Archive | September, 2011

A Day at the Japanese Gardens

22 Sep

With our first of several guests, Claudia, in town last week, Mustard Seed and I took her to Austin to explore the environs a bit.  We started with some lunch at Shady Grove, a place with a beautiful oak-covered patio that takes trailer-park chic to a new level and has an absolutely delicious Hippie Sandwich that you must try if you’re ever in the area.

Then we headed a short distance to the Japanese Botanical Gardens in Zilker Park.  They were built in the 60s by a Japanese immigrant whose children went to the University of Texas.  As thanks to the city of Austin for their education, he built these gardens.


The gardens are on a hillside in the shadow of downtown, blending treetops with skyscrapers.  You first come across an open rose garden presided over by an arch that feels a bit like modern Texas ruins. Then rock paths lead you down the hill where you stumble on a delightful koi fish pond with channels of water running into it.  Ordinarily, a high pile of rocks also spills a waterfall down into it, but the drought currently precludes keeping it on.

Ordinarily, you would also find lots of very large koi, but as the garden keeper, who was cleaning the pond told us, only Kryptonite, the invincible fish, is left.  All the others either died or, more likely, were stolen.  He recounted in an amiable New York accent his involvement, along with the police, in a SWAT-style raid on a house where the stolen fish were believed to have been secreted away.  He donned a bullet-proof vest, waited patiently while the cops kicked in the door of the house, and then, anxiously expecting a reunion with the fish he obviously has a soft spot for, was escorted to the back where there were fish in tanks.  Sadly, he didn’t recognize any as fish from the gardens.  Thus Kryptonite remains the sole resident of the pond.


The plants in the garden are all native or very well-suited to the area.  A number of xeriscaping techniques have been incorporated to make the garden low maintenance.  We saw blue mulhy grass, purple coneflower (echinacea), Esperanza Goldstar, social garlic, dessert willow, and various types of cactus, among other things.  Bamboo is not native to Texas but grows very well here–almost too well, in fact.  I love the graffiti on these bamboo stalks, the thought that not only will these messages be obliterated with time, they will be completely healed over by the plant.

We took lots of time to explore, to send acorn caps down the channel, pretending it was a roaring river, to see if they would capsize on arriving at the ocean.  We found mesquite pods.  We looked at leaves.  We climbed the small hill that overlooks the boat-shaped island in the pond.  We jumped from rock to rock.  Here, my uncle, who accompanied us, shows Mustard Seed some wonder of the garden.


St. Francis of Assisi gives a sermon in a shady corner.

And nearby a lizard tries to look natural as prying eyes try to get a closer look.

After the gardens, we did something so refreshing I think we may do it all next summer.  We took a dip in Barton Springs, a natural cold spring within Zilker Park.  It costs about $3 per person, and the spring water has been pooled, so that you’re swimming in natural, chemical-free water, but you’re also free from most critters (except the salamander colony that resides on the far side, which tends to be shy anyway).  The bottom is cemented, but moss grows very thick on it, so walking is a bit tricky.  But the temperature of the water after all these triple digit days…heavenly!  Hint: the best way in is all at once!


Secret Math Weapon: Secret Codes

22 Sep


Photo courtesy of Adam Wilson

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but perhaps something clicked after I heard Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing speak at the homeschooling conference earlier this month.

He said creating relevance is the most important and effective thing you can do as a teacher.

He also said that my oft-recited tagline, “You’ll do your math, darn it and you’ll enjoy it!!!,” is really not going to get me or Mustard Seed anywhere.  In his language, that’s enforced relevance, the least effective and least pleasant kind.  The kind where you resort to making someone do something…or else!

The best kind is intrinsic relevance, where the student is interested in the material because they inherently enjoy it.  True, learning is a discipline and that means sometimes doing things you don’t enjoy to get a long-term pay-off, but there will be a lot of built-in opportunities for discipline.  Meanwhile, it’s very motivating to get a taste of the cool things you can do with your study.

Secret Codes

It doesn’t take much genius to know that young girls love secrets.  Mustard Seed has all kinds of secret lists and whisper-whisper moments with hands cupped over friends’ ears.  This top secret information usually turns out to be some kind of bombshell like, “Teeheehee, don’t tell my mom, but my favorite color is now blue instead of pink.”

Bingo!  Mommy sees this and and thinks “instant relevance.”

Since I’ve been making up her math worksheets anyway, today I wrote her a special message and encoded it.  She had to work problems, the answers to each of which revealed the letters of a message.  My code was very simple: I just numbered the alphabet, but this link lists several sites that do more complicated codes.   We had a lot of fun with this pyramid code also.  I’d really like to find a webpage where I can enter a personalized message and it churns out math problems at her skill level that will yield my secret message when she solves them, a quick way to do what I did today.

Mustard Seed seems to love this and not even really realize she’s doing math.  She was even adding up 2 two-digit numbers in her head while we were doing this!  I would be so eager to hear your tips, tricks and ideas for making math fresh and fun.  Leave me a comment!