Archive | September, 2010

To the Seashore We Will Go

29 Sep

Whoever said learning can’t be fun never took six first-graders to the beach.  What better way to find out about about not only the creatures of the coast, but also the coast itself, than by taking kids there and showing it to them?

That’s what I was up to Friday as I hosted our second mini-coop meeting/science club.  This was something that came about at the end of last school year as a way to hold on to the relationships that Mustard Seed had formed, as well as to do some of the learning activities that just aren’t as much fun by yourself.  Like putting on plays or playing catch at recess.  See what I mean?  Not as much fun by yourself.

At the same time, I’m sort of commitment-phobic (to misuse a term I so often get annoyed with myself), so I didn’t want to bind myself to a full-fledged weekly co-op where I would be responsible for teaching one of the subjects every week.  In fact, my throat just closed a little even typing that.  Instead, we’re doing a “mini-coop”.  We meet every other Friday, more or less, and alternate covering history and science only.  Each family hosts 5 meetings per year, so it’s a good way to spread the burden–I mean, joy–of preparing all the activities.

Since all the families are studying biology this year, I thought that as hostess for the first science meeting, I’d kick it off with a field trip to Galveston Island State Park.  It’s easy to go to the beach a hundred times and not ever pay attention to the wildlife that lurks just under the surface or the important landscape, so I tried to open the kids’ eyes to the nuances in habitat, the important environmental functions the island serves, and the teeming fauna to be found if one knows where to look.

Galveston is a long, skinny barrier island that’s basically a glorified sandbar.  It’s situated just a short way off the mainland, and the bay between the island and the mainland is an important estuary environment that serves as a spawning ground for lots of species.  First on the agenda was a visit to the Gulf side of the island.  Here we learned that there are actually 3 different sub-habitats: the dunes, the surf line and the subtidal (the area that’s in the water).  We talked about why the dunes are important (so the island doesn’t erode) and the fact that different grasses and plants hold the dunes together with their roots.

We discussed the five different kinds of vertebrates, especially going over the specific characteristics of mammals and fish.  The kids named some sea animals, and we talked about what kind of animals they are.  We discussed the fact that not only fish live in and around the sea; there are also birds (herons, sea gulls, pelicans), reptiles (sea turtles in the water and rattlesnakes on the dunes), and mammals (whales and dolphins; and there are other animals that have a shell on the outside instead of a backbone (crabs and clams).

We dug unsuccessfully for ghost crabs, but they came out and paid us a visit later in the evening.

We found these guys right at the surf line and put them in a bucket to observe.  After they got over their shyness, it was fascinating to watch them put out a little gelatinous foot and squirm around the thin layer of sand in the bottom.  When we put them back on the ground, they quickly wiggled their way back under it.

The gulls were ubiquitous and eagerly relieved one of the kids of his lunch.  In the evening, sandpipers came out as well and scurried across the beach.  We learned that the more birds you see overhead, the more critters you can be sure to find under the sand and in the water, since birds come out to feed on them.

One word got thrown around a lot that day: sargasso.  Many beaches have seaweed.  In Galveston there is sargasso.  It floats all the way from the Sargasso Sea between the West Indies and the Azores.  It also plays a big role in preventing erosion, and it hosts a variety of life as well, while it’s in the water.  After it hits the beach, most of its residents jump ship, so it’s best to catch it in a bucket fresh from the water if you want to inspect them.

Next up was a short drive over to the bay side of the island, where calm saltwater marshes dominate the landscape.  Tall cordgrass flanks the shallow water.  Off in the distance, large herons and brown pelicans glide low, looking for a meal.  We sidled up to the marsh’s edge and were immediately rewarded with a find of lots of hermit crabs.  The kids had fun picking them up and peeking at them inside their shells.

Peeking at a hermit crab

A fisherman standing nearby was kind enough to point out the fiddler crab holes in the bank nearby.  The balls of dirt are made by the crabs.  The bigger the ball, the bigger the crab.

Fiddler crabs make holes in the banks of salt marshes, leaving large dirt balls outside (shown at center).

He also let me take a picture of the sheepshead fish that he had caught and was just about to throw back.

Sheepshead fish caught by a fisherman and about to be released

Other cool discoveries were some bird tracks and a pair of disembodied crab pinchers.

Who's tracks could these be? A heron? A spoonbill?

Examining a find

To wrap up the day, we made two models to help the kids understand the concept of an estuary.  We colored one bottle of water blue and another yellow.  I had a volunteer add lots of salt to the blue bottle to represent the salt water coming from the ocean.  The yellow was to represent the fresh water coming from the rivers and runoff from the mainland.  Then we passed the bottle around and the kids mixed the yellow fresh water and the blue salt water, yielding green estuary water.

Mixing "salt water" and "fresh water" in our model estuary

For the next demonstration, we poured water down a baking pan stood up at an angle.  Of course, the water reached the bottom side quickly.  This was to show what would happen with water if there wasn’t an estuary.  Then the kids filled the pan with some damp sand mixed with sargasso and some shells.  (Grass and sticks are another option.)  Then we poured the water down the pan again, but this time, it took the water longer to get to the bottom side, representing the fact that an estuary slows water’s flow into the ocean.

Demonstrating the purifying function of an estuary

Finally, we sprinkled some pepper up near the top of the pan to represent pollutants that might be in the water.  Then we poured the water in one last time, and the kids were able to observe that most of the pepper got trapped among the sargasso and shells and didn’t make it to the bottom of the pan.  This demonstrated how the estuary acts to filter out pollutants and keep them from reaching the ocean.

Of course, mixed in with all of this, there was much giggling and frolicking in the waves, running along the beach and digging sand holes.  (Socialization and physical education: check!)  Did the kids learn something about the flora and fauna of Galveston?  I think so.  But if nothing more, we made a fun memory with friends at the beach and they learned to love playing in nature, seeking out all its curiosities, and enjoying it for what it is.  The kinds of things that will inspire them to keep learning about Creation as they grow older.


With Faith and Trust and a Sprinkling of Pixie Dust

25 Sep

For Mustard Seed’s 6th birthday, our home was transformed into Pixie Hollow.  I sat down with her to look at Martha Stewart’s ideas for kids’ birthday parties, and she chose the pixie one, so I ran with it.  It would have been really nice to have white ponies and ride them through the forest behind our house…buuuut first of all, we have no forest behind our house and second, geez, that pony thing is expensive!  Nevertheless, I think we came up with something nice and fun on a smaller budget.  Perhaps not as small as it should have been, but don’t judge me for that!

We made each girl a fairy crown in advance.  I simply bought some green florist’s wire and, using Mustard Seed’s head as a guide for the circumference, used a wire cutter to cut the strips.  I formed a circle by intertwining the ends.  I also bought artificial flowers and cut them off their stalks.  Using my hot glue gun, I arranged them in florets on the front of the crown, and later added leaves to the sides.

I made acorn caps for the boys.  I simply took some brown felt bought at the fabric store and put it around Mustard Seed’s head to mark where I would need to cut (allowing for a hot glue “seam”).  I cut a rectangle that was a good bit taller than her head and hot glued the seam.  When it was dry, I put the tube of fabric back on her head and used a brown ponytail holder to bunch up the top.  I cut off the excess at the top, leaving only about an inch-worth of a stub and trying to make that as even possible.  Then I cut a rectangle of felt just long enough to go around the stub.  I hot glued the ends together and put a little more hot glue between the stub and the inside of the cover strip to hold it.  Later i got down some leaves I had left over from a Thanksgiving decoration, that had a bit of glitter on them.  If I’d not been lazy I would have hot glued this also, but I was short on time so I used a paper clip to fix two leaves to the front!  If I’d really been on my game, I would have sewn the whole thing.

For decorations, I photocopied a few pictures of Flower Fairies (hmmm…not sure, now that I think of it, if I should admit that).  These I hung on the walls in the breakfast and living rooms.  I had a bolt of white tulle left over from a baby shower, so I strung twine across the entrance to the breakfast room and draped a strip of tulle over that in kind of “butterfly wing” formation.  After making the flower crowns, I had a few flowers left over, so I hot glue a few here and there on the tulle curtain.  There were white Christmas lights on the mantel in the living room, and artificial English ivy was draped over the window in the breakfast room.  If I’d had a bigger budget I probably would have used more fake greenery.  The tablecloths were a hot pink and the plates and napkins bright green.  The only nod to Tinkerbell was some tasteful cups we found at Wal-Mart which happened to match pretty well.

The first thing the kiddos did upon arriving was go to the “wand station”.  Ahead of the party, I used gold spray paint left over from painting griffin wings (that’s another story) to transform ordinary dowel rods into something more magical.  Oodles of strips of curling ribbon (also cut in advance) were simply tied to the end of the dowel rod.

Next, everyone got to color fairy coloring pages, which I got off the Flower Fairies website.

After that, it was time for the most daring activity of the evening, fairy gardens, which involved letting 6-year-olds play with glass, paint, and dirt in sparkly costumes!  A fairy garden was a glass jar filled with some potting soil and a piece of artificial carpet moss.  The kids then painted Shaker pegs that were shaped like long mushrooms.  The idea was for them to make them red with white dots, like the ones in Black Forest, or visa versa, but they got creative with it.  I had hoped we could make the mushrooms stand up, but we had to settle for laying them on top of the moss, which most of the kids seemed okay with.  They also enjoyed painting the outsides and lids of the jars.

Then it was time for dinner, which consisted of chicken wands and pineapple dipping sauce (which I based on this Martha Stewart recipe of the mango variety), Lipton instant mushroom rice, and strawberries.  To drink, there was sparkling apple cider and raspberry tea with real raspberries floating in it.

Mustard Seed really wanted to have cupcakes this year, so she and we made them together from scratch.  They were carrot cake with cream cheese icing.  We found some very cute cupcake papers and decorative toppers at Sur La Table.  (They also have fire trucks, pirates, princesses, and more!) And my friend was nice enough to lend us her cupcake stand.

A good time was had by all, and the evening was wrapped up with the only activity Mustard Seed could not have lived without: dancing in the moonlight.  After the little fairies had danced to their hearts’ content, we sent them home with a tiny bottle of pixie dust (bottles of wedding bubbles that we emptied of their bubbles and filled with glittered purple sand), a small bad of candied almonds, and a few rub-offs featuring beautiful winged things: hummingbirds, butterflies, and for the boys, bugs.

I have to say that I felt so grateful for the parents of Isabella’s friends, who stayed and all chipped in to help me.  If they hadn’t, I don’t think it would have gone of so smoothly, since I’m always getting myself way in over my head, especially with so many kids in such a small space!  I realized I’m so fortunate to be good friends with all of my child’s friends’ parents.  A big thank you to them!

Feast Like an Egyptian

13 Sep

Have you met my friend, Nefertiti?  She’s been staying at my place for some time, and tonight we decided to dine the way her people do, Egyptian style.

She told me that the common people in Egypt mainly eat barley bread and drink barley beer, with some fruits and vegetables thrown in.  We looked for barley flour at HEB and Fiesta, to make some barley flat bread, but we only found a mix for leavened barley bread.  We baked this up without the yeast, and it turned out okay.  We dipped ours in honey, but we also thought the ancient Egyptians might have chopped up garlic and onions to sprinkle on top, since they loved garlic and onions so much.

As for the beer, we found some non-alcoholic barley malt, which turned out to be quite good.

The rest of our spread consisted of cantaloupe, dried figs, sliced apples and grapes.

Of course, it wouldn’t have felt like the real thing without some costumes, so we crafted up the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt out of red construction paper, wax paper, foil, feathers, and tape.  Nefertiti’s dress was made from white pillow cases tied on with a bathrobe sash.  A striped pillow case also made a lovely nemes.  We made a royal procession with a tambourine upstairs to invite The Headmaster.

During our feast, we discussed your typical royal pharaoh stuff: hippopotamus hunts past and future, boating expeditions on the Nile, how the crops were looking, whether or not we should have ourselves another pyramid built, and who in the royal court we like best.  Though it was probably a bit anachronistic, I was Queen Hatsheput.  It was very gratifying to hear my little Nefertiti keep saying how much fun she was having.  We will definitely be doing more feasts as we study history!

School Room Revamp

2 Sep

I wasn’t sure whether to start the year before or after Mustard Seed’s birthday.  On one hand, I’d like to get through our first two units before Christmas, and that meant starting last week.  On the other hand, I knew that having birthday party would likely mean birthday-party-preparation-madness that would derail schooling anyway.  I opted to start last week and try to be disciplined about the birthday preparations, but it didn’t exactly work out.  The party (I think) turned out great, but school…well, hmmm.  Let’s just say we’re doing a do-over this week.

I promised you pictures of our school room once it was finished.  For now, “finished” will have to wait on account of financial considerations, but I’m pretty satisfied for the time being.  Step one was a nice coat of paint.  I’m so enamored of very striking color palettes, like arctic aquamarine with bright orange accents, or the one I went with, which was sky blue with rose red accents.  After painting, I had a small crisis.  If I had it to do over again, I would go way lighter on the blue, but all in all, I think it’s nice.  The other thing, as far as color, is that not all reds are equal.  We already had some red things, like these bins from Ikea…

…which I’m using to house our math supplies…

…and an angel my dad brought me from Guatemala when I was a little girl.  Now he hangs over the door of our classroom to bless and protect us.

The biggest thing was removing the mattress that my dad has so graciously lent us for house guests but which was taking up so much space and tempting us to nap during school time.  Now, we have a nice, open space.  I want to fill a little of that space up with this futon for having reading/snuggling time on.

I save up glass yogurt jars like a crazy woman.  Lately, they’ve been overflowing when the cabinet is opened.  At the same time, I was *so* frustrated with the jumble that was our little art supply caddy and wanting to buy some other organizers for its contents.  Well, voilá!  Two birds killed with one stone.  I used the jars to organize some of the supplies, and I plan to fancy them up sometime soon by heading over to Archiver’s to find some beautiful, color-coordinated paper to slip inside them.  For now, I’m just glad to have the colored pencils separate from the markers and to not have brads falling out every time I reach for the Elmer’s glue!

Also, while out shopping, I found several other little goodies.

These are the “People Colored Crayons” I got from Lakeshore Learning.  Mustard Seed was very excited about these, since, as a “multiracial” child,  she is now very curious about race and skin color.  Now she can color her people all the shades of the rainbow!

This is an Adding Machine, also from Lakeshore.  When your child presses the buttons, the answers to the addition facts can be seen on the side of the button.  We’re using Math U See, and I wasn’t sure how strong it is on math facts, so I thought this would be a fun way to beef up on them.

Now this, I know this doesn’t look like much, but this is my score from Ikea of a $1.99 curtain rod.  I plan to put a nice swag of super-cute fabric across the top of the window using it.

Other future plans include adding some big, cooshy pillows to throw on the futon out of more fun fabric,  and possibly creating two handmade wall hangings with a bird or owl theme and some Bible verses.

What do you think?  Any suggestions?

What I’m Reading

1 Sep

Actually, I just finished it: Out of the Silent Planet.  I’m not really into science fiction (except that I will get pretty into a Star Trek episode if you sit me down in front of one).  Even though, I love C.S. Lewis, it was hard for me to wade through the first few chapters of this book until I really got hooked in, precisely because of its resemblance to science fiction.  Not because of the quality of the writing, of course.  That’s what kept me hanging on.  Just because I don’t like thinking about the cold austerity of space and weird, other-worldly beings.

But once the book got into linguistic topics, I was hooked.  And once it began to present the possibility of a race of creatures that had essentially never become corrupt and sinful, never fallen, for the most part, my imagination was captured as well.  Out of the Silent Planet is the story of a professor who is kidnapped and taken to another planet.  Upon arriving on the new planet, the man manages to escape.  He eventually befriends a race of creatures and learns their language.  In this way, he finds out that his conceptions of space, of civilization, and of the origins of humankind are not as realistic as he might have thought.

This is part of my ongoing quest to become, well, worthy of my degree in English, I suppose, and better educated as a person and a homeschooling mom.  Somehow I managed to coast through school without reading lots of the classics, and this is something  I’d like to rectify.  Whatever else I end up reading, I’d like to work my way through all the works of C. S. Lewis because, well, he’s seriously cool.

Book Club, Anyone?

1 Sep

I set out tonight to find some titles about child training, like the everyday nuts and bolts of it.  Somehow instead I wound up watching pastor John Piper on Youtube.  His manner really struck me, as it was very well-considered and definitely not more of the simply feel-good fluff that is so omnipresent these days; but his mannerisms were nonetheless very humble.  This is not a combination of characteristics I see often enough.  It seems like the people who have definite ideas about things are all too often loud, bombastic, arrogant and puffed up.  It’s refreshing to see that it’s possible to hold very clear beliefs and communicate them in a meek way.

This led me to his website,, where I found the complete text of one of his books, Desiring God, for free!  Lots of sermons (which I have not listened to yet) are also available there.  Piper labels himself as a Christian Hedonist, and if I’m regurgitating his message accurately, he defines that as someone whose purpose in life is to find joy in God. The book is about how to go about doing that.  He says that he arrived at this philosophy from reading John Edwards, C.S. Lewis, and the Psalms.

I think I’m going to give it a read.  Would anyone like to read it with me?  Maybe we could do a virtual book club kind of thing?  Who’s in?