Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Party Times Two (and a half)

It's birthday season at our house.  We have 4 birthdays in the next 5 weeks, plus Brian and I will celebrate our wedding anniversary within that window, too.  We kicked off our time of celebration by doing something totally non-birthday related, but totally worth celebrating. 

We had friends over on Saturday night...and they brought dinner!  The pizza was eaten too quickly for pictures, or maybe I was too busy eating to worry about something so insignificant as a photo.  I did snap a quick shot of the peanut butter cookies we made for dessert.

Yes, friendship and pizza and adult conversation are all party-worthy! 

So are a happy group of ten kids who spent the evening playing hide and seek, strumming guitar, dancing in circles, and playing dolls.

On Monday, Maddie turned 10! We generally stick to a simple gathering with grandparents, but for this special milestone, she requested a tea party with friends. 

We chose a simple theme of sprinkles and polka dots and a color scheme of aqua and pink

Our menu consisted of cheese cubes, flower-shaped crackers, and fresh strawberries.

And tea, of course.  The girls drank peach-mango tea with cream and sugar.

After a few table games ("guess the number of sugar cubes in the bowl" and "how many items can you remember when we cover the tray?") and after Maddie opened her gifts, we cut into the main attraction-- the Cake Batter Cheesecake.

It was my first foray into the world of cheesecake baking, but it was so delicious, so simple to make, and came out so perfectly that I'm afraid I'm addicted.

It was a party to remember!

Oh, and did I say there was also a half party?  Since the original date we chose for her tea party didn't suit several of her guests, Maddie moved the party to the day after her birthday.  Instead, her Gran took her out for ice cream on her birthday afternoon!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The 2014 Bits and Pieces Reader Survey

My blog has been saturated with book recommendations this summer!  From the Summer Reading Guide to a list of books my elementary-age kids read on their own time to books we're reading together on our summer break to books we use for math instruction,  it's been on the blog since June.

If you'd like short and mostly random book suggestions, you should consider liking my Facebook page, too, where I link to specific books that caught our attention and sometimes share photos of the crazy-tall stacks we bring home from the library.

Today, though, I want to know about my readers.  Who are you and what do you like to read about here on my blog? I would love if you would take a moment to fill out this brief and anonymous reader survey! 

Friday, July 25, 2014

6 Things We're Looking Forward To

I am always telling my kids to enjoy today, not to always be wishing for tomorrow.  There is nothing wrong with a little anticipation, though!  Here a few things our family is looking forward to:

1) Maddie is looking forward to her birthday.  She turns 10 this year and we're having a small tea party with some of her friends on Tuesday. Maddie's birthday is the kick-off of 4 birthdays in the next 5 weeks in our house!

2) We're all looking forward to having company over for pizza tomorrow night!  What's not to love about good food, a houseful of people, happy kids playing (ten of them altogether!), and plenty of adult conversation?

3) Alaine is looking forward to starting a new school year.  She has been asking for weeks.  Almost daily she says, "Are we starting school today?"  More than once she has said, "I'm going to go play {fill in the blank}, but call me when it's time for school!"  She doesn't have long to wait now.  Our first day is August 4.

4) I'm looking forward to reading a book that I just can't put down.  I'm in a reading slump.  I've not slacked off in volume, but I've had to push to finish the books I've read lately.  It takes the pleasure out of it.

5) Brian is looking forward to fall.  He likes his job and enjoys working outside, but the pace slows down drastically in October and he can start to breathe again.  In the fall, he can take a rain day without worrying about how he will make up the work. 

6) We are all looking forward to our "staycation." We often take a trip away from home in the fall, but we had several unexpected expenses come up this year so instead we're going to stick close to home. We'll take a few days off from responsibilities to enjoy some cheap local day trips.

What are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Do You...Keep the Kitchen Cool in Summer?

How do you put food on the table in the summer without heating the entire house?

The air conditioning system in our house is old and not overly efficient.  When the mercury soars outside, it makes for a steamy afternoon inside.  In the winter, we love our large windows that let the sun pour in.  In the summer, it's not such a fantastic perk. 

My family still needs to eat, though, so we've developed a few coping mechanisms. 

I cook in the morning.  I'm a planner and an organizer so I always know in the morning what I'm serving for dinner in the evening.  If I need the oven, I use it in the morning when the house is still holding the cool(er) morning air.

I use the slow cooker. This is also an advantage on busy days because I can do all my prep in the morning and then let the appliance do the work while we're out of the house until dinnertime.  Some slow cooker dishes we've eaten this summer are Parmesan honey pork, cowboy beans, and sandwiches with wedding beef.

I cook on the stovetop or use a skillet.  This isn't totally heat-free, but it generates far less heat than the internal oven.  The kids love pancakes for dinner.  Our current favorites are cornmeal pancakes and oatmeal pancakes! We've also enjoyed Mexican casserole and Chinese honey chicken during the warmer months. Both are stovetop skillet dishes. 

And who can go wrong with tacos? It is my kids' favorite dinner, hands-down.  Cook some ground beef or chicken in the skillet, chop some veggies, open a can of beans, and we've got dinner on the table!

I serve raw veggies, a salad, or chopped fruit as a side dish with almost any meal.  It's filling, healthy, and requires no heating.  (Salads make a great main dish, too, but my husband usually prefers something a little heartier after working hard outside all day so I try to serve main-dish salads only a couple of times a month.)

What do you cook in the summer when it is too hot to turn on the oven?


Today's post was the last of this year's How Do You...? series, but you can browse the archived index of past topics anytime!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Yearling

I intended to read The Yearlingby Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in June, but the copy I wanted was checked out from the library so I waited.  It seemed a little silly since I had a copy sitting on my own bookshelf at home, but I wasn't sure I'd finish it if I started it.  You see, I've started The Yearling twice before and never got past a chapter or two.  I suspect it had something to do with the fat chunky paperback version I picked up every time.  The font was tiny, the book was short and thick, and I was intimidated.

And so I waited for my preferred version to be returned to the library.  The copy I chose was a tall hardback with medium print and had illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, plus had the lovely smell of an old (not musty!) book. 

Maybe you've seen the movie version of this story.  I haven't, but I did know the story was about a deer and had some sad story elements.

What I didn't know was how well you get to know the characters: Jody, a young boy who is coming of age in back-country Florida in the 1870s; Penny, his gentle, hardworking father; Ora, Jody's rough world-weary mother; even Slewfoot, the bear who just can't be caught. I didn't know I would feel what they were feeling and identify with people whose situation is nothing like my own.

I didn't know this book was so much more than an animal story.  I didn't know it was a story about a boy becoming a man, about learning that people aren't always what they seem, and that in real life, the lines between hero and villain are a strange blur.

I didn't expect to love this book, given that I struggle with classics and that I'm not a fan of historical fiction. And yet, when I started reading, I read if from cover to cover, all 400+ pages in a handful of days.

Have you ever started a book with a preconceived idea...and had it totally surprise you?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Math: The Forbidden Subject

In my post about planning for a new school year, Allyson mentioned in the comments that she was using math workbooks for her two school-aged kids. I rarely talk about math on my blog for two reasons:

One, it's a little boring.  Don't get me wrong.  Math was one of my favorite subjects when I was in school.  It's logical and straight-forward, but talking about history and literature is a lot more fun!

And two, I'm intimidated by discussing math because it's taken me years to find a book or curriculum that fits our family and what we finally settled on is a little unconventional.

{The links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, but opinions are always my own.}

Here's our math story:

When Gavin started school, we chose Making Math Meaningful, a math curriculum known for its thorough introduction of math concepts.  The program is slow and methodical, focusing on having the child understand why they are doing what they are doing before they actually do it.  We flew through the kindergarten book, skipped the 1st grade book (because Gavin learned the concepts on his own during the summer) and then grumbled through the 2nd grade book before finally throwing in the towel.

The problem was that math came easily to Gavin and all the extra steps were frustrating and tedious to him. 

I started asking around to see what math programs other families used and loved, but I was hesitant to spend big money on another curriculum we might have to abandon.  We  keep our homeschool budget low and I was not prepared to pay $50-$100 for a math curriculum. That year we settled on Kumon math workbooks.  Each book focuses on a specific topic in a specific grade level so we were able to pick and choose based on Gavin's needs. 

These workbooks served our needs for a year, but Gavin did tire of the repetition. We were glad when we could switch to Saxon math textbooks when Gavin entered 5th grade.  Saxon math textbooks are largely self-taught with students reading the lessons on their own and doing the problem set that follows. We began with Saxon 65and plan to continue with this program until Gavin graduates highschool.

So far, so good, right?

We didn't find elementary math we loved (or even liked) with Gavin... and now Maddie and Owen were in need of a math curriculum. Though they are two years apart in age, they are on the same grade level for math.  After hours of research and much agonizing, calculating, and frustration I asked myself this question:

What is my ultimate goal in teaching elementary math?  This is what I wanted them to be able to do:
  • count by 1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s
  • add and subtract while understanding the process
  • understand and work with simple fractions
  • be able to tell time
  • be able to count money
  • know how to solve story problems

All of those things could be taught by the kinds of workbooks you can pick up in the grocery store.  Any skills that were omitted, I had the skills to supplement on my own.  We weren't talking algebra.  We were talking first grade math!

That realization took the pressure off.  We started with a consumable book by School Zone, First Grade Big Workbook, and the kids loved it!  (The workbook covers many other skills besides math, but at $5.49 for the entire book, it was worth it even if we only did half of the pages.

After the second grade workbook, we switched to Math Basics Grade 3 (also by School Zone) which was a little pricier, but included a CD-ROM with games and review lessons.  After completing Total Math, Grade 4 last year, Maddie and Owen are now ready to begin Saxon maththis year while Ben is starting the cycle over!  It's his turn to use First Grade Big Workbook!

What curriculum, books, or program to you use to teach math?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How Do You...Plan a New School Year? {Part 2}

How do you keep track of all the book possibilities when planning a new school year?

Last Wednesday, I talked about how I narrow down what to teach when planning a school year.  Since we don't use a box curriculum, our choices are endless.Today I'm focusing on how I find books on our chosen topics and how I keep track of all those lists of books!

Since we have no limitations on what books or methods we can use, my mind is always alert to ideas.  A friend may rave about a book series they read for history.  If it sounds like something we'd enjoy and it fits the next time period we need to cover, I do a little research and pencil it into our plans. If I glimpse an art book in the bookstore that seems to fit our style, I make a mental note to look it up later. I often work several years ahead, not because I have to, but because I have more ideas than I have time to implement them!

The key is getting my ideas out of my head and onto paper before I forget and maybe miss out on a gem.  Sometimes I simply scribble a title or author in the margins of my planning notebook. Lately, though, I've been taking advantage of two online list systems. 

The first is the Amazon wishlist.  If I hear about a book I may want to use for science, I save the title to an Amazon wishlist, designated for school books.  Adding to the list does not mean I intend to purchase it from Amazon or even purchase it at all, but I put it there as a reminder. 

I also use the list system available on my local library's online card catalog.  If the library owns a book that I want to use for school, I click "Save To My List" and I am able to save dozens of books into as many categories as I create . 

So how does all this work from a practical standpoint?  Say, for example, I read about a book on architecture on a friend's blog.  I know I want to study architecture for art next year so I check to see if my library has a copy.  They have a copy available so I save it.  If they do not own the book, I check Amazon and put the item on my wishlist. Later when I'm compiling my resources for the year, I read back through my lists, narrow down my choices, and gather all the books I need. 

How do
you find and keep track of books or resources you want to use?


My How Do You...? series is ending soon.  Is there anything you want to know?  Leave a comment here or on my Facebook page or send me an e-mail.  I'd love to hear from you.

In the meantime, you can browse the archived index of past topics.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reading By Flashlight

After I posted my Summer Reading Guide For Families last month, I received an e-mail from a reader asking about the books my kids like to read independently.  For the third year in a row, we are doing our own "summer reading program" at home.  With the free time that summer affords (plus the incentive of earning prizes), my kids are flying through books!

With my own never-ending to-read list, I don't have the time or desire to preview every book that comes into my house.  My kids know our family standards and I trust their judgement, but it is always a treat when we find a series the kids love and they can read their way through the whole set without worry!

Last summer when Owen moved into fluent-reader territory, but was still intimidated by thick books, he started on the Nate the Great seriesby Marjorie Sharmat.  Each book is broken into four or five manageable chapters.  The mystery genre resonated with him and he chose two or three of these to review when he wrote book reports for school in the fall. All my kids (even the older ones) also enjoy this series on audio book.

After discovering that Owen liked mysteries, it was an easy transition into the Young Cam Jansen seriesby David Adler. He asked me to print out a list of titles in the order they were written. Then he read and checked them off one by one!

Maddie has discovered some favorites this summer, too.  Good thing because she's picked up the habit of late-night reading in bed.  She's listened to me read several of The Little House series aloud and she's checked out most the series on audio book so she was especially excited to find The Rose Years seriesby Roger Lea MacBride at the library.

Of an entirely different era is The Clementine seriesby Sara Pennypacker.  These books remind me of the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary.

What do your independent readers enjoy? Do you preview what they read or do they choose books on their own?


I'd love it if you would share this resource with your friends on Twitter and Facebook.  I've made it easy for you.  All you have to do is copy and paste:  

I just downloaded this year's Summer Reading Guide For Families from Bits and Pieces From My Life. Get your free copy here:  #familyreading

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