Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Wishing you and yours a peaceful, joyful, fun and super-awesome new year!
From all of us at the Super-Awesome School of Super-Awesomeness!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Have Yourself a Messy Little Christmas

Back in October, when the first chill was in the air and the days were just beginning to get shorter, I started having my usual holiday chocolate by the fire...cuddling up to read the Christmas story together...shiny new red-and-green pajamas for the kids to wear on Christmas Eve...a pile of beautifully wrapped gifts under a picture-perfect tree...

Has anyone seen my Kohl's gift card?

It didn't help that I picked up a couple of those "perfect-homemaker" magazines in the Vancouver airport for our flight back home. The Canadian versions are every bit as stress-inducing as their American companions: gorgeous tables set with homemade feasts, beautiful decorating ideas, and picture-perfect families posing in front of the designer themed Christmas tree.

The holidays can be exhausting.

I never found the heartwarming article about the son who has refused to get a haircut since Halloween, or the humorous column about the daughter who talked her grandparents into getting her rats for Christmas. No advice about where to stash a week's worth of undone laundry before the house fills with guests. And not one photo-spread of the exhausted, cranky mom and dad trying to sneak the presents in from the freezing garage at midnight.

Introducing Thor and Odin, newest members of our menagerie...

Every year I seem to lose touch with reality and create the same unattainable picture of Christmas in my mind. And every year I have to learn the same lesson: as a mother, wife, teacher, business-owner and middle-aged human being who needs sleep and downtime, I can't achieve a magazine-style Christmas. And you know what? It doesn't matter!

Wonder which one I'll step on tonight?

The truth is, I never got around to cleaning the bathrooms before our company showed up, the food was 90% store-bought, and I made the coffee too strong. At one point, Nana and Papa's two Yorkies escaped and we had to chase them outside and into a neighbor's yard. In spite of our efforts to coordinate, Dude got two of the same Lego set, and the cute boots I ordered for Super have yet to arrive. In short, we had a disorganized, messy, chaotic, fantastic, fun Christmas this year!

We bought a bakery bûche and improved it.

Here's the thing: no one noticed the bathrooms (or, at least, they didn't say anything!) The food got eaten, the coffee got creamed, and the Yorkies were caught. Dude is actually delighted to have two of the same set and Super will wear the boots whenever they arrive.

Dad made an elf bowling game for the Scouts.

During this month, we celebrated Hanukkah with dear friends. We went to a couple of holiday parties and hosted a Scout party. We decorated cookies, had a Secret Santa exchange with our employees, made crafts with the kids, watched movies together, and drove around looking at Christmas lights. Just for fun, we had our very first solstice celebration, complete with a Bûche de Noel. Last week we brought blankets outside, lay down on our front lawn, and watched the total lunar eclipse together. I suppose I could have been cleaning my house or making dinners from scratch. But this time with my family has been perfect.

I actually took this photo! Me!

I hope to get my Christmas cards mailed soon. I hope to catch up on laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, and all that other stuff that all grownups, no matter how imperfect, eventually have to do. I need to organize lesson plans for the second half of our school year. There will always be bills to pay, dinners to prepare, and dogs to bathe.

Yikes! Kids and candles!

Christmas should be a time to put the mundane on hold and focus on what's truly important. And the holidays should definitely be free of perfectionist ideals that keep families from enjoying their time together. Maybe I should write a note to myself so I'll remember that next year. Or maybe I'll just keep Dude's note to Santa handy...

Dude left fruit salad and coffee for Santa this year.

Here's hoping you also had a perfect holiday...whatever perfect may mean to you!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cookie Artistry!

And my favorite, created by our friends' teenage daughter...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Preparing to "Visit" Africa

We're packing for a voyage to Africa!

Africa (orthographic projection)

As an introduction, we're working our way through the Akimbo series by Alexander McCall Smith. So far we've read Akimbo and the Lions and Akimbo and the Baboons. We're reading them aloud together, but if the kids want to continue the series (and I'm sure they will) they can easily read the others independently. The books are listed for grades 3-5, and they don't have that "cranked out for Scholastic" feel that you get from some popular elementary series.

Akimbo's father is the head ranger at an African wildlife preserve. Akimbo loves to help his father, but things don't always turn out the way he expects! The books are full of fascinating information about African wildlife, and the plots have plenty of exciting twists and turns. The relationship between son and father is really sweet, too. So far, my kids LOVE these books!

The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John is also set on a game preserve, but it was written for a slightly older reader (grades 4-7) and has a very different feel from the Akimbo books. Martine loses her parents in a house fire and is sent to live in South Africa with her grandmother. Strange things keep happening to Martine, and it's clear that there is a secret in the family. Even while she grieves for her parents and her former life, Martine is determined to solve the mystery. This book is a great read-aloud, and as I've been reading, I've circled a lot of good vocabulary words for our word wall.

We're in the middle of a year-long study of biomes, so of course we're reading about the African savannah now. One Small Square: African Savannah by Donald Silver and Patricia Wynne is a good place to start. We read about creatures we already know and love, like zebras and jackals, and we learned about animals we had never heard of, like the zorilla. Super and Dude are each going to choose two African animals for a research report.

Vegetation Africa

Of course, Africa has more than just savannah, so we'll be learning about temperate and tropical forests, river valleys, deserts, coastlines, and mountains. We'll be exploring ancient African civilizations as well as modern countries and their challenges. The White Giraffe just touches on the topic of racism in South Africa; we'll definitely discuss Apartheid and learn about Nelson Mandela. Like most elementary-aged kids, Super and Dude have a very strong sense of justice. That's one reason it's so interesting and fun to learn with them.

King Protea 01

We'll be using a variety of resources for our unit study, including Africa for Kids: Exploring a Vibrant Continent by Harvey Croze. We'll supplement with a couple of units I got from CurrClick: Milliken's Early Africa and Africa Grades 2-5 from Teacher Created Resources. We also have Bentley Boyd's Ancient Africa, and I know I picked up a book of African folk tales, if I can just find it!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Our friends invited us to celebrate the first day of Hanukkah with them. We were very excited and honored to join their family on such a special night. Their adorable son (also Dude's best friend) explained the meaning of Hanukkah. ("The bad guys won at first, but then the good guys kicked them out of the temple...") Then he lit the middle candle (called the "shamash," we learned.) He used the middle candle to light one more candle on the menorah.

Notice the Hanukkah gelt, which Dad bought at our local supermarket. A lady in the store said, "There used to be more in those bags, when I was a kid!"

On the fifth day of Hanukkah, our friends came to our house for burgers and latkes. But first, we prepared the dough for sufganiot, a traditional jelly-filled pastry. The boys really enjoyed helping with the prep...

Here they are adding the yeast and warm water to the flour, sugar, eggs, and butter.

The dough seemed a bit dry to me, so we wet our hands before kneading. That made it just right. We put the dough in a warm oven to rise and then started working on the latkes.

We used a Betty Crocker recipe that calls for potatoes, carrots, onion, four eggs, two tablespoons of flour, and snipped chives. We saved time by using a bag of hash browns instead of shredding potatoes, but I did get out my food processor and shred the carrots and onions.

That's a lot of oil, but they didn't seem greasy when they were done.

Not bad for our very first attempt at latkes! The kids ate them as fast as we could make them!

When we checked on the sufganiot dough the first time, it was puffy and had doubled in size. Unfortunately, the second time it looked deflated and had dried out a bit. I think my "warm" oven got a bit too hot for the yeast. I was a bit worried as the boys rolled out the dough...

But we cut out the little rounds and hoped for the best. The boys used a juice glass sprayed with Pam.

They didn't rise much on the cookie sheet, but they puffed up nicely in the hot oil!

The next part required three people working as an assembly line. I didn't want the kids near the hot oil so the grownups removed the cooked pastries from the oil, filled them, and sprinkled them with powdered sugar. We made a raspberry version and a chocolate version.

There was a slight chocolate mishap. (See puddle below.)

I have NO idea if they turned out the way they are supposed to, but the kids sure liked them! We made 20 and there were 2 left over.

Happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Adventures in Geography

Our trip to B.C. was a perfect opportunity to study some map skills and basic geography. While we were traveling, we looked at street maps and used our GPS. Back home, we delved into a more thorough geography unit. So here is what we've been up to this week...

Traveling to the west coast of Canada put us in a different time zone, so we started by pulling out our globe and discussing time zones. The neat little spinny thingy on the globe was fun to use, and we also watched a BrainPop video and looked at several time zone maps online. Enchanted Learning also has a good explanation of time zones. We have friends in Germany, so we talked about what time it would be for them while we're getting ready for school, or eating dinner, etc. We shone a flashlight on the globe to represent the sun at noon on different parts of the earth. The kids really enjoyed putting their hands in front of the light and saying, "Bwah-ha-ha! I'm blocking out the sun!" Should I be worried?

Then the conversation turned to flat maps versus globes, and we discussed why Greenland looks so "stretched" and Antarctica looks like a long strip of land on a flat map. This illustrative activity comes from Mapping the World by Heart. The kids drew a picture on an orange. We discovered that even Sharpies wouldn't write very well on the orange peel, but the kids did their best. Dude drew a star and a design.

Super drew a long fire-breathing dragon.

Then I scored the peel and carefully removed the pieces.

As you can see, it's impossible to take a round picture and turn it into a flat, rectangular map without stretching or distorting the picture.

We used some activities from Evan Moor's Take it to Your Seat Geography Centers, including this basic continents puzzle. (You might notice that South America is missing. I think a dog may have chewed up that particular continent.) My kids are very familiar with the continents and oceans, but they still got a kick out of putting it together. Before gluing it in place, they scooted the continents around to form Pangea. Of course it was necessary to use lots of sound effects while demonstrating continental drift.

Then we used another TTYS activity to make a very simple landforms lapbook. (There is a similar activity for bodies of water.) First the kids matched up the word, picture, and definition.

They already knew most of these, but there were a handful of unfamiliar terms. Thanks to the puzzle format, they were able to figure them all out. We all had fun trying to pronounce "isthmus" and we all agreed that there is something about the word "archipelago" that makes you want to look down your nose while holding an imaginary cup of tea. Then we looked at the globe and tried to find examples of each landform.

TTYS also has a game called Mystery Countries. You are supposed to match the back of the postcard to the front of the postcard. To be honest, it took my kids about a minute to complete this, that's how easy it was. But it did spark an interesting conversation about how certain countries are known for their landmarks, and how many famous landmarks are from ancient history.

We'll definitely keep working through the TTYS workbook, because it includes activities for the fifty states, regions of the U.S. and some other useful stuff. I'm guessing the kids will need a break from geography before we work on those.

In addition to TTYS, I pulled ideas from Intellego Maps K-2. A couple of the links weren't working, but it's really my fault because I bought the thing over a year ago and never used it, so there have probably been some updates since then. We just skipped those links. I've never had that experience with Intellego before, and I've used several of their programs as a "springboard" for our unit studies.

The truth is, I never use Intellego (or anything else) exactly as it's designed. I'm too independent/rebellious/snotty to use curriculum as is. For one thing, I never EVER have my kids fill out a KWL chart. I just dislike them for some reason. (Maybe I'm too afraid of what would happen if I gave my kids a piece of paper and instructed them to write down what they WANT to know about geography!)

Instead, I like to spark my kids' curiosity with a juicy bit of information or a thought-provoking question. For example: "What's special about Kiribati?"

We'll we writing more about Kiribati later, but if you want to know the answer, it's at the bottom of this post.

Intellego suggested making a compass rose out of clay (we actually used Model Magic.) For inspiration, we looked up several images online. They can be quite beautiful, and we were surpirsed by the variety. It's not easy to add a lot of detail with Model Magic, but it was a good way to review the cardinal, intercardinal/ordinal directions. (Does no one say "subcardinal" anymore? That's what I was taught, back in the previous millenium.)

We wondered why they're called "compass roses." Well, it turns out, it's just because they look like a flower!

Then it was time to "get our bearings," so to speak. I used several pages from Teacher Filebox for information and inspiration, but we didn't actually do the worksheets. Instead, we used string to practice finding bearings in degrees.

Then we cut out the little compasses and pinned them to our giant map. The kids took turns choosing "destinations." Then we pushed a pin into the new destination, stretched some yarn to the pin, and found the bearings. This is our "voyage" around the world so far...

Not exactly the most efficient route, but it did take us to some interesting places! To practice some more practical map skills, I made up an activity based on our souvenir map of Vancouver.

I asked questions like, "Find a street that runs parallel to Burrard Street," and "Is Stanley Park east or west of Gastown?" The kids had fun looking at the map and remembering places we visited.

So, our geography unit is off to a good start. We'll keep working on the TTYS and Intellego projects and pulling stuff from Teacher's Filebox. I'll probably save Mapping the World by Heart for next year. If you're wondering what's so special about's the only country that is located in all four hemispheres! Cool, huh?

So, that's some of what we've been doing this week. Now I'm off to the blogosphere to see what you've been doing!