On Homeschooling–Even When You’re Not

image of decorated letters

I’m a former university professor, and I spent nearly 20 years teaching freshmen in college. One of the biggest lessons I learned from my students is that something is happening somewhere in our school systems that makes many children lose their curiosity toward learning. Of course, I’m not saying this happens to every student, but it happens too often. It worries me.

But I was even more worried as a mom when my youngest son was being sent to the principal’s office in preschool and came home from school one day calling himself “the bad kid.” I knew I had to do something different.

image of decorated letters
This is an example of how much fun we have homeschooling! Notice the decorated letters. And here’s the best part–no principal’s office.

Our family made the decision to homeschool. If you’ve been following my blog, you know this meant quitting my full-time job and learning to live much more frugally. But we decided it was worth it.

As a teacher, homeschooling was an opportunity for me to teach one of the most important people in the world to me, and I’ve enjoyed our first year doing it.

The key lesson I’ve learned from homeschooling my six year old is that everything is an educational opportunity for children—from baking scones to visiting our neighbor’s beehive. Pretty much all activities provide us with “teachable moments,” and learning is everywhere.

When my children were in public school, I had the notion that they were learning at school, so if I could get in some extra learning at home, that would be great but not necessary. I now understand just how necessary it truly is, and it’s not as time consuming as you might think.

It’s just about seeing everyday activities, things that are a part of everyday life, as “teachable moments.” The former university professor in me wants to tell you how important these kinds of things are for helping your child grow into a curious adult. The mom in me wants to tell you how much fun this approach is and how much you’ll learn as well.

 

So I created a Top 5 “Homeschooling When You’re Not” list to get interested parents thinking along these lines.

  1. Cooking

Cooking with your child is a great opportunity to learn math, reading, and an important life skill. It’s just about emphasizing these things while you do it. Talk about what you’re doing with each step. It can be tough when you’re busy, but if you can take the time to slow down for this a couple of times a week, it’s totally worth it.

  1. Animals

At our house, we have lots of animals—chickens, ducks, fish, cats, a dog—and we have wildlife that visit us, everything from wild turkeys to chipmunks to crows. I’ll write more later about the “kindness lessons” animals can help teach our children, but animals also provide amazing educational opportunities for learning about the lives and habits of different species.

crow picture
We try to find learning opportunities everywhere, so when we saw we had crows visiting our yard, we researched just how brilliant and interesting they are!

“Why do crows like shiny things?” and “Why do ducks whistle?” are just a few things we have researched, but you can teach your children about habitat, the environment, and animal behavior just by talking about animals in and around your home or the ones that visit your bird feeders. I know our chickie girls have taught us more about the amazing personalities, intelligence, and resourcefulness of animals than I ever could have imagined.

  1. Reading

Just read. I’m a literacy teacher. I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. Take 20 minutes every day, maybe every night before bed. And don’t worry about making sure you’re reading “great literature.” You want reading to be fun. Once you get that, the rest will work itself out. Comics, graphic novels, we even sometimes just read short articles in the National Geographic magazines on space because my son loves anything related to space.

I know parents are busy beyond on all reason, but taking 20 minutes a day makes all the difference.

  1. Outdoor Exploration

When I was a kid, our parents just sent us outside to play, and we played all day. While I often hear adults from my generation romanticize those “good old days” and while I do think outdoor play and even a little boredom is very important, I’m talking about outdoor exploration together. For homeschool geometry, we measured the circumference of the trees in our yard. We found we had one that was 88 inches in circumference! This is great stuff, and you don’t have to be officially homeschooling to do it. If you know your child is studying something at school, see if you can find a connection in your yard. Talk about it. Explore it.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in place like Maine, there are parks, hiking trails, the ocean, the mountains. Take a day trip when you can. Our family has some day-trip goals for this summer, but more on that in a future post!

  1. The Internet

While I know screen time gets a really bad wrap these days, there are some amazing educational videos and games out there. And, when you take 30 minutes and play the game with your child, it’s all the better. Ted Ed has some amazing YouTube videos on everything from the size of an atom to narrative structures in literature, and they are so much fun.

I’ll write more about free online educational resources in future posts, but one great idea I wanted to share now is “Question of the Day.” We started this in our family, and I’m learning a ton of stuff as well. I mean, I’m here to tell you. If you’re in your 40’s like me, the field of science has way more information than it did when we were in school.

 

Homeschooling my youngest son has been one of the greatest experiences of my life so far. I’ve learned about how he learns, how he thinks, what works for him, what doesn’t, and what inspires him. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, and I’m looking forward to our second year together. But I know not everyone can do this. Not everyone can quit their full-time jobs, and not everyone feels comfortable as a teacher.

But, if you’re a parent, you’re a teacher. You don’t have to be a formal homeschooling family to bring homeschooling into your home. It’s going to do great things for your children, and, ultimately, it’s going to do great things for the bond you have with your children. It’s just about taking advantage of even the smallest opportunities.

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On Strawberry Scones

scone ingredients

It’s strawberry season here in Maine, and strawberries are my favorite fruit. Of course, during blueberry season, I’m convinced blueberries are my favorite fruit, but strawberries and I go way back.

When I was little, I loved strawberries with a passion, but, when I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money for things like fresh fruits, which meant I didn’t get a lot of strawberries. Still, every year, on my birthday in May, I would get a strawberry cake, and I would be in heaven.

I think strawberries became even better in my little child mind, and I’m pretty sure I built up a myth about how delicious they taste, though they’re pretty delicious. Still, I admired their color, texture, and juiciness to an unusual level, I’m sure. When I would see other children eating strawberries, I was undoubtedly too envious.

So, as an adult, when my husband and I started our garden, some of the first things we planted were strawberries. My husband built me two large raised beds, and we filled them up with June-bearing strawberries. Having to wait the first year, because you can’t let the plants make berries the first year they are planted, just about killed me.

But, now, we are all set, and as I fill up my bowl with the strawberries I pick in the mornings, I feel a little bit like my life has come full circle. I have plenty of strawberries, and I love that we grow them ourselves.

fresh strawberries
These strawberries were picked fresh for scones this morning. The harvests are still a little small, but the berries are really just getting going.

I even have enough to share, though I have found myself far less generous with our strawberries than I am with the other foods we grow in our garden. I may need to work on that, but, then, strawberries and I do go way back.

Anyway, since the glorious strawberries are upon us, I wanted to share the best strawberry scone recipe I have found. I have searched for nearly a decade for the best scone recipe, and I finally found one that, with some adaptation, worked very well, I think.

This recipe has been revised quite a bit but adapted from the beautiful cooking blog Pinch of Yum.

Makes 8 Giant Scones

Ingredients:

2 cups flour

½ cup sugar

1 Tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup cold salted butter, cut into tiny cubes

1 egg

¾ cup heavy cream

1 to 1 ½ cups fresh strawberries, cut into small pieces

additional heavy cream for brushing before baking

1 ½ cups powdered sugar

3 Tablespoons milk

parchment paper

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix together your dry ingredients. Then, add the tiny pieces of butter and cut the butter in using a cutting-in tool (I don’t know if those things have a particular name, but I have one pictured here). Then, mix in the egg and the heavy cream with a wooden spoon.

scone ingredients
Here are some of the key ingredients. I have no idea what the cutting in tool is really called, but it is a must-have for baking with butter.

Once things start to get a little bit mixed, you will likely have to use your hands. The dough is dense, and I usually have to work everything in with my hands to get things mixed.

Now, it’s time to add your strawberries. Using your hands, mix in the strawberries as much as you can without squishing them too much, though some squishing seems to be inevitable.

Bring the ball of dough to your counter covered in flour. Using flour on your hands to help keep the dough from sticking to you, spread the dough out into a relatively flat circle, as you can see in the picture.

Cut the dough into 8 triangles and place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Now, brush on some additional heavy cream to make sure the tops of each scone are covered with the cream.

scones pre-baking
These are the scones pre-baking, cut from the flat circle into triangles. They will rise quite a bit, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Bake at 385 degrees for 16 to 18 minutes, depending upon your oven. I highly recommend you start checking at like 15 minutes because you never know.

When the scones are golden brown in the edges and can pass the toothpick test, they are done. Try not to overcook them.

While they are cooling, mix the powdered sugar and 3 Tablespoons of milk to make the glaze. The glaze should be pretty thick. If it’s too thin, it will just be absorbed by the scones, which is not as good, in my opinion. Brush the glaze on each scone after the scones have had a chance to cool just a bit. It’s okay if they are warm, just not hot.

Serve warm if you can, and enjoy!

strawberry scone
These strawberry scones are heavenly! I promise!

These strawberry scones were made with fresh strawberries from our garden, but if you don’t have strawberries growing in your back yard, check out this excellent blog post from Catching Health with Diane Atwood for places in Maine where you can pick fresh strawberries right now.

If you don’t live in Maine, come visit us at least. We have the best berries. I might be willing to share some.

On Counting to 16 (and Some Tips on Buying Eggs)

image of eggs

Since my blog last Friday, we lost one of our chickie girls. If you’ve been following my blog since the beginning, you’ll know this was tough to take. If you read my On Counting Your Chickens post, you’ll know how much I worried about losing a girl.

Chickie Girl #17 didn’t have a name because we can’t tell our Rhode Island Reds apart, and now that she’s gone, it seems even more tragic that she didn’t have a name. But she was loved as a part of my collective “girls” and loved with all of my heart. We do so much to protect our girls from predators and work so hard to give them a healthy, happy life that it was especially hard for me to take it that we lost her to a health problem she had related to laying eggs. She had a prolapsed vent, and, apparently, not all chickens die from this, but our girl did.

It was a sad night.

I was cooking a late supper, and my husband came to the kitchen door and said, “I think tonight might be the night.”

It was the night I had dreaded—and the night we spoke about so often. Our girls free range most days, and they just can’t stand it otherwise. And even though we do a “chicken count” many times a day, we will sometimes get busy and not count as much. So, when the girls come into their coop at night, it’s always an extra relief when you do your final count for the night and get 17. But, this night, there would be just 16.

I cried harder than probably a grown woman should, said goodbye to her as she lay in my husband’s arm, and watched as my husband buried her in the backyard near the woods, where the beloved pets of the previous owners of our house were laid to rest.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience. It seemed wrong, like I was exploiting her death. I also worried about sounding a little too much like the crazy chicken lady because I was so broken up over the death of one of our chickens. But something happened this week that made me think I really need to tell this story.

As I was mourning the death of Chickie Girl #17, I took a moment to mourn the bigger picture—the animals who are unfortunate enough to live on factory farms where they are abused and subjected to the most inhumane treatment. Our girl’s death reminded me to remember.

Then, this week, this story hit our local news about an egg factory farm here in Maine where the chickens are, apparently, living in deplorable conditions. According to the news, the state is now investigating, but, for me, this story is just another example, another reason why we, as consumers, need to force change with our pocketbooks.

I don’t want to be preachy, but factory farming in our country is awful for the animals and awful for us. I certainly won’t get on my soapbox about the conditions in factory farms for all animals, but I will do this: I want to share some options with my readers about getting eggs and share why I think these options are important. My goal is to be helpful and help spread the word about better alternatives to factory-farmed eggs.

First, if you can, it’s certainly best to buy eggs from a local farmer you know. Just driving to a friend’s house a few miles away on Route 9 yesterday, I saw several signs up from local farmers selling eggs. If you can see where the chickens live, that’s even better.

image of eggs
We have Rhode Island Reds, so all of our eggs are brown. But there is such variety in terms of shade, speckles, and shape. These are like little treasures to me, and we sell them to friends and neighbors, who also seem to appreciate these eggs.

It’s important that chickens are allowed to be chickens. They need to be able to spread out, be social, eat bugs, complain about the little things, like somebody else being in one certain nest box when five others are clearly available. If you live in Maine and are reading this blog, I’m guessing you probably even have a friend selling eggs. It seems like chickens are everywhere here. Take advantage of this.

If you don’t live in Maine, I want to share some links that might be helpful.

  • EatWild offers an interactive map to local farmers who raise grass-fed animals. The site does not guaranty each farm, but each farmer has signed a statement about the way their animals are raised in order to be listed with this organization.
  • Agrilicious.org is a site devoted to connecting people with local farmers. Local farmers and artisans can sign up to share information about their goods, and you, as a consumer, can get connected.
  • Of course, be sure to check out your local farmer’s markets. In addition to getting connected to local food and handmade goods, they are just fun. This site, from the USDA, lets you search for local farmer’s markets by your zip code.

If you’re busy and feel you don’t have time to buy local, then it’s important to be aware of what the labels mean on the egg cartons at the grocery story. “Cage Free” is not necessarily good, and most of the labels like “All Natural” don’t mean a thing at all. You want to look for “Certified Humane” and/or “Pasture Raised.” I found this great article from NPR that provides interpretations for all of those labels on your egg cartons. It’s a huge help.

Having chickens of my own has taught me just how unique and important each little life is. I still eat meat, but we are working very hard to only buy our meat from places where the animals are allowed to be animals and live a good life while they live—or raise the animals ourselves.

Our little chickie girls are funny, interesting, and each one is unique.

curious chicken
This is one of our curious girls. I was taking pictures of the chickens at snack time, but this little girl seemed way more interested in my camera.

Some are mama’s girls, some are daddy’s girls, and some are just their own girls. Some are scared of a new bowl, the baby ducks, and maybe their shadows. Some are way too bold, in my opinion.

Right now, we have a broody hen, who is so grumpy when we take her eggs, but we have to because we have no rooster yet. So my husband takes her grapes in the evenings, her favorite treats, and he talks to her while he reaches in and takes the eggs. She calms down when he talks to her. She lets him rub her little beak and head, and she talks back. I watch this in awe—two species, unable to communicate with each other, but the chickie girl seems to somehow understand my husband means her no harm. It’s a powerful sight to see.

It was a tough week for the Sands “Coop”eration with the loss of one of our girls, but I hope that telling her story can help just one more person decide not to buy eggs from a factory farm anymore.

On Making Good Dreams (with Help from Quilts)

Quilt Fabric

This one is about making quilts–well, mostly.

In my grand designs to become more self-sufficient or at least a really good maker, I have many skills I need and want desperately to learn—knitting, canning, making jams, and maybe making wood furniture, but I don’t know how realistic that last one is since I’m terrified of even the smallest power tool. It’s like a phobia or something. I hear a power tool, and my heart just races. I worry about my husband all the time.

But I digress…

One of the things I can make is a quilt. Now, I’m not the greatest, though I used to be pretty good, but I can make some decent quilts—at least I can very slowly. Recently, I was actually very slowly working on a quilt for a friend, when I had a quilt emergency: We decided it was time for our youngest to sleep in his own bed. He’s six years old and a pretty big boy, so my husband and I, even in our king-sized bed, were running out of sleeping space.

Now, if you’re one of those people who is going to say “What in the world are you doing letting your kid sleep with you?” let me just say that you can save your breath or text trying to change my mind on this point. We researched it thoroughly, and my husband and I made a conscious decision to let our son start co-sleeping with us when he was little.

We read all the advice from every major theorist and child psychologist out there and settled on this point—we wanted to get some sleep. Also, we believe in the health and bonding benefits of co-sleeping—but mainly we wanted to get some sleep. But, if you’re a new parent and interested in some of the research on the benefits of a family bed, please message me.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, our youngest made the big move to his own room and his own bed. The first night was hard for me, and I cried a lot. But, by the second night, I was like “Oh, this space is lovely.” “Oh, it’s nice not to be kicked in the back.” And, “oh, I love getting to keep the covers on me.”

However, much like his mama, our youngest is afraid of the dark and has a vivid imagination, so I have decided to make him a “good dream” quilt to keep him safe. It will be complete with a shied of love from mama on it. This is definitely a quilt emergency, right?

This is a picture of the plans I sketched out under my son’s direction. It’s all wrinkly from carrying it around at the fabric store.

Quilt Plans
This is my sketch based on my son’s directions. I have poor drawing skills, but, hopefully, this quilt will turn out well.

So, inside the dream tree in the middle, I told my youngest we could put all the things that make him feel happy and safe. Here’s what he chose:

  1. a Pi symbol
  2. a basketball
  3. a present with a red bow
  4. a pink heart that represents mom and dad’s “love shield” as he calls it
  5. a Pac Man
  6. a Minecraft block
  7. and a green canoe (something our family has wanted for a long time)

It all sounds great, right? I’m so excited just writing about it.

The problem is I barely have time to work on it. In all of my efforts to simplify, I still struggle to get everything done at the end of the day, and I am even, realistically, always a little behind. I still work at least a half day every day, and that includes weekends, and with homeschooling, cooking, planting the giant vegetable garden, and helping to care for the animals, I run out of time at the end of every day. Of course, right now things seem to be worse because the animals are little and the garden planting is a slow, tough process when you’re tilling with a shovel, and there’s just no way to plant carrots quickly. Those seeds are a tiny nightmare!

So I’m determined to make the time. It turns out that, in my efforts to be more of a maker, one of the things I’m going to have to learn how to make is time. Quitting my full-time job helped, but I’m still partially immersed in the academic world, and sometimes, the push and pull between that world and our little hobby farm leaves me with so little time at the end of the day.

But this quilt is important to me because I think it will be important to my little boy. When my oldest son was little, there was one Christmas (my first year of teaching full-time) that I couldn’t afford Christmas presents for him. I made him a star and moon quilt, and he still has it—and seems to really care about it. For his high school graduation, I made him a second quilt because, of course, high school graduations are important. He sleeps under it every night.

Now, it’s my youngest son’s turn. This dream quilt is important, and I am determined to make this quilt for him. It feels representative of my efforts to simplify, make, and find out what’s important. It’s not easy, but it’s what I want. I have my fabric selected. This weekend, I will get this going.

Quilt Fabric
I love these colors. I think this is going to be beautiful!

I think the lesson here is that it’s going to be hard for all of us to find balance in our lives. We all have so much going on with work and family and about a million other things we must balance. But I’ve learned that you have to set your goals about what’s important to you and then just take the time—or make the time—if you want to be a maker like I do and still have time to enjoy yourself and your family along the way. Life’s just going to pass us by otherwise, I think.

I’ll keep you posted on the quilt…