Palaces and Puppet Shows

Palaces and Puppet Shows

One of the things we love about living in Amsterdam is visiting the city centre. While Amsterdam is famous for its multitude of, shall we say, earthly delights, there are also plenty of wonderful family-friendly activities here. Shortly after we arrived, we bought ourselves the Museumkaart, a card that allows you to get into most of Amsterdam’s museums and other historical sites like the Anne Frank House for free.

Our first couple of times using the cards at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum were somewhat less than successful, due to a combination of crowds, long lines, and insufficient parental ingenuity. Today I was determined to make a better plan. We started off the morning with hot chocolate and pain au chocolat (keyword: chocolate) at De Bakkerswinkel, slathered liberally with their signature strawberry jam, lemon curd, and pineapple basil preserves.

While everyone was still on a sugar high, we cycled over to Dam Square, site of the Royal Palace, our cultural destination for the day.

Holding hands

When we asked about kid-friendly things to do while touring the Palace, they informed us that unfortunately the audio tour for children had been discontinued. Undeterred, we opted for the adult audio tour for everyone, which the children ended up finding fascinating.


The Palace was full of all manner of marble reliefs and gigantic paintings depicting Greco-Roman themes, so I once again was happy that I spent the first 6-8 years of my children’s lives thoroughly indoctrinating them in Classical mythology. For example, here’s a fairly terrible photo of a relief of Icarus, placed, appropriately enough, above the room designated to hear bankruptcy cases.

IcarusIn this photo you can see Atlas holding up the sky, whilst presiding over three gigantic floor maps depicting the Eastern Hemisphere, the Western Hemisphere, and the night sky, complete with constellations. Political borders and European knowledge of North America have changed significantly during the few hundred years since the maps were made. But the stars have not.

Royal PalaceOnce finished inside the Palace, we went back out to the square, where a delightfully atmospheric puppet show was in progress.

puppet showStreet performers in Dam Square today included a Darth Vader, a Yoda, two Grim Reapers, a nude woman being progressively covered in body paint, and this impressive Neptune (who is, you’ll notice, pulling Axa’s hair. Why?!?).

NeptuneThe usual bubble blowers were out in force as well, and Axa and Raj are clearly not too old to partake in some gratuitous bubble popping.

BubblesAnd yes, we are “those tourists” who shamelessly feed the pigeons.


It might seem like an innocent photo, but the pigeons here are really a bit of a problem. Not only have I seen them brazenly stealing food off of (occupied) outdoor cafe tables; they are not above flying in and snatching a tender morsel out of the very hand of an unsuspecting passerby. In fact, watching these pigeons in action, it’s easy to imagine how the tale of King Phineas and the Harpies, who stole an entire banquet off his table every night before he could even begin to eat, got its start.

Speaking of which, we finished off the afternoon with Dutch hotdogs, complete with all the trimmings. Which in this case included ketchup, mustard, curry sauce, mayonnaise, diced onions, pickle relish, red peppers, sauerkraut, french onions, and mini potato sticks. They disappeared into our mouths so quickly the pigeons didn’t have a chance.

hot dog

Game of Thrones, Falling in Honey, Bigger on the Inside, and Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Lives and Times

Game of Thrones, Falling in Honey, Bigger on the Inside, and Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Lives and Times

Doctor Who

It’s been a while since I published a book review. As is probably obvious, I spend most of my discretionary time these days watching Doctor Who. It’s still not clear whether my infatuation will eventually burn itself out, or develop into a lifelong love affair. Of course I am hoping for the latter–doesn’t everyone who’s in love want it to last forever? In the meantime, I just signed my daughter up for an online homeschooling class entitled Traveling Through History With Doctor Who, because who doesn’t need another excuse to watch a Doctor Who episode every week and then write papers and do projects relating it to history, science, literature and ethics?

I’ve been reading too, though, at least a bit. Doctor Who related books, and even a few others. Check out my latest reads:


A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve kept this on my currently-reading shelf for quite a while, but finally realized that I was never going to finish it. For one thing, it’s so long! I like long books, but only if I like them, so I must not like this one very much if it feels like I’m slogging through and not getting anywhere.

Most people I know either love or hate this series, but I find myself merely lukewarm. When I am in a particularly nihilistic mood, I kind of love wallowing in the T.V. series in all its opulent glory, even if I have to cover my eyes for the really gory parts. But I’m not all that impressed with Martin’s prose.

The only character I really like all the time is Bran Stark. If the book were all about him, I’d probably like it much better. Which makes me think I should probably just go back and read Lord of the Rings yet again, if what I’m interested in is the diminutive, melancholic character on the quixotic quest to save the world.

I have a several friends who adore this series. At least now I can say I tried.


Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My HeartFalling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart by Jennifer Barclay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is far from the best expat memoir I’ve ever read. It probably only deserves maybe 2.5 stars. But I’m moving to a Greek island, so I did enjoy it quite a bit and I’ve rounded up my rating.

Things I liked – reading all the little details, like descriptions of food (I am addicted to descriptions of food), the traditional dancing at festivals, and the idiosyncratic directions to her new house.

Things I could have done without – so many pages devoted to her love life. It seemed like she should have written a separate memoir for that, although I’m sure the two things (Greece and complicated relationships) were inextricably connected in her mind.

So, yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as good armchair traveling, unless you like it mixed in with an unrelated soap opera.


Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside (Popular Culture and Philosophy)Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside by Courtland Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the book I am going to send back to the library with a post-it note containing my name and email address. Because if you read and loved this book, we should be friends (and because I’ve been informed that in Whovian circles this is considered a legitimate way to make friends).

Every time I watch a Doctor Who episode, I end up with a head full of ideas that I’m just dying to discuss with someone, and my husband can only take so much Doctor Who-related babble. So this book was like water for my parched soul–essay after essay written by people who not only take Doctor Who seriously, but were also interested in exploring its ethical and existential themes. Heaven.

The book is divided into several sections, including Ethics, Personal Identity, Aesthetics, etc. I minored in philosophy, although I haven’t read a whole lot of philosophical texts since I graduated. So most of the philosophical arguments in the book were familiar to me, but I think they would still be accessible without a background in philosophy.

Since each essay is written by a different person, the quality and style is somewhat uneven. But there are enough gems to give the book five stars. A couple of different authors developed the idea that the Doctor’s ethical system is a variation of the “Ethics of Caring” developed by feminist thinkers in the 1950’s, and I found those essays enlightening, since I’m particularly interested in (and enamoured by) the Doctor as an unconventional hero with an idiosyncratic moral outlook.

Whether you want to get your Whovian friend interested in philosophy or your philosophical friend interested in Doctor Who, this is the perfect book.


Doctor Who: The Doctor's Lives and TimesDoctor Who: The Doctor’s Lives and Times by James Goss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Someone in acquisitions at my library is apparently as taken by Doctor Who as I am, since I’ve probably checked out a dozen or more books similar this one, which is a sort of documentary-type book about the series.

This one, though, is by far my favorite. While many of the others are simply character encyclopedias, this book has lots of interviews and reminiscing by cast members about what it was like to be part of Doctor Who, and it’s laid out in an appealing scrapbook style.

I admit to skimming some of the earlier chapters, since I’ve only seen a fraction of the classic episodes, and I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers. But if you wanted a nice overview of the series, including characters, plot(s), and behind-the-scenes, you couldn’t go wrong with this book.

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Austen, Steampunk, Star Wars Art, Life of Fred, and Flunking Sainthood

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles SolvedWhat Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard for me to resist a book about Jane Austen. And this one did not disappoint. Mullan raises all sorts of deceptively simple questions, from what the weather was to when and how the characters blush to how long the bereaved wear mourning. His answers reveal the genius of Austen’s subtle manipulation of the simple everyday happenings of life in 19th century Britain, and how even seemingly insignificant details shape and reveal her plots. Apparently, everything matters in Jane Austen.

Although this book did give me some additional historical insight, what I really enjoyed were the plot analysis and learning about how Austen invented literary devices to make the novel more powerful and greatly influenced later writers.

Caveat: if you’re unfamiliar with Austen’s novels, the extensive quotations and dizzying leaps from plot to plot will probably just be frustrating and boring. But for those who have read and reread Austen, this is a wonderful tool for appreciating her even better.

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star WarsGlittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating, unusual book, and my first by Camille Paglia. In a relatively small, slim volume, she takes the reader on a sweeping tour of the history of Western art. Each chapter contains a photograph of a piece of art, and then a short essay. Although I diverged with Paglia in some of her opinions, her insights were invariably illuminating. I really loved that she devoted an unusually large portion of the book to more modern art, and most of the modern pieces she used were new to me. I will admit that I initially picked up this book for its titular promise to treat Star Wars as serious art, and yes, I was tempted to turn to the end and read the Star Wars essay first. I didn’t, and I’m glad I read the rest of the book first to give me context, because the Star Wars essay was great, and I think I understood it better than I would have if I’d just flipped to the end and read it. This book is totally worth a read, whether you’re interested in Star Wars or art or both.

Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My NeighborFlunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is really a 3.5 star book, but I admire Jana Riess, so I gave her another half star for that. It turns out that I enjoyed the idea of the book more than the actual book, so maybe this is just a case of having too high of expectations. One thing that surprised me is that the book is almost entirely focused on Christian spiritual practices, when from the title I had expected a more ecumenical approach. Still, there’s quite a bit of diversity in Christianity, and I was unfamiliar with several of the approaches she tried, so I learned a lot. My favorite thing was that along with the different spiritual practices, she read writings by the Christian authors (some going back to the early centuries before Christ, and others more modern) who championed those practices. I felt like by the end of the book I had a better understanding of the diversity of Christianity through the ages. As far as the author’s goal of incorporating a different spiritual practice each month, however, the whole thing seemed a little flippant.

Steampunk-Style Jewelry: A Maker's Collection of Victorian, Fantasy, and Mechanical DesignsSteampunk-Style Jewelry: A Maker’s Collection of Victorian, Fantasy, and Mechanical Designs by Jean Campbell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was another one of those esoteric books I picked up on a whim from the “new books” shelf at the library. Really, I was just curious to finally find out exactly what that cryptic term “Steampunk” means. To my delight, as well as being an artsy how-to book, this actually is a sort of primer to Steampunk. There’s an introduction explaining the term at the beginning, and short chapters interspersed between the jewelry projects explore different aspects of Steampunk style and history.

The jewelry itself is quirky, creative, and often beautiful. Most of it looks like it could belong on the set of the movie The Golden Compass. This book is worth a read, even if only for the sake of cultural literacy. But for a brief moment as I read it, I actually considered converting my entire wardrobe to Steampunk.

Life of Fred: ApplesLife of Fred: Apples by Stanley F. Schmidt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a real educational winner. The funny, sometimes bizarre story-line has my kids laughing out loud almost every day. We’re actually already on Book 3 of the series, and I’ve made it the primary math curriculum for my children (ages 5 and 8). I find that they both understand and retain the material. And because it is presented in a real-life setting, they also can see how math is meaningful and useful in life. I will re-start my 5-year-old on the first book in a year or two, but in the meantime he is getting a great introduction as he listens along with his big sister. He loves the story, and can do a lot of the problems too. The icing on the cake is that this series goes all the way up through calculus. With any luck, my homeschool math curriculum is taken care of forever.

Note: I supplement with Khan Academy for extra practice, and bought some math card games to help my kids learn their arithmetic facts. But Life of Fred, despite how fun and painless it is, seems to be a very solid primary math course. I would also highly recommend it to any parent with a child who’s struggling in math and needs some extra help not only “getting” math, but loving it.

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photo credit: Steampunk Vader

A Fossilized Birthday

Last Tuesday was Axa’s 8th birthday. We spent the morning at the Daytona Museum of Arts and Sciences. They had quite an interesting mishmash of exhibits, including a room devoted entirely to art depicting space flight, and another of Spanish conquistador weapons.

But Axa’s favorite, and the reason we went to the museum on her birthday (other than the fact that it was the first Tuesday of the month, and free to Volusia County residents) was the beautifully preserved fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth.

On the way home from the museum, we finally had the experience we’ve been waiting for since we moved to Florida: an encounter with wild alligators! Although I was vigorously urged on by Axa, this is the closest I was willing to get, even on her birthday, and even for the sake of photographic evidence of our exploit.

The alligators are the small lines on the incline toward the pond (you can tell they’re really alligators if you click on the photo and make it big). In the background is a flock of storks, which as you can see were braver than I.

When we got home, Axa opened her presents.

And then we had cake. Yes, I MADE this cake.  I’m practically getting to be one of those awesome pinterest moms. Just kidding. I’m not. To tell the truth, I made the mistake of sitting down with Axa and doing a google image search when she said she wanted a dinosaur cake. This was the one and only dinosaur cake that I could imagine myself actually executing.

The recipe called for chocolate graham crackers to make the “dirt.” I was going to make it easy for myself and just buy them, but they didn’t have them at the grocery store, and going to another store didn’t really fit in with my idea of making things easy for myself. So instead I used the Smitten Kitchen recipe, with the addition of 1/4 cup or so of cocoa powder. Lots more work than store graham crackers, but lots yummier as compensation.

We made a white cake for the base, and then chocolate cream cheese frosting to glue on the dirt. The “bones” are sugar cookies. If you have a similarly dinosaur-obsessed child, here’s the dino bone template.

Axa helped with every stage of the cake, from beating the eggs to cutting out the cookies. And she was very pleased with the result.

Happy birthday to my sweet little girl!

Organizing My Bookshelves, Part 1

When I asked on Facebook for suggestions on organizing my home library, I was amused to find that multiple people suggested organizing the books by color. Now nobody is denying that a bookshelf organized by color is very pretty. But how do you find the books once you’ve organized them?

Maybe I just have too many books. When I got ready to do my organizing overhaul, I thought it might be fun to count. My off-the-cuff estimate was around 500. The grand total, though, after going through every room in the house, was 805 books. Not counting the 100-or-so library books in the house at any given moment.

I grew up in a house full of books, so after Tony and I were married, I didn’t really feel like I had a real home until we had at least one full bookshelf. I regularly haunt library book sales and the book section at thrift stores. I would love to have a whole dedicated room to serve as a library, but I have a feeling that the books would not stay inside it very well. Books tend to go wandering at our house. Sometimes I wonder if they’re up playing musical shelves during the night.

I have other reasons for collecting books than just my compulsive fetish for paper with words on it. I like having the books I’ve read at my fingertips, because you never know when you’ll need to look something up again. Some books, like art books, I collect for the pleasure of paging through them. Others, like all the guidebooks and travel memoirs, remind me of places I’ve been or places I want to go. But my ultimate reason/excuse for collecting books is that I homeschool my children, so it’s part of my job to create a rich learning environment. Which of course includes filling the house with books on all sorts of different subjects, to pique their interests and feed their intellectual passions.

On top of that, someday (preferably soon) we’ll be moving away again to a foreign country where we won’t have an English-language library at hand. So I have to madly fill my personal library in the meantime so it can compensate. Because even though it’s true I can get hundreds of thousands of books via Kindle and other digital means, I know from experience that all those books lining the walls of my parents’ house actually did get read by their children. So I don’t collect books indiscriminately. I mostly buy the ones I want my children to read, if not now, then in ten years.

I actually did consider employing the Dewey decimal system. But it just doesn’t represent all the relationships between books. What I really need is some kind of complex tag cloud. But for now, my physical books are limited to one location in space, so they’ve ended up categorized according to my own whimsical, intuitive, and sometimes haphazard system. Which doesn’t represent all the relationships between books either, but it’s mine, so I like it. If anyone has a really awesome system, I’d love to hear about it.

One of my favorite things to do in other people’s houses is to look at their books. I feel like it helps me get to know them. If that’s not something you do, the rest of this post probably won’t interest you much. But if it does, and if you were in my house, this is what you’d see . . .

Here’s the mostly literature bookcase, housed in the living room.

You’ll notice that the bookcase, while lovely, does not have adjustable shelves. This adds an extra dimension of challenge to book organizing, since the tall books must go on the top shelf. So here’s what you’ll find on the top left shelf: business, Tolkien, and a bit of miscellania.

Because it’s a double bookcase, there’s another top shelf to the right of this one. This is our Mormon shelf, with some Nibley, various manuals, and our Minerva Teichert-illustrated Book of Mormon.

On the next level we have my collection of individually bound pocket-sized Shakespeare plays. Why yes, I do envision my children someday brandishing one of these as they improvise a scene out of Macbeth.

Shakespeare continues to the right, and the golden monkey tidily separates him from the rest of my drama collection, although some displaced 19th century novels are stuck in between as well, pending finding more space for British literature.

Because I tend to think of everything in geographic terms, I have my novels organized more or less by the author’s nationality. So from left to right, Lebanese, Russian, South African, Irish, Canadian, and American.

American novels continue to the right, although they’ve been mostly eclipsed by Dickens, who was kicked off the English literature shelf because he was taking up most of it. In fact, my English and American literature is somewhat mixed up, partially because I originally had all the Anglo-Saxon stuff together and only recently tried to separate them out.

Next, we take a ride back to ancient Greece, where we find Homer and then the Greek philosophers, and then eventually philosophy in general. Also Gilgamesh, because he’s kind of ancient too, and where else would you put Gilgamesh?

Now British novels, although really, as you’ve seen, they’ve been spilling out all over the place. Also, some mis-filings I hadn’t caught. Hawthorne, Herman Wouk, and Chaim Potok have since been returned to their proper place.

Which brings us to the science fiction and fantasy shelf. Here you’ll find Patricia McKillip, my favorite contemporary fantasy author, along with some sci-fi classics like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Also a couple of versions of A Thousand and One Nights, although they should perhaps be moved to the fairy tales section. And Nietzsche is probably rolling over in his grave because the philosophy shelf above this one was too full, and he fell down into the science fiction.

Poetry! When my dad did a reading of some of his own poems at our family gathering last month, I was reminded that I come from a long line of poets and poetry-lovers. On the very far right, you can see a slim maroon volume with gold lettering. It’s called One Hundred and One Famous Poems, and was given to me by my grandparents on my 10th birthday. I still have many of those poems memorized.

We’ve reached The Bottom Shelf at last. Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I guess I was getting tired of taking pictures of bookshelves. This shelf holds essays and speeches, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Thomas Jefferson. It also holds one of only two literary works that ended up in duplicate when Tony and I merged our libraries (aka got married): Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Our other duplicates were two entire sets of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings plus the Silmarillion. Tony’s were the deluxe slip-case edition pictured on the top. Mine were just one of a series of thrift store paperbacks that have since been read to death and replaced multiple times. I’m not sure what deep conclusions about us and our relationship you could draw from this. At any rate, neither of us is quite as radically committed to laissez-faire economics as we used to be . . .

And finally, the short stories. They ended up at the bottom of the bookshelf because I am not a huge fan of short stories. When I read one, I feel like I’m just reading until the punchline of a joke. And in the unlikely event that I actually happen to really like the story, it’s over almost before it begins. Also, I still sometimes can’t get out of bed to get a drink of water at night without turning on the light and still feeling generally terrified as a result of reading a Henry James anthology culminating in The Turn of the Screw while sick in bed three years ago in Ireland. But every rule has its exception, and the exception to my general dislike of short stories is “Repent Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman. Which does not yet exist on my bookshelf.

I hope you enjoyed this riveting tour of my bookcase. Stay tuned for further exciting episodes. In the meantime, how do you organize your books?

Casteluzzo Academy 2013, Term 1

A week or so ago I alluded to a major change-up in the way that we are doing homeschool. We recently ditched some books that weren’t working, and added a whole new list of wonderful books that so far seem pretty great.

Another aspect of the change is that we are doing more of our homeschooling together. I had always imagined having a separate stack of books for each child, and only doing the really obvious things like art and composer study together. But that was back in the days when we were having a child every two years or so, and weren’t going to stop until we got to five or six, like our parents. Life conspired, and due to a combination of various factors, I find myself with two children who are no longer babies, toddlers, or even preschoolers, and no prospect of new babies for us in the immediate or foreseeable future.

I’m deeply ambivalent about this, as is evidenced by the major crying fest I had the other day when sorting through the baby clothes we’ve been lugging around for so many moves. My pile of “favorites” that I just couldn’t give away ended up so big that in the end nothing got given away. Because you never know, and anyway, I can always save them for my grandchildren. Only it is crazy to be thinking about future grandchildren when my oldest is seven.

Really, I just can’t let go of those clothes, because they represent such a sweet time. Through the rosy lens of nostalgia, I remember feeling like such a competent mother when it mostly involved tangible physical things like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and finding the perfect cloth diapers, soft-soled baby shoes, and natural wooden toys. Parenting gets so much more complicated when they’re older, and I have a feeling that parenting a seven-year-old is only the tip of the iceberg.

We just visited last month with my two little one-year-old nephews, and it was so much fun to remember what it was like to have babies. I admit it was nice in the evening to hand the baby to mom and dad and go downstairs with my two grown-up children who sleep through every night without fail and don’t have meltdowns when they miss their naps. Still, there is nothing more snuggly than little wet baby kisses.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the dynamics of our four-person family.  I love the way Axa and Raj are best friends. I am finally getting over feeling that I am a deficient mother because I only have two kids (large families have always been very much a thing in the Mormon church, although by the time I was a kid, “large” meant five or six children rather than ten or twelve, and now many of my own contemporaries are stopping at four). I love that we all get to spend so much one-on-one time. I often take just one of them out on morning errands with me, while the other stays home with Daddy. I remember how much I craved that kind of time with my parents as a child (and it’s not easy to get when there are five children and a dad in medical school and residency), and I feel happy that my kids get it so often. I guess there are advantages to every size of family.

Anyway, this is all only tangentially related to our homeschool curriculum. I originally wanted to have each child do mostly separate homeschool work, because I was very skeptical that with six kids aged, say, one to twelve, it would be perfectly tailored to each child if we were doing most of it together. The programs I have seen where all the kids work together with a wide age split don’t really impress me, nor did I feel competent to create such a curriculum myself. But with only two, who are just two years apart, I feel more comfortable doing more things together. As you’ll see, we still have some subjects that happen separately, but by and large we are mostly working together (and when I say “working,” mostly what I mean is snuggling on the couch while I read to them).

So without further ado, here’s our home-designed curriculum.

Devotional/Religious Instruction – After five years of reading a few verses per day, we finished reading The Book of Mormon yesterday! Yes, we will be going to the beach to celebrate, just as soon as the Bobbles’ new swimming suits arrive in the mail this week. Our new project is the New Testament. We read the Matthew genealogy today, and Tony asked, “why do you think Matthew decided to start this book with a long boring list of names?” Axa replied, “It’s not boring!” I’ll take that as a good omen. Maybe we should be tackling the Old Testament.

For our song, we are currently practicing “If the Savior Stood Beside Me,” which Tony and Grammy and I will be singing at Axa’s baptism next month. We have memorized the Articles of Faith up to number 9. And when it’s my turn for Family Home Evening Lesson, I’ve been doing a series on women in the Scriptures and in L.D.S. Church history, since they don’t tend to get covered very well at Church. So far, I’ve done Emma Smith, Minerva Teichert, Judith, and Tabitha. Next up: Eliza R. Snow.

World History – I finally took the plunge and ditched all the imperialist British books. And I’ve found what promises to be an incredible alternative. It’s the Oxford University Press World in Ancient Times series. This is a ten-book set that covers ancient world history in a more culturally and geographically diverse way than any other I’ve seen. My friend Amira (who is a total kindred spirit in so many ways) recommended these for covering world history that really covers non-western history in more than smidgens and snatches.

Each book covers a different area, including the Near East, China, Egypt, Greece, South Asia, Rome, and America. There’s also a volume of primary sources. The series is technically intended for junior high students, but we are finding it to be both comprehensible and fascinating. Each book is co-written by a YA author and an expert in the particular field covered, which ends up in them being both very readable and well researched and accurate.

The icing on the cake is that the series starts with a volume called The Early Human World, which talks about the evolution of human ancestors. Since Axa’s current obsession is dinosaurs, this book, with its descriptions of fossils and excavations is a great bridge for us into human history. Yesterday we read a chapter with excerpts from the diary of Mary Leakey, who was the anthropologist wife of Jane Goodall’s mentor. Since we’ve watched multiple documentaries about chimpanzees lately, the children were excited. After we finish The Early Human World, we’ll read through all the other books simultaneously, so we get a picture of world history unfolding all over the world.

If you’re interested in these books, the $330 price tag for the set might give you sticker shock like it did me. Fortunately, if you’re willing to purchase them one by one from sites like the book depository, alibris, and Amazon’s Marketplace, you can get most of them for much cheaper. Use AddAll and search each book by ISBN, and it will tell you exactly where you can find each one for the cheapest. This is, in fact, how I get most of my books, usually for only a couple of dollars each. The icing on the cake is that they’re often ex-library books with the special heavy duty library binding and their dust jackets covered in heavy duty plastic.

Geography/Muslim History/Culture – Like everything else,Ibn Battuta has been on hold for awhile. We left him somewhere in Iran. But I think we’ll start him back on his journey one of these days.

Nature Study – Axa has named each of the lizards living in the environs of our house. She regularly observes and catches them, and knows a surprising number of intimate details about their lives. She’s also caught frogs, ring-necked snakes, grasshoppers, and a grouchy old gopher tortoise that wandered into our garage. We went successfully in search of manatees and unsuccessfully in search of sea turtles. One of these days we’ll get around to going in search of alligators.

We’ve watched quite a few nature documentaries about reptiles lately, notably David Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood. The latest is entitled Super Croc, in which a paleontologist is searching for answers about a 40-foot fossil crocodile he’s unearthed in the Sahara. He teams up with a reptile expert, and they travel the globe together, catching large crocodiles and weighing and measuring them. It makes me a little queasy to see them riding crocodiles (and I must confess I hope my children aren’t getting career ideas from this movie), but it’s very educational.

Natural History – The Burgess Animal Book was such a hit that I was thrilled to find a set of over a dozen similar books by Thornton W. Burgess at our library. Axa read every one, and that was pretty much how she learned to read chapter books last year. She continues to check out innumerable books about reptiles, dinosaurs, sharks, and other animals. My natural history read-aloud for this term, though, is Insect Fact and Folklore, a charming older book I picked up for fifty cents at some books sale or other. It merges information about insects and their habits with legends and human interactions with insects from around the world.

Literature – Tony just finished reading Treasure Island to Axa and Raj, and recently started Tom Sawyer. I have George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin on my Kindle to read when we’re stuck waiting somewhere, or driving in the car. If I’m driving, sometimes Axa reads it aloud to us. We’ve already finished most of the literature and free reading selections from Ambleside Online Year 2, so we’ll probably start on Year 3. We’re also reading out of Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.

Poetry – We’re reading out of The Tree that Time Built: a celebration of nature, science, and imagination. I like it pretty well, but I think pretty soon we’ll go back to reading a single author at a time. Maybe Christina Rossetti.

Science – Still using and loving Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding by Bernard Nebel. We’ll probably finish it up this term and be ready for Book 2.

Maths – Yippee, and hallelujah! I have found a math curriculum that my kids love. The year or so we spent on MEP was great, and the children both learned a lot, but Axa felt like it was getting to be drudgery, and I didn’t love the scripted lessons, since I generally prefer the role of fellow book-lover to the role of teacher. Our new curriculum is called Life of Fred, and every morning they beg to read it first thing. It’s hard to describe Life of Fred, except to say that it’s a set of quirky, amusing story books that somehow pack in a full mathematics course.

Just like Khan Academy, it took quite a few people raving about this series for me to finally get around to trying it out. The thing my kids like about it is that it is funny and very light on the busywork. The thing I like about it is that it presents every single math concept in a real life context. Each chapter has a story in the life of Fred (a five year old with a phD who has a doll named Kingie and teaches math at the university) that incorporates multiple mathematical concepts, and then a section entitled “Your Turn to Play,” contain several questions, some math-related, and some just fun.

We read a chapter a day together, and then when we get to the questions, Axa writes hers down and Raj whispers his in my ear if he wants (because I am not too big on kids under six having to write anything). Only time will tell, but I’m pretty sure we have found a winner. One thing about Life of Fred that I’ve heard mentioned a lot is that it doesn’t give kids a whole lot of extra practice. We are supplementing with Khan Academy and fun math problem books from the library.

Art Instruction – has not been happening much around here. But I have a whole beautiful wall full of drawings and collages my kids have made me in the absence of instruction. I’m going to get back on this, because we were having lovely results with Drawing for Children.

Engineering – Raj is fascinated by building things, and will spend hours in his room alone working on projects. I do a lot of thinking about what I can get him so that he can develop his skills and creativity. So far, we have: K’nex, Legos, Zoobs, Motorized Marble Run, Erector set, Tinker Toys, and lots and lots of cardboard, tape, and discarded household items.

His major fascination is robots, so I’ve been spending time on websites like this and this because yeah, robots were never my fascination, and I have some catching up to do. I’d like to help him build his own robot with an online tutorial, but at the age of five he’s not quite ready yet. In the meantime, we scour the library system for robot books. Edmund Scientific has a pretty good selection of robot kits, and I’m thinking of getting him one soon.

Art – We’re going to focus on cave paintings and other early art, to go along with our history curriculum. Anybody have any great ideas?

Copywork (penmanship) – I’ve gotten a little (O.K., a lot) more unschooly with this, and haven’t been doing much. Axa does a fair amount of writing in her own projects. This is something I’ll probably add in as the term progresses.

Foreign Language – Blech. I am doing so awfully with this, and I feel so guilty. But at least I bought them Il Gatto e il Capello Matto and Prosciutto e Uova Verdi (Dr. Seuss in Italian) for Christmas. Also, Grammy gave us Rummy Roots. Hurrah! It’s a card game that teaches Greek and Latin roots. Axa and I have made it all the way through set 1 and are beginning set 2. Considering the fact that the children play Go Fish! on their own for hours at a time, this is a pretty perfect fit for us, and I’m very impressed with how quickly it has taught Axa quite a few classical roots.

Composer Study – We’re doing Prokofiev, since we haven’t listened to Peter and the Wolf yet, and it’s so fun. Also, Prokofiev did a ballet of Romeo and Juliet, which is my children’s favorite Shakespeare play.

Phonics – Last year at this time, we were doing Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with Axa, and I was setting up tea time with cookies to make reading fun for her, combing the library for books that might spark her interest, sitting with her as she painfully made her way day after day through an easy reader book about sharks, and worrying myself to death that she would never like reading. She is now a voracious reader, so I guess something must have worked.

The unintended side effect is that now when I make my Parental Pronouncements of Fascinating and Useful Knowledge she usually responds gently, “I know.” Having witnessed the delights of reading second hand through Axa, Raj told me he wanted to learn to read, so we’re now working through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with him. He’s far more motivated than Axa was, so he’ll probably be independently reading in the next couple of months.

So that’s pretty much what homeschooling looks like at Casteluzzo Academy these days. Anyone else want to share what you’re doing for homeschool this year?

photo credit

A Whole New Year of Homeschooling

When I started out homeschooling my children I swore that I would not be one of those schizophrenic homeschooling moms who is addicted to curricula and constantly switches from one to another. And it should have been an easy resolution to keep. After all, I decided to homeschool before my oldest child was even conceived, and spent a good portion of the first few years of her life exhaustively researching homeschooling methods and curricula. My plan was to find the perfect curriculum and follow it perfectly with my perfectly predictable children from preschool through 12th grade.

And then life happened. Turns out my children are no more predictable than I am, and what works for them is not necessarily always what I originally envisioned would work for all my hypothetical children. Add to that the fact that new curricula are always being invented, developed, and talked about in homeschooling circles (not to mention the other fact that I am addicted to novelty, whether in reading material, meal menus, or place of residence) and I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to plan ahead too far. Which is not necessarily so bad when things usually end up being better than you could ever have planned them.

When Axa was about three, I decided on Great Books Academy. I loved the idea of basing a curriculum around good literature. We accordingly sent away for a gigantic softbound version of all Andrew Lang’s many-colored fairy books, as well as some miscellaneous gems like Draw Write Now and Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers. We liked the fairytales, but I wasn’t too keen on the lesson plans and workbooks. In fact, I’ve been allergic to workbooks since childhood. I was sure there had to be some better pedagogical method out there.

A while later I discovered Charlotte Mason, and knew I had met a 19th century kindred spirit. I ordered her six-volume set of books on education, and discovered a pedagogy that made sense to me. For the next few years, we followed the curriculum at Ambleside Online, which aims to be as close as possible to the curriculum that Mason used in her own schools. I joined the associated community of homeschool parents following the curriculum, and learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of homeschooling from devout Christian mothers, some of whom were homeschooling as many as eight or ten children at once.

I credit the really wonderful classic books from the Ambleside reading lists that my kids have been listening to on cd since they were three for their precocious vocabularies. And it was the Ambleside moms who encouraged us to get outside for 4-6 hours per day (whatever the weather), resulting in the fact that we’ve gotten intimately close to nature on three different continents.

Last year, though, I realized it was time to move on from Ambleside. For the sake of my daughter, who is obsessed with dinosaurs and wants to be a biologist, I really feel like I need to provide a solid foundation in evolution, among other things. Relevant suggestions from the fundamentalist Christian viewpoint at Ambleside range from Answers in Genesis to Ruth Beechick’s Adam and His Kin to a “science” text entitled Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day.

On top of that, the more of we read from Ambleside’s history selections, the more bothered I am by the misogynist, racist, eurocentric version of history that, to be fair, was fairly typical when it was written, one hundred years ago.

Whew. I’ve been needing to get that off my chest for awhile. I love the Ambleside community to death, but I was getting tired of the endless discussions of whether nude art was O.K., if yoga was of the devil, or how to teach kids about their “sin nature,” and especially the general intolerance and utter incuriosity toward any viewpoint other than the evangelical Christian one. I have nothing against other Christians, and Mormons can be just as bad when they get in insular groups like that. I just needed a breath of fresh air. And I was always a renegade Amblesider anyway, since I let my kids read about pagan mythology and ancient civilizations from when they were little, with absolutely no anxiety over whether it would confuse them religiously.

Also, to be honest, my children were chafing at the way we were doing “school.” Homeschooling was becoming a chore for them and for me. We needed a change. So I joined an online secular homeschooling group, and an in-person secular homeschooling group. And I let my kids run wild and unschool for a few months while I rethought my homeschooling strategy. Which is the really awesome thing about homeschooling. As long as I keep up regular trips for the library (which is a pleasure for all of us and we never miss unless we’re deathly ill), the children seem to somehow keep learning anyway. We’ve had to delve into interlibrary loan when it comes to dinosaur and robot books, and we’ve been so busy watching nature documentaries (not to mention all the seasons of Meerkat Manor) that I haven’t had time to even think about finally catching up with the rest of the world and watching Downton Abbey. But other than that, I think we’ve suffered no ill effects.

And we’re pretty much ready to start some semi-formal homeschooling again. But slowly. Slowly! And with great attention to keeping it enjoyable and stimulating. In fact, we started out on Monday, gently easing ourselves in. Today we read the second chapter of Life of Fred (our new math curriculum, for which I have very high hopes), a poem out of The Tree that Time Built (recommended by my amazing homeschooling friend Erin) and the first chapter of The Early Human World.

Then we put up our new wall timeline, which at Axa’s request will focus on prehistory. I got some rolls of receipt paper at a thrift store, so I’ve tacked that up on the wall and am pasting dates on it (e.g. 500 MYA, 450 MYA, etc.), and Axa is working on drawing an animal to represent each period, beginning with the Cambrian. I’ve saved the other side of the hallway for my new history timeline, but that will be fun another day.

While Axa cut and pasted labels for the prehistoric timeline, Raj and I did a lesson out of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and broke out the National Gallery ABC Game that Grandma Betty got us for Christmas. By that time it was time to go to the goat farm. This time around, I’ve resolved to start one new book per day rather than rolling everything all out at once, so we are done with homeschool for the day. So far, so good. Tomorrow I’ll give you a rundown on all the books we’ll be using during this new term.

photo credit (dancing heron)

Summer Camp

For the past several months since we found out about it, Axa has been looking forward with great anticipation to Nature Camp at our local Environmental Center. And yesterday, the big day finally arrived. She’d had her backpack all packed up for days, and set out her clothes the night before. She even asked me what time she should turn off her light and go to sleep, which is a first for my little girl who (like her mother before her) often stays up reading until all hours of the night. Ah, the luxuries of homeschooling.

Yesterday as I drove her to the Lyonia Environmental Center, I reflected that perhaps this is a little bit how parents must feel when they take their child to school for the first time. I hoped that it would be as amazing as she was expecting. I hoped that all the other children would be nice to her, and that she would be nice to them. I hoped that she would make a connection with a kind and responsible adult, who would be a good role model.

I signed the paperwork, looked around at the room and the other children, and then turned to go. Even though my cell phone number is all over the forms I signed, I felt compelled to turn to the program leader and assure her that she could call me if there was any problem.

As I drove home in an empty car that felt suddenly very empty indeed, I wondered what I was going to do for the next six hours without her. All day I felt like a mother duck with one duckling missing. I found that reducing the number of children in our house by 50% reduces the noise level by 95% (at least when the missing child is Axa).

I did enjoy doing math and reading with Raj without having to run back and forth between the two of them answering questions. And I didn’t have to break up any sibling tiffs. But mostly I just missed the feeling of our whole family being together. Even though we like traveling and living around the world, in a way we’re quite the homebodies. Tony works from home. We homeschool. On any given day, we’re more likely than not to spend at least the majority of the day at home.

It’s been this way for at least the past few years, and I don’t usually think about it, because it’s just normal for us. Honestly, I have as difficult of a time imagining the whole family going their separate ways for most of every day as my friends who send their kids to school have imagining what it would be like to have them home all day.

Axa came home bubbling over with excitement and talking a mile a minute. She even learned a few things, although she already knew quite a bit about the animals to be found at the Lyonia Preserve. So obviously, at least so far, Camp has been a great thing for her. It’s also been a good thing for me, because it’s given me the chance to really appreciate the wonderful gift we have of so much time together.

Seasons change, and children grow up. I imagine that as our family’s needs evolve, we will probably spend more time outside our home, both together and separately. But for now, I feel lucky that we get to live mostly in our own little love-,book-, and wonder-filled world.

My inner artist

Like most other children, I really liked to draw when I was young.

At the age of nine, my mom enrolled me in a YMCA art class, where I learned about various artistic styles and did the requisite imitations. For example, here’s my Mondrian,

The Seurat,

and the Kandinsky.

Later, as a teenager, I traded piano lessons for art lessons from a friend, and along with drawing and painting, I tried my hand at such varied artistic activities as Ukranian Easter eggs (several of which still hang on our tree each Christmas), wood-burning, and printing.

In fact, ten years or so later, when Tony discovered several versions of this print as we were packing my stuff before getting married, he finally relented and agreed to get married in the San Diego Temple, rather than the Salt Lake Temple (his preference) or the Oakland Temple (the most convenient).

Sometime later, I decided that I was actually not an artist. I’m not sure why; I guess it was one of those things we mistakenly leave behind with childhood, like St. Exupery’s boa eating an elephant. It’s funny, but I would get really embarrassed when at the age of two or three, Axa went through a stage where she would ask me to draw her things. I felt like a deficient parent because I couldn’t draw. She eventually stopped asking.

Then I learned about Charlotte Mason, and started implementing her ideas in our homeschool. One of her foundational precepts is nature study. This is accomplished through plenty of time outdoors, close observation of flora and fauna, and then documentation in a “nature journal.”

The epitome of wonderful nature journals is The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a beautiful nature journal kept for the year of 1906 by a young woman named Edith Holden. Exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations decorate each page, accompanied by observations of wildlife or vegetation, and poems.

When she recommended that mothers keep their own nature journal to inspire their children, I’m sure that a book like Holden’s must have been what Charlotte Mason had in mind. Unfortunately, I’m no Edith Holden. So while Axa has two nature journals (an online one and a paper one), I have yet to start one of my own.

I’ve been teaching the lessons in Drawing With Children to Axa and Raj, and generally feeling like a hypocrite for not trying out the techniques myself. I just didn’t think I could bring myself to draw anything.

I have had a little box of nice, unused watercolor pencils sitting in my roll-top desk since we moved here. Every so often I look over at it and think about going outside to draw. But then I decide that I’m far to busy, and not quite pysched up enough to do it.

Until today. Today, for some reason, I picked up my pencils and a pad and wandered outside to the front yard. I sat down in my beach chair and looked around, considering what I could draw. I figured it would be too difficult to essay a close-up of anything, even blades of grass, so I settled on the house across the street. Here’s the view:

And here’s my picture. (Yes, I noticed that the house is actually not fuchsia and orange in real life, but I wanted to use more of my colors.)

This is my deconstruction of the experience:

* After I’d been drawing for about five minutes, I started feeling insecure, and deciding again that I couldn’t draw. But I decided to tough it out, and finish the picture.

*I used several of the ideas I’d learned in Drawing With Children, like choosing a starting point and then planning the rest of the drawing around it, drawing things in front first, and turning mistakes into something else (yep, that was my favorite).

*About halfway through, I actually started enjoying the process, even though I was still afraid that I would do something irreparable and my drawing would be destroyed.

*By the time I was nearly done, I looked at my picture and felt a little thrill of excitement that the scene had somehow magically transferred itself onto my paper. I’m still no Picasso, but I think maybe I could make friends with this art thing again.