Jan 30, 2012

Cat in a hat, zombies, and bats

Here we are at the end of the first "school" day here for 2012. 

Homeschool, unschool, home education???
I have to tell you I am struggling more and more with the term "homeschool" as it is blatantly obvious that this is way beyond any kind of "school" experience here at the Mansted Family Project. 

The biggest problem I have had today is getting a word in edgewise during the 2 read alouds we did...the girls are so fired up and excited. It seems that the inter-disciplinary approach Mike and I have designed for their education is really working as we now start the second year of independent home ed (after an earlier couple of years with Distance Education).

Example: reading about Thales and his discovery of static electricity using amber (elektron in Greek) around 585 BCE "sparked" (sorry!) the girls telling me about electrons jumping from cloud to cloud in lightning and how static makes a balloon stick to your hair and that bulb filaments glow hot as the electrons have to squeeze through the wire...blah blah. You get the picture. It is loud around here : )

Synergy. Linking concepts. Applying. Higher order thinking. Analysing. Synthesis. Creating. Right brain explorations...this is truly a delivery that our gifted kids are thriving on. 

How we do it
How did we come up with this master plan? Frankly, it has been a happy accident of good shopping (for curriculum and kits and books) mixed with our own intense love of learning which (surprise, surprise) seems to gel with our girls too.

New school year planning and timetabling
Naturally, it took all six weeks of the holidays before I finished tidying away 2011's bits and bobs ahem, last night, and actually writing a plan of what we'd use this year: 

Here is the timetable as it stands - and keep in mind that it will probably stay like this for about a week before things move in (and out) and around. Looking at this, we look very structured but once it is underway things can become very "unschool"-ish (another term I really dislike). I need the structure to remember all the wonderful things I have on hand like...

  • Michael Clay Thompson's Grammar Island, Music of the Hemispheres (poetry) and Sentence Island - with November starting Caesar's English 1 by herself this term
  • Life of Fred for November (finishing Fractions and getting into Decimals and Percents)
  • Murderous Maths series for both girls as supplements - Mathematricks for July, and the last bits of The Mean and Vulgar Bits for November
  • Stanford's wonderful online maths program for gifted kids EPGY for July
  • D'Aulaire's Greek Mythology stories and study unit
  • Fallacy Detective for logic and reasoning
  • Story of Science for actual real-life history and the wonderful accompanying teacher and student Quest guides that supplement this great book from Joy Hakim (guides from John Hopkins U.)
  • Alternate dipping weekly into Mapping the World with Art from Ellen McHenry and Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain Workbook
  • Biology and Chemistry experiment and instruction packs from Scyance

No wonder we are excited!

So how did Day 1 go?
Well, other than the aforementioned talking (with bouncing up and down and hands up) in the reading aloud times, it has gone really well. Detours outside occurred to look at the cluster of baby micro bats...

that live on our verandah when it is this wet (ridiculously wet, that is) and to pose as zombies in their very different clothes choices for the day...

while indoor detours included bird watching the fire-tail finches courtship behaviour, colouring in  Greek mythological creatures printed on tracing paper, and of course, making a hat for the cat.

Great day. Now to just keep it all going : )

Jan 24, 2012

Have you done your chores?

Household tasks...
What a bone of contention they can be. Who cleans up? When? How often? How old should children be before they are expected to help? How do you do housework with a busy homeschool?

This is our family's journey in getting our house into shape.

Look behind you
My mother always worked. We always had a cleaning lady, a dishwashing machine, and a roster for cooking and cleaning the kitchen for ALL of the family on the fridge. My mum always hung a load of washing out in the morning before she left to work as a teacher. 

The only way you can be a working mother is to have help to do all of those living life kind of survival chores. Help invariably means kids doing chores...(and naturally husbands and partners too).

In our family it started early - I remember making my own lunches in kindergarten; I was 4 and a half. One of my sisters rebelled and so only ate 2 apples for lunch every day in high school. Quick to prepare! 

Now I am a mother I shudder to think that was accepted. Well, it was the 1970s...

Homeschool parents are working parents too
One of my biggest dreads having children was all of the extra work they were sure to create - you can see that my childhood scarred me ;-) but I also wanted to be one of those nurturing caring mothers who don't expect incredibly independent young kids. Sure, I'll cook yummy food, tidy up, sew stuff...

Mostly, this perfectionist approach worked, but when Rainbow Mama Amber talked to me about FlyLady when the girls were tiny, phew, did I need the help. Housework needs a structure. I learnt. I followed the baby-steps. But I mostly did the tidying myself - I had a "system" that was daunting to explain to small kids. Silly me.

Bless your house
So up until the recent past, Mike and I had been a bit slack with the chores. From time to time, we'd try to get the girls to clear their plates, sweep the floor, tidy their rooms without asking, take their dirty clothes to the laundry....and invariably one or the other of us perfectionist parents would crack with frustration and end up doing it ourselves.

It requires patience to teach kids to do chores, doesn't it? And it also takes acceptance that the job may not be perfect. Or timely. Or even done.

Step 1: teach them how to tidy that room
After numerous cranky discussions at bedtime about the state of one daughter's room, I realised I was approaching it all wrong. She was feeling overwhelmed and really didn't know where to start. Bedtime discussions were horrible for everyone.

I sat back, had a good think and wrote a step-by-step list for her:

This made a huge difference. Both girls then knew what to do to tidy their room. It is only asked of them a few times a week (increasingly, they do it without being asked) - a bit of chaos is okay, just not to the "can't see your floor" level...

Household chores need to be shared
A smooth running household is good, isn't it. I get cranky with myself if there aren't any clean clothes to wear, or fruit to eat, or an empty dishwasher. Searching for things uses up a lot of day in a homeschool. Order helps things run more smoothly.

I needed to make my own routine to get me on track every morning - especially as a homeschool mother. In doing this, I realised that actually all of us needed to get into a rhythm, together.

Step 2: take responsibility for your own tasks
We sat down and had a family "conference". Together we put together a chore list for weekdays:

Obviously this list needed to be achievable and appropriate for the child's age, so the two girls' lists were quite different. 

And yes, I had my list too! Indeed, I even got an iPad app for that - loosely based on the FlyLady routines, so consistent too.

So life proceeded along okay, and along with some other occasional tasks like verandah sweeping or one-off $2 tasks like washing the car I realised that family household life was going well. Sharing is fair, after all.

Step 3: review and shake-up as needed
Then recently, Amber from Rainbow Mama emailed me a link to Marilyn Rockett's Life Skills for Children - an excellent resource organised by age with a list of skills that accumulates as the child gets older. 

I printed out one per girl and with a lot of laughing (and pride too) on the girls' part, we went through the list. We marked any they still needed to work on with a sticker, added details as needed, and moved through the list.

It has been a timely reminder for me too. It is now time to teach more cooking skills and practice emergency phone calls etc. The girls are feeling really good about their contribution - after all, we do all need each other, and for one thing, I would be happy never to iron again!

Don't forget the Golden Rule
This rule was agreed between Mike and I early in our relationship:
The person who is doing the job OWNS the job 
(so don't interfere or criticise or it might just become your job instead).

This has helped me take my perfectionist hand off the household task rudder - and it is working beautiful. Happy mums make for happy families : )

Jan 17, 2012

Robot ice cream

This is a very cold summer here in the sub-tropical rainforest of northern NSW, Australia. It feels like we are on a tipping point where the weather is increasingly more random and unpredictable, each year more so in the ten years we have lived here after our tree change from inner-city Sydney. It is a long sleeves chilly - and wet - summer with only a handful of warm days and none of our usual summer stinkers (over 35 degrees celsius, where we swim ten times a day and gorge on mangoes and salad and ice cream). 

But even with the heater on (yes, truly) we are still enjoying home made ice cream. Even with climate change, some things stay the same. Here is how we make ice cream around here...

Abundance of whole foods
We are still visiting the dairy for raw milk, our free range organic hens are laying well apart from the occasional wedge tail eagle still diving through the roof, and with some sugar from down the road (we live in a sugar cane area) all we need from afar is natural vanilla extract (my vanilla lilies are about a foot tall and not flowering yet). 

Just add fresh or frozen fruit and you will have all of the flavour, loads of good nutrition, and none of the nasties in most commercial ice creams (such as gluten or horrible additives like the ubiquitous 160b - read about this 'natural' colour called Annatto which causes more reactive problems than most artificial colours here).

My recipe is based on Stephanie Alexander's 'Egg Custard'. November received a Cuisipro Snap-fit Robot icy pole mold set for Christmas so we thought we'd take it for a run here...

We do eat a lot of ice cream, so have an ice cream churn with its own compressor (that means it is a churn with a freezer attached) but I have made ice cream successfully with a churn that sits in ice and salt, or even freezing the custard in a tray and bringing it out to mix by hand.

What is ice cream anyway?
Good restaurant quality ice cream is invariably made from a custard of egg yolks and milk and cream that is churned and frozen. The thickening of the protein that occurs when you heat the milk and eggs makes a lovely creamy confection without any of the gums, soy thickeners, wheat starches, or gelatinous chemicals in commercial ice creams. It is simple, it is good.

Custard can be tricky to master the first time. Read right the way through this recipe as I have added hints to help if it all cooks too quickly and starts to curdle : )

An amusing book to get you in the icy food mood is "The Empress of Ice Cream" by Anthony Capella which explores the development of iced flavours and the beginning of ice cream in the 1660s in Europe.

Home made gluten free ice cream recipe
This is an adaptable recipe where your ingredients determine the size of your mix. Got loads of eggs and milk and cream? Scale it up. Not much? Scale it down... 

1 free range egg yolk (save your whites and freeze in batches of 5 for incredibly good friands here)
100 mls of milk and cream (50 mls cream to 50 mls milk is really good, but 25 mls cream to 75 mls milk is still good too)
25 grams sugar

Vanilla extract (as good as you can afford) to taste, or 1 bean for 5 yolks

Conversions are here, but basically if you are from the US, think 3 egg yolks, 1.25 cups milk/cream, and 2.5 oz sugar. Wow, metric is sooooo much easier : )

Bring the milk/cream and vanilla to a slow simmer (just starts to wiggle like a heat shimmer - don't boil!) in a heavy-based saucepan. Take it off the heat.

Whisk your egg yolks and sugar by hand or in the mixer (whisk attachment) until light and foamy. Use a big enough bowl to incorporate the milk/cream mix afterwards.

Bring your yolks and sugar over to the stove top and ladle a little bit of warm milk/cream into the eggs' bowl, whisking immediately. Keep adding milk/cream til it's all mixed in.

Rinse the saucepan out in cool water - this will help to avoid overcooking as it cools the pan and removes any residue for the cooking custard to catch onto. Pour the uncooked custard back into the pan. Cook over a moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Watch as you stir and the foamy bubbles from the egg mix will start to break down.

Keep stirring! Look at the back of the spoon - the custard will thicken and coat the spoon where before hand it just ran off like milk. I notice that the sound/vibration of the stirring changes as the foam disappears. Watch out for any little chunks - you have gone too far and may split the custard (coagulated the protein)! This needs rapid cooling!

The trick with a stirred custard is the moderate heat and the constant stirring. Even taking it off the heat won't stop the cooking, so if in doubt (or inexperienced) keep your sink half full of cold water so you can sit the saucepan in there to cool the custard quickly. Keep stirring! I save a just split custard with this cold water bath and a rotary egg beater mixing rapidly...phew.

Once the custard is ready (think slightly thick not chemically thickened here) pour into a jug to place in the fridge for cooling. Once truly at fridge temperature, you can move on to churn the custard and - voila! - ice cream! 

Once churned, pour into chilled molds
We liked the robot molds as they clipped together for stability. Ours are not as pretty as the box photos as November wisely decided to add frozen blueberries and mango! It is summer after all...

Not using molds? Pour into a lidded freezable container and freeze til ready to eat!

Jan 1, 2012

Doctors for mama

Sometimes the toys are not for the children - I "needed" to have the 11 incarnation Doctor Who set to match my Tardis from Christmas 2010!

This is part of my plan for 2012 to do more for me - more playing, more chatting, more time!

Happy New Year ; - D

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