Thursday, November 27, 2008


I like pie. If I could eat only one dessert for the rest of my life, it would be pie. This afternoon as we set out the pies, my sister and I began to wonder....

What were the nine kinds of pie Harold liked best?

We decided for Harold. In no particular order:




Cream cheese cherry (after questioning whether cherry pie and cream cheese cherry pie are variations of the same kind of pie or different pies)


Berry, which includes all kinds of berry pies. Blackberry and mixed berry and razzleberry are all variations of the same kind of pie and therefore fall under the heading "berry pie."

Banana-coconut cream (a compromise)

Strawberry, even though I believe that fresh strawberries really belong in shortcake and not pie.

And Lemon pie, with whipped cream instead of meringue because meringue is gross.

Mmmmmmmmmmm. Pie.

Off to check the fridge.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thankful Tuesday Ten

2008: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Third time's a charm, eh? I promise I'll come up with a new list next year (or I'll hope that you've forgotten my promise by then.)

2007: Recycled from last year because I have been up to my elbows in pumpkin all afternoon, and because really, this list hasn't changed all that much.

Ten Things For Which I Am Thankful (In no particular order)

1. My family. They are just neat people, good folk. I love that we get along. And most of them will be here for Thanksgiving.

2. Hand knit socks and the people who make them. They make my feet toasty. (The socks, not the people. The people make my heart feel toasty, though.)

3. Loving Husband cleans up cat throw-up. It makes me gag. So he does it for me. I am also thankful that the cats hardly ever throw up.

4. Loving Husband. I'd be thankful for him even if he wasn't willing to clean up barf. He's a pretty swell guy.

5. The library. It still amazes me that there's a place were we can go and get books for free (as long as we bring them back!).

6. I don't have to cook the turkey on Thursday. (Loving Husband again. He's a good cook.)

7. Pie. I'm making pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I am also thankful for pumpkins.

Off on a pie tangent....I've always wondered: What were the nine kinds of pie that Harold (the round-headed guy with the purple crayon) liked best? I could write a whole post about pie. Heck, I could probably write several posts about pie. Not now, though.

8. We have the time, the energy and ability, and the resources to homeschool the kids. It's such a pleasure to discover the world with all of them. We've been enjoying our time together. I am so grateful that we embarked on this journey as it's been a real blessing.

9. Sweet Life Patisserie. I am always grateful for this establishment because they have yummy desserts and because they made us a beautiful wedding cake a few years back. But this week I am especially grateful because my son requested a chocolate pie for his birthday. I don't want to make a chocolate pie. So Sweet Life is making his pie, to be picked up Wednesday afternoon. I am sure that Sweet Life is thankful that I am willing to pay an exorbitant amount for a chocolate pie. (2008: Actually, this year, no chocolate pie. Instead he made his own cake. My eight-year-old boy made, with the help of his brothers and cousins, a pink cake with pink frosting. I'm still thankful for Sweet Life, though. They make cheesecake year round.)

10. Cookies.

I forgot something. See #11 here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


My baby boy is eight. He was seven just yesterday. I blinked, I turned around, and here he is, eight.

When the girls were younger, we decided that eight is the year you move from being a big little kid to a little big kid. "Do you have to turn eight? Why don't we skip it this year? I've been enjoying seven," I told him. "Moo-oom. I can't help it. I have to be eight," he replied.

The picture above....not the greatest picture from a photographic standpoint. Unless you really know him. I see him like this a lot, you know, partly quizzical, a little rumpled, almost sleepy like he's surfacing from underwater or from deep thoughts. He has the ability to become completely absorbed in things, and this is the way he looks when I say his name, when I finally get his attention.

I can see the shadows of his baby face in that picture, too. Just a little. The raised eyebrows, the dark eyes, slightly wrinkled forehead, pink cheeks still a little jowly.

And I can see him running toward manhood. This picture.....
....stopped my heart. Maybe because his face is shadowed, indistinct. I can see in the shadows what he'll look like when he's twelve, when he's eighteen, when he's twenty-five and he's really not my baby at all any more. Just a little, just like I can still see in his face the baby he was.

Aw, man. Now I'm all teary. I wish I had a pause button. I'd stop right here for a little while, at eight.

I'm a little afraid that by tomorrow, he'll be nine.

Life is good.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rainy Day

Today was a grey stormy windy dreary day. The rain was bucketing down.

There was fussing and fighting, grumping and groaning. There was "Do I have to?" and "I don't want to." There was blah.


There were puddles....

...and a muddy ditch and a leaf-clogged gutter...

...and umbrellas and smiles.

And after buckets of rain, the sun came out.

There were hot baths and hot chocolate and warm pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon and stories on the couch.

Life is good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Out of the blue: "Mom?"


"Someday I want to be a teacher."

"Okay." (Thinking, Hey, sounds good. He must enjoy learning.)

"I'm going to be a music teacher."

Me, with a smile: "Oh, good. Then you can teach something you enjoy."

"Yeah. I'm going to teach my students, then they can be in my orchestra. I'm going to be a orchestra leader, too."

I think to myself that sounds pretty ambitious and kind of cool.

"I'm going to be a composer too. I'll write the music, then I'll teach my orchestra and they can play the music I wrote. Won't that be cool, Mom?"

Yes. Yes, son, that will be cool. Very cool. I love to hear this, living out their dreams out loud. I can't wait to see it.
Adding later: Loving Husband's reaction, "Think this kid has control issues?"

Me, after I stopped laughing: "No. Not at all. And he does NOT get them from his mother." At all.

Loving Husband is such a sentimental guy, isn't he?

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Think: Pinwheels

This week's Think! challenge, Wild Windmills: Build a windmill using two straws, two sheets of paper, paper clips, one button, one six-inch length of thread. We would use scissors, a ruler, and a needle during construction, but those items could not be a part of the final solution.

We've made pinwheels that turn in the wind before, using pins in pencil erasers, so the challenge for the fine young gents (and the lovely friends who joined us) turned into making a simple pinwheel windmill.

The eldest of the gents was frustrated in his attempts to make a paper square to fold. It's funny to see human nature at work in our children, in this case the way we so often get an idea stuck in our heads and become unable to think past that first idea even when it's clear it's not working. At least that's what happens to me, and I saw it happening to my fine, and frustrated, young gent. He was certain he could cut a perfect square freehand. It took some time before he was able to remember, with my prompting, the paper-folding geometry we've been doing together, not to mention how we make squares when we're cutting snowflakes.

He finally got the paper folded and cut, and immediately ran into another snag: His pinwheel paper had a very small center and ripped. I introduced the words "design flaw" and reminded him that making mistakes is a part of the process. "It's okay if it doesn't work," I said. "And if you're willing to keep going, you can figure out what's not working and try to fix it." So he did. I think it's starting to sink in. We're after the process right now, not necessarily a perfect end product.

Here is Cal with his windmill pinwheel:

It didn't quite work. But he was happy with the end result because he had fun making it, it almost worked, and he wanted to go play Legos with his friend, B. He asked if he could try again later, so we did (sort of).

Middle gent opted out. He went to play Legos. He's been tired this week and wanted some time to himself.

The youngest gent was raring to try. Levi's windmill pinwheel:

This little guy was a lot of fun to work with. His ideas outstripped his fine motor ability, so he told me what he wanted to do, and I did the work he couldn't do. What the heck, he's three and he wanted to try, and I didn't want him to melt into a frustration puddle or give up because he's "too little". It took a little experimenting and "Not there, Mom" but he actually came up with a wobbly working pinwheel. It didn't hold together well, but he's three. It was a great start.

Our friends made pinwheels too, but I didn't get pictures of the final products. Think! challenges make a great group playtime activity because we get to try the challenges with people who problem-solve a little differently.

We didn't get to actually make more windmills in the afternoon because of other plans, but we did have an interesting discussion about the challenges. Do we have to use all of the materials? (We decided it was up to the person doing the challenge to decide for himself.) Why can't Mom help?--I helped Levi. (I only help implement ideas and offer suggestions. The solution is up to the person working on the challenge.) Can we trade ideas with other people at the table? (Of course! Teamwork and learning from what the people around you are doing is an important creative skill.) Which led to an interesting discussion of the difference between copying someone else and sharing ideas. By the time we got through all of that, we'd run out of time to actually try another windmill. We're hoping to squeeze in some more time later this week.

Last week's challenge, Catalogs, looked like lots of fun (pictures of the creations here--fantastic!): Using only one catalog, build the tallest, deepest, widest structure you can build. The week got away from us, so we didn't get to try it, but we're hoping to get to this challenge someday just for fun.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

History Pockets: Native Americans

The fine young gents chose the theme for our fall history and culture study. They chose Native Americans, in part because second-grade gent spent part of his week of summer nature camp studying the Kalapuya Indians of the Willamette Valley.

I bought History Pockets: Native Americans, Grades 1-3because I'd spoken to and read of other families who loved History Pockets unit studies. So we tried it. The unit study is divided into ten sections: An introductory section, eight different tribe studies from different regions of North America, and a wrap-up and review section.

The good: It was fun and well-thought-out. The fine young gents thoroughly enjoyed studying each of the tribes. The materials were simple, the lessons and activities were easy to follow, and the units were easily adaptable to individual skill levels. The crafts were cute. Lots of cutting and coloring and pasting to hone those fine motor skills. The information about each tribe was accurate, at least as near as I, a non-expert on Native Americans, could tell without doing some major research. And the end product, the two folders pictured above, is fun to look through and students finish the study with a portfolio of their work. (The tipis and books are not a part of the History Pockets study.) We made a fishing game, ate hominy, looked at different seeds, made necklaces, and more. Both boys colored a map of North America showing the regions in which different tribes lived, and second-grade gent also ended up with a comparison chart of how the tribes lived and a Native American picture dictionary with pictures and definitions of words like totem pole, parfleche, hominy and The Three Sisters .

The...not bad or ugly...maybe "eh": Cut, color, paste. The bulk of the activities in the unit relied on construction paper, photocopies, scissors and glue, probably for a variety of reasons: It's intended for classroom use so activities need to be simple enough for large groups of early elementary students, the materials and activities are quite inexpensive, and the children end up with a product which can be easily stored. But the fine young gents and I were a little overwhelmed by the amount of coloring. We ended up choosing not to color all of the pages. I don't think this would be a problem for children who enjoy coloring and who color quickly, and the gents color more often and more willingly than they did before we started the project. And the time spent coloring gave us the opportunity to listen to tapes of traditional Native American stories, which were absolutely delightful.

The final review from the gents: Was it fun? Yes. Did it work? Yes. Would we do it again? Yes, but not until next year. "Or maybe the year after that," added kindergarten gent. I would add that it was a very nice overview of Native North American history and culture for the intended grades, 1-3, and that the fine young gents have been playing Indian brothers. We've got one Inuit, one Nez Perce and one Kalapuya boy. The bunk beds are their longhouse, but they live in a tipi in the summer and sometimes they build an igluvigak for fun. They hunt deer in the basement and dig for camas bulbs under the carpet. I'd say that's pretty high praise.
More to come:
Because I can never leave well enough alone, I supplemented this study pretty heavily. Certainly not because of any shortcomings of the History Pockets. As I wrote above, the unit study offers a very nice overview. But I'll admit that I enjoy delving into a subject a little more deeply than a nice overview, and I like subjects that overlap, so our fall art study has been Native American art. I'll also post a list of picture books we read, as we found many wonderful resources.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pumpkin: From seed to pie

Over the river and through the woods. It's that time of year, so I'm bumping up this pumpkin post from last year.

As long as we're talking pumpkin pie, if you're planning on coming to my house for Thanksgiving this year (2008), just show up sometime around noon and bring what you brought last year. That will save us all a bunch of phone calls. It's not like I want to talk to you people ahead of time. If you didn't come last year and you want to, call me. The more the merrier. Or just show up, unless you're some creepy internet stalker stranger. If you're a creepy internet stalker and you do show up, you'll have to do the dishes and serve the pie.

Pumpkin: From Seed to Pie

"Fresh pumpkin is so difficult to use that few modern cooks go down this road." (The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, p. 903)

I'm crunching the last of our crispy salty pumpkins seeds as I type. Tuesday we scooped the seeds out of our little pie pumpkins, Wednesday we roasted seeds and baked and pureed pumpkin, and by yesterday's Thanksgiving feast, the tiny pie pumpkins were creamy pumpkin pies.

Wednesday evening I was making pumpkin pies, stirring the pumpkin in a pan on the stove, and I wondered idly aloud, "Why do I have to stir the filling until it's glossy? What purpose does this step serve?" One of my favorite things about The New Best Recipe is the blurb before the actual recipe explaining why the recipe works, and Mom was there to read to me while I stirred. Well, first she read the above sentence to me, the one about modern cooks not using that difficult fresh pumpkin. Then she found the part about the stovetop stirring. Here's why you're supposed to cook the pumpkin and spices ahead of time (from the same page of the cookbook): "You can freshen the taste of canned pumpkin by cooking it with the sugar and spices before combining it with the custard ingredients. As the pumpkin simmers, you can actually smell the unwelcome canned odor give way to the sweet scent of fresh squash."


I still wouldn't skip this step when using fresh pumpkin. Combining the pumpkin, brown sugar and pie spices then cooking them for a few minutes on the stove while your pie crust is prebaking deepens the flavor of the fresh pumpkin, giving you rich dark orangey deliciousness. Then stir in the cream and the eggs and pour into a hot partially-baked pie crust for a creamy-custardy filling in a crust that stays crispy instead of getting mushy.

And the second thing I'd say is...really? Honestly, I was a little taken aback by the idea of fresh pumpkin being difficult. Preparing fresh pumpkin is almost as easy as baking and mashing a potato, and it's delicious.

From Seed to Pie: Fresh Pumpkin

Growing the Pumpkin: For best results, you really can't just cook any old pumpkin. Even pumpkins labeled "pie pumpkins" at the grocery store aren't necessarily sweet sugar pumpkins, though they are still much tastier than the larger jack-o-lantern pumpkins you'll find at the pumpkin patch that are perfect for carving. You can also substitute a sweet winter squash, like acorn squash, for a perfectly lovely "pumpkin" pie. If you're growing your own pumpkins, look for pumpkin seeds labeled "sugar pumpkin." They will typically be much smaller than jack-o-lantern pumpkins, but because they're intended for eating, they're selected for flavor and sweetness rather than size and decorativeness.

I'm not even close to being a Master Gardener, but I'll tell you how I grow pumpkins. I'd suggest doing a little more thorough reading elsewhere if you've never grown anything before in your life. I buy my seeds, plant them in one end of one of my garden boxes, and check them every few days to see if they've sprouted. If they haven't sprouted or something has munched them, I plant a few more seeds. I pull weeds once in a while. When I get around to it in the fall, around the time it starts getting cold but before it frosts, I pick the pumpkins and put them in the cool but dry garage until I'm ready to use them. Pumpkins are perfect for the lackadaisical gardener because that's pretty much it, and I always have enough pumpkin for Thanksgiving pies and more. (Yearning for better directions? More than you ever wanted to know about growing pumpkins at Pumpkin Nook.)

(Cooking directions cut and pasted and slightly modified from an August '06 Poohsticks post, What's That Squash?)

How to get from pie pumpkin to pumpkin puree: Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Halve your pumpkin(s) and take out the seeds and slimy bits. Set the seeds aside for roasting later. Brush the cut edges of the pumpkin with a bit of oil and place on a rimmed baking sheet with the cut side down. Bake for about 40 minutes (for small pumpkins) to 1 hour (for larger). When done the flesh of the pumpkin should be soft when pierced with a fork, and the outer shell should be pulling away from the flesh. Let cool until you can handle it without burning yourself, then peel the shell off of the pumpkin. Puree the pumpkin flesh in the food processor.

Using your puree: You can serve the puree as is with a little butter and brown sugar, as though it's mashed/pureed squash (because it is). If you would like to use your puree in your favorite recipes for pie, scones (my favorite!) or pumpkin bread, let it cool then put it in the fridge for a few hours, or even overnight, if you can. Some of the liquid will separate from the puree, allowing you to skim it away so that your puree is just a bit thicker.

I disagree with The New Best Recipe contention that fresh pumpkin is difficult to work with; however, the moisture content is difficult to predict. Particularly when making baked goods, you may need to adjust recipe ingredients slightly to compensate for the fact that fresh pumpkin is a little more liquid than the thicker canned pumpkin, but that's a fairly simple adjustment. I usually cut back on the liquid and/or add a little more flour, depending on the recipe. You can call it by...well, by eye rather than by ear, I guess, if you're familiar with the basic consistency of muffin or pancake batter or whatever you're making. Taking the time to experiment and get comfortable cooking with fresh pumpkin is worth the payoff, because it is delicious!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Supply shopping at the garden store: Math, reading, planning, budgeting, manners, making purchases.

Painting: Art
Planning a gift: Manners and showing appreciation for others

Planting: Logic and planning, gardening, nature, biology.

The chickens didn't learn anything. They just want food.

Nature journals and bulb study: Spelling and grammar, handwriting, drawing, botany, nature study.

Shhhh....they don't know they're learning.

Forcing Paperwhite Narcissus Bulbs

Monday, November 10, 2008

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Day in the Life: Field Trip Friday

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon and Toshi's Ramen . (I forgot to take the camera in to the museum. Pictures from last year's field trip here. The fine young gents look so young.)

The fine young gents voted on possible outings: A trip to Dorris Ranch to walk to the river, a trip to a brand new place, or repeat last year's outing to the museum followed by a nature walk on the university campus and lunch at Toshi's. Toshi's won.

We are wrapping up our History Pockets study of Native American culture and history, so the Museum of Natural and Cultural History is an ideal field trip. The museum has a wonderful display of local Native American culture and history. There are many artifacts, but the displays that catch the attention of the fine young gents are the replicas of Native homes and environments from different regions of Oregon. They got to see model homes and tools.

The museum also has a new exhibit: Shoes. The fine young gents tried on shoes from different cultures, saw the oldest shoes in the world and looked at shoes from different decades in American history.

The hands-down favorite, again, was the hands-on exploration room. The gents played a Native American beaver tooth game and looked at rocks, fossils and bones.

We tried to visit the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery next, but middle gent needed to use the rest room. After this many years, I couldn't remember where the restrooms were in any of the nearby buildings, and the library was quite a trek away, so we moved on to Toshi's.
Eating and drawing: Toshi's has wonderful food and large portions. We ordered gyoza (potstickers), teriyaki chicken with rice, and ramen. The drawback: A long wait. Last winter, the gents showed stellar behavior during our visit, but it was a challenge to keep them entertained. This time, we brought our nature journals and spent most of the wait sketching. Our nature walk was cut short by, well, by the call of nature, so the journal request was "Draw something you saw on our walk, something you can see from the window, or your choice of drawing as long as it has something to do with nature." Second-grade gent drew a fall tree. Kindergarten gent drew houses with fall gardens. Even the littlest gent drew a tree, with some coaching from his brother. My journal entry was the easiest. Each gent wanted to draw a tree in my journal, so I only wrote, "Drawing trees at Toshi's."
We ate a delicious meal, then home for quiet time followed by gymnastics for the younger gents. We had so much food left over that we had Toshi's for dinner too!


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. (Poohsticks Read-aloud)
I had forgotten that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is such an absolutely wonderful, magical story. There's just something so refreshing about a book that flows smoothly as a read-aloud. We'd just finished The Black Stallion (Walter Farley), an exciting story but not my favorite to read out loud, and a book of Japanese children's stories, Japanese Children's Favorite Stories(Florence Sadake), charming but in simple language. The Wizard of Oz is a breath of fresh read-aloud air. The gents have been begging for "just one more chapter," and even wished in all the excitement of eating at Toshi's that I'd remembered our book. We've just gotten to the Cowardly Lion, and the fine young gents can't wait to find out what happens next.

Detectives in Togas, Henry Winterfeld.
Second-grade gent is devouring this book. A light humorous whodunnit set in ancient Rome. Rufus' classmates set out to discover who really defaced the temple of Minerva so that they can help keep their friend Rufus from going to prison. Fine young gent's review: "It's funny, Mom."

Johnny Lion's Book (An I Can Read Book, Level 1), Edith Thatcher Hurd.
Kindergarten gent is at the magical stage where he's discovered that he can read for fun. I keep finding him tucked into corners or curled on the couch with a book, or several, and he's going through the books on the Poohsticks shelves like mad. In one of his favorite library finds, Johnny Lion discovers the magic of books.

Crocodile and Hen: A Bakongo Folktale (I Can Read Book 1), Joan M. Lexau.
Another library find, as I've been raiding the Early Readers library shelf. I keep finding Crocodile and Hen on the couch, at the foot of kindergarten gent's bed, in the upstairs hallway. Crocodile discovers that Hen is really not that different from him. It's a lovely story that promotes peace and the idea that we're all brothers and sisters even when we look different.

ABC: A Child's First Alphabet Book, and 1-2-3: A Child's First Counting Book, Alison Jay.
I chose these Alison Jay books from the library for the youngest gent. He loves them. He looks at them every night before bed, and when he chooses stories for a story time, these are the first books he brings to the chair. My memory insists that these books are another recommendation from Nina at Painted Rainbows, but I can't seem to find them. If not, they're certainly the kind of books that Si and Kitcat find in their reading baskets, which is probably why I am so certain that I first saw them there.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan.
I've been working on The Omnivore's Dilemma for an embarrassingly long time. It seems to get misplaced with alarming regularity, though not purposefully, or displaced by a must-read-now. After bogging down in the corn, corn, corn section at the beginning, I promised this book to a friend, so I'm finally buckling down to finish. It's interesting. Fascinating, but not for the faint-of-heart. I've just started reading what feedlot cattle are fed, not even the butchering part which loving husband assures me is worse, and I am already sick at heart. Thank goodness we already know where to buy local grass-fed beef.

A Keeper of Bees: Notes on Hive and Home, Allison Wallace.
I have set aside The Omnivore's Dilemma temporarily because A Keeper of Bees is a library book, and must be returned soon. I found it on the table next to the library computer, and snatched it up. It's part memoir, part bee history, information, and lore, and part love letter to bees. Any bee lover would enjoy reading this book.

Senator McCain and President-Elect Obama. Loving husband recorded some of the election night coverage. My fine young Obama fan was so sleepy that he couldn't wake himself up to watch Obama's live victory speech (though his kindergarten brother woke and watched, half-asleep on loving husband's lap), so he asked to watch it. I asked him to watch Senator McCain's speech as well, so that he could see that both men were very gracious and eloquent in victory and in defeat. My fine young gent was riveted. Loving husband and I are not "into" politics, though we feel that it's important to educate and inform ourselves so that we can vote carefully and thoughtfully. Our fine young gent, however, is fascinated by the whole process. He's disappointed that his mayoral choice did not win (though the race was very very close). I'm trying to figure out how best to encourage his interest without raising him to just vote like Mom and Dad, how to incorporate politics as a topic into our learning while teaching him to think for himself. A great family challenge, I think.

Playing: Legos.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Random Notes on Piano

Five-year-old gent is a smitten kitten.

Thursday is piano day. We have a lovely piano teacher, Miss Melissa. She encourages students to arrive early or stay a few minutes to observe others' lessons, so we often see the lovely and shy twin girls who take lessons immediately after the fine young gents.

Today, my fine young gent beckoned to me and whispered in my ear, "See that girl in the pink? I think she's beautiful." Then he giggled. I nodded and agreed that both girls are very lovely. "Mom, I just think she is sooooo pretty." He hid his face.

"Mom. I love her. Mom, I think I want to marry her."

His little face. He was giddy. He was even blushing a little. It was sweet, and silly too, of course, because he's five and she's....eleven? twelve? And it was also absolutely endearing because it made me think of how most of us have felt at one time or another in the throes of a mad crush. Smitten and silly and giddy and in luuuuuuv.

Maybe next week, he'll play her a love song.

This gent got a compliment today, from his piano teacher. Miss Melissa asked, "Now, how old is he again?" of the eldest fine young gent, nearly eight. "I'd forgotten that he was that young. You know, he plays very well for his age. Very well." The twins' dad agreed.

It's true. He just gets piano. He's not a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination, but he understands how the piano works. He has taken to scales as though he was born knowing them. He likes learning to sight read. Today he told us that as he plays, he can see the music in his head.

He has absolute pitch, too. Sometimes I'll be singing my latest earworm and if it's a song he knows, he'll join in. Then he'll tell me, "But actually, Mom, it's this," and start singing in a different key. If we go to the piano to check, he's always right. His grandfather, loving husband's father, had absolute pitch as well. He was a country singer-songwriter, Wynn Stewart. He was an interesting guy. I should write a post about him sometime. Anyway, story says that he would complain when loving husband's mom sang, because, though she wasn't a bad singer, she didn't sing songs in the original key, so they clashed with what he heard in his head.

Here's how I knew that we'd lucked upon the perfect piano teacher: One day, I asked her, "Don't you get tired of hearing 'Twinkle Twinkle' all the time?" and she was taken aback by the question. It was though it had never occurred to her. Here's the crazy part. It's not as though it was just one of my kids playing Twinkle until he'd learned it. She follows the Suzuki method. Traditionally, Suzuki students begin by playing endless versions of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Over and over and over and over. I've only had two beginners and I've heard the Twinkles enough to last this lifetime and into the next. She said that she enjoys seeing her students learn so much that she likes hearing them play the Twinkles. I would go stark raving mad.

We love our piano teacher. As in, we have a genuine fondness for her and we think she's wonderful. She's experienced. She has clear expectations, and she loves music. She's got very talented students in their teens, and young beginners. She's the perfect blend of strict and sweet, precise and flexible, high standards mixed with understanding of what's developmentally appropriate. She loves the piano, she likes teaching, and she enjoys her students.

This fine young gent plays piano too. He likes it, and he's good at it. All fall, since we started lessons again, he'd been dragging his feet about practice. Three weeks ago he had an utter sobbing meltdown over piano practice. He told me he hated piano. He never wanted to play piano again. He begged me to let him quit. "I always make mistakes!" he wailed.

I felt horrible. Was I pushing him too hard? Did I start him too young? Was he comparing himself to his brother? Had I been torturing my child? Was it all my fault?

I hugged him. I told him he didn't have to play piano. He didn't go near the piano for the rest of the week. I resolved to talk to his piano teacher.

Next piano day, I told his teacher we might need five or ten minutes to talk between the gents' lessons, while the boys played outside.

"I never want to play piano" gent waltzed in behind me after a short jaunt through the garden, bowed to his teacher and hopped up on the piano bench. He cheerfully played his pieces and practiced new things and giggled "Oops" when he made a mistake.

When his lesson was over, his teacher asked, "Is this a good time to talk?" And I replied, "Uh, I don't think we need to. It seems to have resolved itself."

During his brother's lesson, he drew Miss Melissa a picture. He's practiced willingly ever since.

I don't play piano. At all.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Think!: Halloween Candy Challenge

This week's Think! challenge: Halloween Candy. Create an animal using five pieces of candy, five toothpicks, and two straws.

The Poohsticks gents were joined in this challenge by several of their Busy Farm cousins.

The first question to arise was, "What exactly counts as a piece of candy?" Does a bag of Skittles count as a single piece? (No.) And do the wrappers count as part of the candy? (Sure. Although no one ended up using their wrappers.) It was determined that a "piece of candy" meant any candy encased in its original wrapper, but once the candy was taken out of the wrapper, individual candies each counted as one piece.

In order to encourage them to be thoughtful with their creations (just a little more on this in a future post), I suggested we all vote on the most creative animal. The prize? The winner got to choose an extra piece of Halloween candy.

But who can resist giving each participant a prize? Particularly when there's lots of candy to get rid of, er, to share.

Cal won the prize for the fastest creation. It's a unicorn. Then he helpfully hung over the shoulders of his cousins and brothers to tell them how they should build their animals. Until they told him to knock it off.

Actually, it's not atypical for him to rush through a creative challenge. He needs ideas and time to process them. If we'd done another candy animal challenge (fat chance!**) an hour later, he'd likely have spent quite a bit more time.

Helen tried a few different creations before settling on a spiky snake.

She won the prize for the longest animal. She also got an honorable mention for the most chocolate on her hands. But she's cute, so she can get away with it.

Robyn made a lion attacking a bunny.

That one made me laugh.

Levi unwrapped a lollipop, stuck it in a straw, and said, "Look! I made a candle." When gently reminded that a candle is not an animal, he replied, "I know. I don't want to," and ate his lollipop. He got a prize for being cute.

Joab made a dinosaur. A triceratops, I think. His prize was for the best dinosaur? I don't remember. I just remember wracking my brain trying to think of a good prize, when he saved me by suggesting his own.

Henry got the prize for working the hardest because he was the last one to finish. The picture didn't come out, which is a shame because he had a cool idea too. He made a rhinoceros, and because he had a little candy left, he made a baby rhino too.

Then there was Tolly.

Tolly, Tolly, Tolly. He wanted to make a unicorn. It wasn't working. My fine young perfectionist fussed and moaned. He griped and groaned. He moped and whined and even cried a little.

He couldn't get a toothpick to stick into a lollipop. His other toothpick broke. He couldn't draw a smiley face on the tootsie roll. Everyone else was finishing and his wasn't working. "You don't have to do this," I said. "It's okay, you'll still get a prize," I said. "Please stop whining," I said. "No, I can help but I can't do it for you," I said.

Suddenly, it all came together. He squished a Tootsie roll into the shape of a head, kind of on accident. Oooo. You could see the wheels turning. He finished his animal. Whew! Oh wait. He was suddenly struck by inspiration, took the whole thing apart except for the head and created an entirely new unicorn made of Tootsie rolls.

I gave each child a Smartie and told them to put it on the plate of their favorite creation. They were not allowed to vote for their own. Tolly won. I think Robyn, kind heart, might have voted for him. And even though I loved Robyn's lion and bunny because they made me laugh, I voted for Tolly's too because I wanted to encourage his persistence and his new attitude.

The kids' favorite part was eating their creations and their prizes. My favorite was seeing that there's hardly any candy left in the Halloween bowl and sending the cousins back home to my sister all hopped up on sugar. (Just kidding. Kinda.)

**In case you're wondering why I say "Fat chance" to doing this challenge again before next Halloween, here's why:
Look at those slimy sticky hands. I can hear you shuddering from here.

Wednesday Words

Lovely lady, 15, told me a story last night. To paraphrase:
"We had a test today in English. You know those problems that go 'This is to this as That is to...' Yeah, analogies. Well, I did really well. But most of the people in class didn't do very well. So the teacher was trying to figure out why, and she asked, 'How many of you know what the word "elated" means?' And only a third of the class raised their hands."

Two-thirds of a class of high-school sophomores didn't know the word "elated". Which pretty well explains why they didn't do well on the analogy test. If you don't know what words mean, you can't compare them to other words or ideas. Lovely lady did go on to say that the teacher, who's had these students for only nine weeks, went on to say that she needs to teach some basic vocabulary. I said to lovely lady, "Aren't you glad that we started working through that list of words everyone should know by the time they graduate high school?" (100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know) Vocabulary is important after all. Not just so that one can perform well on a test, but so that one can understand what others are saying or writing.

On another vocabulary note, a noun is called "noun". Why is it assumed that a second-grader is not capable of learning the real word for a concept? "Find the naming word." says fine young gent's Language Arts book. He's heard me gripe about this little peeve so often that he now crosses it out himself and carefully writes "noun" above. Same with "action word" and "describing word". Last week, he read his instructions, rolled his eyes and said in a peeved voice "Mom, it's an adjective." (I'm teaching this kid right. It's not my fault, honest. Blame my mom.)

Why should we "dumb things down"--a phrase I'm not particularly fond of in general, but which seems appropriate in this context--in order to make concepts seem easier or more learnable at a developmental stage in which children's young brains are primed for learning new words? I can see writing "noun (a naming word)" initially to help define the concept, but to leave out the word altogether, particularly in a language curriculum, seems shortsighted.

Vocabulary is important. I want my children to know the correct words for the concepts they're learning. They're walking around in the world soaking up the language around them. If we don't use "big" words when we're speaking or writing to children, and if we rewrite new ideas only in words they already know, how in heaven's name will they learn new ones?

Like "elated" perhaps?

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, November 03, 2008

Teachable moments: Symmetry

The fine young gents and I just spent twenty minutes dissecting the alphabet. Which letters can be divided symmetrically? We spent almost five minutes on "O" alone. Second-grade gent, all on his own, figured out that "O" can be divided symmetrically in "more than a googol" ways, which started a short discussion of infinity, which the gent in turn related to earlier "half of a half of a half of a half...." math play.

I thought the alphabet would take five minutes. They surprise me this way sometimes. An activity I'm sure will be a hit falls flat. A simple activity I throw in as a filler sparks a lengthy discussion. The point is not that I have math geniuses, by the way. Nor am I a math genius or a teacher extraordinaire. It's a fairly simple activity in which kindergarten gent was able participate easily, and I mostly sat there and asked questions. The point is that by taking extra time to really explore the idea when they were engaged and interested, we had the opportunity to explore new ideas.

Alphabet symmetry: Go low-tech, and print the capital letters on a sheet of paper from the recycle bin. Draw a line through each letter to divide it so that both sides are matching. Look at the halves. Do they have to be facing the same direction to be the same shape? Are they still symmetrical if you have to turn the pieces? What happens if you draw a line here? Or here? I draw my "U" with a tail. Is there a way to change it to make it symmetrical?

Or print out this worksheet: Symmetry in the Alphabet

Or go high-tech. For a more in-depth exploration of symmetry, try this webquest, Symmetry All Around, to learn about point symmetry and rotational symmetry, create a snowflake or a quilt block, or to find more links to activities for teaching symmetry.
On another math note, Julie K in Taiwan left us a great tessellations link in the comments on the tessellations post. It's too good to miss. Visit Tessellation Town! Don't miss the rest of the site. Visit for lots of math fun. Thanks, Julie!