Monday, January 29, 2007

Monday Memory: Baby Girl

January 29, 2007

This week Laurel needed baby pictures for her scrapbooking class. I have a whole series of pictures from this day, which I think was her first stroller ride around the neighborhood. We lived in a great neighborhood in Ames, Iowa, where she was born. The Old Town Historic District was one of those neighborhoods with actual sidewalks and city blocks. The houses had nice yards and big front porches. Lots of huge Victorian homes were being restored when we lived there. I love this picture of her because it showcases her amazingly chubby cheeks. I never imagined I would have such big babies. She was my middle-weight baby at 9 lbs. 9 oz.

Having a baby girl was one of those girlhood dreams fulfilled, and she is everything I ever could have imagined and more.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Favorite Grammar Resources and 11 Essential Rules of Grammar

January 27, 2007

Most of today I will be sitting right here in front of the computer, preparing my lessons for Monday's enrichment classes and writing articles. I'm beginning my day by preparing the lesson for my 7th-12th grade grammar class. Last week we covered verbs; nouns and pronouns are coming up this week. We're a long way from getting to where I want them to be: consistently writing with clarity. My other goal is to help them better understand the verbal sections of the SAT or ACT. From scanning practice SAT exams, I've found that knowing the 11 Essential Rules of Grammar is fundamental to scoring well in the grammar section. (And please don't let your kids hear you say that you don't care about the Essential Rules of Grammar! They will remember!)


1. To join two independent clauses, use a comma followed by a conjunction, a semicolon alone, or a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.
* The delivery boy knew he carried strange cargo, but he still ventured off unafraid.
* My math teacher doesn't know how to lecture; she should have remained a student.

2. Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence's meaning.
* The bus driver, her ears tuned to the roar, decided to take the grumbling bus on a detour across the football field.
* My window, as dirty as it is, unleashes the beauty of nature on a snowy morning.

3. Do not use commas to bracket phrases that are essential to a sentence's meaning.
* The man who has too many ties has too few necks.
* The cats with six toes are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway's house.

4. When beginning a sentence with an introductory phrase, include a comma.
* After buying the five pound jar of marshmallow spread, he set off in search of peanut butter.
* With this, he bestows the responsibility of his own happiness on his mother and father.

5. To indicate possession, end a singular noun with an apostrophe followed by an 's'. Otherwise, the noun's form seems plural.
* In a democracy, anyone's vote counts as much as mine.
* There is a vast age difference between Victor's mother and father.

6. Use proper punctuation to integrate a quotation into a sentence. If the introductory material is an independent clause, add the quotation after a colon. If the introductory material ends in "thinks," "saying," or some other verb indicating expression, use a comma.
* Tumbling down the hill, Jack yelled, "Man, I'm sick of this."
* Her letter spoke to him in harsh tones: "You never get here on time."

7. Make the subject and verb agree with each other, not with a word that comes between them.
* The Thanksgiving dinner, right down to the beautiful centerpiece, was devoured by the escaped grizzly.
* The cart, as well as its contents, was gone.

8. Be sure that a pronoun, a participial phrase, or an appositive refers clearly to the proper subject.
* The programmer rode the camel, its hump decorated in strings of flowers, through the food court.
* Although it was filled with bad gas, he drove his car to Tucson despite the knocking.

9. Use parallel construction to make a strong point and create a smooth flow.
* I was glad to be departing for India but nervous to be leaving my home.

10. Use the active voice unless you specifically need to use the passive.
* The hair regeneration company gave him a refund.
* The team achieved a good score.

11. Omit unnecessary words.
* The author is a buffoon.
* Before going to the supermarket, we made a list of groceries that we needed for dinner.

So there you have it. There are three websites I've found to be excellent for teaching basic grammar. The first is Daily Grammar Archive, which provides very short lessons. Extremely well laid out and user friendly. The next is the Guide to Grammar and Writing. This includes lessons on parts of speech and sentence, and at the paragraph level, and finally at the essay and research paper level. And finally, Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) is absolutely overflowing with excellent lessons on every grammar topic, from beginner to advanced.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Five Things That Stir My Soul

January 23, 2007

The Queen has two days’ worth of scrumptious reading on her blog, positively dripping in sweet southern lyricism. Yesterday she posted 10 things that stir her soul and asked us to post five things that stir ours. And so, five things that stir my soul:

1. My husband walking in the door in the evening. How else to say it, but that he completes us. Fortunately for him, I am always so happy to see him, that I am rarely upset when he gets lost in “lab time” and comes home late.

2. The physicality of my children. The shape of their legs; their slender and graceful fingers; the curve of their noses. They are just so solid, and so individual. How did they get from those ephemeral babies to these solid people? And who will they turn out to be?

3. The joy of friendship. I am constantly stirred by the abundance of lovely people in my life. To think that I can reach out find a friend to share my joys and sorrows at any moment is a priceless gift.

4. My parents’ hands. When I close my eyes, I can picture perfectly my parents’ hands in all kinds of ways: my mother doing dishes, my father peeling an apple. My mother’s nails, simple and strong. My father’s hands freckled and scabbed, wielding pruners. My mother’s hands so soft and silky (though not from lack of hard work), my father’s so calloused. Their wedding bands, practically embedded after nearly 60 years of wear.

5. The mountains. I cannot help but feel a great shout of joy every single time I see the mountains. There is something that wells up within me—a yearning to be in them, a tremendous gratefulness for God’s astounding creation. I am bedazzled again and again.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monday Memory: Birthday Cakes

January 22, 2007

Today is my father's 82nd birthday, so I baked him a pecan pie. He is really more of a pie guy than a cake guy. So, I got talking on the phone while the pie was baking (and baking and baking) and, well, the pie was a bit crispy around the edges by the time I got off the phone. OK, blackened would perhaps be a more accurate term. That led me to think about me and birthday cakes, and I was struck once again with the reality that cake decorating is really not one of my strong points. Now let me just say that three of the above cakes are not my worst; I just don't have photos of the really bad ones. Jesse's 13th birthday cake (that's a llama, by the way) is perhaps more indicative of my cake decorating skills. But I do have one thing to say about my cakes: while they may not be fancy, they are meaningful (and usually tasty, as well). The first cake is Duncan's most recent. That's an army battlefield. Army green icing is fun to make. The next is pretty good for me. That was from the days when Jesse was obsessed with fish--probably around 3rd grade. And the Christmas tree is from my Christmas baby's first birthday. Probably my most disastrous cake ever was Jesse's gorilla cake, when he turned one. It was like a giant chocolate blob with a banana in its mouth. It sort of looked like Raold Dahl's vermicious knids. It's nice, though. As I was looking for cake photos, Jesse stood behind me and remembered each one of them. The kids don't care about smooth icing or rosettes; they just remember feeling loved.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Joy of a Voracious Reader

January 18, 2007

t seems that reading is on many minds today. Amy and Two Kid Schoolhouse both blogged today about the joy of reading—by themselves and with their children. Just this morning I noticed a pile of books by Laurel’s bed and was hit with the most wonderful realization: my daughter is at last a voracious reader. I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that I have worried that our daughter would be a family anomaly. While Jesse took to reading with a furious appetite at age 7--gulping down 500-page novels in second-grade--, Laurel has taken a cautious approach, nibbling a little here and there. But at the end of last year as she approached her 9th birthday, she found a series that absolutely hooked her. Yes, it was what is known in Charlotte Mason circles as “twaddle”; fortunately, I am not a CM connoisseur and thus can happily embrace my daughter’s delight in reading The Babysitter’s Little Sister series. Not quite a year later, she is reading whenever and wherever she can. She has learned how books pass the time when you’re riding in the car or waiting, and how delicious it is to fall asleep with a good book. How comforting it is to me, in the evenings, to be reading in the blue chair and look over to couch to see my little girl curled up there, ingesting her latest book.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Combating the January Blahs

My Uncle Max always had the “January Blahs.” As a child, I remember him calling after Christmas and asking, “Do you have the January Blahs?” Little did he know how apropos the term would be in my life 30 years later as a homeschooling parent. The question really is: does anyone not have the January Blahs? Is anyone really gung-ho (now there’s a weird word, and by the way, it comes from the Chinese word gonghe, meaning “work together,” and was adopted by U.S. Marines during WWII) about re-starting everything in January?

January is made for reading books by the fireplace after playing in the snow. Candlelight, afghans, warm bread and hot soup. That sounds lovely; however, the reality is my children don’t want to sit by the fireplace and read all day (also, the fireplace is currently out of commission); candles make me nervous when children are bouncing around; my kids really don’t like soup; and I don’t bake bread much. We don’t have snow, but it’s too gray and dismal to be outside half the time. I long to be snowed in.

I’ve found that the best way to combat the Blahs is to add some serious variety into the school day. All the regular diversions are great, such as Play-dough, pattern blocks, and puzzles, but here are a selection of other activities that help us all ward off the winter doldrums:

1. Random science experiments. Forget your normal science guides and just do experiments. We get the Sonlight science kits each year, and we always have leftover supplies. I just let them spread out the stuff, which might include everything from cotton balls to circuit systems, and let them do their own thing. Also, my younger ones love to just mix stuff up: baking soda and vinegar, plus food coloring, dish soap, etc. Here’s a fun one: cover the bottom of a pie plate (preferably glass) with milk or cream (doesn’t work as well with skim milk). Put in a few drops of food coloring. Now, very carefully, add a few drops of dish detergent –and watch the kaleidoscope

2. Army guy rescue. Fill a plastic cup (preferably clear) with water, and drop in an army guy or other small plastic toy. Freeze until solid. Send the kids outside with a chisel or paint scraper (or other such tool) and let them chisel out the army guy.

3. Marshghettis: Give them a bunch of uncooked spaghetti (regular works better than thin) and mini-marshmallows and challenge them to build a bridge, an animal, a building, etc. They’ll get carried away with this one. You’ll even be able to write a blog, read a book, or—if you must—prepare dinner while they create. Also serves as snack time.

4. What’s that Smell? Put a few drops or sprinkles of several strong-smelling substances (e.g., vanilla or lemon extract, garlic, various spices, chocolate, tea bags, perfume, etc.) on Kleenxes and put them into individual Ziplocs. Let the kids guess what they smell is. (Make sure you’ve coded it somehow so you’ll know.)

5. What’s that thing? Put an object into a brown lunch sack or pillowcase. Have the kids feel it and try to figure out what it is.

6. Games. Board games, card games, whatever. Inserting a game into the middle of the school day does something wonderful to their whole day. It doesn’t have to be a 2-hour game of Monopoly; even a 10-minute game of Crazy 8s somehow lightens up the Blahs. See my post on games for a few of our favorites.

7. Field Trips. Just one special field trip in the midst of winter can satisfy for weeks. Too many field trips stress me out, but we all look forward to an out-of-the-usual-realm outing every few weeks. (I don’t count regular activities—Scouts, enrichment classes, sports, etc.—as field trips!)

8. Order of the Queen: This is a special edict issued by the Queen, whereas the day is declared “Game Day,” “Baking Day,” “Movie Day,” or such. No regular schoolwork is allowed. Print this out in an Old English-type font and roll up as a scroll to be opened at the usual start of school (if you have such a thing).

My goal is to add a few of these blah-combats during the week. One a day is overly ambitious for me, and I've learned to set my goals at a more realistic speed. Too much fun, after all, can become mundane...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Monday Memory: Snow

January 15, 2007

It's hard to believe with the temperatures between 65 and 75 this past week, but we really do get snow every year in Tennessee. This photo was taken five years ago, when Duncan was one, and it's been that long since we had enough snow to build a good snowman. Like most transplants I know, I long for a good Yankee snow that will last a solid week. It doesn't seem right that my children won't know the right texture of snow for snowballs or how to properly layer their socks so that snow doesn't creep into their boots. For that matter, they don't even own snowboots! Just a week of snow, and then I'll gladly take the daffodils.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Favorite Family Games

January 9, 2007

Randy and I both grew up in game-playing families (although his was primarily a card-playing family), and we are determined to carry on this tradition with our own kids. We like all the traditional games: Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee, Candyland (must be played with real candy placed around the board), Hi-Ho Cherry-o, Clue, Scrabble, Cranium, RummiKub, etc. We are always on a quest for new games that at least 2 out of the 3 kids can play, depending on their ages. I also love games that add an educational flair to our school day. Here are some of our favorite finds:

Secret Square: This is a great game for ages 3-10 or so. It's sort of a 20 questions game, in which 25 picture pieces are laid out in a square. One player hides a token while the others try to find it by asking questions about the picture it's under. If the player asks, "Is it an animal?" and the other player says "No," all squares with animals are removed, and so on. This process continues until players have narrowed down the square that hides the token. The game is simple, yet calls for thoughtful questions to win quickly. Requires no reading. Unfortunately, this game isn't sold new anymore; however, you can buy it on eBay or other used sites. It's worth perusing the web to see if you can find it somewhere!

20 Questions for Kids: This is a game that all three of our kids (ages 6-13) can play, and I enjoy it, too. This is a basic 20 Questions in board game format, with 150 question cards. Each card has a person, place, or thing with 20 clues about the subject. Players take turns trying to figure out the clues ("I am a city in France" "I have a large tower in me"), and both the reader and the guesser advance based on how many questions are asked. Occasionally we'll get a card that the kids just don't know, so we just skip that one.

SomeBody: This is another game that works well for several ages. Each player (up to four players) gets a game-board body with re-usable stick-on body parts. You take turn reading questions from the 50 body part cards and 50 muscles and bones cards and place the appropriate body part on your chart if you get the answer right. This has really helped the kids (and me!) get a great visual of where are organs are located. Even the parts, which are like Colorforms, keep sticking on fairly well after many uses. My only complaint is that there aren't enough cards/questions. I suppose I could make some of my own...

Apples to Apples: This game is way too much fun, and you can play with a huge group of people of all ages, or just a few people. The object of the game is to be the player who has the word card that best defines a given word. Players are dealt five red apple cards and try to make the closest match possible to a word on the judge's green apple card. For example, you may have the following red apple cards in your hand: the Mall, Video Games, Getting a Haircut, Thanksgiving Day, and My Family. Your task is to convince the judge (who rotates) which of your cards (My Family, for example) best defines the green apple card, which may be, for example, the word Frightening. You must persuade the judge to pick your card over your competitors' (why is My Family more frightening than Mt. Everest?). Probably good for ages 7 and up, although a particularly verbal younger child could play. We have the Junior edition, which is great for all ages. The regular version has a lot of words (particularly people) that kids just wouldn't understand (Richard Nixon, Central Park, etc.).

Snapshots Across America: This is a great way to get a hands-on U.S. geography lesson while learning a little bit about each state. The object of the game is to travel to collect famous attraction cards while traveling across the U.S. by car, train, boat, or plane. This is another game that all the kids can play, although Duncan needs a little help and tends to quit before the game is over.

Sequence: Yet another game that everyone can play, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We play the adult version; I'm not sure what the benefit of the Junior version would be. The object of the game is to get a sequence of 5 chips on the board, matching a card in your hand to a space on the board. Lots of strategy involved and great to play as partners.

So those are a few of our favorites, besides the old stand-bys. We're always in the market for new games, so leave a comment if you have a favorite, and--in the spirit of Apples-to-Apples--convince me that we should try this for our family!

Monday, January 8, 2007

January 8, 2007: Project 365

Inspired by Tia, I've decided to chroncile one year in our life with a daily photo. I'm working on setting up a separate blog for my own Project 365, but in the meantime, here is Week 1, January 1-7:

Monday, January 1
I love my new purple slippers.

Tuesday, January 2
Arthur Clide Courson, home at last.
December 18, 1912-January 2, 2007.

Wednesday, January 3

Gloomy gray days in Indiana, planning Grandpa’s funeral.

Thursday, January 4
The built-in iSight camera provides hours of entertainments (while spending gloomy days in Indiana).

Friday, January 5
We head to Danville, Illinois for Grandpa’s funeral. Friday afternoon we spend with Randy’s biological dad, Terry. This is the first time Duncan and Laurel have met Grandpa Terry. Randy and his brother, Greg (here in the photo with their Dad), lived in Danville until 1976.

Saturday, January 6

It is traditional for the Courson clan to gather at The Deluxe after a funeral, wedding, or just whenever something special happens. We are blessed to be a part of this large and loving family, although we seem to only meet at funerals.

Sunday, January 7
Home again, home again.

And so we finish week one of 2007: Four lovely people called home (Randy’s Aunt Helen, Grandpa, Suzie’s mother, and my Aunt Blanche); 700 miles of road traveled; 6 late nights filled with good conversation and food; and one dog in ecstasy at the sound of our van in the driveway at the end of it all.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Coming Home

January 7, 2007

We came into Tennessee at last today after our extended New Year's weekend in Indiana. I'd like to say the infernal midwestern rain stopped and the skies cleared when we crossed the state line, but in truth it rained harder than ever. We crossed the Cumberlands in a downpour, so foggy you could just about jump out and float into the valley. Still, the thrill of crossing the state line is exhilirating with the promise of home just down one mountain, through the Ridge and Valley, and into the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The drugged stupor of a week of rain and cornfield stubble lifted like a veil at the state line. I was even happy to see the kudzu, looking deceptively dead in its winter reprieve (though I know it's dreaming evil, hungry thoughts).

Every place has its own beauty, I know. There is beauty in a winter cornfield drizzled with snow and in a child's handprint cemented in time in a city sidewalk, in the silhouette of a single leafless tree and in the piles of dirty snow shoveled along a city street. But this mountain country holds more beauty in one quick highway mile than a dozen red barns posing against an Iowa snow: the white church perched against the pines, the laurel thicket shiny in the winter woods, the clean white sycamore stretching its arms, the clouds wisping across the mountain, taking their own sweet southern time.

It is good to be home.

Thursday, January 4, 2007


January 4, 2007

As we get closer to the day of Grandpa's funeral, we find ourselves tending more toward grief again. The first two days were all business: order this, order that, call this person, buy a white shirt. Last night and today we have spent more time reviewing Grandpa's life. My sister-in-law (Randy's brother Greg's wife) Cindy and I (and often Laurel) spent hours pouring over Grandpa's photo albums. Our task was to fill a poster-board with a collage of pictures for the funeral home. We laughed heartily over pictures of Randy and Greg and others in their 70s garb, and we quieted when we came across a perfect picture of Grandpa and Grandma.

Today we filled three poster-boards, because one was nowhere near enough. One board contains all black-and-white photos from Grandpa's childhood and early fatherhood. One features colored shots of Grandpa at his best, from holding a fresh-baked apple pie (one of his trademarks) to hugging his kids. The third board is the one that none of us can look at without tearing up. Cindy and I found a picture of Grandma and Grandpa, backs to the photographer, sitting on a bench in Hawaii, staring at the sunset. Grandpa's arm is around Grandma's shoulders. Beneath that photo we added this quote: "Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young." That became the centerpiece of the final board, which has only pictures of Grandpa and Grandma including their wedding day, their 25th anniversary, their 50th anniversary, them dancing, celebrating, and him holding her hand in her final years battling Alzheimers.

We leave tomorrow for Danville, Illinois. This was Grandpa's hometown for much of his life, and also where Randy lived until he was 10. Sometime during the day we'll hook up with Randy's biological father, whom we haven't seen in about 8 years. (He's never met Duncan, and Laurel was just a baby last time we saw him.) We'll spend the evening with a bazillion members of Grandpa's extended family, and the funeral will be Saturday.

On a brighter note, I noticed school buses yesterday and realized that I hadn't even stopped to appreciate this benefit of homeschooling: my kids don't have to worry about missing school during this time. I don't have to explain to a teacher that Jesse really should get to take a make-up test next week, or that the kids really should get to take the whole week off. Instead, they are hearing family stories, watching grown-ups navigate through grief, and learning to find entertainment in someone else's home. Now that's an education.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

What Do We Do When We're Not at Home?

January 2, 2007

It's a funny thing to be done with vacation, but then not really done with vacation. We came to Randy's mom's in Indiana for New Year's, and for Grandpa. We were due to head back home today, but the call came at 6:20 a.m. that Grandpa had passed away. The days stretch in front of us now as we wait, anxious to help but otherwise in a holding pattern until Saturday's funeral.

We've done all the dishes and four loads of laundry. We've taken walks, played games, read books, colored pictures, played the piano, and done crossword puzzles. The kids are pecking at each other like chickens and my nerves are beginning to fray like worn embroidery floss. And it's only 3:30 p.m. Out here in rural Indiana, the closest shopping is 30 minutes away over a rollercoaster of country roads. I am wishing we had projects to do: scrapbooking or painting furniture or knitting. Naturally, the kids' new Christmas toys have already lost their initial allure. We need construction paper and glue and great wads of playdough. I feel a great tide of energy-sucking idleness starting to set in. It's hard to be productive in someone else's home, and yet too much leisure time leaves me feeling antsy.

It seems that this should be a great time of creativity for me. I should be spouting off profound articles or getting ready for enrichment classes. But somehow I feel unable to focus without the comfort of my tiny office nook (AKA, the kitchen desk) in my cozy house.

So next time I'm lamenting that I wish I had a little time to myself just to sit and read a book, please remind me, friends, that there is much joy in the bustle of an ordinary day at home.