Friday, October 7, 2011

And yet it redeems itself . . .

So last post, one of the books that disappointed me was the 3rd book in the Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau.
Fortunately, the other 3 books in the 4 book series were pretty good.

The first, The City of Ember, chronicles the problem of a city built deep underground.  As the generator that keeps the city alive threatens to die for good, 2 young teens, Doon and Lina, take it upon themselves to find a way out of Ember.  And they do!
In The People of Sparks, the Emberites make it aboveground, only to find that there is almost nothing left.   Society was destroyed at the time that the original people of Ember were led underground.  Of the few villages left, Sparks is one of the best surviving and takes the Emberites in.  This 2nd book chronicles the problems that arise.

Skip the third book.  Seriously.

The 4th book, The Diamond of Darkhold, 
has Lina and Doon traveling back to Ember to find something to help their villages and save them all from starvation.  What they find is something the "builders" left for them long ago that does indeed help them and also spur them back into creating a more "modern" civilization again.

If you ignore the reference to aliens at the very end of the last book, these are really good.  They're clean, they're interesting, and I think my favorite part about them was that they are realistic.  

Many "end of the world" books are all doom and gloom.  And when the world finally does end -- that's it.  We don't know what happens next.  DuPrau instead has the end of the world already over.  These books are about after -- survival, humanity, and hope.  I really enjoyed the feeling that it's not a scary thing to start over. Hard yes, confusing certainly, but not scary.

And I love her insights into things.  I think my favorite lines from all 4 of the books were these:  "And yet, she reminded herself, look at all the remarkable things she and Doon have done!  It wasn't because they had extraordinary powers, really, but because of how well they used the ordinary powers everyone had: the power of courage, the power of kindness, the powers of curiosity and knowledge."

And I thought -- that is what I want to teach my children.  To be courageous, kind, curious, and knowledgeable.  And if more children were taught these things, the world WOULD be a better place.

Read these books -- they're worth it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Books that Disappoint Me

Usually when I find that I don't enjoy a book because of sexual or language content, or I'm simply not getting into the story, I just put it down.  I have too many others things I want to read to waste my time on a book I don't like from the beginning.

But every now and then, one slips through the cracks.  And I hate that feeling of coming to the end of a book and thinking, "I can't believe I read that".  But how does it slip through the cracks?  Well, usually it's because I THINK it's going to go somewhere and it doesn't.  Two examples:

Brisinger is the 3rd book in Paolini's Eragon series.  I read Eragon and liked it, can't remember much about the 2nd, but when I got to the third there was SO MUCH extraneous information.  I wanted the story to just get a move on.  And originally, this was supposed to be the last book.  As I get closer and closer to the end I'm thinking "how is he going to wrap this up in the pages he has left?"

He didn't.

I finish the last chapter, turn the page, and find a note to the reader information me that he had so much to tell he's decided to write a 4th book.  I think I threw it across the room.  I will NOT be reading the 4th book because I felt like the 3rd was a phenomenal waste of time.  I do not need to know the entire history of every race of creature that populates this world.  Just tell me the dang story!

The other one is The Prophet of Yonwood -- 3rd book in the books of Ember.
I like the first two (I'll post about them later) and was really looking forward to this one.  First of all, the cover art is awesome.  Secondly, it takes place BEFORE the first book and I was eager to see how the city of Ember had come to be.

Big disappointment.

The entire story was completely irrelevant.  Oh there were bits and pieces that could have led to something great but essentially it's the story of one of the girls who eventually goes into Ember.  But there's nothing to do with that until, again, the last chapter.  It was a pointless story about a teenage girl and a random experience she had in a town called Yonwood.  That's completely how I felt about it.  Such a waste of time.

Now I need something glorious to redeem it all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Still a Favorite

Everyone has that list.  You know, the one that has all the books you would have to have on a deserted island?  I know that sometimes the list changes, but I love it when you come back to an original favorite and realize that it still has the stuff.

Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is like that for me.
I'm waiting to get some other books from the library right now (more on that later), but I HAVE TO HAVE something to read in the meantime!  A few months back we got some "new" bookshelves from some friends that made room on my existing bookshelves for me to pull out all the books that I had packed away.  Most of those were young adult literature and I spent a great deal of time not just putting them on the shelves but reminiscing about each one.  And this one was one of my absolute favorites.  I'm not sure how many times I read it as a girl but I loved it every time and still do.

It's the story of a very proper 13-year old girl who is making the trip from England to America alone in the 1830s.  She ends up on a ship with a captain and crew who hate each other -- the crew has vowed revenge on the captain for a crime of a former journey and the girl must decide where her allegiance, and her sense of right and wrong, will lead her.

It is an awesome book -- well written, exciting story with great plot twists and somewhat of a surprise ending.  It's one of my all-time favorites and after reading it again after years and years, I think it's going to stay on my "deserted island list".  Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An Exploration of Government

I just reread a "trilogy" of the books where the first one is often taught to middle school students.  But there's the reason for rereading -- after finishing all three right in a row I had some major ideas that I wish I had had when I taught the actual books.  Maybe someday I can go back and use this!

The "trilogy" is by Lois Lowry.  The first and second books are companion books (that's why there are quotes around trilogy) and then the third book finishes the other two and brings them together.  In order they are: The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger.

Of the three, you can ignore Messenger.  Isn't that terrible?  Unless you want to see what happens.  But I thought that Lowry had some fantastic ideas and the plot was very interesting and then the ending just was a cop out -- a kind've I-don't-know-how-else-to-resolve-this-so-I'll-just-do-it-quick kind've thing.  I was really disappointed.

But the other two.  Oh my.

So both The Giver and Gathering Blue are set in the future and feature very different societies from ours.  The Giver's society is more advanced in many ways but has worked to create a state of "sameness" -- total equality and no differences.  In Gathering Blue, the society has regressed to more primitive times and there is a great disparity among the people and the small group that controls and rules over them.

The books are geared towards middle school readers but I decided that it would be particularly fascinating to read them either with students who were studying the formation of American government or who were studying the workings of governments in general.  Why do we separate literature from everything else?  I think that you could have some fascinating conversations with high-schoolers about these societies and how they mirror or own --and how they don't.  In fact, there are some key points to explore and questions to raise in the teaching.

1.  Both societies have a ruling group that controls the people's access to knowledge.  How is that reflected in our society today?  How difficult would it be to take what we have currently and impose the society the exists in the books.  
2.  What do you think were the original intentions of the founders/creators of each society?  In what ways does it appear that those intentions have been warped? (This is a particularly interesting question with all the debate NOW about our founding fathers and the government they intended to create vs. what we have and where it's going.)
3.  Both books feature a main character that has been singled out due to a specific talent or gift.  How do we celebrate or hinder those with gifts in our society?  What gifts or talents are honored in our society?
4.  In The Giver, the main character leaves his society in order to change it.  In Gathering Blue, the main character stays in order to do the same thing.  Compare and contrast these decisions.  What kinds of problems might we face today that need similar reactions?

If I were teaching this today, I would start the kids reading the books before we even talked about government.  They're short, easy reads so it wouldn't take long I think but I would read them one at a time and discuss them individually before approaching them together and in conjunction with modern day government.  In my head, I believe that students would find this approach to government relevant and interesting.  In reality, I know that's always up in the air.  But it's worth a shot.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who Knew?

roebuck (noun):  a male roe deer -- which I also had to look up (sheesh) and found out that a roe deer is a small, agile, Old World deer (I think Old World as in old Europe?)

But then that spurred me to look up sear (noun): a pivoted piece that holds the hammer at full or half cock in the firing mechanism of small arms.  OR (verb) to burn or char the surface of.

Why did I look these up?
Because of Sears and Roebuck.  Of course now it's just Sears and it probably doesn't have ANYTHING to do with the above definitions but now I will always think of guns and deer when I go to buy clothes.  Or appliances.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Bevy of Books

bevy (noun): 1. a group of birds, as larks or quail, or animals, as roebuck, in close association.  2.  a large group or collection.

I didn't know definition number 1 -- and now I have to look up roebuck.  But I love the word "bevy" and although the books I'm talking about today probably don't quite constitute a bevy, I wanted to do them all in one post rather than break them up.  For no good reason.

So I've read two books about thieves and they were both good, but also a little odd.
Cornelia Funke is also the author of the trilogy Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath which are good in and of themselves.  Apparently she is very popular in Europe, particularly in Germany.  For The Thief Lord her setting is Venice, Italy.  And although it could probably fit in the realm of fantasy -- there is very little fantasy about it.

The main story centers around a pair of young boys who have run away from their aunt and teamed up with several other youngsters (wow I sound old -- I couldn't get a better word there though) to survive on the streets.  Although for street survival, they are a good and honest bunch.  Throw in a detective, an eccentric photographer, and a merry-go-round, and you have an easy to read, slightly strange, young adult novel with a message at the end (ok maybe not -- the English teacher in me reads a message!).  It was quick, it was interesting, it WASN'T my favorite of hers, but it was good.  Don't I sound cryptic?  It gets worse.

So this second book:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has won several book awards.  That's why I initially picked it up -- I didn't know anyone who had already read it.  It is a World War II story that revolves around a young German girl and the Jewish man her family hides in the basement.  But it is about so much more than that.  The story is told by Death himself and the style was very different to me.  He jumps ahead and then goes back to clarify, he interrupts his own story to summarize rather than show.  I didn't have a hard time following the storyline at all, it just was different to read.

Honestly, it started slow for me and I had to keep reading through almost the first 1/2 of the book.  But then I got really hooked and attached to the characters and when the book ended, I wanted to know more about what they had done with their lives.  I wanted a Christmas letter.

But I didn't get it.  I cried a few times and I kind've laughed  But this really was the type of book that afterwards I wanted to sit down and discuss it with a group.  Or even a class.  Because even a class of high-schools would find plenty to discuss -- some difficult and abstract -- some pretty obvious.  It's a great book for schools.  Too bad most schools will never see it.  Oh yeah, the language is atrocious by the way.  And that's probably one of the reasons schools will never see it.  Which is a shame -- I think kids would really drink it in.

Last but not least -- last week for our playgroup was the letter "Q" so of course we had to go royal and talk about queens.  The Queen of France by Tim Wadham
is ridiculously cute.  Rose has an imagination about the size of France and feels "royal" for the day.  I loved that because it reminds me of my own little princess running around.  I also loved how her parents reacted to her and I loved the illustrations.  They are so oddly normal.

Another "children's book" that I actually learned something from is When Royals Wore Ruffles.
This is a very delightful alphabet book about fashion.  I learned the names of those pointy princess hats (which I can't remember and the book is in my 3-year old's room where she is sleeping and I don't dare go in there!), great stuff about corsets, bustles, high hair, even modern-day fashions.  Really fun.  My only beef?  I hate the illustrations!!  I think you could have really gone to town with this and done elaborate, awesome illustrations interspersed with actual pictures.  But no, they are what you see there above -- kind've crayon-y if you ask me.  Disappointing.  But awesome for the info.

And that's my bevy for today.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Books That Just Sound Interesting

'Tis the Season of Catalogs!

As the holidays get closer and closer, the catalogs get stranger and stranger.  I laughed out loud several times while looking at Bas Bleu: Bookseller-by-post that came in mail (somehow -- not sure) yesterday and thought some of these titles were worth sharing just for the laugh of it:

Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
Enough said.  There were plenty of modern poems that I only taught because I had the teacher's key to help me figure them out . . . 

The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Villifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth
Now that's a title!

The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World
Hmmm, does he back up his ideas with research into the size of such people as Aristotle and Plato?

Anyway, none of these will end up under the tree for me, but they did make me laugh.
Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Q is For Quilt

A friend of mine was showing me her awesome quilts the other night and it inspired me to get several projects finished that have been lounging in my sewing room / office / book room / disaster area.  And then I realized that next week's playgroup letter is Q!!!  I don't know if I'll actually use any of these books for playgroup -- they're a little more advanced than 2-3 year olds -- but I love them.  A lot.

Especially these two:
Both of these books are BEAUTIFUL!  And both have wonderful messages about what really is important -- service, love, and discovering what your own gift is.

Neither of these is at my library and that's a darn shame.  I'm sorry I'm not going into more detail but if you can find them, check them out.  It will totally be worth it.

The other book that I've enjoyed this week (that I did find at my library) is The Name Quilt.
This is a very sweet story about a girl and her grandmother who has a quilt embroidered with all the names of her family members.  Each night when her granddaughter visits, the grandma tells her stories about each of the family members featured on the quilt.  Then, there's a hurricane and the quilt is lost.  So they start again.  I was very touched by this story for it's message about family and survival.  Particularly with everything going on now, it really struck a chord.

Even if you don't love quilts -- check them out.  You'll love them, I promise.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Start the Week Right: Less Guilt

"Those who have the time and energy to can their fruit and vegetables develop a skill that will serve them well in time of need--and in our uncertain economy, that could be almost any time.  But they shouldn't look down their noses at those who buy their peaches or who don't like zucchini in any of the thirty-five ways there are to disguise it, or who have simply made a conscious choice to use their time and energy in some other purposeful way.

"Obviously the Lord has created us with different personalities, as well as differing degrees of energy, interest, health, talent, and opportunity.  So long as we are committed to righteousness and living a life of faithful devotion, we should celebrate these divine differences, knowing they are a gift from God.  We must not feel so frightened, so threatened and insecure; we must not need to find exact replicas of ourselves in order to feel validated as women of worth.  There are many things over which we can be divided, but one thing is needful for our unity--the empathy and compassion of the living Son of God."

I just finished mopping my floor and cleaning my bathrooms.  It's been about 2 weeks since I've done it and it really needed it.  But as I worked (without whistling), I thought a lot about guilt.  And then I remembered the above quote.  And read it.  And loved it.  And realized a few things.

I am a believer in doing the best you can.
Sometimes that means giving 110% and sometimes that means saying to yourself, "right now, this is the best I can" and not feeling guilty.

Some guilt is good -- that guilt that spurs you to improvement of yourself, to greater happiness.  But not the guilt that comes from comparison.  And I think I've been having a little of both lately.

So I'm going to start the week off right and change the things that I need to change -- one at a time -- and let go of the things that I need to let go -- probably also one at a time.

So change number one:  get back to reading my scriptures regularly.  I need all the help I can get anyway!
Let go number one:  Celebrate others' strengths/talents/looks/personality.  That does not make my lack thereof an inadequacy.

I feel better already.  And my floors are clean -- we'll see how long that lasts!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Product Review: Crayola Whiteboard Crayons

I've never done a product review before.  But I think that if I find something that makes my life easier, it's worth sharing.

Yesterday in Walmart I spied these in the school supplies aisle:
And I thought -- well that's worth a shot.  And they are awesome!

They're obviously going to cost more than regular markers or crayons -- especially at this time of year (I think I paid $4 something -- can't find my receipt!), but so do dry erase MARKERS and if you have little ones, these are worth the money.

Our art easel has a chalkboard side and a whiteboard side plus the center pole for holding paper.  We go through a lot of butcher paper (courtesy of IKEA) but my 3 year old does love the whiteboard.  

These are great because there is no marker mess (or smell -- I always get low odor otherwise) and they rubbed off well with the mitt that is provided.  It did take a little elbow grease and there was a slight film but it was good enough for my girl and then when she was done done I ran a wet washcloth over it and everything came right off.  The board looks good as new.

We have had a discussion about "special crayons" and what you can and can't write on with them, but she gets it no problem.

I may never go back to the markers again!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Life Takes Over

I feel as though these past few weeks have been all-encompassing.  They have been the kind of days where I look around at the end of it and wonder what I have accomplished.  Most days it's not even a clean house.  But that's partly because the last thing I want to do in my child-free time is clean the house.  And the house doesn't get clean if the kids are up and about. 

Is your house that way too?  I hope mine isn't the only one.

Anyway, I know that everyone struggles with something (or multiple somethings) in their life.  Life itself contains highs and lows and lately, I'm feeling awfully low.

Then I had an idea.  A lightbulb.  A hopefully glorious (but simple -- I don't need any more complexity!) lightbulb that will help me think "lemonade" when I'm facing screaming, crying "lemons".

When I was in college, I kept a beautiful notebook full of quotes that I loved.  I still have it.  And I love the idea of writing down those things that inspire and uplift me so that I can go back to them.  Problem is, I don't go back and read them all.  That beautiful book is collecting dust as we speak.

But what if I merged that idea with the calendar/quote a day idea?  What if I got a jar and wrote down those quotes and put them in the jar so that when I need them, there they are?

I think I'll try that.

Not original or brilliant but, hello, why haven't I done this before?

And if it's ok with you, I might just share them here too.  Because sometimes it helps to share.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Travel Long Trips With Toddlers

In preparation for a 20 hour car trip with a 3 1/2 year old and a 1 1/2 year old (crazy, I know), I looked for a lot of information on the web about fun things to do in the car.  There's not much out there -- at least for children with an attention span of 5 minutes or less.

So in addition to the DVD player with some new movies and some new CDs of music (I highly recommend Disney's Greatest Hits), there were a few other things that came in handy for the little ones.

1.  Pipe Cleaners.  Who would've thunk it?  I think with older children it would be even more successful but after a 12 hour day, when my little one lost it and we had just an hour to our destination, I pulled out the pipe cleaners and the crying stopped.  She was fascinated for about 10 minutes and that 10 minutes was enough to distract her from her misery for the last 50.
2.  A box of tissues.  If you're little ones are like mine, unsupervised time in the bathroom results in toilet paper and tissues strung everywhere.  You should have seen the look on my daughter's face when I actually handed her a box of tissues.  She went to town pulling them out, putting them on her head, ripping them apart.  It was fabulous.
3. Touchy-feely books.  There is a great series of fun books that are titled That's Not My . . . (fill in the blank).  Every page has a reason why that's not my (puppy, kitten, dragon, fairy, whatever) with a touchable part.  Another good one, Feely Bugs.

4.  Sippy cup leashes found here and those little linky rings for baby toys.  Both were awesome for keeping drink cups and snack cups contained!
5.  Rest stops.  We need more of these in America actually but Kansas, Michigan, and Arkansas had the best ones.  Kansas and Arkansas had the most frequent ones.  Oklahoma and Missouri were both devoid of all rest stops and that was very frustrating.
6.  Magnet games.  I wish I had thought of this before the trip but I had one book: Muddle Farm
that has animal magnets to play with on the pages.  I should have taken a small size cookie sheet and attached small magnets (probably the kind that come in a sheet and have adhesive on the back) to paper dolls for my 3 year old to dress up dolls without losing the pieces.  Well, I know what I'll do next time (if there is a next time -- that's a darn long trip!).
7.  If your kids are old enough not to eat them, take a box of mexed up fun little things -- mini-erasers, pom-poms, beads and string, etc. for them to mess around with.  It will be all over your car, I promise, but it will keep them entertained.

Any other ideas?  I'll pass them along.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Teach Geography

There was an article in our Dallas newspaper that reported that the latest testing of students in GEOGRAPHY found that only 20% of high school seniors are proficient or better and that it's not much better for eighth-graders at 27% and 21% of fourth-graders.

Wow.  That's pretty bad.

I have my own theories on this (which soap box I will not subject you to at the moment), but also thought that there must be simple ways to support the learning of geography at home.

Display a map of the world and a map of the United States in your home: kids love learning about places that are different.  How simple it would be to talk about the world on a regular basis if you have something up to start the conversation.  Even better, get the giant maps and then find pictures of landmarks, animals, people (especially family members) and put them on the map.  Give your children a sense where things are and how they connect to them.

There are blank outline maps for the United States and individual states located here.  They can be used for coloring or "building" the United States as you learn U.S. history - which states came first and how did the United States look at various stages of history.

Start a postcard photo album.  Every time you travel get a few post cards of that place and start a picture album to display them.  If you have family in various places or who travel a lot, enlist them to send some to you.  Every kid loves to get their own mail and when it's a cool picture of somewhere great it's even better!

Celebrate diversity by trying different foods.  That doesn't have to involve special grocery trips or even a lot of cooking.  If you like in a larger city there are always restaurants for different types of food but more and more the grocery stores carry basics that are staples to different cultures.

Find old copies of National Geographic and create world collages out of them.  Our local library has a for sale book nook that ALWAYS has old copies for 10 cents each!  And their pictures are always fantastic and go all over the world.  

And if all else fails, find The Animaniacs on YouTube because they sing the 50 states and nations of the world (which I'm sure is outdated by now), and even my 3-year old loves them.

Monday, August 1, 2011

For Traveling

A friend of mine had this fantastic idea for long trips that I thought I'd pass along.  It would work best with elementary school-age children, although I plan to use it with my 3-year old the next time we go across states because she loves to color.

If you're not familiar with it already, Crayola has a website with coloring pages, crafts, and lesson plans.
If you click on coloring pages on the left-hand side and then on "learning", they have a category for states.

Print a sheet off for every state that you will drive through.  When you get to that state, give your child the coloring page.  They have the state flag and then birds, animals, flowers, etc. that are the "official" whatever for that state.  

Not only does your child get something new to do, it marks your movement to your destination and gives you something to talk about.

There are also categories for landmarks, geography, and places and of course they have pages with Disney characters, holidays, seasons, sports, etc.

Friday, July 29, 2011

For Fairy Tale Fans

We have another awesome funny fairy tale from Leah Wilcox:
Waking Beauty is a hilarious take on the traditional sleeping beauty.  It was done with the same illustrator as her book Falling for Rapunzel and is just as cute.  In fact, I've now purchased both books to add to our collection because my 3-year old loves them so much and I love them too!  I love a good fairy tale.

Anyway, when the prince finds the princess, he won't listen to the fairies telling him how to wake her and so he tries all sorts of wonderful antics with no luck.  Finally, when they get through to him that he needs to kiss her -- my favorite couplet (two lines that rhyme -- see you learned something) -- "One hundred years of morning breath.  Wow!  That could be the kiss of death."

It's so cute.  I wish I had thought of it first!  But I didn't and I won't be jealous.  
Well, maybe just a little.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Oh my, delicious pie!

My cousin cooks.  And bakes.  And blogs.  And makes a lot of delicious treats that would pad my stomach more than I want them to.  But with our stake throwing a "Pie-o-neer" celebration last week, I needed to make a pie for sharing (and maybe for competition!).

But I hate making pie crust.

It's messy, it's hard to get it flaky and not too thick or not too thin, and I HATE HATE HATE scrubbing my countertops after rolling it out.

So my darling cousin at Cardamommy and Coriaunty Cooking, posted a pie crust that they found here.

It's still messy to make but . . . 

Oh my.
It's delish.  And the scrubbing?  Well since it's made with butter a hot washcloth melts it right off your countertops.

It's a huge recipe (that I cut in half) and I highly recommend you read both blogs about it to get a clear picture but it is so worth trying.  Especially if you like pie.

So here's my apple and my lemon meringue.  Maybe I'll win?

If I don't, it won't be the crusts fault.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Lapdesk for Travel

If you're a fan of FamilyFun Magazine, you've seen that their "Badges of Fun" program for August is to take a road trip.

When I saw the idea for the laptop desk, I got really excited!
In fact, I have this bad habit of buying fabric for intended projects that I never get to.  So this made me feel a little better since I actually used some of that fabric (that yes, had been intended for something else.  Guess I'll just have to buy more!).

It's a simple project where you make your own pillow and glue it onto a clipboard but I thought it needed some slight modifications . . . 

Oh, wooden clipboard?  Hard to find!  Walmart though carries pretty much everything and it was only $1.63.

Anyway, modifications.

My 3 year old loves pillows, being cozy, and small things.  I figured she would have a major meltdown if she had a cute, small pillow covered in cupcakes that she couldn't cuddle with.  Solution?  Velcro.

I just happened to have some leftover super-soft velcro from another project (that actually used what I purchased for it) so it was an easy fix to sew the soft side onto the fabric before sewing the pillow together.

Once the pillow was sewn and stuffed, I laid the grabbing strip of velcro (do you love my technical terminology) on top and spread it with tacky glue.  Then I placed the clipboard on top and weighed it down with some heavy books over night.

Voila!  A traveling lapdesk . . . 

 And a nice little pillow covered in cupcakes.  I can't wait to see how it works (update to come!). 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Founding Fathers Lesson Plan

Ok this is less of a lesson plan and more of an assignment actually.  But the idea occurred to me after the 4th of July when I read John, Paul, George, and Ben by Lane Smith again.
The most common complaint I hear from people who don't like history is that it's boring.  That is a such a shame!  Our history (United States, world, whatever) is full of awesome stories that need to be told!  I think that history teaching CAN rely on too much straight-up information and ignore the human aspect.

That's one reason I love this book: it gives human characteristics to some founding fathers in portraying them as young children with traits that translate into what they did as adults (Paul Revere shouting in his family's shop about giant underwear is hilarious but then he did shout "the redcoats are coming").

So why not make all the founding fathers approachable?

Assign each student in your class (or if you homeschool go through the founding fathers together one by one) a different founder.  Have them find out about that founder and then make up a funny story about them as a child that reflects that trait.  

For example:
The Book of the Founding Fathersby Vincent Wilson, Jr. provides a brief biography and pictures for 35 founding fathers -- famous or otherwise.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was a wealthy planter who denounced slavery and was one of the first to organize the boycott of British goods once the Stamp Act was passed.  Blah blah blah right?  But how does that trait translate to childhood?  You could come up with a funny story about how Lee boycotted the neighbor boy's lemonade stand because the sugar was from the West Indies or perhaps he runs around as a little boy organizing protests against common childhood rules such as washing behind your ears or not staying out after dark.

I think it would help kids remember the idea behind what various founding fathers did for this nation in it's beginning.

And it could be really funny.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Our Founding Fathers: George Washington

A friend of mine is starting some American history kindergarten curriculum for her son this coming fall and was looking for ideas.  Browsing in the library one day, I came across this book and decided it would be a great learning tool:
George Washington's Teeth by Deborah Chandra

This delightful book is told in rhyme and is the story of George Washington's teeth and their loss.  Almost everyone knows some kind of story about Washington and his teeth, but I tell you what -- I learned something!

After the story is finished, there is a timeline of events for Washington's life that is taken from his own letters, diaries, and accounts.  And there is quite a bit about losing his teeth, teeth pain, or calling the dentist (which at that time pretty much meant removal).  In fact, did you know that the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington included padding in his face because of lack of teeth?  I had to laugh at that one -- I would think that a painter could just paint as if they were there!

The whole timeline is actually very fascinating and would make a great jumping off point for talking about Washington's contributions to American history as it spans from his birth until death.  For kindergartners, it would also be fun to keep track of how he loses his teeth and count them down.

Actually, I wished that I had had this book to read to my 9th graders.  Even they love a good story and all that "gee whiz" information.  In fact, a lot of times they prefer that to major historical events!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

National Ice Cream Day!

Happy National Ice Cream Day!!
Ice Cream Sunday -- get it?

Apparently the proclamation for National Ice Cream Day was made by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.  But ice cream itself goes way back: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both made it and strawberry ice cream was all the rage at James Madison's second inauguration (all info. courtesy of my Parade magazine in the Sunday paper!).

For us?  I need to practice making apple pie anyway so we're going to serve it with a classic: vanilla ice cream.  And I'm sure we'll make it from scratch before the summer is through.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A New Direction (at least for a little while . . . )

My husband and I have been watching the Harry Potter movies in anticipation of the final movie coming out (just like everyone else, I know) and I realized it had been a while since I'd read all the books in order.  I have a friend who has read the entire series 16 times (I'm serious -- and I know he's not lying), and while I don't intend to go that far (right now anyway), I've almost finished the first and am loving the reread.

It's fun to pick up on things with fresh eyes but also with the perspective of knowing what happens in the end.  Kind've makes me think that when I'm in a life pickle (or trying desperately to make lemonade out of lemons) that I need to mellow out because I don't know the end.  My husband and I have already been in situations where the end has come and we've said to each other "so that's why this and this happened before"!

And that's my philosophical moment from Harry Potter for you.

Anyway, since I'm planning to be occupied in reading books that have been reviewed a gazillion times and read more than that, I'm going to focus more on teaching ideas for the next little while.  I've been re-inspired by a friend who is planning her son's kindergarten curriculum.  I've had a few ideas that will hopefully work for someone out there!

That, and I'll be traveling in the near future which means hopefully I'll be inspired by that as well!

We'll see what happens -- stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Kane Chronicles Continue

Book 2 of the Kane Chronicles: The Throne of Fire was better than the first book.
I have a couple of theories as to why because it's essentially the same style, Carter and Sadie are still trying to save the world, etc.

But I think that first of all I was able to follow the Egyptian line a little better.  That may have been because I had more familiarity after reading the first book, or it may have been because he did a lot better job explaining things.  And the recap of book one didn't hurt.

Secondly, I felt that the action and plot was more believable.  The first book almost seems to out there to be plausible.  The second has Carter and Sadie as more fallible teenagers and I liked that they didn't always do so great and that they learned about themselves and their powers as they went.

I don't know how many books will be in this series but there are definitely more ahead and I think I'll read them all.  But I actually want to find out what happens to Zia and Walt (side characters) more than Sadie and Carter.  I think I care about them more.

This book waffled between good and attached.  What I want to know is how kids in the middle/high school age range are thinking about it though.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How I Rate Books

There's nothing more subjective than a book rating system.
After all, it's really based on whether or not you like that type of book, plus how well-written it is, plus characterization and movement of plot and all that good stuff.

But I've noticed that I have my own way of classifying what I read.  And so, if nothing else, it gives you a good idea of how I felt about the book.  

So without any further ado:

A book that looks good, has a great description, but I couldn't get past about the 1st chapter -- usually due to sex or language.  I don't have any examples for you at the moment because I never finish those books and so don't remember them!

A book that takes work to get through either because the plot is confusing or the subject matter has a lot of stuff in it that I am not familiar with.  The Life of Pi  was a workable book for me.  I finished it, but felt it was more of a chore than a pleasure.

A good book sit's on my nightstand usually.  I read a couple chapters before I go to bed each night.  The story is easy to keep in my head if I pick something else up in the meantime, but I'm content to read it when I have the time.  The new Kane Chronicles from Rick Riordan have been like that.

These are the books that I can't put down.  They're the owns literally that are attached to me -- I read them while I eat (a very very bad habit), on the couch while the girls watch a movie, in the bathroom (sorry, you maybe didn't want to know that).  I shoot through them until they are done!  That's what happened with The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  Although I will warn you they are incredibly violent.

These are the books that, even if I picked it up at the library, I will then buy so that I can read them over and over whenever I want to.  I also hesitate to lend these books to friends because I fear that I won't see them again!  These is My Words by Nancy Turner is in that category.  In fact, I finally went and bought ANOTHER one because my mom didn't give mine back (or did she send it back to Grandma because I wouldn't give it back?).  Anyway, for children's books, these are the ones that my girls ask me to read over and over and over -- thus they are personal library worthy

So that's it in a nutshell.  Of course that doesn't address content AT ALL -- this spans all genres really.  But it gives you a better idea of how I feel about a book.  And so if you find your taste runs like mine, it could be really helpful!

Friday, July 8, 2011

For the Egyptologist in You

My brain has been in slug mode all week and so nothing has been getting done around here.  Believe it or not, even reading!  But I did manage to finish the first in Rick Riordan's new Kane Chronicles:
I think if you liked his Percy Jackson series that this is a safe bet for you as well.  It has the same feel as Percy Jackson: gods and monsters who try to destroy the protagonists every other chapter, an insane amount of time (4 days I think) to defeat the evil god who is planning on taking over and destroying the world, wise-cracking teenagers who do what the adults can't -- you know, that kind of stuff.

I sound more sarcastic than I mean to be I think except that the biggest difference between these and Percy Jackson is the origin of the gods and monsters.  In this case: Egyptian.  So in a way it's a lot more of the same but I've had a harder time with this one, I think mainly because I'm not familiar with the depths of Egyptian history and lore and so it reads a lot more foreign to me.  I had a hard time keeping things straight and clear as I read.  And while I finished the Percy Jackson books and The Lost Olympian in record time, this one (and it's sequel which I'm reading now) has been fine on my side table for before bed reading.

So it's good -- but not tip-your-hat fantastic.

Monday, July 4, 2011

God Bless America, Land That I Love!

It's a quiet 4th of July for us today and that's just fine.  Since we're not busy running to parades and fireworks and having people over for barbecue (although we will grill out for ourselves of course), it's given me some time to reflect on the things that I do love about this land:

In No Particular Order
Patriotism and seeing our national colors everywhere I look
National and State parks -- the wide variety of beauty preserved by our nation
The goodness of people
The variety of places to live and jobs to do -- you can have any life you want!
Clean air, clean water, and clean rest stops for traveling!
A fantastic road system that takes me to my friends and family
The beaches, the crab cakes, and the she-crab soup (oh Charleston, how I miss you!)
Huckleberries in Montana in the summer
Warm weather in Texas in the winter!
Mountains of grandeur and mountains of tranquility
Wildlife -- but not bug life (sorry I just can't love that!)
The sun setting and turning the Sandia mountains pink
Quirkiness and the little things that bring us together -- Roswell and the aliens, Dallas and the Mavericks, Washington DC and the commute!
Washington DC -- city that I love!
Road trips that are filled with ridiculous and wonderful things
Historical sites -- my particular favorites are Colonial Williamsburg and Pioneer Village
Public Librarys!!!!

I think I could go on and on but I won't.  Today I'm just grateful for so much that we are blessed with!
Happy 4th of July!!!

Friday, July 1, 2011

I Secretly Love Nanny McPhee . . .

I don't like it when my husband's gone: night noises are more alarming, the days are longer, and the girls miss him too.  But I do actually like having a few evenings where I can watch girly movies and eat an entire bowl of popcorn.

I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to rent Gnomeo and Juliet, but alas.  So instead, last night I rented Nanny McPhee Returns.  It was Lovely.

First of all, I ADORE ADORE ADORE Emma Thompson.
I think I've loved her in every movie of hers that I've seen, particularly Sense and Sensibility (her crying scene at the end is PHENOMENAL!).
But these Nanny McPhee stories are just delightful and not only does she play the Nanny, she's written and directed them so her influence is, of course, huge.

For this second movie, it's set in World War II with a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is struggling to keep it together while her husband is away at war.  She also takes in a niece and nephew who create quite a bit of havoc and of course the entire situation warrants the help of Nanny McPhee.

Nanny McPhee teaches her character lessons (all wonderful ones) and of course works her magic in the process.  I loved the story, the emotion of a husband and father away at war and the family dynamics.  It made me cry, it made me laugh, and it did make me roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of it -- but I love that too.  And it's completely clean.

I highly recommend both of these movies.  Oh and it was a joy to see not only Thompson (Professor Trelawney) but Ralph Fiennes (Voldemart) and Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall) together in something entirely different.  Maggie Smith particularly was a joy!

And it's wonderful for children of course -- although I haven't had my girls watch it because it might still be over their heads (we're in cartoon stage of course) but I'll save them for later for sure.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Recommendations

A friend of mine was asking me for some book recommendations.  She's in that lull that often comes when you've finished a good book and don't have something else waiting for you right away.  And she wanted a couple because she's due to have her baby any day now and you always need a good stack that you can readily go to when you know you're going to be to busy to get out and find things at the library.

Besides, I don't look for books for myself at the library anymore.  I get "looks" from the librarians about having 2 young children on the adult floor.  Library hold is the only way to go anymore, but that means you have to know what you want.

Back to the subject at hand -- after getting a feel for what she likes, I ransacked my boxes that have been tucked away and pulled out a few.  Of course it took me more time than it should have -- I kept reminiscing over wonderful books and put aside a pile (promptly knocked over by the crawler and then delightfully spread around by the 3-year old) to re-read.

And in doing all this: I realized I need a better system for recommendations.  It will still be highly personal and subjective (because there's no way for it NOT to be) but it will be more clear.  And it's coming soon -- after the 4th of July holiday probably.

In the meantime, one of the books I gave her was David Baldacci's Wish You Well.
Baldacci apparently mostly writes law thrillers (or is it science thrillers -- I've never read any others of his) and has A LOT of books published under that genre.  This one has a law element (so I'm pretty sure it's law thrillers), but is a touching, wonderful, growing-up story of sorts.

The main characters (see above) lose their father and partially lose their mother in a car crash.  Their only living relative left is a great-Aunt but they must move from populated city to rural mountain Virginia to live with her.  The story is about adjusting to a new life, growing up, coming to terms with yourself, and finding healing.  It's not action and adventure but it keeps you reading.  There is suspense, love, anger, forgiveness . . . am I sounded so vague I'm on the verge of cliche?

It also made me want to see the places where this novel is set -- his description is clear and beautiful.
And it's worth a re-read because it's wonderful.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Writing and English Classes

Remember my rant about wanting to pick writer's brains?  Well I found a book that has done that.  I haven't read it all yet but I wanted to share a few things.
The authors "interviewed" in Daniel Alarcon's The Secret Miracle are mostly foreign, but a writer is a writer!  The book is a compilation of some panel interviews conducted by the author and simply consists of questions and each author's answer.  The chapters are organized to reflect basically different parts of the writing process: influences, starting, plot, character, scene etc., revision, and finishing.

I'm mostly skimming right now but loved this answer from Santiago Roncagliolo in response to the question: "How many books do you read in a given month?  How many books do you read at a time?"

"If I don't like one, I abandon it and I begin another.  There are lots of good books to be read.  There's no need to obsess yourself with the bad ones.  There are also good books that you read at the wrong time.  In those cases, it's better to wait and try again later."

I could not have said this better myself!  He is so right and that of course leads directly into my biggest soapbox:  English classes in high school.
(I'll try to be brief and concise here, otherwise we could be a while.)

With 5 years of English teaching experience across a broad spectrum of "abilities" and desires, I've come to the conclusion that 4 years of English classes reading "classic" literature is a waste for most students.  I, personally, love classic literature and yet there are certain authors that I DO NOT READ FOR FUN:  Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck are just two.  So yes people, the smart thing here is to require it of teenage boys and girls who are planning to spend their lives in construction, as math teachers, as scientists or doctors, working at Walmart, or painting, or whatever!  (Please read heavy sarcasm here).  

Education should be focused on teaching students to read and write well and should use a variety of tools to do that.  If that means you dig out Captain Underpants then so be it.  The tools will lead them to greater success than the actual book.

That being said, I do have books that I have put aside only to love them later.  A good example of that is Charles Dickens' Hard Times.  Love that book.  Love love love that book.  But I didn't love it until college.
And my grandmother often sends me books with a note that she didn't like it and stopped reading but here you go anyway.  Although we have similar taste, there's a few that I have loved that she hasn't been able to get through.

That's what makes a blog like this problematic.  I can recommend books, but that doesn't guarantee that YOU will like them.  And that's ok!

I'll still love you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blackout Poetry Attempted

That was harder than it looks.

I sat down last night watching reruns of The Closer and Bones and picked up our newspaper to try blackout poetry.  I picked the "Arts and Life" section thinking there would be better words.  And there were great ones!  But it was actually really hard!

Once I got started, then I wanted the poem to go somewhere that I just didn't have a the words for.  I had to look at the article and think about how the words would work outside of what my vision was.  It was definitely an exercise in thinking outside the box!

So this is my poem:  It's hard to see but what it says is -- art this fascinating cultural masterpiece ties the world over the years, to the present

Sounds more like a wise saying than a poem to me (I gravitate towards more traditional poems myself) but it works!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A New Kind of Poetry

I completely forgot that I was going to blog about this.  But better late than never!

There was an article in our Dallas Sunday newspaper a few weeks back about a gentleman by the name of Austin Kleon.  He has just published a book of poetry using a method he more or less invented called "newspaper blackout".  

The premise?  Take a newspaper articles, column, advertisement, whatever -- and black out all the words except for those that make a poem.

He blogs about it and posts his poems here.  It's actually really neat!

Ok I'm downplaying it -- I think it's really cool!  Yet another idea to make me jealous.  After all, what a great way to get students to create poetry.  So often it's hard to come up with the words, but when they're already there for you . . . but you're looking for poetry really.

I can't use this until the girls are older unfortunately but IF YOU TEACH ENGLISH SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, you really should check this out.  I might just have to try it myself as well.

Where did today's newspaper go . . . 

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Writing

I am a reader.

I have been since I was very young.  I've always preferred reading to pretty much every other activity out there.  So when I say that I've been sucked in to a book that means nothing else gets done.  Which is a little more complicated now that I'm a mom of course, but it still happens.

But am I a writer?

I can't decide.  I'm not one of those who has made up stories my whole life.  I've been content to read others.  But that doesn't mean I couldn't be a writer I think.  And I've had some ideas here or there that might be interesting to read if I could get it down on paper fluidly.  I just don't know.

When you hear writers talk about their work, they always talk about how difficult it is to write.  But the thing is, they don't really go into detail.  I would love to KNOW how Rick Riordan gets his ideas for his books.  What happens when he's stumped?  How does he connect events to make a whole cohesive story?  I would love to pick Shannon Hale's brain about character.  How do you make each character endearing and have a real voice?  How do you write them so that they come alive?  I want to ask Richard Peck how to write humor and create situations that make me laugh out loud (because they do).  And I want to ask them all about process.  How does a book go from an idea to a finished product?  All I get to see is the finished product -- what does it look like in the meantime?

But I can't.  So I guess I have to experiment myself.

I wrote a first draft of a children's book about 2 or 3 weeks ago.  And this is how it went -- had the idea, sat down at the computer, wrote the entire book in one sitting visualizing what it would actually look like as I went.
Then I sent it to some friends and family for feedback.  First draft.  I didn't hear back from most of them and there may be several reasons for that but I can't help but wonder if it falls under the old adage: "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."  Because I'm self-conscious.

So now I'm going to do my second draft.  I haven't decided how yet: print off the original and retype the whole thing or just fix bits and pieces on the computer.  I don't really know what my process is, it's been so long since I've written fiction (since college actually).  But I'm going to try and see what happens.

Oh and just to document it as I go, I've also begun a young adult novel.  That has been a bear.  I have lots of ideas floating in my brain but no clue on how to make them connect or be exciting to read.  So I just type as I think of things and maybe I'll try connecting the dots later!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It Sucked Me In Again!

Did you like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan?  I did.  I've honestly read better writing but the adventure and excitement was top notch and I love LOVE LOVE the idea.  Actually, I'm quite jealous that I didn't think of it first.  Sigh.  That's a lot of research though and I don't know that I have that much time on my hands.

The past few days I've managed to carve out a little bit more though (thanks for Sesame Street and Care Bears) and have read the first book in his next installment of demigod disasters:  The Lost Hero.
I had heard that he was going to continue on this theme but I was surprised that he's continuing with Percy Jackson and all of the heroes of Camp Half-Blood.  With a twist.

There are Greek gods and demigods of course, but now there are also Roman.  I don't want to say too much because this book is one big mystery and I like that.  Same fast-pased, high adventure style as the others but the focus is on three entirely new heroes who are very endearing in their own ways.  And of course an earth-shattering enemy.  Literally.

Book 2 comes out in October and I'm already excited.

Well, with Harry Potter ending, I'm glad I have something else to look forward to.  Which speaking of Harry Potter, there's something about a major announcement I think . . . hold on.  Rowling's announcement is here.  Sounds interesting don't you think?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

H is For House

Today for preschool we did the letter H and I was so bummed about what I COULDN'T do!

I remember a book that my parents had called A House is a House for Me.
It goes through all of the "houses" that different creatures live in really great rhyme.  The reason that I'm so bummed is that I didn't think about it until Monday (not enough time to get the book sent from my parents) and even though it's technically "check in" at the library, it was definitely not on the shelf and has been lost to the ages.

I can't blame the library though.  I know that my own darlings frequently pull books and we don't get them back where we belong . . . sorry!

So I didn't get to read the kids this book that I LOVE but we did a matching game based on the idea.

It is super simple to do a Google image search for various creatures and their houses: bees and beehives, squirrels and trees, princesses and castles, etc.  In word, I set the paper size to 4" by 6" and then dropped the margins way down so that one picture was on each page.  Then I stuffed my printer with 4x6 index cards and printed!  Voila!  Instant matching game!  

The kids enjoyed it (they all wanted to keep the pictures) and they learned a little bit about different types of houses.  

But I still want to get a hold of that book.  It might just "accidentally" find it's way into my car the next time we visit the grandparents . . .