Thursday, December 31, 2009

It Snowed Today



Snow on Sedum Autumn Joy.

Photo copyright ChristineMM. Taken 12/31/09 in my backyard in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Latest Project: Homemade Deodorant

Yes, I said deodorant. The latest DIY project I'm doing is making homemade deodorant. This can be added to the list of common things that American consumers purchase that isn't usually expensive, that is usually full of chemicals, some of which are controversial and accused of causing various serious diseases (Cancer, Alzheimer's Disease). So because, perhaps, we're used to the convenience of just buying it, and becuase usually it's under $4 and lasts a few months, who would think of ever making it from scratch at home?

I would.

Well not exactly. This time the DIY project was inspired by my husband. When his father got Cancer suddenly my husband began to wonder which daily chemical exposures may have caused it. And then suddenly he refused to use anti-perspirant with aluminum in it. I'm still using mine...that may shock you to know...old habits die hard. I've been using this brand of anti-perspirant for (gasp) 29 years. I'm brand loyal. I have tried using some natural store bought deodorants instead but they were sticky or goopy or just felt gross.

So my husband has been using this certain brand of deodorant, from the drug store, a common brand. Then he was tempted to buy a natural product filled with essential oils, sold by the company he gets his fancy shaving creme from. Well he paid $15 for 2.7 ounces, a liquid spray! Plus shipping! To me that's a lot a money!

So it was my husband's idea that I make it from scratch. Well let me clarify. This is something he never would have listened to me to try, but the trusted web-based business he uses highly praised it so he gave it a whirl, and loved it. It was a spray product so that is what I decided to make.

I've been researching this using books I own as well as surfing the Internet for free recipes. I can't believe how many free recipes are out there. I learned that all kinds of people are making homemade deodorant (and even anti-perspirant with aluminum in it). I'm surprised to learn that some use a creme deodorant applied with the bare hand or a cotton pad and some use a powder. Some make a solid stick and others make a liquid that they put into a re-used commercial ball roll-on deodorant applicator. The last kind is a liquid that is sprayed on with a pump sprayer.

I've learned there are a few core things to know about underarm perspiration and odor.

The first is that certain products (i.e. aluminum or witch hazel or some other natural ingredients) can act to make the skin pores smaller so perspiration is reduced. This is an anti-perspirant action. (I actually did find recipes for home use that contained the aluminum.)

Second the bad odor is supposed to come from bacteria growth on sweat against the body. So numerous sources first advise to wash one's body regularly.

Third, the product used may inhibit bacteria growth (i.e. certain essential oils) so even if the underarms do sweat the bad smell may be prevented.

The last thing is people often want a nice odor to their deodorant, thus, some of the essential oil scents just smell nice while other essential oil's scents actually deter the bad smell from starting.

Knowing what I wanted from the product, and knowing which ingredients I wanted to avoid helped guide me to a recipe that I figured would fit the bill.

(Not all essential oils can be used to make deodorant despite having nice natural scents they can irritate the skin including giving a rash. If you are going to try to make this you need to research this information or follow a tested, trusted recipe.)

The recipes vary widely, ranging for example from 3 drops of essential oil to 40, for the same quantity of liquid. This remains a mystery to me. How much is too much? Can there be a too much? I don't know. Those with witch hazel range from one teaspoon to a quarter cup. What's a person to do? I picked one recipe, and will let my husband try it and see how it pans out.

The cost of the deodorant I just mixed is 25 cents, tops. It may be as low as 10 cents. I just can't be bothered to figure the essential oil cost down to the drop in order to calculate it more accurately.

I was going to photograph it to show you but why bother? It looks like clear liquid, mixed in a jar that I shook. I'm sure your imagination can envision that.

After mixing mine in a glass jar, I realized if I was sure the quantity was right I could have measured the ingredients into the empty spray bottle applicator.

It is super simple to make the spray on deodorant. I basically put the vodka in with the essential oils and shook it, then added witch hazel and distilled water and shook it. That's it. The whole process takes about two minutes.

I'm tempted to give it a try so I can consider ditching the commercial product I use with aluminum in it, just in case the aluminum does cause the problems some people claim it does. I keep asking myself though, if the alumuninum was truly dangerous why does the FDA allow it to continue to be used? But that is another matter for pondering on another day...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ace of Cakes Book Review by ChristineMM



Title: Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes
Authors: Duff Goldman and Willie Goldman
Genre: nonfiction
ISBN: 978-0061703010 (Hardcover)
Full Retail Price: $35.00

My Rating: 4 Stars = I Like It
Summary Statement: Visually Stimulating but Too Much Detail




I enjoy watching the reality TV show “Ace of Cakes” with my family. My tween-aged sons especially love the show. I accepted a pre-publication copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. I was not able to find much about the book at the time I ordered it other than some vague marketing blurbs and ordered it sight unseen.

An important thing to know about this book is it is not a cookbook or a book of tips on how a home baker could attempt to recreate the cakes made by Charm City Cakes. This is not a recipe book or a how-to decorate instructional book. Sprinkled throughout are tips about baking but they are not organized in a way to find them easily if the reader wanted to use them.

This book is about ALL the people who work at Charm City Cakes (even ones seldom or never seen on the reality TV show). This book is also about the people who created the reality TV show. Lastly the book also covers the TV show production process itself and the people behind that.

One of the most enjoyable things for me was reading how the employees of CCC are all artists, first and foremost, not bakers nor all graduates of culinary school. I also enjoyed reading about Duff Goldman's schooling and his early artistic interest and the years of grafitti as artistic expression. The push to attend college for a traditional degree and some experiences with formal art instruction were of interest to me. I am happy that Duff has been able to follow his heart and has succeeded in using his artistic talent and skill to turn a profit and to also thrive with being an entrepreneur. Bravo! Now if only Duff's story could inspire others with artistic ability and interest, young and old alike...but I digress.

From the onset it is clear that this book is full of details. While I enjoyed the details of hearing of Duff Goldman’s childhood and his schooling and how he wound up founding Charm City Cakes and how the reality show came to exist (which comprises the very beginning of the book), I was just not as interested in as many details about Every Single Person who works at CCC. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the show, but I’m not a fanatic. I feel the need to apologize as I state this (perhaps because the people seem so likable and I don’t want to insult them) – the detail is a bit over the top -- I don’t care to see childhood photos of all the CCC employees nor do I find it entertaining. Hearing everyone favorite music or where they went to school, it’s just too much. For the first few CCC employees this is tolerable, but I found that multiple page biographies of everyone involved with CCC and the Ace of Cakes show just is too much by the time I was a third into the book.

I note numerous CCC employees are quoted as saying they don’t think their lives or jobs are that interesting to yield a reality TV show let alone one that is popular yet this book presents so much information as if all readers definitely crave this information. (I note also it is stated that 150 hours of video footage taken in one week are reduced to one 22 minute show, it takes that much ‘real life’ to produce one entertaining, funny, action-filled TV show. Unfortunately this book didn’t undergo the same editing process.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is too mired in details for two reasons. One is the fact that the book was authored by Duff Goldman the owner and star of the show, and his brother, Willie Goldman, the creator of the Ace of Cakes TV show concept and the owner of the team who produces the reality show. They are too close to the information, it is too personal, and as Willie states in the book, he’s profiting from his brother’s enterprise. Being too close to the subject, they must have thought all these details were too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Second, the book’s editor was too lenient with the content, leaving in too many details and letting the book drag out.

To restate, I very much like the Ace of Cakes reality TV show and have only positive things to say about it as an entertaining TV program. The problem for me was the book just is too long and has too many details. I got bogged down with the book and several times while trying to read it straight through got bored with plodding through all the minutiae that I had to put it down and give myself a break from it, hence my delay in writing this review.

A review would not be complete without discussing the visuals. There must be over a thousand, if not two thousand, photos and illustrations in this book. The pages are peppered with graphics that spice the pages up. Some of the pages have bold colored backgrounds which at a glance have visual appeal and spices the book up, but sometimes makes for harder reading of long text passages. The only downside to so many illustrations is that too many photographs are too small, such as the double fold out page spreads (four pages wide) of so many cakes. Those photos, what should be the true centerpiece of the book, are too small for us to really see them (you’d need a magnifying glass to see them clearly), so we, the reader, can’t appreciate them to their fullest. Still I’m impressed by the visual appeal of the book which makes this the antithesis to a typical nonfiction book with black ink on white paper and few, if any, illustrations. The book comes off looking artistic and full of visual appeal, which in and of itself deserves kudos.

I’m rating the book 4 stars = I Like It. Too many details and a too-long book and too small photos is enough to keep this from being 5 stars = I Love It. I was tempted to give it 3 stars “It’s Okay” for the writing but the visual appeal deserves some credit so jacks my rating up to 4 stars.



Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. I did not receive payment to write and publish this review on my blog or on any other website. To see my full blog disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Carnival of Homeschooling Week 209 Published



The Carnival of Homeschooling week 209 was published today at Life Nurturing Education.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

I have an entry in this week’s carnival.

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.

Enjoy!

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sunpak 620-EBOX Portable Mini Studio in a Box Product Review

Product Name: Sunpak 620-EBOX Portable Mini Studio in a Box
Full Retail Price: $169.95





My rating: 1 star out of 5 = I Hate It

Summary  Statement: Very Disappointing for Numerous Reasons!









I wish I knew all of this before purchasing this product. I’ve been using it for over three months and get more disappointed and annoyed each time I use it.



Will this product satisfy your needs? Read on and see.



My complaints:



1. The lights get very hot. The directions say to use them for only 20 minutes then shut them off and let them cool down before using again. This does not fit with my projects in which I’m taking a series of photos for an hour or two in one session. I didn’t realize this time limitation at first (since I hadn’t seen the printed warning) and the lights began to emit smoke and a smell!



2. The lights are top heavy. They tip over very easily. The weight of their power cord is enough to tip them over. You have to be very careful to lay the power cords out in a certain way so they don’t fall over. For example when the power cord is going down to a wall outlet, the weight of the cord pulls and causes the light to tip over. The weight of the cords also caused the lights to slowly slide across the table all by themselves as I worked. I even had a hard time keeping them pointed in the direction I wanted due to the slippery feet sliding from the cord weight. If the legs were heavier or had a tackier bottom surface, this would not happen! Numerous times when the lights fell and I instinctively grabbed for them I was burned by accidentally touching the hot parts.



3. The two lights that came with my kit emit different light. One is a blue cast and the other is whiter. One is brighter than the other. This is not good when trying to have even light from both sides!



4. There is not enough light thrown with these two lights. No matter how I position the lights, the entire box area is not lit well.



5. There is not enough light to equally cover a box about 6x6 inches in size. Shadowing appeared to the sides of the item. Perhaps it would be fine for photographing jewelry or something less solid.



6. When using the ‘roof’ top, it blocks good light in the room from overhead lights. I didn’t have enough light to take the photos. I had to use the camera’s flash to get enough light. I was hoping that the light box’s lights would give enough diffused light to evenly light the objects so I could photograph without the flash; I could not.



7. The mini-tripod that comes with the kit cannot accommodate a DSLR camera with a short lens. I had to use a separate full size tripod (purchased separately), or shoot with camera in hand, which was not the best for taking perfectly leveled shots. Note the photo the manufacturer uses shows a lightweight point and shoot digital camera!



8. This kit, unlike other kits on the market sold at about the same price, does not allow for freestanding photography, such as lighting a dining room table to shoot food on a plate at the table setting. You have to use the box. Think about what kinds of photos you want to take and see which fits the majority of your needs. I’d prefer a more flexible product, such as portable diffusers to put in front of portable lights which could be used to light something in its original setting or against a colored background.



9. This comes with one background cloth: blue. I’d have preferred white, which at least would have reflected light better. If you want other colors you will have to purchase those separately.



10. The lights need to cool down before using the handy side pockets to store them in, so breaking this down is not as fast as setting it up.

11. The outside pockets for storage of the lights are NOT padded and thus not much protection is given. Better protection would require keeping the cardboard box and storing the folded up kit in it.





My praise:



1. This is fast and easy to set up with its Velcro closures.



2. The carrying case is convenient.





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Perhaps a discounted price for this item would justify its shortcomings but buyer beware. If the product doesn’t do what you need to do and you have to buy a second product, then the money you spent (albeit discounted) will have been wasted!



Disclosure: I bought this item with my own money. I was not paid to write this review. For this blog’s full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my sidebar.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Looking Back at the First Half of the Homeschool Year 2009-2010


Perhaps the fact that the calendar year is coming to an end this week is bringing this to my mind. I've been thinking of the first half of our homeschool academic year and thinking forward to the second half.

Our family's homeschool academic year starts on July 1. I chose this to be in alignment with American society who ranks children by their grade level. To enroll into summer classes and camps even a homeschooled child must use society's classifications of grade level, and the society considers the school year ended near the end of June, calling the rank of a child for the summer months as the grade that will begin officially in September. So it is the same with us.

This year for the first time we homeschooled through the summer. Yes, we traveled and took vacations and did typical summer things such as attend Cub Scout sleepover camp and Boy Scout camp too. We did a lighter schedule and only limited subject work. The reason for this was that I was feeling that due to being over-scheduled with outside paid educational and enriching classes plus the extra-curricular things such as music lessons and Scouts last year, that my kids could use more focused time on some of the Three R's. It also struck me clearly at the end of the last academic year that keeping up a full-tilt home lesson schedule while being also busy with outside classes and cyclical events (i.e. participation in the Science Olympiad) is just not possible. The kids get fried; they can only absorb so much, or be 'on' so much. Rather than isolate ourselves at home to concentrate on home studies I thought some other arrangement of studies may work out better.




(Above: my older son and Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons at the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut, December 2009.)
Another reason that our summer was different was in June 2009 and my older son (then eleven years old) was diagnoses with mono. He had gotten sick yet AGAIN with fever and I looked back to my calendar in which I jot very brief notes on illness and realized he'd had a fever every three weeks since New Years Day but with various other symptoms which were diagnosed as being all different minor illnesses (i.e. ear infection, flu, common viral cold) and sometimes being put onto antibiotics, when having visited the urgent care center on weekends.

This time I insisted he be examined by our pediatrician and the enlarged spleen was found on exam (by the pediatrician who didn't even want to see him saying "he's just fighting a virus"). So some of our paid summer plans were cancelled due to the need for immediate bed rest. At least we knew the reason for his general fatigue for months and why he was acting 'lazy' for months and months.

I also consulted with his Infectious Disease doctor, the one who has seen him for his multiple cases of Lyme Disease in the past who concluded it was 'just mono' and not some chronic Lyme condition. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was not diagnosed at this time (which I'd started to worry about since my son was so tired he couldn't even walk around the block and even avoided riding his bike in the driveway saying he was tired out).

So in the summer when not doing summer things my sons did fiction reading 45-60 minutes a day, two or three lessons of math daily and read nonfiction science books to themselves. This did help when fall began and we got busy running around. Then they could focus on other subjects and not feel we were slacking off in math or science content.

I began using the Brave Writer curriculum this fall although honestly not as thoroughly as I'd thought. My sons are doing the free write weekly or at least three times a month which has opened them up to doing creative writing ALL ON THEIR OWN in their free time. This is a major breakthrough. I'd intended to use Arrow with both but have not gotten around to it. I'm also thinking that really my 7th grader should be doing Boomerang.

My kids took an astronomy class taught by a scientist-homeschool father-astronomy buff from August through the end of December, twenty sessions total and door to door it took 3.5 to 4 hours. Getting home between ten and 10:40 p.m. fried the kids (and ME thus I pawned off some of it to my husband). The night Scout meetings on nights bracketing that night didn't help them feel rested or relaxed either. So I feel they've gotten exposure to science information. I do worry that we've not done enough science experiments or documentation of the scientific method lab work process. I am vowing to get through the Real Science 4 Kids curriculum including the lab experiments before this academic year is over.

Regarding math my younger son begged to try Teaching Textbooks like his older brother and he tested to do the grade 5 even though he is officially in grade 4. He loves the program. My older son had finished TT5 last spring and started on TT6 but I felt it was way too much review. I realized 1/3 of it is review so was going to skip him forward then gave him the TT7 placement test and it said he could start that. So we switched to TT7 and I cut out some of the review since it was the same as he just did with the beginning of TT6!

Now that we've used it I have a bit of insight that I'm not happy with. I don't like that there are only two problems for the new material in each lesson, and the rest is a spiral type review. The issue is they can bomb the new material and not understand it but still get an A grade score on the work for that day. It also moved very quickly through fractions without much practice so I had to give him supplemental work to give him more practice that led to mastery. I now have my sights set on Aleks.com as a math program for the near future.

This issue with TT has been echoed by two homeschool mom friends of mine who formerly loved TT but have since switched to Aleks.com. Aleks does not let the student move forward until mastery is achieved. There is no textbook, it is presented online and it is purchased through a monthly subscription fee. For now my younger son is doing fine with TT5 so we have no plans to change his math program.

My older son continued on this treatment for an eye tracking problem. That is nearly all resolved but earlier this year his reading speed was said to be just behind grade level. The focus has been on increasing his visual processing speed. Our behavioral optometrist (developmental optometrist) is instructing my son and I to do exercises that I have seen recommended by occupational therapists and neuro-developmental specialists. Things are beginning to overlap at this point which is interesting and confusing at the same time. He is doing home exercises that reinforce certain neural pathways to 'strengthen' them, to challenge them and carve wider paths, it is hard to explain, that's the best I can attempt. These doctor visits and home therapies take up our family's time and my son's neurological energy too.



 (Above: my twelve year old on the campus of MIT for the Splash event, November 2009.)


I began using even more learning and study strategies geared toward visual-spatial learners (aka right brained learners) for my older son. I'm growing weary of the debate over whether learning styles are real or imagined. The real life situation I see in front of me is that different kids learn faster with certain teaching methods. Some kids need to study in specific ways in order to master the content (i.e. learn how to spell that word correctly, to memorize the right spelling, memorize a vocabulary word or remember the meaning of a scientific word). I don't know why some people recommend certain learning strategies and present them as 'normal' yet when some kids don't learn and other methods are suggested some bristle and almost seem angry that a different strategy is being employed. Perhaps those people would be happier if we just gave up on the struggling learner, called them stupid or 'below average' and let them keep on failing, or hating learning? Is that what they want?  If it is, they can do that with their child, but I'll not 'leave my child behind'.



Perhaps the biggest revelation for me which hit just this month is that my son, now half way through seventh grade homeschool, needs to begin focusing on study methods that will help him retain content and learn the material he is exposed to (no matter what form the content was delivered or presented to him in). It is time for him to learn the traditional basics of good note taking and then how to study. I think this comes from much practice, as tedious and boring as it may be. Since not all content magically enters and stays in this son's mind, he needs to learn what to do to 'make it work' for him.




No matter what label someone may want to put on him, no matter what learning style someone or some test may say he has, he needs to learn to do what he needs to do to master the content and learn to learn in a school-ish way. I say this also because the path he is choosing, so far, to proceed on, a path to a college undergraduate degree in engineering will definitely require college attendance, taking a college entrance exam and so forth. So my role as his mother and his homeschool teacher or facilitator is to help my son on this path. He may not like to learn and practice study skills but it is necessary unless he switches plans to prepare for some entry level, low skilled job that doesn't require college attendance.


(Below: my older son walking independently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, October 2009.)





My younger son has been growing and changing as well. His preferences for learning and what motivates him is very different from that of his older brother. This is not easy for me because the old way of just doing the same plans for both kids together at the same time, when possible, is not really panning out any longer. More and more they need separate work. Since their reading levels are different they are independently reading different books for their home studies as well as fiction pleasure reading. My younger son thrives on assignments, challenges, goals and completing tasks. I find it a struggle to give him what he seems to need as I hate all those things and had thought that the unique nature of homeschooling could and would include leaving those things behind for other methods. Well it can still, but when using those methods this son is not thriving. Should not each child be given the opportunity to shine and thrive with the freedom that homeschooling allows?


(Below: my younger son at nine and a half, trying to be his own person and taking his own path.)





Right now my email inbox is filling with opportunities for outside classes and events. News of Scout camping trips and even family events is building up. The Science Olympiad competition date is looming about three months away. I'm on a waiting list to get into a homeschool co-op so my kids can make some new friends and have more group learning with a set group of kids (not one-off field trip classes).

This last fall once again my boys were at wilderness school, a six hour long class that occurs once a week. The sessions are ten weeks. They usually do one in the fall and one in the spring and have also done the in-between shorter sessions of late fall and winter. They have gone up to 32 weeks in one school year. This is our fourth year in the program. This last fall my older son aged out of his former class. I wanted to keep them there on the same day due to the 45 minute commute each way plus to keep using the carpool I was in, to save my time and gasoline. However my older son's closest friend dropped the class on day one before it even began. My son was disappointed. Also he didn't like the content of the class which was a combination of wilderness survival with an Outward Bound challenge about trusting the team and pushing oneself to do scary things (high ropes etc.). A class just like his favorite class, but for older kids his age is offered on a different day of the week. We have a conflict with repeating the great filmmaking class that our sons did in the fall or having my son go to wilderness school on that same day. Right now my son is choosing to leave wilderness school which saddens me. Either way it ends up going, both that film class on one day and the wilderness school for my younger son on the other day uses up a great deal of our time, time away from home lessons. It is hard to say no to great outside classes sometimes.


 My inclination for the second half of this year is to turn down some of the one-off opportunities. We've done a lot of art history and fine art appreciation including contemporary art. I think we will relax back from that. We'll keep our once monthly fine art appreciation/history class with social game playing time after and then pizza with multiple families. We won't do all the Scout functions as we just can't fit it all in.

We will focus on home studies for the second half of the year including a push on writing composition; discussion focused reading comprehension and science with labs and use of the scientific method. We'll push through history hopefully getting at least the year 1850 if not beyond.

Lastly my nine year old wants to begin private community Lacrosse which I believe is two practices in the afternoon on weekdays and one Saturday game. This will be a major change for our family. We all should be  focusing on fitness, actually. I hope my older son can regain more physical stamina as he is still fatigued from the mono (the doctors say). I would love to be in shape too.



(Below: my younger son age nine loves playing the guitar, something that sets him apart from his brother and parents both.)




Although I do feel we did wind up being over-scheduled YET AGAIN this fall what was different this time was I was not frantic about it. Unless we were sick with fever or some other contagious sickness we attended all the appointments we had. (We lost almost two weeks while self-quarantined with the H1N1 Swine Flu.) We did as much homeschool lessons as we could fit in between the appointments. We also adjusted well to the increase in visits to the orthodontist now that both of my kids are having new and different work done to straighten their teeth. I am not worried about homeschooling, about gaps or my kids being behind. I have a feeling they are all three things: ahead in some things, on grade level in others, and maybe behind in a couple of areas. I'm going to make time in the rest of this year to try to deal with the weaknesses.

I also tackled a major culling of the books we own (homeschooling books and some curriculum). I tackled it head on and it took me MONTHS to deal with. I realized that I had over-bought. I had also maybe under-planned. Lastly the fact that neither of my kids wants to sit and read tons of history and science books is an issue. They only read what I force them to read. At first I was upset about this thinking that I wanted to raise kids who were readers and who loved books. I wanted them to find pleasure in reading. I took their lack of interest in *reading* about the topics as a disappointment. It dawned on me just last week that they do enjoy learning about those topics but not necessarily taking in the content from books or reading. I then realized I'm a huge reader, comparatively speaking to statistics about Americans, yet I never reading science or history on my own in my spare time! I only read what I'm trying to learn in order to homeschool my kids. This does not mean I'm not a 'reader' or that I'm not skilled in being able to read nonfiction and to analyze and comprehend nonfiction. This doesn't mean either that I don't like those topics or that I dislike learning.

Back to the books I have more than thirty boxes in my basement waiting to figure out what to do with them. I could get rid of them quickly by donating them to a library fundraiser book sale. I'd like to resell them to get back a fraction of what I spent on them but don't know that I want to put in the time and energy to do so. I have also not been letting myself feel negative emotions about the too-many books some which we never used and to instead focus on the good that our homeschooling has yielded in real life. So what if we didn't get to read the seven Thomas Jefferson biographies? We did have an immersion experience about the Civil War and toured Gettysburg and saw some historical sites right here in Connecticut that I, a Connecticut native, never even knew existed until just recently. I'm trying to focus on the good and what was accomplished rather than obsess on what was not done to the level of thoroughness than I'd imagined we'd do. I am coming to realize my hopes and imagined plans for the future are sometimes far too large-scale to ever come to fruition. I need to adjust my expectations a bit so they are more attainable. I think realizing that flaw within myself or realizing my error is a breakthrough. If I'd not figured that out I might have gone on for more years worrying about gaps or wondering if this homeschooling that I've crafted has been a failure.



Another important thing I can report is I've really enjoyed my kids in this first half of this year. This has not been without challenges, including the realization that there is no Santa or a Tooth Fairy and one child's first exposure to porn. Social slip-ups have happened too. My kids are not perfect; I've never said they are, it's just that I feel an obligation to try to raise good kids. I'm doing the best I can, I'm not perfect either, I have my limits, my patience grows thin, and I do use a bad tone of voice sometimes. The closeness of homeschooling, the lack of privacy and the increased time together means that my kids see my flaws. They are both out of the stage where they think their parents don't make mistakes. They know that my husband and I are human, we are flawed, we make errors; at least we do apologize and try to mend our ways when we slip up.


(Below: my younger son while on a nature walk with me and our extended family on Christmas Day.)



I'm trying to parent my kids through their normal stages of development and to ride the waves as they come our way. My kids are growing up so fast that I can't believe it, both as people, developmentally and physically. My twelve year old stands as tall as my nose and he's wearing larger clothes than me now, yet his voice hasn't changed yet and there are no signs that shaving is on the horizon (thank goodness). I'm dealing with raging puberty hormones and seeking social opportunities for my older son that go beyond the 'playdates'.

I feel like I'm learning, growing and changing as I parent and homeschool my children. This thing we call a home school is a process, an ever-changing situation which is only partially in my control. It is a melding of the parenting journey with my children's education; some of the challenges with the homeschooling lifestyle are not just about homeschool academics, the challenge is a parent-child dynamic or are normal parenting situations which sometimes are intensified by being together nearly 24/7 and also in the parent-teacher role (not just parent role or parent supporting the child's education by inspiring their academic excellence through a third-party school). I'm both trying to create a learning environment at the same time that I'm reacting to my children's involvement in it. It's a process and a journey. It's like that phrase about the river, that it is ever changing and you can never dip your toes into the same river twice. This is where we are right now. I wonder what the situation will be in six months when this academic year is over. I'd like to say I know how it will all pan out but my past experience has taught me that while it's right to make plans what happens in real life is often different, it is never perfect, and it usually has both positive and negative elements: things to celebrate, things to hope to avoid, experiences to recreate and things to remediate.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Juan Williams Quote About Writing

Author, journalist and political commentator Juan Williams was interviewed for the TV show In Depth (view it here online free) that airs on CSPAN's BookTV. I loved this, so jotted it down onto a scrap piece of paper, which I found while organizing papers.

Question: "Do you find it easy to write about these issues or it is a challenge?"

Answer: "Oh, writing is the greatest intellectual exercise I've ever had. You know my Dad trained boxers. I used to be around people who exercised and had to show tremendous courage under fire. For me, engaging in a book and the ideas, getting those ideas to be real on the page so others can understand and engage in them takes -- it's my maximum energy -- my maximum being."

I can relate to that so deeply that sometimes it brings a tear to my eye. I think what touches me the most is knowing someone else out there gets it, about writing.

Nature Walk on Christmas Day

On Christmas, after dinner and before coffee and dessert some member of my family went for a nature walk. Some of us wore appropriate footwear and ventured into the woods after the walk on the road. Here are some photos from the walk.

I don't have permission to post photos of my nephew, brother and his wife so they are absent. What I can tell you that I can't show you of their family is my nine year old non-verbal nephew with Autism skipping with joy down the road; he thrives when outdoors and my nephew using his 'talking device' to communicate to his parents while on a path in the woods, and my nephew walking alongside me smiling and making eye contact.

You will not see any of my husband since he has asked that his image not be revealed on this blog. Also not here is my older son who said he was tired but agreed to burn calories on the new Wii Fit instead. My other nephew stayed back with him. And since my husband and nine year old son ditched out on more than half of the walk, I don't have many of my younger son to show you.

My brother, a hunter, was able to identify the wild turkey track you will see, and the few that walked together to go over a rock wall.

There are some images of an apple orchard, an at least fourth generation family farm still in operation too. My nine year old son is seen as is my father. (I finally captured his true spirit with the camera!)

Well now that the missing details are out of the way here is some of what I experienced yesterday, seen through my camera's lens. Come take a virtual walk with me through my neighborhood and its adjoining Connecticut woods...

(Double click on any image to enlarge it.)


























Photos copyright ChristineMM, 2009. Taken 12/25/09 in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Living with Books

Author and book lover Nicholas Basbanes was on BookTV, recorded 10/21/08. He was interviewed in his home in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

There were books in every room and the cameras followed Basbanes as he discussed which books were where. He confirmed there were books in all the rooms of the house and said of the books that he was "engulfed, surrounded, (the books are) very much a part of our life".

Loved hearing that!

(The above was found while sorting through papers, I'd scribbed that on a scrap piece of paper on my nightstand.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Up Too Early



It's the day of Christmas Eve. We have huge plans for today. This year the big family party is back to being held at our home. If I'm counting correctly there will be nineteen here for a formal dinner tonight.

I had a swig of coffee at three in the afternoon yesterday and as is typical, I was wide awake too early today, at three a.m. to be exact. Yes, this 21 or 22 hour long day will be hard to stay awake for.

I went back to bed at 5:30 and did fall asleep until the phone rang at six, the land line and a portable rang loudly in my bedroom. That was the end of that. I'm starting the day off exhausted.

When the sun fully rises I can begin the last sweep of house cleaning. One more go round in the bathrooms, another sweeping and mopping of the floor after more big messes are made with flour this morning. A final dusting in the dining room and family room. The last of the book reorganization in the family library will be done too. A few straggling, hidden away and forgotten presents need to be wrapped.

After that I'll be ready for champagne, the Moet and Chandon will be calling my name, and I'll be ready to eat my husband's good food. And then later I can deal with cleaning up...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yes, I'm Baking

Although I've only blogged about the start of the gingerbread creations, in real life I am indeed baking.

I've blogged all this before, so here are some links that talk about the recipes and have photos.

I've made two batches of anginette cookies of which there are exactly five left, less than 24 hours later. I note if you use the recipe I use one batch fills two cookie sheets. So multiply the recipe if you need to. Today I'll be making yet another batch!

I made one batch of triple chocolate biscotti.

I made two batches of pignoli cookies, my personal favorite Italian cookie.

I've made a total of five batches of fudge. I wanted to make more but have run out of time and/or energy.

If all goes as planned I'll have time to take photos of my son's gingerbread creations and will blog those before Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Haiku 12/22/09

Looked outside, surprised
The snow now lilac colored
Sunrise at seven.

---

I jumped up, got my camera out of my pocketbook, let myself out the front door to capture the color. Sadly, by the time my lens cap was off, the color was gone, and the more common blue gray cast to the snow had taken over (and not that lovely shade of blue that is so elusive to the camera's lens, either). Sigh.

Well, I did enjoy that lovely color that the sunrise cast onto the world. Part of nature study is just observation, taking the time to look around and to really see things. Noticing the beauty in nature is one way to appreciate the simple things in life.

Carnival of Homeschooling Week 208 Published


The Carnival of Homeschooling week 208 was published today at A Very Nearly Tea.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

I have an entry in this week’s carnival.

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.

Enjoy!

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Organic Shaken and Stirred Book Review by ChristineMM



Title: Organic, Shaken and Stirred
Author: Paul Abercrombie
Genre: Nonfiction, cookbook
Publication: The Harvard Common Press, 2009
Full Retail Price: $19.95

My rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

Summary Statement: Slow Food Meets Cocktail -- Not Only Organic but Gourmet Drinks



This cocktail recipe book is unbelievable; it takes the home cocktail mixer to new heights. I’m a home gardener, a consumer and home grower of organic vegetable and herbs for fifteen years. My husband and I cook and bake together ---slow food, from scratch and we try to eat foods in as close to their natural state as possible. We have a cookbook collection for mostly foods but also multiple recipe books for cocktails. My husband also has homebrewed his own beer in the past. ORGANIC, SHAKEN AND STIRRED seems perfect for our family as it is the slow food compliment for alcoholic cocktails.

Reading through the book I’m surprised at how many ingredients I’ve never tasted and thus have only a bit of an indication based on the drink’s introduction of what it will taste like. Honestly I’m having a hard time even trying to figure out which of these I’ll like as they are all so new and different. However, that is not without its risks. New and interesting sometimes winds up sounding odd or a bit too scary. I see a number of recipes with ingredients I love then just one thing I don’t like, such as the Alibi on page 122 with a pluot or apricot, lemon juice, agave nectar and tequila (all good) but then I see one garlic clove—no, sorry, garlic and I don’t get along too well. I also worry a bit about how garlic breath would affect drinkers at a social function! Churchill Downs on page 108 contains grapes and apple and lemon juice (fine) but then bourbon (sorry, I’m not a bourbon fan). I doubt that any reader will enjoy every single drink in this book. Perhaps if we can find a handful of new drinks we enjoy out of an entire book then that is enough to get out of it and to still say we love the book?

Almost all of these cocktails will be new to me and thus a risk to invest time and money. I mention cost because the recipes are so varied that it seems that I’ll have to buy special ingredients that may wind up being used in just one drink. Elderberry liqueur, cucumber vodka, rhum agricole, and absinthe are not yet in my already overstuffed liquor cabinet. Fresh herb leaves (sage, mint etc.) and fresh organic produce require last minute purchases and you may wind up eating your fresh leftover fruits, vegetables or herbs quickly after your party so they don’t go to waste.

Making these cocktails is definitely not the same as the old way of stocking your pantry with the common and imperishable basics (thanks to chemical based preservatives) and being able to whip up many different drinks from them to meet each guest’s preference or one cocktail for your solitary enjoyment. The best possible use of the time and money would be to choose one or two cocktails to serve at a party and shop for and prepare the ingredients and then to sit back and enjoy them. What to do when guests turn their noses up at the fruits of your labors is something I’m curious about how to handle. Perhaps the less fancy and non-organic standard bar fare can stand in waiting for those who’d rather imbibe in them to mix their own if so desired? Or a secondary offering of wine and beer?

You should know these recipes are a bit complicated or fussy. I’m reminded of what my husband said a few months ago after reading some of his mother’s Gourmet magazines (just before it ceased publication). He said has always been tempted by the recipes but they were just a bit over the top, a bit too fussy to want to be bothered with. He actually used the word ‘fussy’. He liked reading the magazine with its essays and articles, but honestly never made more than a handful of the recipes over the years. Trust me, my husband loves to cook from scratch and before holidays he cooks for days. (Cooks Illustrated is his favorite source of recipes and he watches a lot of FoodTV programming.)

So about being fussy---I mean for example, the fact that store bought syrups and drink bases are not available organically means that they have to be homemade (recipes are included of course). Basic recipes are at the front of the book but some drinks require a special concoction that is described on that recipe’s page (Tahitian Vanilla-Infused organic simple syrup, page 93 or Earl Grey-infused organic rum page 94 for example). Even the base ingredients sometimes have a few prep steps, such as taking a fresh mango, peeling it then pureeing it, or squeezing fresh fruits (not easy for the host or hostess to do mid-party either). A few require reduction bases prepared obviously ahead of time.

I don’t mean to sound negative, I’m just giving an honest opinion to let you know of the road you are preparing to go down should you choose to buy this book. If all this sounds like a cocktail making adventure you are willing to participate in you’ll probably be in seventh heaven when you get this book in your hands.

The book discusses the current organic choices in alcoholic liquors and wines as well as some basic information about why the author feels organic is better than non-organic. The basics you need to know are at the front of the book. The recipes are divided into chapters by category: fresh and zesty, lush and fruity, clean and classic, from the garden and punch and pitcher.

The author stresses organic which has been a growing trend that I hope never goes away. I’ve been doing organic for fifteen years so the idea of organic is not new or flashy to me, it’s something I want but over these years have had trouble finding in the market, so have had to settle for non-organic items unless growing it myself. Thus my primary attraction to the book is not primarily that the ingredients are organic but is the SLOW FOOD ASPECT of the recipes—that fresh ingredients, unusual and non-boring ingredients combined in a unique new way (that takes time and effort). If you have not received the message loud and clear from me yet, I’ll flat out say it: these are not the same old cocktails with the familiar flavors just replaced with organic ingredients (i.e. organic simple syrup) and the use of an organic alcoholic component. These are all new, fancy, sometimes a bit time-intensive and perhaps a little expensive too. If all of this sparks your interest and doesn’t scare you off, then to you I say, “Enjoy!”





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Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. I have not been paid to write this review or blog about this book. For full disclosure statement click the link near the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts on Joy Hakim In-Depth Show

I was thrilled to see that Joy Hakim was going to be on In Depth, a three hour long interview that airs on CSPAN's BookTV. I set my DVR to record it immediately!

I first heard of Joy Hakim years ago when reading homeschool magazines. Parents recommended the use of her series "The History of US" in homeschool history studies. They are for middle schoolers or high schoolers (and as an adult I could learn a lot from them also). I kept my eyes peeled for these books and finally did buy the entire series (ten volumes plus an eleventh book which is a sourcebook and index). They are told in chronological order and the telling is a 'narrative format' meaning it reads like a story. This is a style of writing that is NOT currently in vogue but if you read some hundred year old nonfiction books for children you will find many were the narrative format (even textbooks to be used in schools in the elementary grades but they are not for only the young as the high school texts also used that format).

Later PBS had a series about The History of US and a companion book was published (currently out of print) called "Freedom: A History of US". I bought that book too. I have not seen the televised series.



Later Hakim published three volumes about science "The Story of Science" ("Aristotle Leads the Way", "Newton at the Center" and "Einstein Adds a New Dimension"). The science books again uses the narrative format and covers the topic in chronological order and includes information about the scientists and life in those times not just teaching the topic in isolation. I bought those for our use as well.

To be honest we have not yet used Hakim's books in our home studies. I am feeling overwhelmed at the number of books we own (over 8000) and feel I own too many on the different topics so we can never read them all. However after seeing Hakim on In Depth I'm thinking that I should pull out the history books and begin using them for the US History portion of our world history studies (we are at about year 1680 right now in our chronological study of world history).

Anyhow about the Joy Hakim interview, I encourage you to watch it. Look to see if it will rerun soon so you can record it. You may also watch it free on the BookTV website here.

Here are some of my thoughts on the interview, in no particular order.

1. Homeschooling was mentioned three times on the show. A caller near the end who identified himself as a railroad engineer asked if homeschooling parents can really prepare their kids for 'the college entrance exams'. I found that interesting as he didn't ask about preparing them to 'attend college' but was worried about how they'd fare on the SAT or ACT apparently. Hakim gave praise for homeschoolers each time homeschooling was mentioned. She said, "homeschoolers love my books".

2. Because it was a call-in show for a portion sometimes the answers were brief but then the topic was re-visited later. This is a bit confusing especially when I was not familiar with the details of the issue. For example Hakim kept discussing the problems with the textbook industry and schools. I don't know a lot about this topic. Hakim takes issue with the process. Apparently publishing houses divide out the business that is for textbooks and that that is 'trade' books and the two do not mix. Her publisher categorized her books as 'trade paperbacks' and markets them to private citizen consumers in bookstores. No one in the publishing industry with 'trade' markets to schools (except Scholastic maybe). So although Hakim's books are desired by some teachers the publisher is not marketing them to schools OR the schools will only buy from the textbook divisions and thus wind up forced to buy boring textbooks instead. Thus some teachers who want to use Hakim's books cannot use them as their school systems will not purchase them.

3. Someone other than Hakim wrote the teacher manuals that can be purchased that helps school teachers use the books in the classroom. Tests are available also, she said.

4. Hakim has worked as a teacher in schools so has the inside scoop on issues facing teachers. For example, the teacher wants to teach a certain way or use certain materials but is forced by administrative rules to comply with certain standards such as submitting detailed lesson plans. A teacher who called in  said that their school is so strict they do not want the teacher deviating from the lesson plans at all. She said that some spend a lot of time dealing with these lesson plans, like red tape I guess.

5. Hakim said that textbook companies are getting more and more pressure to remove content from history lessons that might offend members of certain ethnicities such as certain minority groups. For example in Los Angeles they wanted nothing controversial or upsetting to the Latino population. In effect then history is being sterilized and the truth not being told in an effort to not upset certain people. If that were being applied across the board then discussion of slavery should not happen because as a Caucasian I don't like the idea that some with my same ethnic background were former slave owners and I don't like people lookinng at me wondering if my ancestors were some of the 'bad slave owners'.

Also discussed was that textbooks are often boring. They are written in a way that is sterile and uninteresting. They make history seem impersonal and distant. Hakim has tried to counter this with her books by making the stories about the people and telling interesting stories that kids enjoy hearing. When they are engaged they learn.

6. Hakim praised Amazon customer reviewers asking "have you read them" and saying some are great! Wow! The question was asked if she was offended by what some reviewers might say about the content of her books if they did not like them. My take-away was you can never please everyone all the time, so expect some will not be happy with 100% of what is written. She also mentioned one man who didn't like some ideas in her books was stalking her by phoning her at home. This kind of thing does not surprise me based on some experiences I've had with Amazon Vine reviews I've written.

7. Hakim said to her mind history is about ideas and teaching ideas and discussing ideas with students is important. Ideas are not always clear cut or easy, there is a lot of gray area. History is seldom black and white. Life is complex as is history. Students can and do learn when allowed to discuss ideas and to see the complexity that exists. Oversimplification and simplifying content down sometimes gives the impression that the issue was not complex but was simple and neat, which is usually false.

8. Hakim said that she feels that very young children want to learn 'content' and are interested if the adults will only expose them to it. I totally agree with this. Hakim knows this from her own parenting experience and also from working with children teaching them. She also has children read her books before publication to seek their input so changes can be made.

Of the parents who do expose their toddlers and preschoolers to good solid information many or all find their children curious and interested. This was my experience with my very young children too. Some then think their kids are gifted or smart. I always thought that it might be the case that if only all children were exposed to interesting information not dumbed down content that maybe most or nearly all would learn and would benefit form it. I don't know if that is true though.

Anyhow the shocking thing to me that I didn't know was that Hakim said that basically 'content' has been removed from nearly all elementary schooling and most if not all of middle school. That in elementary and middle school the schools focus on teaching 'skills' like math, how to read and reading comprehension. So little nonfiction information in science or history is taught which is disappointing and problematic. She said usually real 'content' is not taught until the high school level.

9. Hakim is not a 'Young Earther', in case that information is of interest to you.

----

Side Note: A few days later I watched the E.D. Hirsh talk, it aired on 12/12/09 but was recorded on 10/21/09. Some of the same things were said about not teaching 'content' and the effect of focusing too much on teaching 'skills'. I will blog about that talk separately. I saw parallels between what Hakim and Hirsch were saying that I didn't expect would exist.

-----
I do plan to pull out Hakim's ten volume set of books and will being using it with my twelve year old seventh grader. I will be reading it along too and will be forming my own opinions of her books.

I have not yet figured out a good way to combine Hakim's science books with our science studies. This year we have dedicated so far, 60 hours of direct instruction in an astronomy class taught by a homeschool father-engineer-astronomy enthusiast. My kids also did 60 hours of direct instruction in an experiential nature class although the older child had a bit more of an Outward Bound experience this time than studies of botany and wild creatures. I had my kids do between 2-6 hours of reading of science nonfiction books per week starting on July 1. Our science this year has wound up being a kind of mish-mosh that doesn't quite smoothly segue to reading a chronological study of science with Hakim's books. Yet, I do want to make that happen. I'm going to think about a way to fit this in.

Also I plan to watch this interview again, since it is recorded on my DVR. Maybe I'll jot down some notes and quotes to share again.

If you watched the show or have used Hakim's books consider leaving a comment to share your ideas. I'd love to hear your reaction to them.

External Links and Books Mentioned in This Post

In Depth BookTV CSPAN to watch free online

Freedom A History of US PBS website

Joy Hakim's official website

The History of US 11 volume set (ten books of content plus book 11, a sourcebook and index)
















The teacher's manuals are referred to with "teaching guide" in the title, and one is published to match with the book of the same title (ten volumes total), too numerous for me to link all here (available on Amazon.com at a discount). I see also there is a "student guide" for each volume.


 
Freedom by Joy Hakim (she said this was ideal for high schoolers)





The Story of Science --three volume series (books, no teacher's guides at present)













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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowstorm Photos

My twelve year old announced the snow finally began Saturday night after he stepped out onto the front stoop.










At 2:30 in the morning the town plow woke me up. I got up to see how much had fallen. The only light was from our floodlights, and our neighbors. We have to leave them on so the driveway plow guy can see where he is going. He usually plows before sunrise.

It seemed to me the tall oaks were standing guard over our home, in our front yard.









When I woke up this is what I saw outside the kitchen window.

(My sons hung the angel ornament there for me to see when I wash dishes.)




Not exactly the weather to be lounging on the deck!



The view out the front door. The holly was full of snow.



The view from my bedroom window. I guess the snow blew in from the south.



The view out the other bedroom window. The rock wall is pretty much buried in snow drifts.