Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

We want to wish all our friends and family a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Van Houten family!  We used to send pictures of the girls on postcards, but last year we posted a singing Christmas card here on the blog and everyone seemed to like it a lot.  So, back by popular demand... here are the girls in their Christmas performance earlier this month.  First, is Charlotte -- singing O Holy Night.  Poor thing was sick as a dog at this performance -- if you look closely you can see how red her nose is.  She'd caught a bad cold 2 days before the concert and was pretty miserable.  We didn't even know if she could sing, but she knocked it outta the ballpark.  Be sure to watch to the end -- where she pulls out all the stops! I was so proud of her!!!

And here are both of my lovely daughters, singing their beautifully harmonized version of "Silver Bells" ~


Monday, December 12, 2011

Knitted Christmas Ornaments

Last night I found myself unexpectedly caught up on my work and since I still had a few hours left in the day, I thought I'd try making a Christmas Ornament.  It's something I've been planning to do for awhile, but hadn't had time to get to it.  Why knitted XMAS ornaments?  Simple - Cats.  My cats have decided my Christmas tree is their climbing toy.  They can't figure out why it's only available to them once a year, but they're mighty determined to climb to its tippety-top every few minutes, shaking as many ornaments to the floor as possible.  Aggravated? Me?

My solution has been to try to hang only a very few breakable ornaments and to keep them as close to the bottom of the tree as possible -- so they don't have as far to fall.  My hope is that the carpet will cushion their fall and preserve them.  Having lost about 20 nice glass balls last year, I've learned my lesson.  Since our newest cat is a mere 8 months old and cats can live as long as twenty years, I've decided I need a new approach to Christmas ornaments.  This one took me about 3 hours actually.  It's fairly fiddly -- fair isle and all, but I like the way it turned out.  Somewhere in the back of my head, I have this delusion that maybe I could churn out one a day until Christmas (various patterns and colors -- here's the one I used this time).  They have all kinds of cute patterns, including this one for Christmas lights that I'd like to make:
 They have a multitude of darling patterns for ornaments, including a popcorn, cranberry string.  I really like the holly and the candy cane in the picture below and Charlotte wants the elf.  So, this ought to keep me busy for the next five years or so.  Now I need to find some cat repellent spray to keep my climbing cats from using them as cat toys.  Anyone know of any such scent?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Writing Tutoring On-line (and by phone)

I've been doing a lot of writing tutoring lately -- A LOT!  I'm amazed by the response I've received now that I've officially "hung my shingle" out.  It's really nice and I've been able to do some really great, intensive work with students.

I meet with the majority of my students in person, but lately I've had a number of students who, because of distance or time constraints, prefer to work on-line and over the phone.  I've tried a few models for this (Skype, etc.), but have found the most successful set-up to be one where the student and I work together (in real-time) using Google docs and talk over the phone as we work.  Skype is nice, but with writing tutoring we don't really need face-to-face interaction as much as we need the ability to edit the same document simultaneously.  I just finished two such on-line tutoring sessions this morning and have two more scheduled for later today.  It's really a nice solution for busy schedules.

All you do is create a document in Google docs and then invite the student to "share" it.  They then receive an email notifying them and including a link to the document.  This way they can simultaneously edit with you as you talk on the phone.  If the student has already written a draft, just copy it into the shared Google doc and go to work.  As the student writes, I see their changes (in real time) on my screen and we can discuss content, organization, sentence structure/mechanics, etc.  It works really well!

Feel free to contact me if you have questions about how to set this up:  hollyvanh-at-gmail.com (change the -at- to @ -- this is my attempt to thwart spammers).  I'd be happy to explain in more detail how it works.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Entertaining World History Review for Older Teens

I'll admit, I spend my fair share of time on Facebook, but I know it's not nearly as much as some of my teen students.  A friend posted this link the other day:  http://www.collegehumor.com/facebook-history and I thought it was hysterical.  I think it would make a really fun way to review world history with an older teen.  I'd say for any teen, but the language is definitely a concern for younger kids.  I think older teens though would find it entertaining and it does a nice job of making connections and demonstrating the continuity of certain recurring themes.  Because it's a summary chronology, it would also help students see the connections between events and get a better grasp of cause and effect through the ages.  Sometimes, a fun little survey like this, is just the thing for helping kids understand how history fits together.  They'll like the humor and benefit from the history review.

Dear George,

There are so many things I like about this picture, Mr. Lucas!

First and foremost, you are knitting.  Love that!  This makes total sense to me too.  You are a creator and a thoughtful, contemplative type.  Of course you knit.  I can tell you find it soothing.

Also, you knit in public. Thank you -- you just made it a thousand times cooler for men to knit!  That light saber thing -- it wasn't a phallic symbol at all was it?  Nope -- intergalactic representation of a knitting needle.  You are definitely a guy that understands deeper mythological meanings.  I can see why you and Joseph Campbell are so tight.

Most impressive of all (though it's hard to be sure from the picture), it appears you are knitting a sock!  Don't know if that's a self-striping yarn or what, but it's looking sharp.  You've clearly been a knitter for some time and have developed quite a bit of proficiency.  Even if it turns out to be a scarf, I'm still impressed and pleased.  Most people don't realize the knitting history of socks and that men used to be the only ones allowed to join the Renaissance knitting guilds that professionally made socks.  You have found your place in a great tradition, again.

Lastly, you are knitting at a Starbucks -- combining two of my greatest loves:  yarn and coffee.  Bless your heart!  Linda Ronstadt was a fool I tell you... a fool to dump you!

Your admiring and now duly impressed fan, H

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reading versus Audio Books

I LOVE audio books and Audible.com has made them easy to find and affordable.  The chance for my family to hear books during our long commute into town is priceless.  I myself, love hearing new novels and old favorites read to me -- I can knit or clean the house at the same time and feel like the queen of multi-tasking.  Reading aloud (whether it's me doing the reading or an audio book) has always been an essential part of my children's education.  (Click here for a post on reading aloud to older kids.)

HOWEVER, listening to an audio book is NOT the same as reading a book on your own, especially for kids who are just learning or polishing their skills.  It can be an important addition to a literature-rich environment, but it can't take the place of regular hands-on, or rather book-in-hand, eyes-on-page reading.  Here's why -- WRITING SKILLS!

Yes, that's right.  Reading is essential to learning how to write well.  Some more sophisticated writing issues (organization, characterization, plot, pacing, etc.) can certainly be conveyed by an audio book, but it's the basics -- the mechanics of writing -- that kids absorb when they're reading the printed version.

I teach literary analysis and writing skills, but I long ago realized that when it comes to grammar and sentence mechanics -- my teaching efforts are a mere drop in the bucket.  The vast majority of what we learn about grammar (and spelling), we absorb from reading -- from seeing them in practice on the printed page.

When I work with struggling writers, I find it's much better to separate writing skills from spelling and mechanics.  I've never met a kid who didn't have LOTS to say about all kinds of different topics, but if you ask them to write their ideas -- they clam up.  Why?  They're just too intimidated by what they think (or know) is their lack of "mechanical" writing skills.  This is why it's so important to begin their "writing" lessons with dictation -- but more on that in a later post.

The bottom line is if you use audio books as much as I do, it's easy to convince yourself that your child is doing a lot of "reading."  My point is -- yes, and NO.  They are hearing great literature and learning many wonderful things from the experience, but they are NOT getting that visual understanding of how words and sentences are put together to form these stories.  

And let's face it, this is the easiest part of education.  Sit a kid down with a book for an hour or so a day, and they'll learn these basics as if by osmosis.  The trick is to find books they LOVE, so that they're as eager for that hour as you are.  With boys, that often translates to non-fiction or even "hobby" related reading -- though there are some great books out there that boys find very appealing.  I'll also write a future post listing some of the novels I've found to be "Boy favorites."  Girls are often easier -- there's so much good literature out there -- and girls sometimes take to novels more naturally.

If you can instill this habit early on -- you child will have a much easier time mastering writing skills.  Ideally, you want your child to feel as comfortable communicating through writing as they do speaking.  And reading -- eyes-on-the-page reading -- will help make this a reality.

Don't toss the baby out with the bathwater though.  Audio books are a fantastic supplement.  My kids can "hear" a book at a higher level than they are capable of reading.  My nine year old recently listened to To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (much harder than Tom Sawyer) and LOVED them.  She wouldn't have read these books on her own, but hearing the stories was great.  When she's older, I'll put these books in her hands and she'll love them again in print.  She's already asked for a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for Christmas and now that she has experience with the story -- it will motivate her to read through the tougher sections of the novel.  The key is to combine both!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Class Schedule Available

The new class schedule is now live on the Huckleberry Website.  My classes descriptions are available there and also as a blog post here.  Check out the schedule now and be ready to register on November 30th.  These classes often fill fast and I know several families that wait up until midnight the night before registration to get their reg forms in first.  Hope to see you at Huck!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Horrible Home Repair

We have had no end of trouble since purchasing our home six years ago. We bought it from a man who had built it himself with his own building company and we naively (read, stupidly) assumed he would have done a reasonably decent job on his own home.  Were we ever fooled.  The couple we bought this disaster of a house from must have seen us coming a mile away.

Our home is a geodesic dome and when we bought it, it was inspected by someone our real estate agent (who worked in the same office as the owner) suggested.  Obviously, he wasn't going to look at anything too closely.  He assured us the place was just spiffy! In the last five years we've had to completely redo the septic system, many areas of the roofing, the plumbing and in many places the electrical -- all were jimmied with the cheapest possible equipment and the lowest possible skills.  To a man, every single professional we've had in here to make repairs has expressed astonishment at how horribly the job had been done by the original builder and anyone making subsequent repairs.  There were truly scary risks everywhere.
Lovely wiring job, hmmm?  A fire waiting to happen...

Here's just one small example, the owner warned us to get the chimney swept before lighting a fire in the fireplace.  He said it had never been swept for 37 years and it was a good idea to get it checked.  Um... ya think?  There wasn't a chimney sweep on the mountain who would touch it.  The fire department came, declared it a disaster and asked that it all be torn down.  The fireplace was zero clearance and would most certainly cause a fire if lit.  On top of that, the massive chimney was not securely fastened and its ominous swaying at any sign of a breeze was a disaster waiting to happen.  We had to tear the entire thing out to avert a likely collapse.  That was fun...

But the latest problem truly takes the cake.  As I said, these people saw us coming a mile away and apparently saw the word "suckers" printed on our foreheads. It turns my stomach to even think about the deceptive tactics they used on us.  The original owner knew quite well he'd built this place with the cheapest materials and to the lowest standards allowable by code in the late 1970s.  He knew this house wasn't going to last much longer.  We first noticed the stucco peeling away from the exterior within 6 months of buying the place.  We were already dealing with multiple roof leaks and had begun to get leaks through the walls.  We did spot repairs  for awhile and learned from the neighbors that the owner had lightly re-stucco'd areas and repainted to hide the problem shortly before putting the house on the market.

The stucco is a structural element of the house, but the roofing staples used to attach the wire mesh to the house have since been made illegal because they rust out quickly and fail.  They've failed.  The house is literally sagging in areas because the stucco -- the structural element -- is falling.  The flimsy 2x4s used for the framing are all rotted (as can be clearly seen in the top picture).  We have to pull it all out and replace the framing with 4x4s and 4x6s and install plywood sheeting (something that will actually keep the house standing).  We'll do this a small section at a time to keep the house from falling down completely.  So far the price is close to $30,000 for this job alone.  And, as I'm well used to in this house, I'm daily called out by the builder to witness some new atrocity he's discovered.  The builders are universally dumbfounded and cannot for the life of them understand how the original owner (or anyone, frankly) could have botched a job so very badly.

We have been hurt by the recession as much as anyone and the cost of these repairs is burying us.

Today's latest finding actually made me just laugh out of sheer hopelessness.  Even my father remembers the owner telling us that he had done quite a bit of retrofitting to make the house more earthquake safe.  I had assured our builder that at least that wouldn't have to be done.  Hah!  The owner couldn't even do that right as the picture to the right shows.  Not only were the braces installed incorrectly -- they're beyond flimsy and worthless.  One fun discovery, of course, always leads to another.  The house is barely bolted to the foundation.  We will have to put in the proper earthquake retrofitting -- but, hey, what's another $1200? Right?  I could go on and on like this for days, but the damage this has caused my family just makes me too sad.  It's too bad some people are so shamelessly willing to swindle others.

Obviously, this is my assessment of the situation and these are my opinions.  We've been dealing with this for years and today literally broke the straw on this camel's back.  I don't know how I'm supposed to sleep at night knowing that the second floor of my house may fall.  Everything on the outside is a mess -- our next project will be to start opening walls to see what disasters await us on the interior.  I realize life is not always fair, but in my opinion, we were duped.  I hope the original owners are able to sleep at night, knowing what they've done to our family.

The Perfect Knitted Sock

In the fall a knitter's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of warm snuggly socks...  or at least, this knitter's thoughts do.  I've had a little extra time between homeschooling kids, class planning, writing a sample project for a new job offer and general house cleaning and Thanksgiving preparations this week, so I started some socks.  The first as you can see, is nearly done -- just lacks a toe.

As I chose a pattern for this gorgeous yarn (Malabrigo Sock - Arbol, in case anyone's wondering), I realized that because my mind was so full of details related to multiple work obligations and home repairs, I needed a simple sock to work on.  Anything fiddly at this point, might just put me over the edge.  Thinking about it, I put together the elements I like best for wearability and durability in a sock and so far, I think it's ideal, or as my blog title indicates, the "perfect sock."

It's nothing fancy, a cuff that's a basic k2p2 rib, but with twisted knit stitches (i.e., through the back loop), and then a basic k3p1 rib for the rest of the sock (w/a basic short row heel and soon a kitchenered toe).  There's absolutely not a fancy thing about it -- in fact it's so plain, I'm thinking of adding a picot edging to the top of the cuff just to girl it up a bit.  Still, it's been a very satisfying knit.  The fit so far is perfect and I'm seriously in love with the color.  So happy to have one simple thing in my life right now!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Reading Aloud to Older Children

Parents often ask me how they can help encourage their kids to read more.  Their worries run the spectrum -- some have children who just never pick up a book on their own without being required to do so and others have children who throw crying, screaming melt downs over reading.  I have no cure-all that will fix all of these issues, but I do have a few observations and suggestions that may help. There are many ways to effectively deal with this issue, so this will be just the first of probably several posts on this important issue.

First let's clarify the goals.  Most parents would like their children to enjoy reading and be able to complete any necessary academic reading with strong comprehension and (hopefully) retention.  If you're a homeschooling parent, the entire burden is placed at your feet.  You take them through all the stages of teaching them to read and then expanding their literary choices.  However, there are so many subjects to teach, park days and field trips to attend, enrichment classes, etc., that it's easy to lose focus once the initial steps have been taken.  Plus, kids start to fight against being asked to read books they find boring.

And yet, the HABIT of reading is the most important.  In my own family, I have found that reading together at night has helped keep us in the habit.  I'm a strong proponent of Jim Trelease's philosophy in The Read-Aloud Handbook.  I've always loved reading -- enough to major in English, get my Masters in English and American Literature and spend an additional 5 years in graduate school working on a doctorate in Renaissance English Literature.  From the get go, I wanted my kids to LOVE reading.  Happily, I read Trelease's book when my first daughter was a baby and it inspired me to establish a nightly reading routine, which we've maintained ever since.

Reading aloud to kids before bed is hardly revolutionary.  Most parents do this to some extent.  What is a little different is that we have never stopped and have no plans to stop anytime soon.  My oldest daughter will shortly be 13 and shows no signs of wanting to stop our before bed read-alouds.  Too often, once parents have taught their kids to read, they stop reading TO them.  Left to their own devices, many children just don't continue the habit. We have a fairly established bed-time (usually between 9-10pm -- we go until 10pm in the summer as it stays light so very late).  We always head up to bed though by 7:30.  It helps that my two daughters share a room. I read to them for at least an hour and they read on their own for at least another 30 minutes.

As integral as read-aloud time is in our family, I have important reasons for making sure that each child is also reading independently for at least 30 minutes every day -- though usually it ends up closer to 1-2 hours a day (either by their choice or because I require it).  More on that in a later post.

We all know it's important to model reading if we expect our kids to become life-long readers.  Family read-alouds and shared reading hours certainly do this, but they accomplish far more than this as well.  We inevitably find ourselves discussing what we read.  At first, when my children were younger, these discussions were primarily about the fantasy characters of imaginative literature.  These talks were fun, but didn't usually raise subjects we wouldn't otherwise discuss anyway.  As my children have grown though, we frequently find ourselves discussing far stickier issues and I'm so grateful to have this opportunity with them.  When we read Bridge to Terabithia, we were confronted by the pain, guilt and despair surrounding a child's death.  The story-line had a huge impact on my daughters and they had lots of questions and worries they wanted to talk about.  Some were prompted by the events in the novel, but others I discovered had been on their minds for quite awhile.

Lately, it seems that almost every book we pick up leads to these kinds of discussions.  Often these are topics that really wouldn't come up for any other reason and it has led us to engage in really important conversations.  My kids are fast becoming teens and I don't know how much longer they will look to me as their most important and trusted source for information and understanding.  Of course, I hope they always will, but I expect it will wane and wax through various stage of their lives.  For now though, I'm grateful for the chance our "read-alouds" together offer me to help them sift through some of the more difficult issues.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Creative Writing and Keyboarding Games

Wednesdays: 2pm
Ages 9-12
Are you the kind of typist who has to hunt and peck for every letter?  Slow and frustrating isn’t it?  We all know the value of computer keyboarding skills, but not everyone realizes how much proper keyboarding technique and high typing speeds improve your writing skills.  Word processors are essential to writing in our internet age and revision (the key to all strong writing) happens far more often if students can type as fast they think.  So, why don’t all students have these skills?  Well, “Learn to Type” computer software can get boring very fast.  This class will teach students proper QWERTY keyboarding skills through games and creative writing!  We’ll learn proper finger placement through games like “Typing Football,” “Story Starters,” “Keyboard Bingo” “Dinosaur Duels,” “Keyboarding Baseball,” “Simon Says,” and many others.  We won’t however, just be giving our fingers a good workout, we’ll be stretching our creative writing muscles as well as we learn how to craft a well organized story.  We’ll use plot outlines and story-idea maps to help us sketch outlines of our stories and then we’ll create interesting characters and settings to keep our readers enthralled.  Our big project for the class will be compiling a portfolio of each student’s best stories to show our friends at Huck during the End of Semester show!  This is a wonderful creative writing opportunity for students and will allow them to pick up those all in important typing skills as well.  For students to write with ease, they really need to be able to type as fast as think.  This class will get students on the road to improving these essential skills. 

Read to Write: MYSTERIES: Classic Detective Stories!

Wednesdays: 12:30pm
Ages:  13+
Those who love logic can’t help but be drawn into a good detective story.  Intellectual analysis is at the heart of this genre.  Detective novels are marvelously engaging reads for teens and this semester we’ll be reading some of the classics… books that will grab even the most reluctant readers.  Discussing them with friends will make them all the more memorable and organizing their ideas through their writing will help each student hone their analytical skills.  The novels and short stories for this semester are all cornerstones in the development of detective fiction and all provide a wonderful opportunity for students to learn and practice literary analysis:
Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes):  A Study in Scarlett and The Sign ofFour – The Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the greatest detective stories ever produced.  They were incredibly popular in the late 18th/early 19th Centuries and are still well-loved and well-read today.  These were the first 2 short novels and we’ll read them together to give set the stage for our semester of intrigue.
Edgar Allen Poe: “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” – Poe is the undisputed father of detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle called him “a model for all time."  Poe created the amateur detective and his narrator friend, the locked-room mystery, the talented but eccentric amateur sleuth outwitting the official police force, the solution and explanation by the detective, and other ingredients that spiced up the multitude of crime stories that followed.  In these two short-stories, he introduces the world to C. Auguste Dupin and inspires an avalanche of crime fiction.
Wilkie Collins:  The Moonstone  - T.S. Elliot says The Moonstone is "the first, the longest, and the best of detective novels." Oliver Wendell Holmes called The Moonstone "The best there is," and Dorothy Sayers believes it is "Probably the very finest detective story ever written" and "comes about as near perfection as anything of its kind can be."  With such high praise, from such eminent authorities, you know this book is nothing short of amazing. Collins focuses on a simple mystery and its solution: who stole the diamond known as the Moonstone, and where did it go? With wonderful exposition and a marvelous parade of characters this book is definitely a page turner and essential part of the history of detective fiction.

Agatha Christie:  Murder on the Orient Express – With this classic, we enter what’s known as “The Golden Age” of detective fiction.  If you haven’t yet met Detective Hercule Poirot, you’re in for a treat.  This is a favorite of many and for good reason.  Agatha Christie tells a gripping tale and manages to explore a number of themes involving morality and justice. 

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon – In this last novel we enter the world of the “Hard-Boiled” detective.  This novel is considered by many to be the best “American” detective novel of its time.  Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s cynical, sardonic detective, outmaneuvers both the police and the crooks as he solves the crime. Written in the objective style – the reader sees what each character does and says, but never what they think.  Such a style lends itself perfectly to film and the movie rendition of “The Maltese Falcon” is classic film noir.  We’ll watch the film as part of our work on this novel.

As we read these compelling books, students will not only have an opportunity to express their ideas, argue their opinions and demonstrate their knowledge in our class discussions, but they will also organize, develop and argue those ideas in their writing.  For our class projects, we’ll be incorporating a "literary criticism" approach -- each student will take on a specific position (Character Analyst; Thematic Advisor; Symbolist; Historian/Biographer; or Passage Illuminator) for each novel. Over the course of the semester, students will write five 2-3 page essays related to their “position” for each book.  By the end of the semester, the class will have created a full-fledged book entitled “The Read to Write Guide to Mystery & Detective Stories  (We’ll publish this as a paperback book and copies will be available for purchase).  Take a look at last semester's class project book HERE!  Students will also participate in a variety of other creative writing activities to help them engage with these novels.  Students will also have the option of writing longer (4-5 page) essays, so that they may practice developing their ideas and analysis in more detail.  Because writing is one of the most important and essential skills a student can learn, we’ll be emphasizing the entire writing process – from planning through drafting and revision.  Writing well allows students to express their ideas, argue their opinions and demonstrate their knowledge.   As they write about these novels, students will go through the process of organizing, developing and clearly articulating their ideas -- an excellent way to learn about any subject.  We will look at essays together as a class so students can also learn about the reactions their writing elicits from others and offer helpful feedback to aid with the revision process.  This class will be a great opportunity to enjoy some wonderful novels and practice essential literary analysis and writing skills.

Novels to Knowledge: Writing & Literature Through History (Middle Ages)

Wednesdays: 10:30am
Ages:  10-13
Travel back to the Middle Ages with some fantastic Newberry Winning books.  There are so many engaging, entertaining and educational historical fiction novels for this age group and over the years, Newberys have been awarded to the very best.  This semester we’ll be reading books with storylines from Medieval England, Poland and Korea …and they're all FANTASTIC stories:
Catherine, Called Birdy – 1290 (1995 Newbery Honor Book) – Unhappy about her impending, arranged marriage, 13 year old, Birdy, daughter of an English Nobleman, keeps a journal in which she records the events of her life. Birdy details a wealth of information about medieval England (it’s food, dress, religious beliefs, manners, health, medical practices, and (un)sanitary habits).  Kids LOVE this book!

Crispin, the Cross of Lead – 14th Century (2003 Newbery Winner) -Falsely accused of theft and murder, an orphaned peasant boy in fourteenth-century England flees his village and meets a larger-than-life juggler who holds a dangerous secret.

The Single Chard – 12th Century Korea (2002 Newbery Winner) -- A thirteen-year-old orphan in medieval Korea, lives under a bridge in a potters' village, and longs to learn how to throw the delicate celadon ceramics himself.

The Door in the Wall – Middle Ages (1950 Newbery Winner) - A crippled boy in fourteenth-century England proves his courage and earns recognition from the King.

The Trumpeter of Krakow – 15th century Poland (1929 Newbery Winner) - A Polish family in the Middle Ages guards a great secret treasure and a boy's memory of an earlier trumpeter of Krakow makes it possible for him to save his father.  This one is a classic!

Reading, discussing and writing about these five novels will create a truly amazing literary and history experience for mature and focused 10-13 year old students eager to expand their analysis and essay writing skills.  For our class projects, we’ll be incorporating the "literary circles" approach -- where each student takes on a specific role (Character Analyst / Thematic Advisor / Summarizer / Historian / Passage Illuminator) for each novel. Over the course of the semester, students will write five 2-3 page essays related to their “role” for each book.  By the end of the semester, the class will have created a full-fledged book entitled “The Novels to Knowledge Guide to Historical Fiction (Middle Ages).”  (We’ll publish this as a paperback book and copies will be available for purchase.)  Take a look at last semester's class project book HERE!  Students will also participate in a variety of other creative writing activities to help them engage with these novels.  Because writing is one of the most important and essential skills a student can learn, we’ll be emphasizing the entire writing process – from planning through drafting and revision.  Writing well allows students to express their ideas, argue their opinions and demonstrate their knowledge.   As they write about these novels, students will go through the process of organizing, developing and clearly articulating their ideas -- an excellent way to learn about any subject.  We will look at essays together as a class so students can also learn about the reactions their writing elicits from others and offer helpful feedback to aid with the revision process.  This class will be a great opportunity to enjoy some wonderful novels and practice essential literary analysis and writing skills.

Creative Writing: How to Outline Your Way to a Terrific Story!

Mondays: 2pm
Ages 12+ 
J.K. Rowling outlined her Harry Potter series for 5 full years before she began writing the 1st book!  This method allowed her to develop ideas, maintain cohesion and create connections throughout ALL 7 novels that surprised and delighted her readers.  Before we even put pen to paper in this class, we will disable, bind and gag our “inner editors” to free ourselves to create and imagine -- uninhibited (don’t worry we’ll eventually free them, but only towards the end J).  We’ll then start in on our work by looking closely at the characteristics of great novels and drafting our own “Story-Idea Maps.”  We’ll then move on to character and conflict development as we make “Scene Cards” to help chart our stories.  We’ll use the concept of “roller coasters” to figuratively outline our plots.   Once our plots are outlined we’ll explore and create various “settings” and “moods” for our scenes before turning to the tricky art of writing strong dialogue.  We’ll use “cartoon strips” to help us develop and sharpen our dialogue before we move backwards to examine “great starts” and how to hook a reader in the very first pages.  Narrowing our focus, we’ll then move on to “details, details, details” and create “Theme Spiders” to make sure our stories have a meaningful impact on our readers.  We’ll then utilize character interview “lists” to help sharpen and individualize not only our protagonist and antagonist, but supporting characters as well.  We’ll spend two weeks participating in “Revision Workshops” where students can ask for help from the class on particularly tough scenes, and finally, mercifully, unleash our inner editors to rage their way across our pages before submitting our “novellas” to “Lulu.com” for self-publishing.  Take a look at previous semester publications HERE, and HERE!   Each student will leave the course with a published, paperback-bound version of their book in hand (with more available for friends, family and general readers to buy online).   We’ll even design “book jacket” advertisements for each book to hand out at the “End of Semester” show!   Although we’ll be utilizing our outlines to create fiction, the techniques we learn will be quite useful (in fact, invaluable) in expository and argumentative writing as well.  The ability to outline quickly and efficiently is especially crucial for timed writing tests. Organizing ideas into a cohesive whole is essential for good writing of any kind and students will enjoy learning to wield this useful tool through creative writing.  

Writing Adventures in Storybook-Land

Mondays: 12:30pm
Ages 7-9
Kids should LOVE writing!!  I have gathered a marvelous set of children’s storybooks ABOUT WRITING that will spark you child’s imagination and inspire wonderful and thoughtful writing.  This is a class that will delight even the most reluctant writers.  They will laugh and have fun reading these clever picture books in class and the books will help inspire their own creative writing.   The earlier students become comfortable writing the better!  This class is designed to give young students a chance to participate in some really fun, hands-on, creative, expository and descriptive writing tasks, while serving as a captive audience for one another.  Kids will love these story books, but I guarantee their favorite part of the class will be reading aloud what they’ve written and enjoying the writing of their classmates.  These students will be PROUD of their writing and eager to share!   I’ve seen it again and again – there’s nothing so encouraging to young emergent writers as seeing that they’ve entertained others with their creations!  I imagine this will be a noisy, boisterous and fun class, as we learn how to get our ideas about those subjects down on paper.  This course will introduce our youngest students to strong writing skills and stretch their creativity in a fun and engaging way.  Each class will begin with an inspiring picture-book about writing, followed by a discussion of the book to spark their own creative ideas and then writing sessions and a chance to share their writing with their classmates.  Because students will be sharing their writing, they’ll have an opportunity to work together on revision skills.  Here is the schedule for this semester:

Week 1:  WhatDo Authors Do? (By Eileen Christelow) – This wonderful children’s book explains the writing process step by step.  We’ll enjoy the book together and write our own stories using each of the steps described in the book.  Focus:  The Writing Process (Narrative Writing)

Week 2:  AuntIsabel Tells A Good One (By Kate Duke) – Here we’ll focus on character and detail as we read about how Penelope, a young mouse, and her Aunt Isabel work out all the elements of a clever story using lots of details.  For example, Aunt Isabel adds villains as she explains to Penelope that stories must have problems to be resolved.  As a class we’ll discuss what elements make a good story and for our writing project students will write a story with a very memorable character.  Focus:  Details (Narrative Writing)

Week 3:  I’min Charge of Celebrations (By Byrd Baylor) – This joyous celebration of the earth will help show students how to find ideas for writing in everyday life.  We’ll come up with our own ideas for imaginative holidays and write down descriptions of how and why they should be celebrated.  Focus:  Exploring Ideas (Expository Writing)

Week 4: If You Were a Writer (By Joan Lowery Nixon) Writers think a lot about words – words that make pictures and show what is happening.  They also play with ideas asking “what if” about the things, people and events that surround them every day.  They invent a character to fit their ideas and give that character a problem to solve.  This story about a little girl “figuring out” how to write stories will inspire our own.   Focus:  Writing Process (Narrative Writing)

Week 5: I Wanna Iguana (By Karen Kaufman Orloff) – In this story, young Alex gives his mother lots of reasons why he should have an iguana for a pet.  It also shows students how to organize ideas to make them persuasive.  Students will each write a persuasive essay about something they want.  Focus:  Organization (Persuasive Writing)

Week 6:  Voices (By Anthony Brown) – This is a wonderful story for teaching young students about “voice.”  A day at the park told from different perspectives allows students to understand how to create individual characters and tap into their own individual style.  We’ll explore how to find our own “voice,” discovery new “voices” and match “voice” to purpose.  Focus:  Voice (Creative Writing)    

Week 7:  TheBest Story (By Eileen Spinelli) – When a young girl enters a writing contest, she gets all kinds of writing advice:  “The best stories have lots of action… plenty of humor… they make people cry… or have lots of romance.”  But finally her mother tells her “the best story is one that comes from the heart.”  The girl learns to write about her own experiences and we will too as we take an event that really happened in our lives and make it into a great story.  Focus:  Generating Ideas (Narrative Writing)

Week 8:  Show;Don’t Tell! (By Josephine Nobisso) – This beautifully illustrated book will take students on a romp through different ways of using the five senses to bring descriptions alive.  The author demonstrates how to use not only adjectives and nouns to liven up writing, but also metaphor and simile.  Focus:  The 5 Senses (Descriptive Writing)

Week 9:  YouHave to Write (By Janet S. Wong)– This delightful book will encourage kids to mine their own experiences for writing ideas.  We’ll take incidents from our own lives and create “stories of us.”   Focus:  Voice/Invention (Creative Writing)

Week 10:  Max’sWords (By Kate Banks) – The main character in this wonderful story book has a special collection.  It’s not a stamp collection or a coin collection; it’s a word collection.  Words can be shared and (best of all) made into stories.  We’ll create our own word collections and use them to write stories.  Focus:  Word Choice (Creative Writing)

Week 11: Diary of a Worm (By Doreen Cronin) – This is the hilarious story of a worm who keeps a diary of daily events.  We’ll play with perspective for this project and imagine ourselves as someone or something else and keep a diary from that point of view (maybe a pet, a parent or a sibling J)  Focus:  Point of View (Creative Writing)

Week 12:  ThePlot Chickens (By Mary Jane and Herm Auch) – As Henrietta Chicken begins to type her story (hunt and peck system, of course) students will learn the seven cardinal rules of creating a story from finding a main character to developing a plot to making your story come alive by using all five senses.  We’ll write our own stories following her advice.  Focus:  Plot, Details (Narrative Writing)

Week 13:  NothingEver Happens on 90th Street (By Ronni Schotter) - The main character in this inspiring picture book is searching for something to write about as passing residents share words of wisdom: watch carefully, don't neglect details, use words in new ways, stretch the truth if necessary, make something happen.  She follows their advice and so will we as take on a similar writing task.  Focus:  Invention & Word Choice (Descriptive/Narrative Writing)

Week 14:  Portfolio Preparation.  Today we’ll celebrate our last day of class by assembling and artistically illustrating our semester portfolios.  Students will treasure their collection of stories and other writings from our class and will be eager to share and show them off at our End of Semester show.

Effective Essays: Writing Persuasively

Mondays: 10:30am
Ages 10-13
Writing is one of the most important and essential skills a student can learn.  Students who can organize their ideas and analyze well have a huge educational advantage. This is a class for students who already write paragraphs and short essays well and are ready to move on to longer persuasive essays.  This class will take students step by step through the process of creating a strong essay.  Students will begin by learning (or reviewing) the basic five paragraph essay structure 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 and thought provoking argumentative topics to help elicit strong writing from students.  We’ll use these to practice developing our ideas and then organizing them into strong persuasive essays.  Students will gain valuable experience planning, drafting and revising their essays.  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.  We will use a Roundtable Writers’ Workshop format to look at essays together as a class so students can also learn about the reactions their writing elicits from others.  Writing is, first and foremost, communication, so we’ll look at both ends of that transaction: the writer and the reader.  Whether you want to prepare for the type of writing you’ll need to master for high school success, or just want to practice your persuasive writing skills, this is the class for you.  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.

Writing Courses for Homeschoolers

As our fall classes our winding down, I'm astonished (as always) with the impressive amount of quality writing my students have completed this semester.  Often, I think my main job as a writing mentor is to encourage kids to write early and often.  When they take my classes, this is exactly what happens.  They absorb all kinds of guidelines and advice about how to improve their writing, but the very act of writing regularly yields amazing results.  Beyond this, the next best thing you can do for your young writer is to provide them with an audience.  In my classes students read their essays aloud to each other and serve as an audience for their fellow authors.  They exchange advice (with my guidance) and benefit from both ends of that exchange.  As an author, they have an opportunity to understand the impact their writing has on others -- they can see first hand when they've interested, entertained or puzzled their readers.  As an audience member, they must articulate what about a piece of writing should be improved and really think through the best way of accomplishing the necessary revisions.  Alas, this is rarely an environment that individual homeschoolers can easily create working one on one with their kids.  Finding a homeschool writing class or co-op is often the answer.

I like to give students a wide range of writing opportunities and I think the classes I have planned for this next semester will do just that.  If you live in the Los Angeles area and are interested in enrolling your child in one of my classes at the Huckleberry Learning Center for the spring 2012 semester (beginning in early February), the following links will take you to more detailed descriptions.  The Huckleberry Learning Center website - www.hucklc.org - will be ready for registration within a few weeks, but here's a preview:

Mondays: 12:30pm

Mondays: 2pm

Wednesdays: 10:30am

Wednesdays: 12:30pm

Wednesdays: 2pm

Thanksgiving Preparations

It's getting to be that time of year.  Around here we take at least a full week off from homeschooling to prepare and enjoy a massive Thanksgiving feast.  It has long been a tradition in my family that Turkeys get eaten at an elevation of at least a mile high.  When I lived in the San Fernando Valley, that meant having all the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, 2nd cousins, friends and other misc. categories of guests up to my Dad's cabin in the mountains.  Now that we live up here full time, we've become the hosts for this annual fest.  We LOVE the chance to see family and friends we may not get to see to often, but preparation is always -- well, let's just say:  involved.  The turkeys have been purchased and will soon begin defrosting and tomorrow's the big shopping day for all the other ingredients for the feast.  Today though is all about moving furniture and cleaning.  In order to get 40+ people comfortably seated in my living room/dining room area, everything has to be moved out of the center area and where possible, set flush against the walls.  The room always looks very different this way and my cats are wandering around in a daze trying to figure out why their world has been so dramatically altered.  They'll likely spend most of the week hiding from visitors anyway and only come out in the middle of the night to eat and relieve themselves.  Our pets all run high to scaredy-cats.  Just think how happy my furniture and rugs will be to get a brief reprieve from their primary function as cat scratching posts.  Anyway, the preparations continue around here, but if we get any time at all -- our homeschooling will consist of fun Thanksgiving related activities.

If you're looking for some fun and educational activities to do with your homeschooled kids this Thanksgiving, try one of these great links:

For games and crafts:  http://www.kiddyhouse.com/Thanksgiving/
For more historical information and interactive education games: http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids

Happy Prepping!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wine Sock!

What?  Like you don't have socks for your wine?  You know you want one. J  I'm telling you -- this thing is just crazy cool!  Now, I say that about all kinds of hand knit designs, but I think we can all agree that a well-socked wine is an idea whose time has come!

Socks are cozy, but I couldn't quite bear to call this a wine cozy.  Cozies are for tea.  Wine needs something a little more hip and for me that's socks.  This little baby happens to be a gift for my youngest of younger brothers, who turned 29 earlier this week.  Last I heard he was having a swinging party tonight, so he'd better not stop to read this blog before I see him tomorrow around noon.  I am counting on a very, very late night and maybe a slight hangover to keep him off the computer until then.

If you are not so lucky as to have a sister who will knit socks for your wine, you needn't suffer and feel deprived.  You too can knit a wine sock:  the pattern for this jazzy creation is here.  I made mine with Noro Silk Garden:  Color #47.  It took almost an entire skein and if I'd wanted a longer tie I probably could've used the whole thing.  I just didn't want to have to tie a bow on it.  If I do a cutesy pink one someday, I'll go a bit wilder with bows and such.

You'll note that the pattern designer does in fact call this a wine cozy -- but I forgive her for that because she took the seaming out of this project and for that I really am quite grateful.  Variations of this have been around for quite some time in a variety of gorgeous designs.  But almost all are knit flat for some weird reason.  I just can't knit a circular object flat and think straight. So, I was grateful to find a simple version, knit in the round, that did the job quite nicely.

You know you want one!

And Nick, if you're reading this before you've received your gift - act surprised :)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mindless Needling - Basic, But Beautiful, Socks

Sometimes you just need an easy, no brainer-type project.  Over the last week or so, this pair of socks filled that niche for me.  They're just a basic ribbed pattern knit from a stunning yarn by Colinette's Jitterbug (Copperbeech).  As usual, the flash on my camera does a wicked job of over-brightening colors.  In reality the brown on these is more of a deepish brown/red and the colors mixed in (reds, blues and yellows) are far more subtle than they appear in my photo.  The picture below is far more accurate:

The yarn is 100% merino and was really nice to work with.  Even nicer was not needing much of a pattern. It's spring break here and I truly needed mindless knitting I could truck along on vacation without much effort.  This fit the bill and they fit my feet -- super comfy.

Romeo & Juliet - Mountain Shakespeare Festival

Production is well underway up here for this summer's Mountain Shakespeare Festival!  As dramaturg, I collaborate with the festival organizers, help the actors understand some of the more difficult lines, and pen the synopses of the plays.  This week I finished the write-up for Romeo and Juliet.  The staging our director (Peter Kjeenas) has planned will emphasize the stark inevitability of the tragedy, so that's where I placed my focus.  For more information, visit the Mountain Shakespeare Festival Website.  Show dates and times can be found HERE.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the quintessential tale of lovers valiantly fighting against the external forces trying to thwart their love.  Not only do their families feud, but time and space seems to conspire against them.  They are indeed star-crossed and no matter what they do or where they turn, their fates are sealed.  Part of the tragic tug these two young characters exert on our hearts stems from that inevitability.  We know from the first lines of the play that their fortunes, written in the stars, have been predetermined.  Still, we can’t help but wish, each time through, that Romeo could indeed “Defy the stars” and foil the destiny decreed by parents, society and the universe. 

Shakespeare here makes it clear that all of cosmology conspires against these two.  In a world of darkness, they see each other as light.  Juliet is Romeo’s “sun” and he to her is “day in night,” but together they are like the “lightening, which doth cease to be ere one can say it lightens.”  They give each other light and heat, but like supernovas, they implode and the darkness, inevitably returns.  Their struggle is like that of Sisyphus – and though at times it appears as though they can steer their own course, their struggle is mythical and they are ultimately unable to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars.”  We watch as they push their rock of love up a mountain of obstacles, hoping each time that the outcome will be different.  But they’re trapped in their story and their story remains the same.  Much as we’d like to redirect the outcome of their “death-mark’d love,” they are indeed “fortune’s fools.”  Shakespeare here reminds us that perhaps we are too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yosemite Waterfalls & Moonbows... "Blessed Mountain Evangels"

Visiting Yosemite Valley is always a humbling experience.  It seems to me impossible to stand amidst all that towering granite and think of yourself as anything, but minute... small and fleeting.  Yet, far from depressing, this vantage point always feels invigorating to me.  Any problems I may have fall into proper perspective as fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  Suddenly the greatest of dilemmas seems trivial and far easier to handle.  This sort of attitude adjustment is available all year round in Yosemite, but in the spring there's the added bonus of the powerful waterfalls.  I'll not wax poetic about the baptismal, renewing nature of water, but you probably get the idea.  Go to Yosemite in spring, after a winter of fairly heavy precipitation and you'll understand the true meaning of breathtaking.

My first picture above is Bridalveil Falls and the name says it all... gorgeous.  The little hike to the falls is rather damp, but well worth it.  When you get to the viewpoint, it really feels like you're in a drizzling rainstorm... as you can see from the droplets in my pictures.  Below is Cascade Falls and and my equally gorgeous daughter gives a good size perspective there in front of the massive boulders.  We all scrambled up and behind those boulders to get as close as we could to the base of the falls.
We saw Yosemite Falls in full flow and many other smaller falls we didn't know the names of.  When we rented bikes, the cashier pointed out "Staircase Falls," which literally fell in a squarish step-down, staircase pattern over the granite formations.  We did however, miss out on seeing a Moonbow over Yosemite Falls.  The night we'd hoped to see it turned out fairly cloudy and we ended up getting a little rain, so we decided not to hang out until midnight (best viewing time for Moonbows apparently).

If you're not familiar with a moonbow, think rainbow -- only lunar powered!  They're sort of a double reflection that forms when light from the sun is reflected by the moon and then reflected in a spray of water (like that from a waterfall).  You need a full moon and a clear night.  They're very rare and can only be seen in a handful of places around the world -- Yosemite being one of the most famous.  In Yosemite, you generally want a full moon in April-June.  Well, last Sunday night was indeed the full moon, but we were thwarted by cloud cover.  Since we were unable to see it or get pictures, I'm including a stock picture to give you an idea of what one looks like.
And I'll end this post with John Muir's description of a Moonbow of Yosemite:  “This grand arc of color, glowing in mild, shapely beauty in so weird and huge a chamber of night shadows, and amid the rush and roar and tumultuous dashing of this thunder-voiced fall, is one of the most impressive and most cheering of all the blessed mountain evangels.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Beautiful Bedjacket

I've been knitting -- a lot!  Between the power outage and being sick, it seems like I've had more opportunities these last few weeks.  One project I've been working on is this Bed Jacket Charlotte has been coveting for many moons.  It's one my sister Kate made a few years back and from the moment Charlotte saw it, she wanted it.  The pattern is by Joan McGowan-Michael and is included in her book, Knitting Lingerie Style.  The Ravelry page with other iterations of this gorgeous piece is here and my Ravelry page project link for it is here.  I knit it out of a cotton (Cascade Yarns Luna in Red #707) and I'm really happy with the look and the drape.  It's such a sweet, comfy, old-fashioned thing to have a Bed Jacket to wear over nightgowns.  It will be warm and cozy on our cold, snowy nights here in the mountains and frankly I'm jealous.  I'd make myself one, but frankly this thing required so much seaming and so many fiddly little finishing techniques (it took about 8 hours to steam and seam all the parts together, crochet the edging and embroider over the seams) -- I think I'll pass.  If my younger daughter eventually asks for one, I guess I'll have to do it again, but otherwise I'd prefer to just admire this one and let it go at that.

Ironically, the one day I had 8 hours to spend all in one sitting was actually last Friday, April 1st -- my sister Kate's birthday.  So I think the jacket really is a tribute to Kate in its own way.

It really is quite lovely and opened up, it has quite a gorgeous "winged" look.  The entire thing is one big circle and the lacy edging is quite dramatic.
By the way, pay no attention to the swirly circle thing on the jacket in the picture above -- it doesn't exist in reality -- just some weird trick of my stupid camera and the light.  The drape of the jacket is also a real highlight -- it's heavier than you'd imagine.
Sheesh! I wish my hair looked like that :)  The overall effect is very vintage and Charlotte's quite pleased with it.  We especially like the graceful sleeves, which you can see a little better in this picture: