, might very well be when they are all buckled in to car seats and can’t be making messes or getting in each other’s personal space, and so it is pretty tempting to grab my phone the second I get in the van, dial up a friend, put it on speakerphone, and then chat away (free handed….) because my kids are contained. I get it. I have lived it, but now I’m trying to break the habit of dialing up a number the second we pull out of the driveway and then chatting away like I’m all footloose and fancy free, because I’m not footloose and fancy free. My kids are in the car, and we’d all do better to be engaged in an actual conversation or listening to something together. Two things have shown me a new perspective on this. The first being that we now use CD’s in the car to learn memory facts for homeschool for the week, and not only do I want to learn history, science, English, math, geography, and Latin facts with the kiddos (I am supposed to be their teacher, right?), but I also want to be a part of leading the learning process, pausing when we need to stop for explanation or to remind the girls to listen to the lessons on CD instead of only chatting it up in the backseat the whole time. The second thing was simple and humbling: my oldest daughter said, “When you talk on the phone all the way to where we’re going, you don’t hear me ask for the song I want to hear.” Okay, so while she was probably mostly upset about not getting her song, as a mother who takes this mothering deal seriously, I hear, “You’re talking to other people instead of listening to us and giving us what we need. You’re ignoring us. We’re invisible the whole time we’re in the van.” And maybe that may seem a bit dramatic to some, but ya know, sometimes the drama my girls and I exhibit stems from true feelings, and so I refuse to write off her comment and my interpretation of it as not too serious when it probably is a pretty serious problem in our mother/daughter relationship.

So, where does this leave me. On most days, it leaves me with a van full of kiddos, lots to talk about, bunches to learn, tons of questions and complaints and jokes to listen to, and a cell phone sitting on the seat next to me with a speaker phone function just waiting to be used so I can connect with a friend instead of being in constant kid world 24/7. And I’m learning to choose the best option for this situation, and to just say no to the desire to ignore the backseat noise and chat about something grown up the whole way. Or some days I am left with a full day of homeschooling and lessons to get through and attend, while my phone rings off the hook (huh….old phone saying from before the days of cell phones…). I don’t want to ignore the people calling, but I also know I would be pretty unhappy if my kids’ attended public school and their teachers were taking phone calls in class. So, why would I, their mother, interrupt their lessons for a call? So, I usually leave my phone in a different room or turn the ringer off when I’m really engaged with the kiddos.

And man, this is hard, and sometimes, on those days when I feel way, way, way far away from super mom, it is even more difficult to tune in to the little dears in the backseat. But they’re my little dears, the ones I have and hope to be an all the time mother to, and so, the phone is just gonna have to wait. And ya know, when I need to get a quick question into the medical insurance company or to the cell phone company, or to check in with my husband, or to call up a fellow Mama for a little daily encouragement to help me through, then these smaller portions of my day can serve to teach my kids to be patient and to wait and that sometimes Mommy has to talk to another grown up, BUT, they’ll also learn that sometimes isn’t all the time, and that the people in front of me do not always have to take a backseat to the people on the other line. And don’t get me wrong, 9 times out of 10 I know and love the people on the other line, but ya know, most of those people are Mamas, and they get that sometimes your hands are full and your mind is more full, and they love me and my kids and know that we’re all trying to do the best we can. We always find a way to stay in touch.

And anyway, this is the kind of thing that happens when I step away from the kids to answer the phone. Doorways get covered with stickers, and really, this is best case scenario.

Yes, that’s a real needle my 6 year-old has there

So, if you know me, you know I get pretty excited about so-called old-fashioned pastimes. Ipads and ebooks may be life-changing and all, but what really gets me excited is a musty-vanilla smelling, hundred year old book, or a family sewing or playing music around the living room after dinner. I know, I know. I am ancient on the inside, and I am absolutely okay with that.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing from homeschooling friend-Mamas about unschooling a lot lately. At first I wasn’t a big fan of that word: unschool. Is that really a good thing? I thought the point was to SCHOOL my children at home, right? Why would I want an un in there? And then I thought, read about, and considered the concept more, and it finally and slowly clicked that it is a pretty great concept, and not at all a bad word. I mean, the word is unschool, right? Not unteach or unlearn or undo. So without pretending to be an expert on unschooling or making this post turn into a thirty page thesis on unschooling, let me just say that what I like to take from the concept of unschooling is this: education at home does NOT need to mirror, compete with, or imitate the learning and routine of the school systems around us, AND education can be effective, challenging, and competitive by being child-led. And no, that doesn’t mean that my children are in charge of our days or our home or our schoolroom, but it does mean that rather than sticking to a lesson plan or some state’s standards, it can be very effective and pretty darn beneficial to look to our children’s passions, interests, strengths, and weaknesses for a guide to what we are learning about and focusing on in our learning time. That said, if you have an interest in or questions about unschooling, then I encourage you to research it. There’s some great, inspiring, and even some cautionary tales about unschooling out there. It can be a great thing to stray from the path. Now that doesn’t mean that I am bashing schools here at all. I hope you all know that I am not homeschooling my children simply because I don’t like schools. That is not the case.What I am saying here by discussing unschooling in a positive light is this: If I am going to teach my children at home, then I want to get away from constantly looking to the school systems for standards, plans, and a guideline for my day. If we are going to do this thing ourselves, then let’s do it our way. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Now I need to take a sec and read back a bit of what I just wrote to remember where I was going with this. Brittany’s on a soapbox again.

Okay, I was going to talk about so-called old fashioned pastimes and unschooling, specifically, letting my children’s interests spark and guide our learning time, which leads me to art. So, my oldest daughter, the one I have referred to over the last year as Kindergarten Gal, saw some examples of cross-stitching, and she also has a love of all things Pride and Prejudice and all things Caroline from the American Girl Series.

Please note: I am currently believing that she really likes these things, and doesn’t feel she has to just because I do. I mean, her other sisters don’t tote around heavy, antique hardbacks. This is her, not me, right? End note.

She recently decided she wanted to take up embroidery, like her favorite literary characters, BUT since her Mama doesn’t know much about embroidery, we started with cross-stitching, which I had a brief stint with as a kid myself, so at least I know where the cross-stitch aisle is in the store. Long story short: the kid is a cross-stitching maniac. Score. Our home art time is going to be full of stitches next year. And that, my friends, is a small piece of what unschooling is about to me. I didn’t say, “No, no. We are going to make Easter bunny crafts and splatter paint this year in art.” I said, “Alright, kid, let’s go get some more thread and some needles.” Kindergarten Gal was ecstatic, and so, so very proud of herself as she saw the first signs of an image appear on her material. She is using a real needle, which seems to spark interest with passersby when she takes her hobby out in public. But this is another example of what I think of as our society dumbing things down for our kids. It amazes me that some people freak out a bit when they see she has a real-life needle. Is a play plastic needle really necessary? Why couldn’t she use a real needle? She is calm, patient, and determined. She would sooner have a nasty fall on a playground than poke herself with a needle. Little girls have been sewing for generations, why not her now?

So then we have our soon-to-be Kindergarten gal who is going through a little sister “me too” stage. She wanted to have a “grown up” craft or hobby too, so I steered her away from cross-stitching (so she can have her “own” thing) and let her choose from knitting, crocheting, quilting, etc.., and she was all about the knitting aisle, and like Sister Bear in one of the Berenstain Bear books, she found a knitting spool to help her learn the craft. Knitting is much more her kind of thing, since it is bigger and flashier than her sister’s stitching, And she is finishing up her first knitting project: a cute little knitted butterfly. She’s four. And while I would like to claim she is a prodigy since she is my child, I have to be honest and say, she is a four year-old, and four year-olds can do these things. They can knit, they can sew, they can clean up their rooms, they can look adults in the eye and say hello, and they can write letters. We as parents and as a society just need to start trusting them to learn these things, otherwise they’ll miss the window of mastering skills at a young age and enjoying them and/or using them throughout their lives. They’re smarter and much more capable than we think them at times, and whether they want to spend their time learning about and using old-fashioned skills like stitching or knitting (which I would not really think of as old-fashioned myself, but, ya know…) or if they want to take apart an old radio and put it back together again, why not let them do it? I can’t think of a reason.

Summertime means one who wants to make laundry detergent and granola in between puzzle working, one who wants to be read to without reading herself, and one who wants to please, please do all of her Kindergarten work before fall starts.

So this year was an adventure. I thought I would be ready to say that I have a year of homeschooling my children wrapped up by now, but really, I feel like we haven’t wrapped anything up, and I am wondering if this is normal. (Not that “normal” has ever really been something I care to strive for, but ya know…) So if any of you readers out there are from a homeschooling family, then please let me know your experience of thoughts on what I have to say here. While normal isn’t my main concern, it’s always helpful to hear about others’ experiences with a similar lifestyle. I don’t really feel like there is a clear division between the school year and summer break. Of course we aren’t waking up these days and doing a set amount of school time or following a lesson plan, BUT I do feel a bit like an old dog who can’t be taught to transform our routine totally into the new trick of a summer break. It just seems like so much wasted school time to me! My poor kids….

But it is funny to me to watch how each of them are reacting to our relaxed and flexible summertime routine. Those who know me won’t be surprised to read this. I tend to get pretty excited about the varying interests and personalities of my kiddos.

So far, my graduated from Kindergarten gal has proclaimed that summer break means she doesn’t have to do school work, but being the book lover she is, she refuses to put away her paperback friends, but instead wants to be read TO everyday, rather than reading herself. Hmmm…. How do I say no to a six year old who wants to cuddle up next to me and listen to me read about Laura Ingalls. Seriously? But the kid needs to keep reading on her own too, lest she forgets what she knows. Sigh.

And then there’s the soon-to-be Kindergarten girl, who refuses to acknowledge summer break and asks me if she can please, please, pretty please do a worksheet or a project, please please please, and she’ll promise to clean up her room if I’ll let her do some school work and get into some Kindergarten….please. Ummm, okay?

And now let’s move on down the line to Little Bit, the soon-to-be preschooler. All this kid wants to do over summer break is exactly the same as all she wants to do during the school year: this little girl wants to bake and make in the kitchen and also work puzzles. The difference between the school year and summertime for her: there’s much more time in the day for puzzles and baking. She especially loves to help Mama make laundry detergent. All the kids really love this activity, of course none as much as Little Bit, but it is lots of fun all around and worth taking a moment to share.

We buy the soap pre-grated and the ingredients pre-measured from a farmer’ market, so this is easier than it sounds.

I have to say that this is probably my very favorite activity to do with the kiddos. There’s measuring and learning to follow directions, very little kitchen mess, the house is left smelling fresh afterwards, and we end up with a bunch of inexpensive laundry detergent free of harsh chemicals and dyes. And the detergent looks a lot like lemonade and brightens up our laundry room shelf. Lots of wins here.

And an activity with multiple wins is not something to take lightly around here where the kids get smarter, and louder, and more expressive by the day, especially in the summertime.

So, what about your summers? Seriously, I am looking for some support, guidance, ideas, or thoughts. Should I be looking for less of a gray area here…? Should our summers be more summer break-like? And if you think so, then why? I gotta say, I see great arguments for our schoolish version of summer and also great arguments for a summer with less pencils.

Thanks for reading.

Abstract Parenting

I have been planning on writing a blog post about some of the the cool things my kiddos have learned in school this year, and of course, I wanted to throw in a thing or two that I learned myself, but instead, I am totally calling myself out on some seriously impatient teaching. Sometimes my kindergarten student knows more about her school work than I do. Seriously. In short, I have learned to listen, ask, wait, consider, and be open before I start judging, critiquing, or correcting. And the sad thing is, that seems like a pretty basic concept to me, something I thought I knew, but, ya know, I found myself to be quite the rashly critiquing Mama on several occasions, only to find out I should have waited to understand what my kid was working with. My most recent lesson on judging my children’s effort quickly and poorly?…

Our favorite reading and writing lesson around here is to work with comprehending, copying, and narrating living books. So, my kindergarten student was copying a quote from her favorite scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and drawing a picture of what she thought that scene might look like. I walked away from her for a few minutes, then came back to see an odd drawing swirled and scratched onto her page.

Well, I was pretty frustrated and disappointed. This was her writing journal, not some loose piece of scratch paper. This could not be erased and redone for goodness sake! (Well, it could have been redone, but you know, I was dramatic Mama in that moment…) I took a deep breath while contemplating my first words, trying to decide if I believed her main struggle there to be laziness, impatience to complete her work carefully, or indifference, but thankfully, before I began a lecture of some sort, I found some small piece of motherly wisdom hidden somewhere behind my frazzled imperfection and asked her about her drawing, (of course I was thinking that maybe she could see the error of her own ways without me pointing out that she wasn’t even thinking about or caring about her work). And then, the little amazing creation of a kid says to me, “It’s abstract art. So you can’t understand what I was doing, but I can because I’m the artist, so I’ll explain it to you.” And then she continues on with an explanation of every little detail in the picture and why she made it a certain way and what it made her imagine and think. Okay, so wow. Taught me a lesson to always assume a student is lazy or indifferent just because the assignment was not completed exactly how I thought it would be. She followed all directions. She had a good attitude, and she even applied her last art lesson to her reading lesson, which is always cool to see subject lines crossed. And ya know, for all the doubters and funny people out there, maybe, just maybe she did speed through the assignment and then came up with a quick response later on, which was actually true and applicable. Well? Either way….planned or unplanned, I am totally impressed with this abstract illustration and the explaination I received. And with my attitude?…I was totally unimpressed. Yet, I know there is another day, and I know that I learned something from my child that day and look forward to applying a wait and see method more often than not with my children’s education in the future.  I’m so glad she was in a situation that day which gave her the time and opportunity to explain to me that sometimes I don’t understand everything and need to have it explained to me by the artist herself. 

Honey, I want to say to her, that’s just like my parenting; it doesn’t always seem to make sense, but I”ll do my best to explain it to you. I think I’ll store that example away for our next stormy day.:)

And thank you to my kids’ fabulous art teachers for opening up a world of creativity to them! They are listening and retaining. Great work!

Beautiful Day Bag of Tricks

So one thing about a great routine and a good schedule is that it is such a special treat to break away from it once in a while. Spur of the moment changes and activities become rewards or exciting field trips or projects, rather than chaos in the life of a family with a routine. Recently we had a fabulous spring day around here. I mean it was one of those beautiful, bright, sweet-smelling days when all of a sudden you see green all around you again, and flowers, flowers popping out everywhere. We had plans for that day, but thanks to a few wrenches thrown in our wheels, we had to scratch our plans and work something else out. But before I reached for our lesson plan book and pulled out some worksheets and pencils, I decided we would enjoy the day first. I told the little lovelies to get on some bright spring clothes, put on some shoes, grab a book, and get in the van. Mama was reaching into her beautiful day bag of tricks.

If you spend much of your time caring for young children, whether you realize it or not, you usually develop a bag of rainy day tricks. You have go-to activities you pull out when things get boring or kids get stir crazy when stuck inside. Maybe this is an actual bag full of good stuff, or maybe this is just a group of ideas. Maybe when it rains, your kids get to play with special toys you keep hidden on most days, making the toys more exciting on those grey days, or maybe rainy days at your house mean making cupcakes or a tea party (you know rain  must equal a tea party at our house…as does sunshine and snow and windy days and pretty much any day there’s some kind of weather coming our way…). Anyway, you get what I mean by a bag of rainy day tricks. Well, once spring sprang this year I  wanted  some go-to ideas for not-so-rainy days, too.  And now I am the pleased owner of a not-so-real bag of beautiful day tricks. Okay so they aren’t exactly “tricks”‘ but it seems, for whatever reason,  I am stuck on that phrasing today. Anyway, when the weather is absolutely stunning, we get all prettied up and we go out into the day, books in hand of course, because, as my children are told on a regular basis (the poor dears), you never know when you’re gonna want a good book with you.

So back to that first stunning spring day: first out of the bag was a trip to the coffee shop, for so many reasons. One being that Mama needed a little organic iced  coffee with agave and too much cream. Mmm. So good, and honestly, I’m not sure if the energy/mood boost comes from the caffeine in the drink or from that fabulous first taste that transports me to a happier version of my morning. And another reason being that we were able to bring in our books and read them together, while soaking up the sunlight and lovely view of a little stream and new spring growth right outside the shop. The girls shared some ginger cookies and discussed their books. They were a little book club in training, complete with a few moments of disagreements and seemingly aware that literature often brings out strong and differing opinions in a group. All in all, this was a great start to our day. And their book choices weren’t too shabby either. Which leaves me wondering: Will it happen soon that I can pull my own book out of my bag and sit and read quietly while my girls do the same? Seriously, I am asking you seasoned mothers out there, even if your answer is that I should already be able to do this…

After the coffee shop, we buckled up in the van, rolled down the windows, put on some good music and then went for a drive in the country. We took some unexpected back roads and looked for spring blooms we had been learning about. How many redbuds could we find? Pear trees? Dogwoods? And then we spotted a new waterfall, which is always a treat for our family. We love waterfalls.

One trick we didn’t do after our coffee shop and waterfall excursion is a new favorite art project of ours. We’re looking forward to incorporating it into a spring day theme soon. It’s a pretty cool project because it helps us to use up crayon pieces we might not have used up with regular picture coloring. As you can surmise from the photo, we’ve been making our own crayons. Which is fun on its own, but incorporating it into a seasonal lesson is my new idea. After spending time outside and taking in the colors of the season, we can come inside and reach for our mason jars of broken or used crayon pieces, we will peel off any remaining wrapper, and then each kid will be given a muffin wrapper to fill up with colors she saw outside. We’ll then place them in a muffin tin and melt at a low temperature in the oven until they melt down into a cool new crayon to remember the day by. So simple, so useful, so easy, so not messy, and so fun. The kids loved every part of crayon making from picking out colors to coloring with the new, funny shaped crayons with ridged edges and smooth centers. And on upcoming spring days, the pictures they will color with these will become a snapshot of each of those beautiful days. So many project possibilities here!

And a third trick I want to mention from my beautiful day bag is this: We can enjoy the day in the morning when I have the most energy, the kids are ready to do something new and exciting, and when the temperature is nice and sun isn’t too impressive on the skin, saving the classroom time for the afternoon. I wouldn’t want to do this often, but every now and then it is kind of nice to mix it up. And we have discovered that school in the afternoon works pretty great for the kids when they are a little calmer and a little more in need of some one on one time with parents. Not to mention, the timing of afternoon school sets us up for preparing supper as part of a math lesson, to be followed up by a little extra reading practice at bedtime story time. In the life of a mother of young children, the little things like good timing for small tasks and a neatly wrapped up end to the day can really bring on some happiness, and happiness is something we try to require around here.

Happy Spring.