Monday, August 22, 2011

The First Day of School

Wow, where did the summer go? I can't believe we're starting school already. Not that we ever really stopped - we kept up our 6 weeks on/1 week off schedule all through summer. But today was the day that we cracked open the crisp new books, started some new units, and officially began third grade and preschool.

Here's the basic rundown for what I'm using and teaching this year:
Math: a Beka Arithmetic 3
Language: English for the Thoughtful Child 2
Science: 1st semester will be spent building an animal notebook based on the classification of living things, as well as plenty of camping nature study.
History: 1st semester focuses on American History from after Jefferson to Buchanan, using Stories of America Volume 1 (a Charlotte Mason based text)
Fine Art: starting with Renoir, then Rossini for poetry, followed by Vivaldi. We'll spend 2-3 weeks on each artist.
Penmanship: a Beka Penmanship 3, cursive writing
Spelling: a book I found in our basement stash, it's pretty generic
Literature: Misty of Chincoteague and the rest of the series if she loves it.

We'll also spend time journaling each day, learning handicrafts and kitchen skills, gardening, dance class and 4-H, and chautauqua in the spring. I'm happy with the goals we've set out for this year. I've got our days scheduled out down to the half hour, which is tedious but is the only way we get everything done. Instead of taking as long as it takes to complete an assignment, I'm allotting a reasonable amount of time and assigning unfinished work as "after-school work". The only tests I'll give are in math and spelling, and mostly just because she enjoys them.

And for my Big Preschooler: a focus on learning numbers 1-10 by sight and being able to write them, learning all the letters, writing them, and knowing their sounds. Aside from that, we'll just do plenty of living and playing with a focus on hands-on educational games and activities. She's in charge of fixing the morning snack each day (with help as needed) and does plenty to help around the house and garden. Preschool and kindergarten are both really relaxed at our house - I only assign as much "school work" as she seems to want to do. There will be plenty of time for learning later!

Here's wishing everyone a smooth, successful school year, whether at home or elsewhere!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Homeschool: Grammar Lesson

Having children correct grammatical mistakes in sentences is a common way of teaching them to improve their own grammar. It's been proven an effective teaching method time and again, and it's one I use frequently for my eight year old, who has a terrible habit of forgetting to capitalize the beginnings of sentences. I tried a fun new twist on this method this week, and thought it'd be worth sharing.

Do you remember, as a kid, how much you loved to hear your parents tell stories about their own childhoods? In fact, even as an adult, I still love to hear those stories. My kids are no different, always asking about things I did when I was growing up. It's just fun to imagine your parent as a child, I think. And it also makes us adults a little more "real" to our kids.

So I started writing stories from when I was a kid in one of Chloe's school notebooks... without any capitalization or punctuation. I told about the backyard I had when I was growing up, about how the neighbor kids and I made up a "fort", about the kinds of fruit trees and bushes and flowers back there. I wrote about playing Intellivision video games, about my favorite Barbies, and learning how to ride a bike. I told about a time my best friend and I had a fight, and about how I always competed in penmanship at school with a boy named Justin, about my dear friend Samantha that moved away in the fourth grade. Silly little memories most of them, but those "little things" are the stuff of life, and make it easy for our kids to relate to us as actual people.

Correcting the grammar of those real life stories makes it all the more interesting. She looks forward to these grammar lessons now, because she gets to learn a bit more about me, instead of just fixing pointless sentences that hold no real meaning for her. And it's also inspired her to write out some of her own memories, willingly practicing her writing and journaling skills.

So, it may be worth giving it a try. Even the most boring childhoods are fascinating to our own children - and it can be fun to dig up those fond memories and share them with your kids.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Experimenting in the Kitchen: Kefir

A fellow foodie friend recently gave me a wonderful gift: a small handful of kefir grains.

By now, most folks know at least that kefir is good for you. It resembles yogurt in taste, though it tends to be much runnier in consistency (unless you make it with cream.) It's filled with all the good probiotics that our bodies are void of, but desperately need to really be healthy.

You can buy kefir at the health food stores, and it does taste quite yummy, but if you look at the ingredients list you'll realize how much has been added to it. And what most people aren't yet aware of is that kefir is really, really easy to make.

I'm an occasional yogurt maker. If I have half a gallon of raw milk left at the end of the week, I'll turn it into yogurt before it spoils. Yogurt isn't inherently difficult, but it takes effort and time. Kefir doesn't. There's no heating to just the right temperature, no keeping it warm for 8 hours. It's really simple: pour milk over the the kefir grains in a glass mason jar. Cover the jar loosely (I use a tea towel) and set it on your counter overnight (or longer.) We seem to like about 18 hours of culturing time, but it's not an exact science. I usually start it in the afternoon and it's ready the next morning. (Try setting your phone alarm to remind you when it's finished. As much as I hate to admit it, technology does have it's upside.)

After 12-18 hours, you'll have a jar of mild-tasting kefir. I should admit to you right now that I can't stand the taste of it plain. But I also can't stand the taste of yogurt, nor can I even manage to stomach a glass of milk. Dairy products gross me out, with only a few exceptions. So the trick for me is to find ways to use the kefir, to gain benefit from it, without having to actually taste it.

I've been doing that in the form of kefir smoothies. To serve a mommy and two little girls use approximately:
2 bananas
1.5 cups of any other frozen fruit or berries
1/4 tsp stevia
1.5 cups kefir

There's also strawberry milk. My children, living in a world primarily devoid of red dye 40 and processed foods, have survived until now without strawberry milk. A sad thing, really, as I remember what a treat strawberry milk was when I was growing up. With kefir, I can still offer them the yummy treat:

1 cup kefir
1 Tbsp homemade strawberry jam
Blend with a hand blender and serve. Way better than Nestle Quick.

Kefir can be used as a substitute for buttermilk in just about any baking recipe. I've altered my grandma's buttermilk pancake recipe to use whole wheat pastry flour and kefir. Admittedly they're still not as light and fluffy as the ones made with white flour, but I was happy with the result. And kefir also makes a great base for creamy salad dressings. We had kefir mixed with salsa on top of a taco salad, and it was really fantastic.

So the learning curve isn't necessarily in learning to make kefir, which is easy as can be, but in learning to use it. We're managing though. Both of my girls will drink a glass plain if I offer it to them, though they'll also eat a bowl of plain yogurt quite happily. But finding tastier ways to offer it is a fun challenge, too.

Is anyone else out there using kefir? What are some of your favorite ways to add it to your family's meals?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Olathe Sweet Corn

It's preserving season here in the Miller Household, and today's project was local corn.

I refuse to grow corn. You have to plant a whole lot of it in a big cluster to really get much of a harvest, and my little garden just doesn't have the space for that. That, and the earwigs that inevitably take up residence on the corn stalks seriously gross me out.

But we live just two hours away from Olathe, Colorado - known only primarily for the amazing sweet corn they grow there. Such great corn, in fact, that the town of Olathe has patented the seed for this particular variety, making it illegal to grow anywhere except in Olathe. And then each summer they have a big corn festival (because Coloradans are just that cool) and they give away thousands of ears of corn to the festival goers.

What the festival goers don't eat, they sell out of the backs of trucks and in local supermarkets. In the past, I've seen Olathe sweet corn sell for 10 cents an ear. It never did get that low last year and I missed it entirely waiting for that price, so this year I bought it for 20 cents. Still not a bad price.

We started with 20 ears today - shucking, cutting the kernels off the cob, and freezing in 2-cup portions. A lot of work? Eh, sort of. But it's fresh corn, and it's local. If you aren't growing your own, it's the next best thing.

20 ears of corn took the girls and I about one hour to shuck, cut, and package. We got about 17 cups, which is the equivalent of 8 1/2 cans of corn. Total cost was $5, so there's an immediate savings there. Also consider the fact that this is frozen fresh corn, so the nutritional value is much higher. Definitely worth the hour spent working. I plan to buy another 40 ears tomorrow, and that should set us for the winter. I tend to use frozen corn mostly in soups - rarely do I serve it as a side dish for a meal, unless it's corn on the cob season. I'd also really like to freeze a couple sacks full of corn on the cob and see how it heats up - most folks say it's pretty good.

Tip: go to Goodwill and buy a new game for your children, and promise to play it with them just as soon as the corn is shucked. It's amazing how fast they can work when they want to.

Homeschool tip: purchases like these make a great math class: If corn is five for a dollar, and I'm buying 20 ears, how many dollars will it cost? If I put two ears of corn in each pot of soup, how many pots of soup can I make with 20 ears? How many ears of corn should we put up if I want to have two pots of soup each month for the next year, with two ears of corn in each pot? And so on, and so forth. It's a good way to prove the importance of learning the multiplication tables!

And so there you have it... an entire post written about corn. I must be really, really bored.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Garden Update, depressing as it may be.

Man, it's been a rough garden year. We normally would have half a freezer full of vegetables by now, and it just isn't that way.

Happily, I'm at least harvesting enough to feed us... though it's still just cold weather crops that are coming in for the most part. The beets are finally getting big, two months later than they normally do. I can think of three reasons for this: the strange cool spring we had, the excess amount of rain, and the fact that my soil is probably a bit overworked and is lacking nutrients. Hopefully I can cure the nutrient problem this fall by using the impressive amount of poo my chickens produce as a fertilizer.

Tomatoes are tough this year all around. I'm growing all heirlooms, which makes them not all that tough when it comes to diseases. Curly leaf virus is going around town, transmitted by a leaf hopper. Two of my plants have succumbed to it now, and I'm watching the others. There's not much I can do about it, aside from just pull the plant and hope for the best for the others. I've also got a bit of blight on two of the plants, the result of the dampness and humidity this year that isn't normal for our area. I only planted twelve tomato plants, with the hopes of eating fresh tomatoes and making salsas and sauces, with the majority of my canning tomatoes being purchased from a local U-pick farm. But so far, I'm still buying all the tomatoes we eat. Handfuls of cherry tomatoes are about all we're harvesting as of yet.

The chickens completely decimated the kale - I didn't even bother trying to revive it, it was hopeless. The chard keeps trying to come back, and it'll just start to get big enough to think about harvesting when the chickens escape again and devour it. I'm harvesting carrots and beets as we need them, plus a few extra beets for pickling. The green beans are coming on strong now, even enough to put a few bags by for winter. I've got parsnips this time for the first year and dug a few yesterday, but haven't tried them yet. I've heard they taste best after a frost.

So yeah... sad times in the garden. After last year's amazing production, I'm a little bummed, but one never knows from one year to the next what difficulties and struggles will befall them. I was all prepared this year for the cabbage moth invasion... and it never came. I planted my squash in barrels in the front yard to avoid squash bug infestion... and they don't seem to be as much of an issue this year for anyone. Instead it's too much rain and heat - two things I can't really fight.

I'm making plans for the fall garden, to be planted next week - greens of all kinds, beets and carrots, and possibly broccoli. It's the greens I miss the most - the chickens destroyed every last bit of anything green and leafy that we tried to grow early on. and I'll just hope for more success next year, I suppose.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Silence is Deafening.

We said goodbye to Mr. Tweets the other night.

Please pardon the blurry photo. It was taken through a window
screen because I was afraid to actually go outside with him.

He turned really, really mean. If we walked by the chicken's yard, he'd rush the fence and try to attack our feet. We couldn't let the hens out, because if he got out he'd race around trying to attack us. He finally escaped a couple of days ago, flew over the fence, and was out all day. I tried to catch him (wearing rubber boots, long sleeves, and gloves) but I couldn't. He kept flying up toward my face, and I wasn't fond of the idea of having a chicken claw at my eyes. Even the dog was afraid to go out - if she did, he chased her around.

He used to be such a sweet rooster. He'd hang out with me while I weeded the garden, cooing and cawing occasionally, crowing if I said, "Who's my pretty rooster?" in the stupidest baby-talk voice you can imagine. He'd happily lay on his back in my arms as I stroked his chest, nearly falling asleep with his head in the crook of my elbow. He'd run up to us when we went outside and wait for the attention he knew we'd give him.

And then, the hens started laying. It started out mild, he'd only attack strangers. And then he went after Cora. It only got worse from there, until it got to the point where he'd attack anything that walked near him.

So I had Andrew do away with him the other night. The girls and I left the house so we didn't have to watch. Chloe was pretty upset for a short while, but she knew it had to be done. Cora did a little dance - she's glad to not be afraid to walk outside anymore, and to be able to play with the hens again.

I'm a little sad. I know I said we weren't getting attached to these chickens, that they're just livestock. But I couldn't help but get attached to the rooster. And I absolutely loved listening to him crow. He had an impressively loud, high-pitched crow. I'm sure the neighbors are relieved. But I really did love it. Happily though, my neighbor still has her rooster, and I can listen to him instead. Aside from that, I'm not too upset. We can let the hens out to wander in the evenings again now, and the girls are enjoying their chickens again. It was a sad choice to make, but the best one.

In other chicken news - Goldi is (miraculously) still alive after her ordeal. She's laying an egg every day now, and though they are a bit bloody still, they seem to be coming out just fine. Between the four hens we're getting a solid two dozen eggs each week, meaning we're effectively drowning in eggs already. It's a good problem to have... I'm pretty sure my neighbors think so, too.