Thursday, November 25, 2010


Well, the house is quiet.  Twenty-six people were fed and fed well.  The dishes are done and things are mostly put away.  My fridge is stuffed to the brim, just as our two 23lb, birds were a few hours ago.  Our feast will clearly last for days.  Guests brought so many pies that a full five remained untouched.  I hope they freeze well, because I don't see how we'll even get through the nearly full pecan, apple, pumpkin, and chocolate pies crammed in with the rest of the goodies in my overworked fridge.

There are so many things I'm grateful for today, but I won't bore anyone with a long list, just one essential:  Mark Grove, my brother in law.  The feast detailed above, in all its fantastic and delectable glory was prepared almost single-handedly by him.  This man comes to my house every year, armed with cases of wine he's made from the winery where he works, and he cooks for a huge crowd of friends and relatives.  Every year!  How cool is that?

This tradition came about quite by accident.  We've had Thanksgiving in the mountains for nearly thirty years, but prior to us moving up here, it had always taken place at my father's cabin in Lake of the Woods.  When we moved up five years ago, we decided it would be better to transfer the festivities here because there was more room and my Dad's health wasn't great.  I was a bit nervous, having never made the meal for such a big crowd, but I was all set to give it a try.  Then I got sick, really sick, the day before Thanksgiving... "barely could get out of bed" sick.  Obviously nobody wanted me anywhere near their food.  So my sister volunteered her husband to take over.  He graciously agreed and made such a spectacular meal, I knew it was an act I would never be able to follow.  Since then, he has always been our Turkey-Day chef and there's nobody in the world who can feed a crowd like he does.

So today, I am grateful to Mark -- chef (and brother-in-law) extraordinaire!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Autumn Snow & Fiber Art

Autumn Snow hasn't been the norm since we moved up to the mountains because of the unusually dry conditions of the last five years.  By the time the white stuff usually fell, the beautiful greens, golds and reds of our cottonwoods and fruit trees were distant memories.  So, this week has been a treat.  I always love how vibrantly beautiful everything looks here in autumn anyway, but add in a white backdrop, chilly temps and some hot cocoa and I dare you not to be inspired.  The picture above is my peach tree, which in and of itself, is a rainbow of my favorite colors right now.  I don't know if you can see from the photo, but it still has plenty of green leaves offsetting the gold, burgundy and rust colored leaves.  Throw in the browns from the bark and you have my absolute favorite color palette.  When I think of my knitting as "Fiber Art" and not just garment production, this is what I aim to re-create.

When I was a child, my father regularly took us on skiing expeditions to Mammoth Lakes.  I'll never forget sitting on a chair lift and looking out on what seemed like a "sea" of the most gorgeous green I'd ever seen.  Thinking about it a bit longer, I decided that comparing it to the sea was really not right at all.  The greens were too deeply green and the scene had no movement.  What it was, actually, was a blanket -- a blanket of green.   I was so struck by the image that I went home and began my search for the perfect green yarn.  It took a few years in fact, because the color was quite distinct in my mind and I had a rather limited budget.  When I finally found it, I began the biggest blanket in the history of blankets.  I loved everything about that blanket. I loved knitting it, I loved the softness of it and I loved snuggling beneath it.  I took it with me when I began college and it cuddled and comforted me through various challenges.

Looking at this lovely scene today, my fingers literally itch to start a project.  I have all these colors in a variety of shades in my stash, but I need to find the perfect pattern:  a scarf? a cardigan? another blanket?

I'm considering Jared Flood's (aka Brooklyn Tweed) Girasole Shawl/Wrap, but using a color that more closely matches one from my Peach tree above.  I think I love every pattern Jared Flood has ever designed and my idea of absolute peace and contentment would consist of bounteous amounts of free time, all of his patterns and books and an unlimited yarn budget to buy his luscious new line of wool, "Shelter."

What say you?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Turning Corners: Socks & Novels

Turning the heel on a sock always takes a bit of focus.  It's not terribly difficult once you've done it a few times, but it involves a bit of planning and tracking.  You have to separate the stitches, create a sturdy foundation, narrow and turn and then expand and re-focus.

Technically, after knitting as lengthy a tube as I want for the leg portion of the sock, I separate the heel stitches from the in-step, knit a sturdy heel flap, do some short rows to turn the tube in a perpendicular direction to the existing tube, pick up stitches for the gusset, join to my patiently waiting instep stitches and then decrease back to the original number of stitches to send my tube on down the foot, where it will eventually resolve itself into a toe.

When possible, I like to do this all in one sitting -- my memory stinks and I seem rarely willing to write things down (other than here of course -- but, you know what I mean!).

Where do novels come into all this?  Just wait, the analogy's coming.  Turning the heel on the sock always makes me feel like I'm almost done.  I'm past the half-way point and the end is in sight.  I turned the heel on this sock last night after the kiddos were all tucked in their beds for the night and then I marched myself back to the computer and whacked out another 1600 words or so on the Nanowrimo novel, which amazingly resembles the original pattern I'd outlined for myself far more than I would have expected it to at this point.  Doing so brought me well past the half-way point for that as well and I'm entering the home stretch there too.  Characters have had to turn corners, grow, expand and change course  Separating the various plot stitches will have to come later during the editing process, but I can already see the individual strands coming together and I'm confident that they will, eventually, resolve themselves into a toe all their own.

I printed the novel today for the girls to read -- it is a children's book after all -- their opinion is as valuable to me as any editor's at this point.  It was 52 pages single-spaced and 33,360 words (but, who's counting, eh?). My little excel spreadsheet informs me that is 67% of my 50,000 word goal for November and I feel like 67% is about where I am on the sock too.  For those keeping track of such things, yes -- this is the birthday sock I began almost at the same time I got started on the novel, and yes -- it's taken a ridiculously long time.  We will tactfully, fail to mention too that this is only Sock #1 and predictably, another must be knit before long.  Three weeks IS an inordinate amount of time to knit such a little thing, but I bit off more than I could reasonably chew this month -- what with that novel business and daily blogging and a few other dozen things on my "To Do" List that are also frankly, half baked... or I should say, 67% baked..

Anyway, I see light at the end of my tube, tunnel and that's a good feeling.  I've enjoyed the work on both projects, but I doubt the book will keep my toes toasty at night.  Considering the amount of snow outside my door right now, I might do well to devote all my time to getting that 2nd sock done!

Ain't it purty?
Sock models being notoriously hard to come by, I must officially thank Charlotte for contributing her foot to posterity!

Slip Sliding Away

Slip sliding away.
Slip Sliding Away
You know the nearer your destination, 
the more you keep sliding away.

Ah, the wisdom of Paul Simon...  Now you might think, living up in the mountains as I do, that driving in snow would be the biggest challenge.  So far though, that hasn't proven true.  When there's snow on Interstate 5, they shut it down - problem solved.  No matter how big your plans, too bad.... just settle down and get cozy, because you're not going anywhere.

No, my most dangerous driving experiences here so far have been in the rain.  Yesterday, we left the house at 8am, eager to get to Colburn Music School downtown for Grace's choir rehearsal and Charlotte's Opera workshop.  Their performance is in a few weeks and with vacation next weekend for Thanksgiving, this was basically one of their last few rehearsals before the show.

Sure, it was raining when we left yesterday, but not terribly hard and I really didn't think much of it.  The big winter storm warning after all, was for today, when all that rain would turn to snow and according to predictions gather by the foot outside my front door.  By the time we got to the freeway, visibility had diminished substantially and the rain was coming down harder.  I did think twice at that moment, having experienced some rather horrendous driving conditions in the rain before on that highway.  But there we were:  up, dressed, brushed and on our way.  I hated to turn back....  and yet, in hindsight....

My first clue should've been that there were no big rigs on the freeway.  Much as I hate riding next to those monsters, they generally know how to drive and when to avoid stupid weather situations.  I say stupid, because this didn't have to be such a horrendous drive.  Travel would have been reasonable, had motorists opted for reasonable speeds.

       Question:  Who would drive 80 mph in very low visibility, pounding rain and slick conditions?

       Answer:  A ridiculous number of idiots with me on the freeway yesterday!

I stayed at speeds I considered safe, generally between 40 and 50 mph, and I stayed in the slow lanes, which were eerily unoccupied by the aforementioned, worldly wise big rig truck drivers.  We watched in horror (and frankly, terror) as car after car spun out.  By the time we got to Castaic, I threw in the towel.  We were heading toward a stretch of the 5 with far more traffic and I knew it would be next to impossible to keep a safe distance from other drivers.  We stopped at a market, picked up a few groceries and headed back up the hill.  Even though it was raining even harder, driving uphill seemed less dicey.

We didn't go far though before we saw it -- a multi-car pile up on the south side.  The entire freeway was blocked and the back up already went on for miles.  The ambulances were heading out by the time we got there and tow trucks were beginning to clear lanes, so I'm guessing it happened within minutes after we'd passed the same area.  Cars were upside down, so it was clearly a horrible accident.  We continued on our way, and I used the situation as an opportunity to discuss defensive driving with the girls.  Charlotte is almost 12, so it won't be too long before she may find herself in similar situations.  Both girls were completely flipped out anyway and discussing the small measure of control a driver can exert in such a situation seemed like a good way to calm them down.  They weren't about to be easily distracted anyway.

We passed many more accidents before we got home.  Local police, fire, ambulance and tow truck workers, definitely got a workout yesterday.  When we got home, I collapsed in a chair, exhausted from the stress of the drive, but extremely grateful that we'd gotten home safely.  And today, another decision to make.  We have snow on the ground, more on the way and another full day of activities planned down south.  The 5 is still open, but it probably has an inch or two of snow as well, since the snow levels for this storm were as low as 3500'.  So, another question (and lyric) to ponder:

Should I stay or should I go?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Paperclip Ice Skate Ornaments!

How cute are these?

....and I didn't make a single one of them!  (Although the blanket they're posed on is one I knit for her when she was a wee baby). J

These are my daughter Charlotte's creations and she's been crocheting them like a fiend for days now.  The other day she brought about a dozen to hand out as little gifts to the other kids in her Finance class.  I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but each little pair of ice skates is joined by a chained "shoelace" and the blades are paper clips!  They make darling little Christmas tree ornaments.  She's hoping to con her grandparents and sundry aunts, uncles and cousins into purchasing them at our Thanksgiving celebration for 50 cents a piece.  Bless her greedy little heart! J

In all fairness though, her Finance class has been impressing the entrepreneurial spirit on all the students and last week they held a silent auction at the Homeschool Creative Learning Center where the class is held.  Each student brought in handmade items to sell and 10% of the proceeds were donated to the Creative Learning Center.

Charlotte cleaned up.  She sold a variety of hand knit items, including scarves, pumpkins and shawls.  She even spun a few skeins of yarn on her hand spindle and those sold at a VERY nice price.  I snapped up this set of three coasters for myself.  The kids were quite creative, offering pet sitting services, homemade muffins, artwork and even duct tape creatures -- they were the most incredible duct tape creations I'd ever seen and I've included a picture of one of my favorites below.

This has been such a great class for these kids.  Their amazing teacher, Elmarie, has taught them how to create budgets, balance a checkbook and understand the intricacies of the financial world: inflation, recessions, stocks, etc.

Charlotte now has her own business she calls "Hand Knit Happiness" and she's takes requests if anyone's interested!  J

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to teach Harry Potter!

By Holly Van Houten

Many of you have asked that I explain in more detail about some of the things I teach in my Harry Potter courses.  So, in honor of the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) movie, opening at midnight tonight, I'm posting a brief explanation and a copy of my syllabus for this semester.  I'm hoping my three favorite teachers (pictured above) would approve!

Although the class this semester includes multiple crafts and we have a ridiculous amount of fun with them, they primarily serve to keep hands busy while we explore and discuss the larger themes I've selected for the day.  For example, we begin the semester with sorting, but since students are familiar with the whole series, we're already discussing the benefits (team work, loyalty, camaraderie) and drawbacks (divisiveness, animosity) of  the practice, with a view towards how Rowling ends the series with all 4 houses seated at the same table.  As we make our wands, we discuss how the three "Unforgivable Curses" are the negation of the three inalienable rights Jefferson delineates in the Declaration of Independence (Avada Kedavra/Life, Imperious/Liberty and Crucio/Pursuit of Happiness).

We explore issues of prejudice and discrimination that run throughout the series and consider Dumbledore's take on determinism.  We also look at the literary techniques of narrative misdirection, comic relief, time travel and parallel structure in the novels.  We venture into sundry wizarding classes:  potions, herbology, arithmancy and charms.  These correspond roughly to the muggle subjects of chemistry, botany, math and language arts.  For example, in charms we play around with poetic techniques like alliteration and couplets, before progressing to latin/greek prefixes and suffixes to devise our own Potteresque names for spells.  We even explore how Rowling's iteration of Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale deepens her focus on Voldemort's obsessive fear of death!  Fun, fun stuff! J

I also heavily promote the writing.  Students regularly submit articles for our weekly edition of the "Daily Prophet" and we spend an entire week exploring "underground journalism" techniques when we create our own "Quibbler."

Anyway, this gives a you a taste of how we spend our time -- ENJOY!

Syllabus – Harry Potter’s Realm of Wizardy

Week 1 (9/13):  We’ll use the Sorting Hat (and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of sorting/segregation), begin creating our magic wands (with emphasis on the meaning of different kinds of woods/cores) and invite students to contribute articles to the Daily Prophet (our student created newspaper with weekly editions) .

Week 2 (9/20): Finish work on our wands and to examine connections between the “unforgivable curses” in the HP series and Jefferson’s concept of inalienable rights.

Week 3 (9/27):  Work on how to write articles for “The Daily Prophet,” make our Quidditch brooms and discuss the ins and outs of the game.

Week 4 (10/4):   Focus on Book 1 (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone).  We’ll learn about the concept of “Stoicism” in relation to the Harry Potter series and make “The Mirror of Erised” and gobstones from Spell-O Clay

Week 5 (10/11): Gobstone games.  Narrative Misdirection.  Potions:  Dragon’s Drool!

Week 6 (10/18):  Focus on Book 2 (Chamber of Secrets).  Consider the influence of books in our lives and make our own “Diaries” decorated with the Hogwart’s Crest.  We’ll also examine symbolism of 4 houses.

Week 7 (10/25):  Arithmancy (the magic of numbers).  We’ll examine prime numbers and make Wizarding Currency – sickles, knuts & galleons.

Week 8 (11/1):  Charms!  (includes Language Arts instruction in alliteration, similes, rhyme, noun/adjective/verb recognition and Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes.  Herbology:  Zingiber Roots

Week 9 (11/8):  Focus on Book 3 (Prisoner of Azkaban).  We’ll examine time travel (as literary motif) and make our own “Time Turners.”

Week 10 (11/15): Focus on Book 4 (Goblet of Fire) We’ll examine Rowling’s focus on discrimination/prejudice in the Harry Potter series and make our own S.P.E.W. badges.

Week 11 (11/29):  Focus on Book 5 (Order of the Phoenix)  We’ll examine Rowling’s views on Education and how she uses the Weasley twins as Comic Relief in an otherwise Tragic and dark novel, while making our own Skiving Snack Boxes complete with puking pastilles, fever fudge and nosebleed nougat. 

Week 12 (12/6):  Potions:  Chemistry experiments with potions that create movement! (Basilisk Antivenim & Chimaera Mixer)

Week 13 (1/3):  We’ll explore Rowling’s commentary on the media in her series and put together our own version of Luna Lovegood’s Spectre Specs and “The Quibbler.”

Week 14 (1/10):  Focus on Book 6 (The Half Blood Prince).  We’ll explore Voldemort’s back-story, make “Pygmy Puffs” and practice our “School Song” for the End of Semester show.

Week 15 (1/24):  Focus on Book 7 (The Deathly Hallows).  We’ll explore the difference between horcruxes and hallows (2 crucial themes, not only of book 7, but of the series as a whole), decorate our own “Hufflepuff Cups” (one of the horcruxes) and a special version of Slytherin’s locket.  

Happy 25th Calvin & Hobbes!

I love so much about Calvin and Hobbes.  When I was at UCLA, I taped a strip to my door and transferred it from room to room as my tenure increased and I went from a triple, to a double and finally to a single at the Co-Op where I lived.  When I finally moved to an apartment, I took my trusty, dusty strip with me and taped it to the wall above my desk, where it often gave me a smile as I'd write my grad student papers.  In the strip, Calvin is writing a book report he titles, "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick & Jane:  A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes."  Writing, he says, is so much easier once you realize that its "purpose... is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity."  Calvin confidently announces he's ready for academia, so long as he practices making his writing into an "intimidating and inpenetrable fog."

As I'd sit there grading papers or writing my own, this strip gave me the perspective I needed.  I've included it below, just in case you're in need of any perspective adjustment yourself at the moment. J

When my oldest daughter, Charlotte, began to read very young, one of the homeschool lists I was on recommended that gifted kids particularly loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Since the girl was reading way beyond her level at age six and I was having trouble finding books that challenged her reading ability, but were also appropriate for her maturity level, I jumped on that recommendation and began ordering used copies of all of Waterson's books.  I presented them one at a time to Charlotte and the girl gobbled them up much faster than I would've predicted.  I knew at the time she adored them -- she poured over them constantly -- but it wasn't until recently, when my younger daughter, Grace, started reading them, that I discovered Charlotte had memorized almost every strip. Grace would read aloud a particularly funny strip and before she could get to the punchline, Charlotte would recite it from across the room (annoying her little sis to no end).  The first few times, I figured maybe Grace had happened upon a few of Charlotte's favorites -- but no.  Charlotte pretty much knew them all.  In the spirit of sibling rivalry, Grace is now doing her best to master the canon!

I love that C&H is still part of my life in this way and I almost love that my kids fight over who gets to read the books now.  I also, almost love that they play their version of Calvinball, wildly, in the middle of the living room.  Of course, they call it Charlotteball (poor Gracie never gets Marquee status).  I'm less wild about Charlotte's secret club G.R.O.S.S...  in Charlotte-speak, this stands for Get Rid Of Slimy Sisters (as opposed to the original, Get Rid Of Slimy girlS)!

One part of the Calvin and Hobbes legacy that is very special to me is that it has stayed (for all 25 years since it's inception) what it always was -- a comic strip.  Watterson never franchised it into toys or TV shows.  He talks a bit about this choice in a recent interview, here.  I love that integrity.  As much as I love J.K. Rowling, I so wish she had never sold the movie rights to her books.  The movies are great for what they are, but I really liked that pre-movies, in order to be in the "wizarding know" you had to read, and read.... and read.  She'd created such a phenomenon, inspiring even the most reluctant readers to devour thousands of pages of prose.  Unfortunately, as I've found in my Harry Potter classes, a good proportion of the kids, don't bother with the books at all now.  They're perfectly happy with just the movies and that's such a shame.  The movies leave out so many subtleties of the plot, but more than that... I had so loved the idea of all those kids with their noses glued to the books -- realizing there was a certain kind of enjoyment you could ONLY get from a book.

But, obviously.... I digress.  Happy 25th Birthday Calvin and Hobbes -- may you inspire and entertain readers of all ages (and stripes) forevermore!  Here's my college favorite:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Random Acts of Handel....

As someone who played church organ for over a decade, I've always been fascinated by the more unusual ones.  The Wanamaker Organ is the largest pipe organ in the world with 28,500 pipes, the biggest of which is 32 feet long!  As you can see from the picture, it has 6 ivory keyboards and get this, 729 stops!!! Whew!

It was originally built in 1904 for the St. Louis World's Fair.  A few years later, John Wanamaker bought the organ for the 7 story court area of his store in Philadelphia, which is now a Macy's.  Many notable organists have performed there over the years and they regularly hold concerts.  Two weeks ago (on Oct. 30, 2010), though, the Philadelphia Opera Company, working with hundreds of volunteers from area choirs, participated in a "Random Act of Culture," that took shoppers by surprise.  In the middle of a not unusual organ performance during a regular shopping day, the organist began playing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and 650 choristers (including the professional members of the opera company) broke out in song, delighting and surprising the unsuspecting crowd of shoppers:

I like to think that somewhere Handel is smiling.

I've admired these little unexpected performances via youtube for awhile now, my favorites being the "Do Re Mi" performance at the Antwerp Train Station in Belgium.  Anyway, Charlotte's amazing voice teacher, Cathy sent this link earlier tonight and I couldn't resist sharing it on the blog.  Hope you enjoy!

Why I Hate Laundry and Love Knitting

Yes, I HATE laundry!  Shocking I know...  I'm also not tremendously fond of vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes or a host of other household chores I'd rather never have to deal with again.  I long to be a character in one of Jane Austin's novels -- no not the maids -- one of the ladies of leisure who can spend all her time worrying about neighbor relations, proper manners and frustrating (but gorgeous) Darcy-type suitors.  Alas, I somehow ended up in the wrong century and station in life.

Instead, I trudge along (admittedly, with pretty much everyone else I know) doing the same repetitive tasks that are never, ever, ever, ever, ever...... finished.  Aaargh!  This has always been the most frustrating part of being a stay at home Mom for me.  Yes, I've taught part time the last few years, but I'm still pretty much a stay at home (homeschooling) Mom.  For my sister, I know the hardest part was the isolation.  This though was never my problem.  I'm a natural introvert and was never troubled by that in the least.

No, for me, the main problem has always been this:  no sense of accomplishment.  Nothing's ever finished.  I know, I know, I should be (and truly am) proud of raising my children, but let's face it.... that's a LONG term project and there's really never a "done" moment for that anyway (if grandparents are to be trusted on this issue).

When I taught at USC and was in grad school -- things got finished.  Semesters ended, papers were completed, grades were submitted.  When I worked as a legal secretary, documents got filed with the court, cases were settled, summer internships ended.  As a professional church organist, weddings ended, services concluded with recessional hymns, & concerts ended with FINALES!

This mom gig though offers very little in the way of "done."  I do the dishes and by the time I come back to the kitchen twenty minutes later, more have magically piled up in the sink.  I vacuum the living room and minutes later, it's covered with legos and cat hair.  I make french toast for breakfast and an hour later the troops are back, STARVING!!!   Somehow though, it's the laundry that gets to me the most.  It's relentless, vicious even!  What, me exaggerate??

Anyway, knitting saves my sanity.  I have my fair share of unfinished projects beckoning to me from the various corners of my office where I've stuffed them... but by and large --- if I start a sock, I finish a sock.  I work and work, crafting my lovely sock and lo and behold there's a payoff.  And it's a LASTING payoff.  The little blanket (Pattern here) I made above makes me smile over the very "done-ness" of it every time I think of it.  (And yes, I'm conveniently blocking from my mind the gorgeous linen hand towels I knit, only to have the girls' pet rats chew them to shreds.)

For the most part though, I can knit threads together and they stay knit.  Nobody comes behind me and un-knits them for me to do over endless times.  I have pretty little reminders of things I have "done" when my girls wear their hand knit hats and sweaters and socks and mittens.  If I knit a bit more obsessively now than I have in the past, it's because knitting offers me a sense of satisfaction I miss.

The pile of laundry in my bathroom will never be diminished in any meaningful way.  These little scamps I live with are apparently never going to forgo clothes...  sigh.  But, the little birthday socks I'm still knitting away on (hey, it's been busy), WILL eventually be done and that brings me peace.

Baked Mac & Cheese

This dish is almost ridiculously yummy and appeals to pretty much everyone.  It's my father-in-law's favorite and of course, the kids are always up for it.  My kids won't even eat boxed stuff (which is fine by me) because this is so much better.  It's even healthier -- no weird chemicals (how do they make that powdered cheese(ish) sauce anyway?).  Frankly, prep wise, this isn't that much harder than the boxed stuff either.  It literally isn't more than ten minutes of actual prep time.  It's worth it too!  It's also cheap and I usually have the ingredients on hand.  Again, I make no claims to originality here.  I think I began with something in The Joy of Cooking for this one and adapted it a bit here and there.

So here's the drill, in the order I do it.  I put the water on to boil for the macaroni and turn on the oven to 350 degrees.  I get out the cheese (we use sharp cheddar) and grate about two cups...  We don't like it super cheesy.  By then the water is usually ready for the pasta, so I drop that in with a little salt, give it a stir to keep it from sticking and set my baking dish next to it with a pat of butter to melt (makes it a little easier to grease the pan).  I have a Le Crueset (2 Qt.) baking dish I use just for this.  It's pretty cute actually - it's shapped like a heart (see right).  They're pricey, but they last forever and are perfect for this -- I make a mean Yorkshire Pudding in this too :)

Anyway, back to baked mac & cheese... while the pasta is boiling, I crack 3 eggs into a 2 cup measuring glass, whisk and then add enough milk to fill it to the 2 cup mark.  I then add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and several shakes of paprika.  I stir it all together in the measuring glass with the same fork I used to whisk the eggs and put it aside to finish greasing the pan.  The pasta's usually done by then, so I drain it in the colander and run cold water over it (nod to Alton Brown who taught me that this stops the pasta from cooking and opens it up so the cheese gets inside nicely).  I then layer pasta, cheese, pasta, cheese, pasta, cheese -- until the pan is full (3 layers usually does it for me), give the mix in the measuring cup a quick stir in case the salt has all gone to the bottom of the cup, and then pour the egg/milk mix over the layers of cheese and macaroni.

That's it!  Stick it in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes until browned and yummy looking.  I usually let it rest for about 5-10 minutes after I take it out of the oven.  I serve it with some steamed broccoli or something, and voila:  dinner.  Although, somehow the girls conned me into making it for their lunch today.  The leftovers save well and they frequently eat it for breakfast the next day too.

It's a bit more time consuming than some of the other recipes I've written up here for the blog, but not by much.  I usually prefer getting as few dishes dirty as I can possibly get away with, but this one's worth it.

Baked Mac & Cheese
12-16 oz bag macaroni
2 cups cheddar cheese (shredded)
3 eggs
Milk (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tbsp butter

While pasta cooks, grease baking dish and shred cheese.  Then whisk 3 eggs, add enough milk to equal 2 cups and mix together with salt and paprika.  Drain pasta, run under cold water and then layer pasta and cheese until pan is full.  Pour milk/egg mixture over top and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.  Let cool for 5 minutes and serve.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Five More Days....

Are you getting excited yet?  The Deathly Hallows comes out in five days... Friday, November 19th, to be exact.  I have friends who started a "movie a night" countdown yesterday to re-view the first six...  sort of a Harry Potter (the movie) refresher course.  I'm seriously considering bagging all the homeschooling this week and watching them all again with the girls.  They, of course, won't be seeing #7 (part the first) in the actual movie theater on Friday (and thus, unfortunately, neither will I).  They're already predicting that the scene where Nagini erupts from the head of Bathilda Bagshot will scare the pants off them.  They prefer to witness that with their heads firmly buried under their own blankies in the privacy of their own living room, thank you very much!

Book 7 was my favorite, so I'm more scared at the thought of how the screenwriters might butcher it, even with the extra time allotted them by splitting it into two movies.  Will you be visiting the theater Friday and if so, what part of the book would you most hate to find on the cutting room floor?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Memorizing Facts through Music - Presidents!

I've gotten a number of emails asking me about the song my kids are learning in their U.S. Presidents class that has made it so easy for them to memorize all the names of the U.S. Presidents in order.  The class has been wonderful for my girls and I must credit their fabulous teacher, Sarah, for introducing them to this Animaniacs' song.  So, here's a video from Wakko, Yakko and Dot:

I've always had an easier time memorizing things like this when they're set to music -- it's why I loved Schoolhouse Rock as a kid.  Anyway, the Animaniacs are great for this.  They also have a wonderful version of the 50 States here! Enjoy!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Harry Potter sings the Periodic Table of Elements

If you've read this blog for a bit, you already know that two things I love are Harry Potter and memorizing lists of facts we're all supposed to know -- through music.  Can you imagine how thrilled I was tonight when my friend Stephanie posted a link to Daniel Radcliffe (movie version of Harry P.) SINGING the periodic table of elements?  But it gets better, he sings it to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the Very Model of a Model Major General," another favorite thing, which you know if you've read this recent post (with an Obama version)!  Anyway, this is just fantastic and I must file it away in my homeschooling bag of tricks.  What an amazing way to learn this stuff!

To give credit where credit is due, Radcliffe is singing a version concocted by humorist Tom Lehrer.  I've included the lyrics below the video.  Get ready to memorize:

How cool is that?  Here are the lyrics:

The Elements (by Tom Lehrer)
Now, if I may digress momentarily from the main stream of this evenings symposium, I'd like to sing a song which is completely pointless but is something which I picked up during my career as a scientist. This may prove useful to some of you some day perhaps, in a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances. It's simply the names of the chemical elements set to a possibly recognizable tune. 

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium,
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium,
And gold and protactinium and indium and gallium,
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium,
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

Isn't that interesting?
I knew you would.
I hope you're all taking notes, because there's going to be a short quiz next period.

There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium,
And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium,
And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium.
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There's sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium,
And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered. 
Now, may I have the next slide please?
Got carried away there. 

Book Review: Mudbound

I finished Mudbound by Hillary Jordan last week, but am only now organizing my thoughts about it enough to write a review.  The problem:  I'm conflicted about this book.  I really thought I'd like it and there were definitely aspects of it I enjoyed a lot, but overall it's not a book I'd ever re-read and it's not one I'd probably recommend to friends.

On the cover, Barbara Kingsolver calls it "storytelling at the height of its powers," and perhaps that should have been my first clue.  I loved Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, but have found her other novels to be very hit and miss.

Mudbound does have an interesting plot.  I was drawn in by the storyline of the main character, Laura, but not the character herself, who remains almost annoyingly static.  I guess I wanted her character to show more depth, demonstrate on even the smallest level that the circumstances she found herself faced with had caused some level of growth or change.

Not only that, the character of Laura is nearly the only one I didn't find to be basically a stock character.  Her husband, Henry, is a typical southern farmer; her father in law Pappy is nothing more than a stereotyped KKK racist; Florence, her black maid is a stereotypical strong, black, maternal figure -- in touch with nature and superstitious; and I could go on.  I did like the characters of Ronsel and Jamie, though I think their friendship could have been developed in far greater detail.  I particularly liked Ronsel's experiences in Germany during WWII.  His descriptions of seeing the emaciated and dying prisoners in the concentration camps reminded me of stories I've heard from older veterans.

The novel is told from the perspective of several characters, each getting a section to narrate in 1st person. I like that effect for some of the characters (Ronsel in particular), but for most I kept hoping it would give me more of a sense of the individual character and that just didn't really happen.   I will say this for the book -- I finished it.  And in its own way, that says something for it.  These days, my time is so tight, that I'll just put down a book that doesn't hold my attention well.  Mudbound was a mixed bag.  The plot was interesting and I kept reading till the end, but I was frustrated along the way and wanted more than just a driving plot.

On a funny note, it probably also says something that I kept calling the book "Mudblood" (the magical world's most racist comment in the Harry Potter series).  In the long run, J.K. Rowling's wizarding insult will likely stick with me longer than this novel.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Just finished The Art of Racing in the Rain last night, and considering all I have on my plate at the moment, the fact that I couldn't put it down all week (I actually sacrificed sleep in order to read it) ought to say something!  Loved, loved, loved this book!  Order a copy -- seriously.  Whoever you are, this book will appeal to you.  I'm not a huge race car driving fan and although I adore my two pups, dogs aren't exactly a major preoccupation for me... and yet, this book captured me from the first page.
It's a tale told by a dog, signifying everything!  Loveable Enzo (the dog) has observed life from his lowly station and has a remarkable number of insights into how and why we behave as we do.  Using race car driving as an extended metaphor, Enzo points out how the vagaries of speed, conditions and foresight help or hinder us and how patience and focus help us through even the hardest twists and turns of fate.  I really enjoyed this book and hated to see it come to an end... It's been awhile since I've experienced that.
The premise is simple, Enzo believes that dogs who are "ready," those who have the ability to understand and appreciate nuance and philosophy, can be reincarnated into humans.  He strives to learn and grow through first hand observations of the humans that surround him and a cable TV addiction that expands his horizons beyond hearth and home.  I don't want to give too much away, but early on we find out that "Enzo the dog" knows things his master, Denny, does not.  It frustrates him that, without the ability to speak, he can't warn Denny and give him the information and advice that might prevent catastrophe.  I won't go far into the plot because I really don't want to make this into a spoiler, but know that the story itself will break your heart.  Framing things through Enzo's eyes provides a marvelously unique perspective.  The situations and details were very well-drawn and I found myself feeling very connected to the main character.  His determination to fight for his rights in the face of extremely tragic circumstances was inspiring and I'm not usually big on "inspiring."
When I fed my own dogs (Curly & Spicy) this morning, I couldn't help wondering what they were thinking J.  I can pretty much guarantee that after reading this novel, you'll never look at your own pups in quite the same way either.
This would make a fantastic book club pick -- sheesh, I miss my old book club!  Below is a clip of the author describing how he got the idea for the novel:  definitely worth a look!

Chicken Yum - Easiest Recipe Ever!

I don't know about you, but I have a handful of recipes that I can make no matter how overdue my grocery shopping is.  My "Pantry Recipes" save me more times than I should probably admit.  This is a great one whether I have "nothing" in the fridge or if I just don't feel like cooking... which also is the case more often than I should probably admit.  The extra nice part about this one is that it really is best if you start it at around noon/1pm and cook on high until dinner time.  So, when I'm flailing about trying to figure what to make that night, it's okay that I didn't start this crock pot meal at 8am.

Anyway, my kids have dubbed this one "Chicken Yum!" and it's anything but original.  It's all over the internet (here's one version), though I've modified a bit.  As I've mentioned before, I buy big bags of Boneless/Skinless chicken breasts and just keep them in our freezer, so I always have those on hand.  I also keep salsa and canned beans/corn on hand, so those ingredients are standard, always available for me.  The one exception for this is that you need cream cheese.  We go through this pretty regularly for bagels, so I generally have this on hand too.

Fixing it couldn't be easier.  There are four of us and I like to have leftovers for lunches the next day because this just gets even better tasting overnight in the fridge -- don't ask me how.  So, I make a LOT!

Anyway, I take 3 cans of black beans, 1 can of pinto (or any combination you have on hand), 3 cans of corn, 2 jars of salsa and 3 b/s chicken breasts (frozen - and this is part of the ridiculous easiness of this recipe, you don't even have to defrost) and throw it all in the crock pot.  THAT'S IT!  ...until about 15 minutes before I want to have dinner and even then, there's not much more.  Add in about a block of cream cheese depending on how creamy you like your sauce.  My kids prefer less creamy, so I usually just use half a block.  Give it about 10-15 minutes for the cream cheese to melt, stir (chicken will shred easily by this time) and serve over rice or chips.  It makes great burritos too.

How's that for no fuss, no muss?

So here it is in "recipe" form:

CHICKEN YUM!  (Van Houten Style)
4 cans black or pinto beans (preferably a combination of both)
3 cans corn
2 jars salsa
3 b/s chicken breasts (frozen)
1 block cream cheese

Stick everything but the cream cheese in the crock pot on high for 4-5 hours.  15 minutes before serving, add cream cheese.  Stir and serve over rice or with chips.  YUM!

Bejeweled Time-Wasting Blitz

I'm happy to report that as of today I have somehow managed to reach my word count quota for my Nanowrimo novel.  I'm hovering somewhere around 18,500 words.  I'm not sure how I've managed this though, as I've developed an alarming addiction to this stupid, *#~&%^-ing game.

Maybe it's the unsolicited, positive reinforcement.  The word processing program I use to type my novel doesn't spontaneously reward a particularly fabulous sentence by saying "EXCELLENT" in a deep, bass (and ok, I admit it -- downright sexy) voice.  It's also not equipped with flashing, verb exploding jewels that zap out entire lines of verbiage in brilliant explosions of light and sound.  And let's face it, matching tone and mood to character is just a heck of a lot more trouble than lining up 3 yellow squares, especially when one of them is a "money" square with a nice payout.  I know better than to imagine that I'll ever earn so much mixing metaphors.

Must. Stop. Blitzing.

The problem is too many of my friends play too and the urge to be at the top of that scoring heap...  too strong to fight.  I will conquer all!  Somehow, I will get to the end of November with 50,000 words, dozens of blog posts, a million or so hours of teaching, homeschooling, driving and XMAS knitting, Thanks-giving for a crowd and a high score of at least 400k on this ridiculous game.

Yes, I feel completely sane -- why do you ask?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Black Coffee in Bed....

Some mornings are just so chilly the only thing I can do is climb back in bed with a steaming cup of Java before my toes freeze.  Thank goodness I know how to knit warm socks!  There's no snow on the ground, but everything outside my window this morning was covered with a thin layer of frost.  It was about 25 degrees outside, which is just where I like it this time of year.  Astonishingly, we've already had our first snow, short lived as it was.  I'm personally hoping for more.  This November has been absolutely jam packed with writing tasks and I just work better when things are cozy inside and brisk outdoors.

I wish I could've enjoyed my coffee, happily daydreaming like the gal in the painting above, but I had my notebook out and was jotting down the last 500 or so words I didn't finish the night before to meet my Nanowrimo quota for the day.  I'm happy to say that I've managed to scratch out (more or less) my word count each day, making up for off days here and there.  What's really surprising me is how much I'm loving my Nano novel this time.  Maybe being utterly distracted and ridiculously overworked inspires me...  Uh oh!

Anyway, I still have a fairly hefty hunk of words to squeeze out today if I'm to stay on track, but my little "noveling" interlude this morning was so sweet I had to memorialize it somehow.  I'm aging myself, of course, to point out the soundtrack going through my head as I wrote, but what can I say -- I'm a child of the 80's.  I've included a reminder here for those of you who aren't already humming it yourselves:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Express Yourself -- Writing With Kids: Truly a Gift that Keeps on Giving!

By Holly Van Houten

This is Part 2 of a series (Part 1 focuses on younger kids and is here)

I've had such a tremendous response to Friday's post on Writing Skills for Homeschoolers that I'm eager to continue the series.  I really should be writing on my Nanowrimo novel though -- so I feel a little like I'm playing hooky.  Of course, playing hooky from school was one of my very favorite past times in high school.  I'm an old pro.  I'm also extremely proficient in procrastination.  Skilled, aren't I?

Anyway, thank you for all the wonderful comments and I hope this post lives up to expectations.  (Again, I know this is longish, but read to the end for lots of practical, day to day writing tips for kids and teens).

My last post talked about the importance of making writing a daily activity for kids.  Writing daily just about guarantees proficiency and fluency and is the easiest way to make it a less intimidating task.  Kids who write often, won't balk when they get to college and are faced with the inevitable and innumerable research papers.  They also won't feel tempted to turn to plagiarism to meet those demands -- unlike certain magazine editors who've made recent headlines, and actually justify their actions by saying "it happens on college campuses all the time."   Aaarrgh!

I also described writing as "organized thinking." (Sheeesh, I just quoted myself.)  Anyway, that aspect of writing holds so many benefits for kids, especially teens.  Laying the foundation for those skills is an invaluable gift you can give your child.  Kids can be easily overwhelmed by all the changes in their lives.... puberty alone brings physical and emotional changes that can be confusing to say the least.  But the child who can sort through her own thoughts, define them and question them has huge advantages.

Regular writing is a workout that trains the mental muscles one needs for just this sort of task.  Instead of a teen wandering around in a cloud of "angst" that seemingly can only find an outlet in heavy metal, punk or "emo"-type music, the teen that writes can begin to sort that cloud into more manageable categories and get a better handle on her own emotions through that process.

Even as a teen myself, I thought the friends around me that tattooed and pierced themselves, dyed their hair green and donned ridiculous amounts of heavy eye make-up -- all in the name of self-expression -- actually hadn't a clue as to what they actually thought or felt about much of anything.  They wanted so desperately to define themselves as "different" by any means possible and in all their flailing about for self-expression, didn't always make the best choices.  But we all want to be thought of as "different," as unique individuals with separate thoughts and feelings -- it's a vital part of separating from our parents and families.

I've always liked the metaphor that parenting is the process of giving your child "roots" and "wings."  Helping your child towards authentic self-expression through writing adds some very strong feathers to those wings!

But these feathers take time to grow and they don't often sprout without serious encouragement from parents.  Writing is rarely instinctive, especially in our highly visual world.  Writing and reading take focused effort, whereas being bombarded with images is a fairly passive activity (whether in the form of TV, movies, videogames or computer screens).  It is the rare kid who (at least at first) will be begging to be allowed to write!  Trust me though, especially if you start young, this will become a strong possibility.

I've already given some ideas for starting with the youngest kids (in the post linked above), so now I'd like to give suggestions for the teen and tween crowd.  I'll start with storytelling first this time and then move on to more academic types of writing.

Teens LOVE to tell stories -- this is why they spend hours on the phone with their friends (gossip - is storytelling).  Telling each other what happened at the mall the other day, is their way of framing a story and crafting it until it's just the way the want it.  They're already pros.  Take these skills a step further and involve them in what's known as "fan fiction."  There are tons of websites for this.  J.K. Rowling's rich characters are ripe for this, so Harry Potter is always a huge draw -- a good site is here.  I can't claim to be nearly as impressed by the writing of Stephenie Meyer, but girls seem to adore her stuff and a site for Twilight Fan Fiction is here.  A general fan fiction site for tons of different books is here.  Even if your teen isn't an avid reader yet, these fan fiction sites work fairly well even if you've just "seen the movie."

The benefits of writing fan fiction are numerous -- they allow young writers to stretch their creative muscles without the pressures of coming up with all new characters and settings.  They also provide a venue for feedback from other kids with similar interests.  They encourage critical reading and writing too -- as kids evaluate the fan fiction of others they will have to begin to develop a vocabulary of criticism.  Nothing helped my writing as much as learning how to "grade" the essays of my college freshman.  "Knowing" there's a problem in someone's writing, doesn't necessarily mean it's an easy thing to define that problem or explain how to repair it.  The thought process that goes into critiquing the fan fiction of their peers will help them develop those skills that will in turn improve their own writing.

If your teen doesn't take to fan fiction and would prefer to write their own fiction "from scratch" -- send them over to NANOWRIMO's Young Writer's Program.  The National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) organization has tons of resources for students and lots of encouragement to participate in their annual November "noveling" challenge, setting their own word count goals for the month.  They also have an organized "editing" month and a script writing month!  The support they can get from several tens of thousands of their peers as they take on a challenge like this is invaluable.

When it comes to more academic/argumentative writing, the internet is a huge boon to writers.  Use it.  If your teen tires of writing essays for himself and you, consider letting him start a blog.  Ann Zeise's amazing site for homeschoolers includes a place for kids to start their own blogs, here.  Your child's writing curriculum can simply consist of daily posting.  This works best if you set the parameters for how organized and researched those posts need to be.  Maybe ask for two out of the seven each week to be fairly formal, essay style posts of a certain length and depth.  That way the other five can be of his own styling (within reasonable limits of course).  Most blogging programs allow you to control the amount of exposure you want for a blog (make it searchable or not) and allow you to moderate comments.  Blogging though, will generate commentary (if only from family and friends) and requires, by it's very nature, that the writer be aware of audience.  They will respond to both compliments and criticism and incorporate the ideas of others into their blog.  Encourage them though to avoid single-sided rants and "talk-radio" style argumentation.  Argumentative blogging provides the perfect opportunity to teach about Logical Fallacies.  A good primer is here.

Lastly, every teen should be encouraged to keep a journal to document the private ideas and thoughts they don't particularly want feedback about.  Invest in a beautiful leather bound journal or even better, play around with book binding (art!) and make one together.  If they don't know what to write in their journal, prompt them with ideas.  The Write Source website, here, has grade by grade lists of journal writing ideas for kids.

Writing doesn't have to be a boring or isolating activity for kids.  With these methods, they really will start to view the process as dynamic, creative and dare I say it.... fun!  Really emphasize the social aspects of writing.  Writing, after all, allows one access to the "Great Conversation" and kids should realize they have unique and very valuable things to add to that conversation.  I can't guarantee your young, expressive writer will never pierce her nose, but I do know that writing creates an essential outlet for kids & teens and is an exercise that will, more than anything else, train them to think for themselves and think well of themselves.

I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments and if you like this post please consider sharing it on Facebook or anywhere else you think it might reach the most parents and writers :)

L.A. Opera Auditions

I can't begin to describe how ridiculously proud of my daughter I was yesterday.  At eleven years old, that girl walked on in to the Music Center in downtown L.A. (entering through the artists' entrance -- how cool is that?) and sang her little socks off!  -- that is if she'd been wearing any socks.  She'd donned her comfy brown boots for the occasion to go with her overall fashion theme of "comfort."  All the other teen girls there were dressed to the nines.  You would've thought they were all about to go out on stage right then.  Ribbons in perfectly curled and coiffed hair, ridiculously high heels and glamorous dresses were far and away the order of the day.  If Charlotte was intimidated by any of that, she didn't show it.  I don't know what the judges thought of my  rather informally dressed little songstress when she walked into that audition room, but I do know she had them laughing in minutes during their Q&A.  She  later told me she'd cracked some jokes about how her Dad (the tubist) was nicknamed Thunder Lips and her voice teacher (the fabulous Cathy Riso) had dubbed her Leather Lungs.  I don't know if that helped prepare the judges for her powerful soprano voice, but I do know that a moment later when she began to sing her rendition of Giavonni Bononcini's "Per La Gloria," the girls waiting outside blanched and the Opera coordinator's jaw dropped.  She may not have looked like much of a threat, but if talent matters -- she knocked it out of the park!

I wish I could've taped it to play for you here, but Joan Sutherland's rendition will have to do.  You'll just have to imagine it higher and faster -- that's how Charlotte performed it :)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Skills for Home Schoolers

By Holly Van Houten

(This is Part 1 of a series -- Part 2, which is for older kids is here)  

I've been thinking about this post for awhile now.  I not only homeschool my kids, but I spent over ten years teaching freshman writing classes at USC, Pepperdine and other area universities.  I KNOW exactly where a student's writing should be by the time they're ready for college classes.  See my post on being an Adjunct Professor here.  I also currently teach writing and literature to homeschoolers at the Huckleberry Center for Creative Learning -- more on that, here.  (Warning:  this is a long post, but read to the end for practical day to day advice on teaching writing J)

I'm passionate about this subject because I feel it's the one area homeschoolers don't always handle well.  I'm a huge advocate of homeschooling for so many reasons.  It fosters creativity and complex, divergent thinking  in ways that classroom experiences can rarely attempt.  Socialization, is (hopefully, by now) a dead issue.  My kids have so much more access to social experiences than their "schooled" peers because they are out in the world meeting a variety of interesting people from all walks of life.  Kids who spend their days in a school room with only their age peers as companions miss out on so many opportunities.  It's such a limited way of experiencing life as you grow up and mature.  My kids have plenty of friends in their age range, but they also get the two pronged benefit of mentoring from older kids and leadership experience with younger kids.

Homeschoolers do so many things so well.  They score higher than their "schooled" peers on just about every imaginable test and colleges actively seek them out, aware now from experience that homeschoolers are self-starters and self-educators who do very well on the university level.  They haven't lost the love of learning that too often is drummed out of kids in school by 3rd grade.

That being said, I think homeschoolers often don't get enough experience writing.  I want to be clear though:  I don't think "schooled" kids do any better.  I just think homeschoolers COULD do better.  Homeschoolers are in a position to gear writing tasks around the specific interests of each student -- an opportunity rarely possible in the classroom.  (Again, see below for practical ways to do this.) Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen.  Writing is difficult to teach.  There are few "right or wrong" answers when it comes to teaching writing.  Sure, we can all correct grammar, syntax and spelling errors, but that's really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing.

In reality, writing is "organized thinking."  This is what makes it difficult to teach.  Teaching writing is like teaching students to sculpt their own thoughts.  It's an art.  Even the most brilliant among us needs to be able to convey those brilliant thoughts to others and that requires organization.  We've all had the experience of trying to follow disjointed or meandering writing.  It's no fun.  "Stream of consciousness" style writing may be fine if you're James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but fiction and academic writing have different goals.

That being said, reading fiction works wonders for the burgeoning writer.  Avid readers of all ages have a huge leg up when it comes to writing skills and home schoolers often have more time to enjoy literature and lots of encouragement to do so.  Reading gives young writers lots of experience "watching" others practice the craft and that experience is invaluable.  When it comes time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, readers have the advantage of having watched the "pros" organize their ideas and that WILL make it easier.

Teaching writing, however, can be difficult BECAUSE people perceive it as an "art," a talent you either have or  don't.  There's a teeny tiny bit of truth to this -- certainly some people are naturally better at it than others.  Like every talent though, proficiency really comes only if you're willing to work at it.  We need to think of "arts" like writing as "skills" because that's really what they are.  Do you admire that kid playing the Bach Invention at age 10?  He can only do it because he's practiced the piano daily for a good chunk of time since he was probably 6 years old.  Is he a prodigy?  Maybe.... but probably not -- more likely he's a "practicer."  He's played scales up and down that keyboard every day, building the muscles in his fingers until he's able to handle the demands Bach makes on your fingers.

Writing is a skill the way playing the piano is a skill.  You will only get better if you practice.  Students need to start practicing this skill early and often: daily.  All students need to do this whether they are homeschooled or schooled in a classroom, but homeschoolers have the advantage of being able to design their own curriculum and schedule their time as they think fit.  With that freedom of course, comes great responsibility.

Most homeschoolers realize they can make science a lot more fun if they do hands-on experiments and incorporate field trips and active discussions.  Writing is more difficult to make "fun," but it's certainly not impossible.  The best way to do this is through modeling.  Show your child how to write down ideas.  It can involve anything, as long as it happens daily.  Consider the following scenario:  you're at the market and you notice that once again someone has parked so close to your car, you can barely open your door.  You complain about this, but when you get home, sit down with your child and "organize" your own and your child's thoughts on this.  Ask your child to describe what the main problem with this is and then write down her thoughts -- making them more concise as you do so.  For example, your child might say:  "It's no fair when people take up so much space.  We can't get into our car and we get scratches on our paint and it's just really mean for them to hog all the room."  Then you write down:  "Parking too close to other cars is unfair and can damage the cars."  Then go a step or two further (even with the youngest child):  Ask whose fault this is?  Is it just the fault of the driver parking too close or are the parking spaces made only for small cars?  You could even incorporate math skills in something like this.  Be creative.  Next time you go to the market, bring the tape measure and have your child measure the spaces and then measure a sampling of cars in the parking lot.  Is there enough space for the average car/truck/SUV?  Then write down your findings and ask your child what she thinks you can do to avoid this problem in the future.  Maybe she'll say you should park further from the door, so the chances of someone parking next to you are slim.  Maybe she'll say you should complain to the market.  Maybe she thinks people should buy smaller cars.  Prompt her with questions when she gets stuck and then write down her answers.  As you can see, you're not just teaching her how to write, you're teaching her how to organize her thoughts and add depth to them.

Imagine making this your writing curriculum (and think of all the money you'd save!).  Every day you take twenty to thirty minutes to model writing a short paragraph on a real world scenario experienced by your child, something they are already thinking about.  By the time they're eight or nine years old, they can do all the actual "writing" themselves with you just prompting them with thought provoking questions.  Gather all these paragraphs into a special book you keep for your child.  Title it "Junior's Thoughts" or whatever you like and fuss about how proud you are of that book.  You can do the same with storytelling (I don't like to isolate writing stories as "Creative Writing," since so much creativity goes into academic/argumentative writing too).  Here's what I used to do with my daughters:  I'd sit at the computer and say, tell me a story.  I did this from the time they were 4 years old.  They'd tell me some long, meandering story and I'd prompt them with questions to try and elicit a clear plot.  As I typed, I'd clean up their sentence structure, but keep the main essence and details of their story.  These too I'd keep for them in a book and they would proudly read their stories to anyone who would listen.  You can title this something like "Junior's Stories" and they will have two ever-growing volumes that serve as monuments to their writing abilities.  Every day add something to one of their books.  EVERY DAY!  Miss it only the way you'd miss a day of practicing the piano.

As your child gets older, their writing will get longer and more complex.  There are plenty of free writing guidelines available on the internet to help them understand more complicated paragraph and essay structures... every University writing program website has these.  Here's a link to Purdue's Online Writing Lab or OWL.  There are MANY more (and did I mention they're FREE!!).  These can help you to guide the 10-12 year old to more sophisticated writing and teens can use them on their own.  The whole key is practice... DAILY PRACTICE!

Sorry to shout in ALL CAPS like that, but "Daily Pracitce," is the most important thing anyone can glean from this post.  Too often I get homeschooled students who have hardly any experience writing.  They can't put sentences together, let alone paragraphs.  These are really bright kids too, but by 9 or 10 they've already missed out on years of experience they should have had.  As a result, when they sit down to write something, it's often pretty lousy and they don't need anyone to tell them that.  They struggle over every word and procrastinate as much as they can possibly get away with.  Believe me, I talk to the parents and I know they're struggling too.  Their kids HATE writing.  It's like pulling teeth.  The best advice I can give is to make it a habit, a non-negotiable habit like brushing their teeth before bed.  Make it fun though and make it practical.  Help them to see the value of writing down their ideas.  If you didn't start when they were little, start now.  It's literally never too late.  Start today, and you'll already be doing better by tomorrow.

I could go on for hours about this.  I'd love to talk about how being a strong writer helps immeasurably with a kid's self-confidence.  Teaching kids to express themselves in writing can help eliminate some of the more destructive forms of self-expression teens sometimes choose.  I'd love to talk more specifically about the skills a student needs to prepare for college writing.  I'd love to talk about how writing will help them in every single subject they ever study, I'd love to describe some of the amazing things kids in my writing classes have accomplished....   Clearly, I could go on and on, but this post is already approaching dissertation length, so I'll curb my enthusiasm for now.

If you found this helpful please repost a link back here to your facebook page or whatever forum/group you think would reach the most parent/student writers.  And if you would like to see posts on some of these other issues, leave me a note in the comments section below and I'll definitely oblige you.  J

****I have now written a second post aimed at teens and tweens -- it's about writing as self-expression, here: