Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Knits

As I promised in an earlier post, now that gifts have been delivered I can show some of what I've been working on this last month.  The biggest gifts were for the girls.  Gracie's Christmas Coat and hat and for Charlotte a matching winter set in a lovely green.  They picked the colors they wanted themselves, but I certainly felt seasonally festive knitting in red and green all month :)
Don't know how easy it is to see in the picture, but basically it's one coat, two hats, one pair of mittens and a lace scarf.  The green hat and mittens are just a basic design -- not from a pattern, but I've put ravelry links for the other items.  

A few other fun items I knit were a hat and cowl for my Dad and Nancy.  The cowl is a new design by the Yarn Harlot called Encompass.  
We really liked how flexible the cowl is.  It can be worn in many ways....

Now I think I'll make one for myself :)  Merry Knit-mas!

Christmas Angel

This afternoon my older daughter noticed a tree bending perilously towards our neighbor's house across the street. My husband went over with the girls to let them know since the phones were out. Together they shook the snow off the tree and tied it back. Then they went in the neighbor's house for some Christmas cookies and a little visit and while they were there, our neighbor showed them the picture below. The photo was taken by him on Christmas Eve when he had noticed what looked like the shape of an angel on our roof.  He figured it was a shadow, but couldn't see anything that could be casting such a shadow.  Looking closer, he realized that the melting frost was making that shape. It was melting only in the outline of an angel and only on that one section of the dome (sun doesn't get to that section most of the winter).  He couldn't think of any practical reason for it -- and since he's a Biology Professor, his scientific inquiry chops are certainly sharper than mine.  He took several pictures and emailed this one to us tonight. So, for whatever reason, we had a rather distinct form of an angel with wings on our roof this Christmas!  Any theories?
The wings are very distinct, but if you look carefully, you can see what looks like a large triangle between them with a little circle shape on top of it.  If you're really looking (& using a bit of imagination, you can see a cross in the middle of the triangle) -- I think it's pretty cool.  I'm sure like an inkblot, different people would see different things, but that's how I like to think of it.

On the other side of this wall is our daughters' room.  This is the side where Gracie sleeps -- Gracie's middle name is Angelina -- which makes the whole thing even more intriguing :)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

I hope this Christmas finds you nestled with loved ones, happy, healthy and merry.  To help me wish you Merry Christmas --  here are Charlotte & Grace singing their XMAS wishes to you.   -- Hope you enjoy!

Charlotte -- It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

Grace - Christmas Time is Here

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sewing Seeds Hat

By Holly Van Houten

Sewing Seeds Hat
I designed this hat to match a Christmas coat I made for my daughter (see below).  The coat features a combo of double seed stitch and stockinette, so I made the hat as close a match as I could.  

The Result:  A very quick knit (approximately 2-3 hours) and a stylish, TOTALLY REVERSIBLE HAT!  It fits older kids and adults because it has a good bit of stretch.

Pattern is Available Here: KnitPicks Patterns

Here's the Christmas coat I was trying to match:
The pattern for the coat is here.

Here's another picture of cute girl in hat:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Midwinter Night's Lunacy

It just tickles me that today is Winter Solstice and it began with a full lunar eclipse (for the 1st time since 1638!)  Something about that just feels so Celtic and magical.  Personally, I prefer Winter Solstice to Summer -- I like my days short!  Both Winter Solstice and, well all things lunar (especially eclipses) also have so much literary resonance.  A good amount of the poetry, prose and drama I read in graduate school for my thesis on witchcraft in Renaissance literature referenced these two events and their centrality to magical happenings.  Their combined presence makes it feel like a day for magical secrets -- and a favorite poem by Christina Rossetti is what's running through my brain right now, so I post it here for you today:

Winter: My Secret
              Christina Rossetti
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there's none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today's a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.

Spring's an expansive time: yet I don't trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro' the sunless hours.

Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

...and one more, by Hardy -- to honor the eclipse :)

 At a Lunar Eclipse
          Thomas Hardy
Thy shadow steals along upon the Moon's meek shine 
In even monochrome and curving line 
Of imperturbable serenity. 

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry 
With the torn troubled form I know as thine, 
That profile, placid as a brow divine, 
With continents of moil and misery? 

And can immense Mortality but throw 
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme 
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies? 

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show, 
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem, 
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why I Keep Them.....

If you've read my blog lately, you know that my kittens are driving me to distraction, tearing up everything they get near.  They're destroying Christmas ornaments left and right, as they race up and down the insides of my tree -- scorning the expensive cat condo in the same room that we bought to satisfy their kittenish climbing instincts.... but no.  They're into the XMAS presents and they're chewing on the cords for the lights.  I don't know if they can chew through them, but they are definitely able to chew through ipod ear bud cords -- ask me how I know.

They never let me sleep.  They scratch all the furniture and are tearing up sections of the carpet. They knock over any liquid in any cup, anywhere -- especially over said carpet.  They nearly flooded the house playing with my bathtub faucet.  They climb all over the kitchen counters and seem to never tire of sucking on the Sparkletts dispenser spiggots.  And yes, they are given a constant supply of their own water -- they just prefer to drive me slowly and irrevocably insane.  They are absolutely dreadful little demons and I'm daily tempted to give them to my dogs as chew toys... but then they curl up and fall asleep and look all adorable until I decide to keep them for another day.  Aaargggh!  In order to get into this position under the tree though, they had to kick all presents previously located there out of the way.  It was the pile of strewn presents that caught my attention even before I saw them.  Rascals!

Chicken Risotto with Broccoli -- The Perfect Pantry Dinner!

This is a picture of my dinner tonight.  It's a favorite in my house for several reasons:

1.  My kids love it!  Beg for it!  Can't get enough of it! My daughter ate 4 bowls of it tonight.

2.  I can make it in one pot -- I hate washing dishes... shocking, I know.

3.  I always have the ingredients on hand -- it's truly a pantry dish for me.

4.  My whole family will eat it for leftovers the next day.  Really, all of it -- they fight over it -- I can't explain it.

5.  It's reasonably easy and fairly fast.  Not as fast as say Chili, Chicken Soup, Beef Stew or Chicken Yum -- they're all under 10 minutes (prep time, that is), but fast enough (and yes, that is what's known as shameless self-promotion :)

Here's why it's a pantry dish for me.  I always keep Risotto and chicken broth in my pantry (I buy big batches of both from Trader Joe's and Costco).  I also always keep B/S Chicken Breasts in my freezer (also TJs & Costco).  I generally have butter, onions and broccoli in my fridge, but if not I can substitute olive oil for the butter, skip the onions and use frozen broccoli in a pinch.  I'm also Italian and it's rare that I don't have fresh Parmesan cheese in my fridge, though even that can be substituted out with the shake can stuff.  And lastly, coffee addict that I am, half and half is generally also a staple (milk will do in a pinch).

Here's how to make it.  Using your largest sauce pan, melt about 2tbsp butter and saute a chopped onion while you chop the chicken.  My chicken's always kept frozen, so I microwave defrost for about 40 seconds so that it's still rather frozen, but easy to chop.  Throw in the chicken with the sauteed onions and cook for about 4-5 minutes -- I also season with salt and pepper at this point.  Then I add 3 cups of Risotto (I use a lot so there will be leftovers, see #4 above).  I let that cook about a minute until the risotto starts to turn translucent.  Then I add 2 cups of chicken broth and turn the heat up to HIGH!  This is where it gets a teensy bit dangerous.  Risotto has to cook on high heat, so shoo the kiddos out of the kitchen.  When the broth is absorbed, I add two more cups of broth and I stir constantly -- well, sort of constantly. Somewhere in there I chop up my broccoli if I'm using fresh.  Once the broth is again absorbed, I switch to water and add 2 cups of that and the broccoli stems, chopped.  I keep stirring, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom.  I wait for the water to be absorbed, shoo the kids out again because by this time the smell has them panting, and then add 2 more cups of water and the broccoli tops.  If I'm using frozen broccoli (I get Trader Joe's), I add the whole bag at this point.  When the water is again absorbed, I add a handful of shredded Parmesan and about 1/3 of a cup of half and half.  Stir a bit more, test for seasoning and then turn down the heat and let it set for about 5-7 minutes before serving.  Yummy!  Here it is in a nutshell:

Chicken Risotto with Broccoli
2 TBSP Butter
1 onion (diced)
2 B/S Chicken Breasts (chopped into ½-1 inch pieces)
3 cups Risotto
Chicken Broth (about 32oz or one box from Trader Joe's)
4 Cups Water
2 Heads of Broccoli (or one bag frozen)
1/3 cup Shredded Parmesan Cheese
1/3 cup Half & Half
Salt & Pepper to taste

In large saucepan, melt butter and saute onion for 2 minutes.  Add Chicken and brown.  Add Rissoto and cook for 1 minute or until translucent.  Turn heat to high, add 2 cups broth and stir until absorbed.  Add 2 more cups broth and stir until absorbed.  When broth is again absorbed, add 2 cups water and broccoli stems (chopped) and keep stirring.  When water is absorbed, add 2 cups water and broccoli crowns and keep stirring.  When water is again absorbed, add Parmesan and Half & Half, stir another minute or two and then turn off heat and let sit for about 5-7 minutes.  Stir again, season to taste and serve.

Tonight, being December 17th, I put on Bing Crosby's Christmas album right before I began, and by the time he was crooning Mele Ke Leke Maka, we were eating -- if you've never heard Bing's White XMAS album, go to Amazon right now and download it -- it's here and it's really not Christmas w/o it.  If you have some unreasonable aversion to Bing, then I guess you can just time the whole meal prep at say... 30 minutes.  But seriously, consider Bing -- it adds that special something ...and yes, we're most definitely on a 1st name basis after all these years! J

Home Schooling A Gifted Child

By Holly Van Houten

There's a frustrating stigma attached to parents of gifted children.  If you talk about the issues that concern you about your child's giftedness, other parents view it as bragging.  Even writing this post now, I know some readers will react with "cry me a river.... poor you, your kid's really smart" (snarl a bit here with sarcasm for full effect).  It leaves parents of gifted kids with few people to turn to when dealing with kids that often have unique and extremely challenging difficulties.  It also means you have to deal with the often unsympathetic reactions of other parents when your kid goes ballistic over something that wouldn't bother their kid in a million years.

After many YEARS of researching, I now understand that much of my daughter's dramatic emotional intensity is characteristic of gifted kids, but that information gleaned earlier on, would've helped me cope more compassionately with her explosive fits of rage and frustration, rather than seeing them as just bad behavior.  She needed better understanding from me and didn't get it because I didn't know.  

Here's an example that most wouldn't relate to giftedness at all:  When she refused to wear clothes that it seemed every other kid on the planet could wear, simply because she couldn't tolerate the itchiness of even the softest cotton, or the tightness of clothes 4-5 sizes bigger than what she needed, I might have just accommodated that, instead of trying so hard to convince her she was being unreasonable.  I might have had an explanation to give her frustrated grandmothers who didn't understand why she never wore the clothes they bought for her.  I could have explained that her sensitivities, which cover a plethora of situations, also effect this seemingly mundane area of existence.  But, I didn't know.  I figured she was just being "difficult." 

There are so many areas, I wish I'd understood better and I should have.  Parents of children with Asperger's have a saying that goes like this:  "If you know one Aspie, you know one Aspie."  They're all very different.  I don't know if it's exactly the same with gifted children (though many kids with Asperger's are themselves, exceedingly gifted), but I do know that part of what got me in trouble was my perception that I knew what it was like to be a gifted kid.  I thought my own experiences would've helped me help her. I knew all about feeling bored out of my mind at school.  I knew about perfectionism.  I knew about feeling estranged from peers who thought my academic interests and existential angst bizarre.  In fact, when my daughter at 5yo, woke me up one night to pour her heart out about her own existential worries, I did actually feel equipped for that.  But, that didn't mean I had any kind of handle on many other of the myriad issues that would arise.  

How was I to know that when we got our first cats and the vet at that initial exam warned her that she should wash hands after playing with the cat to avoid worms, that she would take that to heart in such a serious way?  She loved her cats, played with them constantly and washed her hands hundreds of times each day until they bled (this on top of pre-existing eczema).  It took years, and several discussions with multiple doctors (who's credentials impressed her more than my own), to convince her that wasn't necessary.  I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that when I discovered sites like Hoagies Gifted Education page or the Gifted Homeschooler's Forum, I felt like I'd found people who finally understood... people I could learn from.

There was never any doubt in my mind that I would homeschool my daughter.  She began reading shortly after she turned 3 years old.  If I had put her in school, she'd have been bored out of her head and would have acted out in ways that would have forever branded her as a huge troublemaker.  My challenge was to challenge her and at least in that I felt somewhat equipped.  I had to find books for her to read that were advanced enough for her reading level, but also appropriate for her maturity level.  Needless to say, books written before 1950 came in handy for this.  But, as advanced as her language arts skills may have been early on, she hated math and showed no particular proficiency at it.  There was no uniform "giftedness" across every area.  This wasn't a child that would've necessarily done well skipping grades.  She really needed and still needs, the individualized education only homeschooling can provide.

Very little in her schooling has taken a traditional path and homeschooling has allowed us to forge her own unique path.  For example, one area she is definitely quite gifted is in music.  At 3 I started her with a piano teacher and by 6, her teacher was so enthusiastic about her budding protégé she had her competing in Bach competitions and playing Chopin.  I should have put the brakes on this, but I'm embarrassed to say, I was excited too.  Finally, she just refused to play.  The pressure was too intense.  She sensed every one of our expectations and just blew a fuse.  We halted the piano lessons and six months later, she barely remembered how to read music.  Only years later, did she come back to it on her own and now she works with my stepmother, who lets her set her own pace.  If she wants a lesson, she has one.  If she doesn't, no problem.  She learns only pieces she likes (though if she likes it, it's learned in a day) and eschews everything she dislikes.  She spends hours now at the piano, writing her own music and playing her favorites.  She loves it.  Going the traditional route, for her, destroyed her passion.  I had to learn the hard way (hard on her and hard on me) that freedom to learn as she likes is essential to her education.  

Now, personally, I'm only willing to take this so far.  For example, she would very much like to never look at another math problem again.  Too bad.  She'll learn her math and keep up with where she should be for her age.  That being said though, I researched until I found a math program with a strong language arts bent:  Life of Fred.  This makes math a bit more palatable.  These books include a story line -- and she's read the entire series unbidden, through Calculus (not that she's understood all the math mind you).  I could've fallen over the first time I came downstairs in the morning and found her lying on her stomach, happily thumbing through every page of the Advanced Algebra book.  

The greatest lesson I've learned with her is that if I give her fairly free reign over her homeschooling/education and just sit back and watch a bit, she astonishes me.  I'd say, consider that for your own gifted child, but see above about predicting gifted children J.      

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kittens in my Christmas Tree!

Now this is really going too far!  Our kittens have decided that our Christmas tree is their own personal climbing gymnasium.  No amount of squirting with a water bottle has any effect either.   They climb, knocking down dozens of ornaments in the process, we squirt -- they bail, knocking down dozens more ornaments in their frantic and remarkably clumsy attempts to evade the water, we turn our backs for half a minute, and they're back in the tree -- happily batting at the few remaining ornaments still desperately and pathetically clinging to the branches.

The carnage is unbelievable, expensive and in some cases heartbreaking.  We've lost more ornaments this year than I can count and some were very sentimental.  Even the kids are mad!

Now, I've put up with a lot from the destructive duo (aka "Muffin" and "Timmy").  For example, their favorite past time after doing their business in the cat box is to jump up on the kitchen counters.  Apparently, they consider that the best spot to dust off.  And no matter how many times we refill their water bowl with fresh water throughout the day, they insist on licking the spigot of the Sparkletts dispenser. ... isn't that lovely?  Once they managed to turn the handles on the bathtub faucet in the upstairs bathroom.  They're wicked smart about such things.  The stopper happened to be in the tub too and I just managed to discover their mischief before the tub overflowed and flooded.  I can only imagine the destruction if they'd pulled that one when we were gone for the day.  Needless to say, I now keep the stopper in a drawer and the upstairs bathroom door closed.  When they figure out how to turn the handle, I'm calling the pound.

They're also relentless at night.  As soon as I'm good and asleep each night, they never fail to jump up on the bed and start licking the inside of my ear.  Take my word for it, that wakes you up real fast!  And once they have you awake, they're relentless.  If you don't pet them, they meow.  If you pet them for 10 minutes and then try to go back to sleep, they meow.  If you hurl them out of your room and slam the door, they meow... and meow... and meow.

I've never had such needy kittens!  Our two older cats (who we also got as kittens) are just disgusted.  They watch the antics of the young 'uns and then look at me in disbelief... you can pretty much see the cartoon balloon over their heads saying, "You're not seriously going to let them get away with that are you?"  I squirt and squirt to get them off counters and away from water dispensers and basically that leaves me with a very soggy house and two kitties patiently biding their time until I put down the water bottle and try to be functional for the day.

It's a darn good thing for them that they're so ridiculously adorable....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gracie's Choir

If you saw the last post, you know that yesterday my kids performed in the Holiday Concert at the Colburn School of Music in Downtown L.A. We love their music program and the kids have really enjoyed singing there this semester. I put up Charlotte's opera workshop performance, so now I'm going to include Gracie's. This is the Young People's Choir and it's for kids between 8-11. They did a really nice job and it was so fun to watch them!

This performance will also have to be in two parts. Part 1 includes: Zamina/Processional (from Cameroon); When I Close My Eyes (Papoulis/Nuñez); Winds (Larysa Kuzmenko) and The Solstice (Randall Thompson).

Part 2 includes Edelweiss (Rodgers/Hammerstein) and Al Shlosha D'Varim (Allan Naplan)

Opera Workshop - XMAS 2010

Yesterday, my older daughter performed with the Colburn School of Music in their Opera Workshop performance.  The group did a wonderful job and I'm so proud of them.  The entire show was spectacular and I wanted to share part of their performance here.  They did excerpts from Midsummer Night's Dream by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
            You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongues
            Through the House Give Glimmering Light
Memory (from Cats) by Andrew Lloyd Webber
O Mio Babbino Caro (from Gianni Schicchi) by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The video is split into Midsummer and the 1st part of Memory (at one point the theater goes dark and you see the fairy lights (glow sticks :), so keep listening to the beautiful music and  before long the Men's Choir chimes in!

Here's Part 2 (The rest of "Memory" and "O Mio Babbino Caro"):

Book Review: Nurture Shock

I'm a book gal - no doubt about it.  Read all about it is a motto that has served me very well.  Want to learn to knit? Read, follow directions, voila - knit! Want to learn to cook?  Well, you get the idea.  So, when I was pregnant, I faithfully followed all instructions in What to Expect When You're Expecting and a host of other books I'm willing to bet we've all at least thumbed through. But once my kids were born, my tried and true method began to fail.  Parenting advice on any number of vital subjects (colic, sleep, picky eating,separation anxiety, time outs) not only failed me, but led me down disastrous paths I never would have chosen instinctually - sleep in particular, was a minefield I would handle entirely differently.  It took me an astonishingly long time to realize that children, unlike stitches and risottos, will not behave in predictable ways and that regardless of how well one "pattern/recipe" may have turned out for another parent:  results will definitely vary.

Now, having abandoned almost all bookish advice on child rearing, I will occasionally glance through the child rearing advice section at bookstores, but I generally regard them as biographies of parenting adventures having little or nothing to do with my particular adventure.  Coming across Bronson and Merryman's Nurture Shock:  New Thinking About Children, however, I have to put it in a new and far more interesting category.  This is one of the first books I've read that explains why most parenting ideas I read when my children were toddlers backfired so dramatically on me.

Nurture Shock doesn't offer any specific advice; it simply analyzes outcomes of various parenting strategies in light of the most recent research on the science of child development/behavior.  With that premise it can take on subjects like why and how praise backfires, why most strategies to encourage truthfulness in children end up making them better liars, what we actually lose when we lose an hour of sleep, how and if self-control can be taught and many other subjects I found fascinating.  One chapter onsibling rivalry was subtitled "Freud was wrong.  Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight." - Now you know that got my attention!  I was also particularly impressed with a chapter on children's television that focuses on specific programming techniques that are backfiring.  I happen to agree with McLuhan that the "medium is the message," but I found it fascinating to discover why children's programming aimed at teaching "conflict resolution" fails so dramatically.  Other chapters tackle such subjects as gifted programs, "The Science of Teen Rebellion," "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race," and early language acquisition.  Overall, I found it a fascinating look at modern parenting and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Book Review: The Well Trained Mind

I began thinking about homeschooling when my first daughter Charlotte was just a few months old and by some lucky coincidence, one of the first books I found on the subject was W.W. Norton & Company’s The Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.   The classical approach had a natural appeal to me and having taught writing at USC for the previous 10 years, I easily related to Susan Wise’s experience in the college classroom.  In the book, she describes how stunned she was to find that many of her students at the College of William and Mary entered her classroom with mediocre to abysmal writing skills.   I too had been repeatedly surprised at the number of students who had managed to be accepted to a major university, but couldn’t recognize an incomplete sentence.   Maybe I was a snob or maybe public AND private high schools weren’t doing their job.  Either way, I knew I could do better.

Reading The Well Trained Mind, (literally cover to cover – I was entranced) really helped me to understand, on a practical level, the day to day aspects of classical homeschooling.  Suddenly I could envision homeschooling fitting in with our general family life and my fairly rigorous educational goals for my little daughter – who at that point hadn’t even mastered sitting up on her own.  Still, I was ambitious and plunged ahead.  I purchased some of the curriculum recommended in the book and over the next several years read widely on the topic of homeschooling.  I mean, REALLY WIDELY!  Having gone from the sort of crazy schedule necessary for graduate school and teaching, I was used to a fairly busy lifestyle.  Suddenly finding myself home all day with a newborn, I was literally flailing about for something to occupy my time.  Researching homeschooling methods became a bit of an obsession.  Yet, I really had already stumbled on the approach that would prove most valuable.  The Well Trained Mind begins with Jessie Wise (Susan’s mother) explaining her approach to homeschooling back in the 1970s and why she chose a classical approach.  Susan, the product of that approach, then describes how well served she and her siblings had been by her classical education and why she has continued it with her own children.

The classical approach places great focus on the written word, an important skill for most professionals and essential to everyone in the age of the internet.  That focus holds an obvious appeal for me, but there are two other important facets of the approach that I find make a great deal of sense.  The first of these is the way classical education blends with a child’s abilities at different stages of development.  Following ancient traditions, The Well Trained Mind categorizes what we think of as primary & secondary education into 3 different stages:  the Grammar Stage (roughly, 1st – 4th graders); The Logic Stage (5th – 8th graders) and the Rhetoric Stage (9th – 12th graders).  Little kids are sponges, so at this “grammar” stage the classical approach takes advantage of that ability and gives them lots of information (generally through a story-telling approach), so they establish little “hooks” on which they later can hang a more thorough understanding.  They also enjoy memorizing at this early age, so it makes sense that this is the time when they learn their multiplication tables, etc.  As they get older and become more interested in cause and effect the approach changes to one where logical relationships are explained and analyzed.   As Bauer puts it:

“A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.”

The final “Rhetorical” stage, building on an already strong foundation, allows students to begin to specialize and nurture their own unique abilities and interests:  “these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.”

This 3-fold pattern is known as the classical “trivium,” and although it divides learning into different “stages” of ability, the 2nd thing I like most about classical education is the way it integrates the different “subjects” of learning.  History, literature, science, mathematics and art are inextricably linked and dividing them into isolated fragments to be studied separately from one another has always struck me as ridiculous.  Any work of literature is enriched by understanding the historical events surrounding its creation.   Similarly, we have a better grasp of biology, geometry, chemistry, calculus, physics, astronomy, etc., if we have a chronological understanding of how, when and why different scientific and mathematical discoveries were made.  Focusing on the chronology of events allows students to look for connections, see how knowledge builds on knowledge and understand/analyze cause and effect.

The classical curriculum accomplishes this by “taking history as its organizing outline.”  This can be better understood by looking at the divisions used in the various stages of the trivium.  As each division (grammar, logic and rhetoric) comprises three years, the course of study for those years is divided as follows:

Year 1:  Ancients - Biology

Year 2: Middle Ages – Astronomy/Earth Science

Year 3: Renaissance to 18th Century - Chemistry

Year 4: Modern Age - Physics

(During each year, the student studies the literature, art and music that correspond to that era – and the branch of science as indicated.)

One of the history classes taught at Huck for the younger students operates on this model.  The “Story of the World” classes are based on a series (also by Susan Bauer) of four books, which taken together provide a strong, chronological overview of history.  To me the chronology is key!  It provides an understanding of the resonance of events, how their aftershocks continue to affect the world.   Learning history this way changes the way one thinks about everyday things—whether in our personal life, in raising kids, or in political participation.  People make more informed political choices when they are able to understand, for example, the real economic impact of decisions being made today on our future. More than that, I’d argue that understanding history as a chronological “story” helps build comprehension and promotes a healthy skepticism.  These are things I want for my children’s education.

Beyond the philosophy of education advocated in The Well Trained Mind, it is also a fantastic source for curriculum review.  Ten years ago, without a clue how to approach the teaching of, say, handwriting, this book took me by the hand and showed me several options.  It does that for each subject and at each grade level.  I particularly appreciate how the authors lay out their reasoning for each of the curriculum choices they recommend.  When the 10th Anniversary Edition came out last summer, I happily invested another $25 to get their recommendations on more recent curriculum options and I imagine I’ll do it again in 5 years or so.  I think everyone’s homeschooling approach ends up being a bit of this and a bit of that and mine is no exception.  I, like most, have ended up doing whatever works best for each child.  Still, without a doubt, this is the book that’s had the greatest influence on how I approach my children’s education.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Into The Wild

Into the Wild is a book my brother recommended to me and I'm really glad he did. This is more of a personal review than most I've put up on the blog, but this one struck me in a very personal way, so it's all I can do.  Reading Into the Wild was like taking a trip back in time to my 20s, before husband, kids and house, when I was obsessed with Edward Abbey, Thoreau, etc. and listening to excessive amounts of Joni Mitchell.  Looking back, it was the most formative time for me.  Al Gore's Earth in the Balance had just come out and I was excitedly assigning chapters of it to my freshman writing students at USC and having them write argumentative essays on the environment.  I was spending lots of time skiing and hiking and was never happier than when I was with my brother somewhere up in the mountains.  Years later when the opportunity to escape the smog and clog of Long Beach and actually live in the mountains arose -- I jumped on it.  No matter how stressed and depressed I become, walking outside (even just to breathe awhile) calms me.

Anyway, back then, I had a close friend from high school who was similarly obsessed with nature and the environment.  He was living in the forests near Humboldt in an old camper with no heat, not terribly unlike McCandless' abandoned bus.  We'd visit back and forth, but one visit, when I stayed for a week, definitely sticks out in my mind because of subsequent events.  That week we hiked a lot through the woods and then we'd go back to the camper to huddle in our sleeping bags and shiver through the nights. It's a trip I'll never forget, though the aftermath was a bit dramatic (fodder for some serious fiction, but not this blog - sorry).  These personal experiences influenced my experience of Into the Wild and were impossible to escape, so they color my review as well.

Much of the criticism of Christopher McCandless, the focus of this biography, comes from people who just can't wrap their heads around the way he thought about things.   He set off on a two year odyssey, eschewing (for the most part) money, friends, technology, etc.  He traveled around the U.S. and a bit of Mexico with nothing but his backpack, enjoying the solitude and his growing sense of self-sufficiency. He felt passionately about nature and about avoiding the trappings of modern life -- and because there was a time when my inclinations (& those of my closest friends) pointed the same way, I can't relate to the criticism detailed in the book.  I find him more of a kindred spirit than an oddity.

McCandless was born just a few months after I was, so when he was on this trek, we were basically the same age, reading the same things and sharing the same philosophical outlook... only he was walking the walk and I was mostly just talk.  His walk led him to the Alaskan wilderness where he lived in the wild for a few months before dying (likely from starvation induced by ingesting a poisonous potato seed).  He'd been hunting for his food and eating berries, seeds and herbs that grew wild, but happened on one that made him terribly sick and even after his initial recovery the poison inhibited nutrients from being metabolized properly in his body.

This author, Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into Thin Air about a Mt. Everest trek), does a great job of researching every bit of information that could be discovered about the elusive McCandless who had severed ties with his family before setting off on his journey, likely out of a sense of disillusionment with what he saw as their hypocrisy (and hell, probably everyone can relate to feeling that way at that age -- that break would likely have been mended).  Krakauer has very little to go on:  a few letters, McCandless' notes/underlines in books found in the abandoned bus where McCandless died in Alaska, and testimony from a few people he met along the way.  He made a strong impression apparently on just about everyone he met.  He was quite smart and clearly his philosophy was rather unique.

Personally, McCandless struck me as so similar to my high school friend, toughing it out in the wilds of the Humboldt County forests during the same time period, that he just seemed like an old friend himself.  I can still relate to his philosophical outlook, which was fostered in me early on by reading and re-reading all the old Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  Much of what I read as a child, My Side of the Mountain, Where the Red Fern Grows, Robinson Crusoe, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and many others, fed this notion of self-sufficiency and living closer to the land.  I always felt mis-placed in this century -- clearly a mistake had been made.  Anyway, I thought Krakauer's book was fantastic and highly recommend it.

Stealth Knitting

I know it seems awfully quiet on the knitting front around here, but much is going on behind the scenes.  I can't show it yet, because recipients read blogs... but the needles have been clicking non-stop for the last few days.

Classes are over now for the three week holiday vacation -- and although, I've been purling away at some of these for awhile now, the serious work is now on.  The list includes sweaters, mittens, hats, socks, scarves and ornaments.  The colors are gorgeous and so far I'm liking the patterns I've chosen.  Now, if we could just arrange some snow to go with my hot chocolate, we'd have the perfect holiday tableau around here in our cozy mountain dome!

Update 12/26:  Here's a good bit of the XMAS Knitting

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review: Room

The subject matter of Room is generally one I stay away from.  Years ago, when my book club chose The Lovely Bones, I abstained.  I have two daughters and I knew that the story of a girl being brutally killed would haunt me regardless of how well written it was.  I don't see scary/horror type movies for the same reason.  Stories don't leave me.... I choose carefully.

So when I began to hear about Room (by Emma Donoghue) a book about a five year old boy, his mother and their life in the 11'x11' "room" where they're kept captive by a psychopath, I wasn't exactly running to the book store.  But, as I read more reviews, a few things about the book made me think twice.  First, it's told in the 1st person voice of the five year old boy.  Everything is filtered through his experience and it actually provides the sort of buffer I needed to approach such horrific subject matter.  Secondly, very little of the book is about the psychopath at all.  He makes a few appearances, but is really a fairly marginal character.  Had the book been told from the mother's point of view (a 26 year old girl, kidnapped from a college campus and held captive since the age 19), I would never have picked it up.  I needed the filter.

From the moment the book began I was fascinated, not so much by the circumstances, but by the parenting story involved.  This mother finds a way to create as secure a world as possible for her little boy under impossible circumstances.  The boy is remarkably well attended to and thoroughly loved by his poor mother.  The routines she creates for him provide a steadiness and predictability that he cherishes.  Because they are alone together during the day, they have an abundance of the "quality" time children need most to thrive.  She talks to him and plays with him all through the days and even though he's quite young, she's basically homeschooling him.  She's taught him to read and write.  Even though they only have a few books, she tells him every story she can remember from books she's read.  She teaches him all the songs she knows and they sing together often.  Even though they have a television, she allows only two shows a day and spends the rest of the time actively playing with him.  It's an interesting story of a parenting relationship where there's literally very little to distract the mother from parenting her child.  The circumstances are horrific, but the close relationship they create is wonderful.  The mother is human though and the reader sees her various breakdowns from the terrible pressure she is under.  How she protects her child though, is an amazing story.  She has to make due with the barest of minimums, but she does.

Oddly enough, one of the things other readers have found "disturbing" about the book is that the mother is still breastfeeding her boy, even though he has just turned five.  This reaction really surprised me.  It struck me as such an obvious thing that the mother would maintain this comforting/nourishing ritual for the boy who has so little.  It didn't strike me as anything that the mother intended to continue indefinitely, but having weaned a two year old, I can't imagine how hard it would be to do it with this child.  In a world where the mother literally doesn't know if her child will ever see the light of day or even live to see another year, why on earth would she take from him this source of comfort and security?  The breastfeeding to me was symbolic of the relationship between this mother and child.  She was his entire world because there was no other world available and he thrived despite his awful circumstances because she was nourishing his mind, his body and his soul.

I also admire the author for taking on such a daunting task.  To write a story as disturbing as this one from the perspective of a five year old, even an extremely precocious five year old, had to be challenging and it's  not something I've seen before.  It definitely plays with the concept of perspective in new and interesting ways.  I definitely recommend this book and will look for others by this author.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Elves In My House!

They're baaaaaccck!  It happens every year.  One day, everything's going along in our house as usual.  We wake up to a semi-orderly house (well, at least in my fantasies we do), eat breakfast, homeschool, play, etc., etc., etc.  But, every December 1st -- things change!


They arrive sometime in the night, carrying luggage and sleeping bags my kids have made for the little beggars during previous visits.  That first night seems calm enough, but that's just to lull you into a false sense of security.  The trouble begins the following evening and every evening after that until they return to the north pole on Christmas Eve and presents appear beneath the tree.

Yeah, I know.  They look all innocent and sweet and everything, but just wait:  Mischief. Rascality. Shenanigans. Sculldugery. Sabotage.  You name it.  Every night while they're here, they get into something.

One night they hung my husband's boxer shorts all over the Christmas tree.  Another night, they wrote Merry Christmas and drew candy canes and such all over our bathroom mirror --- in TOOTHPASTE!  On and on it goes.  They're ALWAYS into something.  Last night, they decided to get into our "straws and connectors" set and  and after strewing them, literally ALL over the living room, came up with towers & tunnels, in which my daughters have apparently become trapped -- unable to do a single math problem or writing assignment:

Distraught by the anguish, clearly showing on their faces, I offered to call for the jaws of life.  It seemed pretty obvious to me that the elves had dragged them into this abyss and were holding them there against their will!  But, no.  Kiddos assured me they could and would emerge when they were good and ready.  They will also clean.  That's the deal.  I only allow these elfish homewreckers back each year because the kids have VOWED to clean up all their mischief each morning.

So far, they've always done so -- which is the only reason the elves are still here.  For my part, I continue to responsibly try to shift my children's attention away from the elves and back to their studies -- but, I'll be honest -- it's not looking good.  How can sentence diagramming hope to compete with the HMS ELF?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Harry Potter Craft & Writing Exercise: Slytherin's Locket/Horcruxes

By Holly Van Houten

I thought while everyone's jazzed about The Deathly Hallows movie that just came out, I'd post one of the crafts I do in my homeschool Harry Potter class at the Huckleberry Center for Creative Learning.  In the class we explore a number of themes from the books, including prejudice, fear of death, education, the media, technology and many others.   I also try to do a craft relating to each book in particular that goes along with the theme we're working on.  This craft involves explaining the concept of Horcruxes and even though Slytherin's Locket is introduced in Book 6, I do it as one of the Book 7 crafts because it's prominent there as well and I emphasize Horcruxes and Hallows in Book 7.  (For Book 6 we make Pygmy Puffs, Spectre Specs and create our own edition The Quibbler J)  Much of the action in Book 7 relates to finding and destroying horcruxes, including the locket.  If you're already familiar with the concept of horcruxes, feel free to skip below to the craft.  Otherwise, read on for a more detailed explanation that will help you understand the rationale behind the craft.

What is a Horcrux?
If you're not clear on the concept of Horcruxes, or if it's been awhile since you read the series, here's a quick horcrux tutorial.  Voldemort, whose name roughly translates as "Flight from Death" in french, and whose minions are known as the "Death Eaters," seeks to achieve a form of immortality by creating Horcruxes.  The idea is that you split your soul into smaller pieces and embed the parts in physical objects.  Then, if your physical body is destroyed, the part of your soul that you've hidden away in a horcrux still exists and you need only recreate a body - as Moldy Voldy does at the end of Book 4 (Before that:  in Book 1 he "possesses" Quirrell and in Book 2 we see his younger self - Tom Riddle - through the diary).  

The only way to rip apart your soul in this way, is to commit murder.  Voldemort has no qualms about this and before Harry is ever born, splits his soul into 7 pieces and places the fragments in the Diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring, Salazar Slytherin's Locket, Rowena Ravenclaw's Diadem, Helga Hufflepuff's cup and Nagini (his snake).  6 horcruxes + the piece of his soul still within himself (warped as it is).  Later, he unknowingly creates a 7th horcrux (thus splitting his soul into 8 parts) when he kills Harry's parents and attempts to kill Harry.  The lightning scar on Harry's forehead is this 7th horcrux -- which is why Harry realizes he must sacrifice himself for the good of others and willingly walks into the forest to be killed by Voldemort.  

It's here that the Christian overtones of the entire series should become obvious.  To save the world from Voldemort's "sins," Harry must sacrifice his life so that others will be saved.  Voldemort - faithless, immoral, friendless and unable to love - fears death and goes to great lengths in his selfish attempts to conquer it.  Harry - loyal, honest, loved and loving - embraces his own death for the good of others.

Heavy, dark, philosophical stuff -- these concepts are often difficult for kids to grasp, so as I explain what's happening in Book 7, we create our own version of Slytherin's Locket with a much "lighter" and happier twist.

Craft - Slytherin's Locket
To create our own horcruxes in class, I explain that we're going to do a variation on the concept of splitting one's soul.  Voldemort splits his soul through murder -- we, being smarter and ever so much nicer, however, have a much more powerful tool at our disposal --- writing.  Writing reflects who we are and in it's own way can help us understand the "parts" of us, that make up our soul.  

So, when we make our version of the locket, we create paper beads (I use the youtube tutorial embedded down below).  Students cut long triangular shapes of paper to roll into the individual beads -- but before they roll them, they privately write down their own hopes, wishes, dreams and fears -- one in each bead.  We thereby, place a bit our own "souls" into our necklaces, through writing.  I think this turns the craft into a meaningful lesson about writing as well.

We make several of these beads, securing them with glue once we've rolled them and making one extra large "locket shaped bead" for the centerpiece of the necklace.  We then paint them and string them.  The students treasure their versions of the famous locket, and only they know the real secrets held within.  

I hope you enjoy doing this craft with your child.  I think there are many important educational concepts here and much fodder for important and fascinating discussion.   Please feel free to repost this or email it to anyone you think might enjoy this lesson.

A more thorough tutorial on how to make and string paper beads is here.  Instead of magazines though, we use plain white paper - so, we can write on the inside.  We then paint them to make them colorful and more thoroughly seal them:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Writing Courses for Spring, 2011

I will be teaching six writing classes for homeschoolers next semester at the Huckleberry Center for Creative Learning in Valencia, California.  My students will be writing novels, creating blogs, writing about literature, and learning the essential skills they'll need to succeed in a wide variety of writing tasks.

Here is the line-up for Spring, 2011:
(Click on each class for full description)

10:30-12:00:  Argumentative Writing (Ages 12+)
12:30-2:00:  Creative Writing and Keyboarding Games (Ages 9-11)
2:00-3:30:   Fables, Myths & Fairy Tales:  Writing About Literature (Age 8-11)

10:30-12:00:  Powerful Paragraphs (Ages 8-11)
12:30-2:00:  Creative Writing: Write a Novel (Ages 11+)
2:00-3:30:  Elegant Essays (Ages 10-12)

It should be a really fun and educational semester.  Hope to see you there!
(Registration/Tuition information can be found at

Elegant Essays

The following is a description of a class I'll be offering to homeschoolers this spring at the Huckleberry Center for Creative Learning in Valencia, California.  All classes for the spring semester begin the week of  February 7, 2011 and end June 2, 2011.  If you have questions regarding registration, please visit:  Huck is a vendor for several area charter schools.  

This class will be on Wednesdays from 2-3:30pm.

Ages:  10-12
This is a class for students who already write paragraphs well and are ready to move on to longer essays.  Knowing how to structure and develop a multi-paragraph essay is an essential skill to master.  Students who can organize their ideas and analyze well have a huge educational advantage.  This class will take students step by step through the process of creating a strong essay.  Students will begin with shorter, three paragraph essay structures, move on to the five paragraph essay format and then expand their ideas with even longer essays.  We’ll begin at the beginning, by learning how to create an engaging introduction that clarifies the overall topic and provides a strong and focused thesis.  We’ll then create body paragraphs that develop specific topic sentences and provide details to support our arguments.  We’ll work on how to transition between different points and then create a thoughtful conclusion that ties it all together.  This class will use engaging, “kid friendly,” fun topics to show students how to expand and structure their ideas into expository and persuasive essays.  Students will gain valuable experience planning, drafting and revising their essays and we’ll use many of the worksheets and building blocks for analytical writing detailed in the IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) handbook The Elegant Essay Writing Lessons.  By the end of the semester, each student will have completed a special “writing project portfolio” containing their polished essays.  Students will definitely work hard in this class and do a lot of writing.  There will be weekly homework assignments, in addition to our in class work, to provide students with lots of opportunities to hone their skills.  Everyone will need access to a word processing program to aid with the revision process, so students who don’t have strong typing skills may also wish to participate in the Keyboarding Class this semester.

Homework:  Writing (approx.) 2 hours/week
Materials Fees:  $20
Tuition:  $240 (For details see