Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Days of In-Between

I love these days of in-between, the slice of quiet between the Christmas bustle and the coming buzz of New Year's guests. It's a quiet, gray, drizzly morning, but the Christmas tree in the corner and the fire make everything cozy, make one just want to linger. Forget the counters that need cleaned and the carpets that need vacuumed in anticipation of company. This morning is all about the in-between.

In the in-between time, the decorations stay up but the boxes and bags get carried away. Dinners are mostly leftovers, or in the case of a family with birthdays on the 25th and 26th, dinner out at the restaurant of one's choosing.

Duncan, who turned 13 on Christmas day, chose Flaherty's Irish Pub. He loves their fish and chips. The server spilled tartar sauce on Laurel's boots and gave us a free dessert. We brought our leftovers home to eat the next day, again avoiding having to cook an actual meal.

Dinner on another in-between day was funnel cakes and kettle corn at Dollywood. It was a chilly, sunny day, and thousands of other people thought it was the right day to get the last out of their season passes, too. I sat on benches and re-read The Book Thief while Randy and the kids waited in lines. It is strange to be in Nazi Germany one minute and then to look up and  watch passersby who are so happy they bounce and swing. I did ride the carousel and the bumper cars, and I thought about how much nicer it is to go to Dollywood with teenagers instead of toddlers.

We anchor ourselves, Randy and I, on these in-between days.
"Today," he announces, "is December 27, 2013."
"Is it Friday?" I ask.
"It is," he assures me. "I took the trash out this morning."
These days feel like luxury. We linger over breakfast together, reading random bits of internet news to each other. We put whipped cream in our coffee and justify having apple or pumpkin pie for breakfast.

We revel in having our oldest home in this in-between time, home not just from college but from a semester in Italy. He mostly hangs out with his friends but they check in a few times each day, playing a few video games with Duncan or coercing Laurel into a round of Just Dance. And they'll come for supper if it's something other than leftovers.

They came last night for fettucine alfredo and artichokes. We won these nifty butter warmers in a white elephant exchange. Someone's junk, our treasure.

In the in-between time I grow sluggish. Showering and putting on real clothes seems superfluous. What is there to do, really, but read and watch the birds at their new feeder? In between spells of utter laziness, I iron a few shirts, put away wrapping paper, water the crinkling poinsettias. I think about how this year, for the first time in 20 years, there are no new toys to pick up, no Legos to step upon at night. We are a house filled with teenagers and young adults. We are in between ourselves.

After a few days of in between, to be honest, I am ready for what's next. I love the anticipation of company, of good conversation and meals cooked together. I am ready to find a cute outfit and put on boots, wipe down the counters and vacuum the floors. Family and friends will be here tomorrow and for the rest of this week, and I'm ready. In less than a week we'll be hauling the tree to the curb and packing up ornaments; I'll be forcing myself into lesson-plan mode and thinking about what to cook for supper. But I'll be ready.

This in-between time is good for the soul, good for anchoring oneself and reveling in the beauty of simplicity, the luxury of unconstructed days. In between.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Books That Make Me Cry {Repost}

{A repost from 2009 that still holds true today.}

The mark of a good Christmas book, for me, is that it makes me cry. We have a good number of children's books for Christmas, and I try to add a new book each year. We have some of the essential ones like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, popular ones like The Polar Express and some silly but sentimental ones like Mercer Mayer's Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, starring Little Critter. Some of the books we give the obligatory seasonal read and then put back on the rack.

But I have my favorites. These are the books that, without fail, make me cry at some point. My voice catches, a child's head pops up and looks at me and says, "Mama! Are you crying again?" I can't help it.

1. The Tale of the Three Trees (retold by Angela Elwell Hunt): This book ties it all together—Jesus' birth, life, and death—in a simple but eloquent story. I get choked up on almost every page.

2. The Story of Holly and Ivy (by Rumer Godden): This one takes us a couple of reading periods to get through, but it is so well worth it. This is the story of an orphan who wants a grandmother, a doll who wants a home, and a woman who wants a family. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (by Gail Rock): I loved this TV special when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd ever read the book until a few years ago when I picked it up at a yard sale. Now my daughter and I read this story annually of a girl who begs her father for a Christmas tree, and I always cry at the end.

4. A Wish for Wings That Work (by Berkeley Breathed): Is it weird to get weepy over a book about a penguin named Opus? I can't help it; there's something about Santa saying, "Ho, ho, ho, go!" to a penguin whose wings don't work that brings tears every time. Also, this was one of the books we bought for our oldest for his first Christmas, so it's extra sentimental.

5. The First Night (by B.G. Hennessy): This short book starts off with one of my favorite Bible verses: "And the World became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) and proceeds to tell the birth of Christ in simple but poetic text. I especially love the rustic look of the paintings, done on butternut wood and shaped with a jigsaw. It's the simplicity of a birth—of a new life—that gets me every time.

And so those are my Top 5 favorite Christmas books. I have to add another one that takes awhile to read but is so well worth it: The Christmas Doll by Elvira Woodruff. This one isn't for the youngest readers, but 9 and up will love it.

Do you have one that makes you cry? If so, leave a comment and I'll check it out! Here are a few collected from comments:

The Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston (I can't wait to check this one out!!)
Jotham's Journey (This one's been on my to-read list for years!)
Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: How to Interact with Professors

What do you want to be when you get to college? One of the masses—a nameless face among hundreds or thousands—or someone whom a professor can call by name, offer personalized guidance, and write a great recommendation for later?

Interacting with faculty is something that some students naturally do well, some students do poorly, some students avoid, and some just never consider. Making an initial good impression can have subtle benefits of which a student might not be aware. A student who interacts with the professor (e.g., by coming to office hours or asking questions) is more likely to be remembered. A professor might be more likely to respond to that student in depth rather than superficially and may be more likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt (e.g., if a student misses class).

But more importantly, making a good impression with a professor can lead to a relationship that benefits the student's overall college (and post-college) success.

So how does a student interact with his or her professors? First, all four faculty members at our "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew"roundtable agreed: be respectful. Whether it's by email or in person, treat your professors the way you want to be treated. Never, ever convey a sense of entitlement. Remember that professors have lives outside of the classroom. Don't expect an instantaneous response when emailing a professor, especially after hours or on the weekend.

Our panelists gave more specific advice both inside and outside the classroom for positive interactions.

Interactions in the classroom

• Sit in the front of the classroom, never in the back. Not only are faces visible to the professor, but students can answer and ask questions easier when sitting in the front.

• Ask questions. Don’t feel “uncool” if you need to ask questions. Most professors prefer that you ask questions during class than after class, both for the benefit of the other students and because the professor has someplace else to go after class.

• Answer questions. Don’t be afraid to answer questions when a professor asks. If you know the answer, be bold enough to raise your hand and answer. It helps the flow of the class. Interactions with your professor helps you stay engaged and thus remember and understand more. (Dr. M. interjected here that students who constantly raise their hands shouldn't feel offended if a professor passes him or her over sometimes so that other students have a chance to answer.)

• Express interest in the subject of the class. Tell professors about articles you've read or experiences you've had that have to do with subject you’re learning. It helps the professors get to know you better, and may also help you in the future.

Don't text, talk, fall asleep, walk in late, leave early, etc. Being rude will get you noticed—but not in a good way.
Show respect. Address your professor as "Dr.," "Mr./Ms." unless he or she specifically asks you not to. Never address him or her by his/her first name unless s/he tells you to!  Also, be respectful of your professor's views and your fellow students' views. Don't assume everyone holds the same worldview as you do, and don't assume you are right and "they" are wrong. College is, after all, about expanding your mind, being challenged, and learning from others.

Interactions outside the classroom

Respect—and take advantage of—their office hours. Meet with them during their office hours. Don't show up in the middle of the day and expect them to drop everything to meet with you. Office hours will always be posted on a professor's door and in the syllabus.
Ask for help.  If you need help, go to office hours and don’t wait until it’s too late for help. Ask early in the semester for help. Be able to explain what you’re having difficulties with. Don’t just say “I don’t get it.” The more information that you can provide with what you don’t understand, the better your professors can help. Prepare your questions ahead of time of what you’re going to ask your prof.
• Join or create a study group. Some of the most successful students are the students that interact with each other.
• Communicate respectfully. Again, check the syllabus to see how your professor prefers to be contacted. Use correct grammar in email and texting correspondence and address your professor properly (see "Show respect" above). Do not begin your email with "Hey" or worse, "Hey, dude." (And yes, my husband has been addressed as such by students more than once.) Do not call your professors on the weekend or after business hours unless s/he has explicitly given you permission to do so. Also, sign your name at the bottom of your email! Professors don't necessarily know who belongs to what address.

All our panelists emphasized that forming a relationship—being known to and by—with professors is key to college success and also to success after college. Never be afraid of introducing yourself to faculty members. Don't be annoying, but never think of them as the enemy. They want you to succeed and to really learn from them and from your fellow students. College professors love what they are teaching! Think about it this way: most of them have spent at least 5-8 years in graduate school specializing in their subjects so that they can convey the material to you.

{This is #4 in the series: "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well.

#2. Read the Syllabus.
#3. Be Responsible.
#5. Study 
#6. Get Involved}

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: Personal Responsibility

Parents will have said some version of it 532 times each week before a kid leaves for college: Take responsibility! Don't blame me that you overslept/forgot the test/ran out of gas/etc.! Prioritize! Don't make excuses!

Be responsible!

In high school, teachers/parents assume a lot of responsibility for students as far as keeping up with homework, knowing deadlines, getting kids where they need to be on time. Your student is probably not even be aware of the part you play behind the scenes.

But in college, it’s flipped. The professor is responsible for being there, grading material, and providing information. Everything else is up to the student: coming to class, turning things in on time, making up missed work, keeping up with assignments.

Dr. M., one of our faculty panelists in the "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew" roundtable, stressed that good time management is the key to being a responsible student. First of all, he said, use that syllabus, as discussed in a previous post in this series: "When you get your syllabus from class, open your planner, and write down your work schedule, write when things are due ahead of time, manage your time. Professors will not remind you when your assignment is due; it’s in the syllabus."

Dr. O. emphasized the need to "plan your time, or the world will plan for you." All the faculty members were passionate about not wasting time—about actually scheduling free time into your day so that the day isn't wasted with just one more game on an electronic device "to relax" or 15 more minutes on Facebook.

Some of their suggestions included:
  • Plan your downtime. Rest and relaxation is important, but too much can turn into wasted time.
  • Make to-do lists. Make them for each day, and make them for 10 weeks out.
  • Prioritize what needs to be done and how much time each task will take. If you have to choose something that doesn't get done, choose that something that will come back to bite you the least.
  • Distribute your time. Whether you are planning by 30 minute slots or by task, make sure you have a plan. If you don't have your plan laid out, you will lose 30 percent of your time trying to figure out what to do in the half-hour you have.
  • Don't be discouraged. You probably won't have everything done at the end of the day. Remember that your list is your slave—you are not a slave to your list.

We'll discuss interaction with professors in another post, but it is of utmost importance to stress that personal responsibility and interaction with professors are intertwined. Students who show a lack of responsibility show a lack of respect and desire to learn. Students should be on time to class and should be organized and prepared. (As our Scoutmaster says, "If you're not 5 minutes early, you're late.") Students should be polite and not sullen, as if somehow they are doing a favor to the professor for being present. Students will have a much better chance at success if they act like respectful adults rather than entitled teenagers who "deserve" to be in college.

It is each student's responsibility to find out from the first day what each professor's expectations are, and respect those rules. (Again, read that syllabus to find out the rules.) Dr. M., for example, has a strict no-cell-phone policy. "In my classes," he explained, "if your cell phone goes off, you get kicked out. And you will get an automatic zero if it goes off during an exam." Saying "I didn't know!" shows a total lack of personal responsibility.

College isn't all about academics. It's also a time for personal growth and discovery, for social development and finding one's place in the world. But academics should be far and above the top priority. Students who repeatedly choose parties over papers and video games over textbooks might be in for a rude awakening at the end of the semester.

What these faculty members want you to know?
Be responsible. Manage your time. Set goals. Prioritize. Work really, really hard, and reward yourself with a little play.

This is #3 in the series: "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well.

#2. Read the Syllabus.
#4. How to Interact with Professors.
#5. Study.
#6. Get Involved

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: Read That Syllabus

I have seen it happen again and again. I hand out a syllabus on the first day of class, and half the students fold it up and stick it in the pocket of their 3-ring binder. One or two leave it on the floor, and the rest dutifully open their prongs and insert the syllabus. A few of the students in the latter category will actually read it.

The syllabus isn't just a stack of papers that a professor is required to give students; the syllabus is a necessary tool—a road map for the class. Students who stick it in the back of a notebook and forget about it are driving without a GPS.

So what is inside a syllabus? Basically everything a student needs to know about the class.

Class expectations and objectives. This includes what knowledge and skills you are supposed to obtain throughout the class. The "what's this class about?" and "why am I here?" This is basically the thesis statement of the class. A good teacher will often remind students what the goal of the class is; but if you can do that on your own from the syllabus, you will be an excellent student.

Contact information for your professor. This includes where his or her office is located and a preferred method of contact.  Some prefer phone calls, others prefer e-mails.  Some have very specific guidelines (e.g. "put 'Biology 130' in the subject line" or something like that). We'll talk more in later posts about interaction with professors, but the syllabus is the place to find out the correct way to contact them.

When and where to go. There are often different rooms for the same class, particularly classes with labs, lectures, and/or discussion sections that are separate.

What textbooks and resources you will need to get. Many colleges are now having online systems that you have to buy. There may be multiple books (e.g., lecture + lab), other technology items (like clickers), and/or online homework licenses to purchase. This information will all be in the syllabus. Can you imagine how aggravating it is for a professor to hear repeatedly, "What books should I buy?"

A schedule, including assignments and due dates. Never assume that professors will remind you of when an assignment is due. It's in the syllabus, and students should be constantly checking for due dates. (We'll talk about time management in another post.) Students should not expect to get daily assignments, written on the whiteboard, at the end of every class. The syllabus contains the all-important schedule of assignments: what book chapters (or other materials) to read to prepare for each part of the class, what needs to be turned in when, and when exams will be. If a professor doesn't say, "Be sure to read Chapter 2 for next week," that doesn't mean you don't have to read it. Follow the schedule unless s/he specifically changes something in it!

Policies. Every college, department, and even professor may have different policies about attendance, academic dishonesty, technology (including cell phone and laptop use), and more. Don't assume that because you can use a laptop in one class that you can use it in another. Read the syllabus and find out your professor's policies. If s/he doesn't have specific ones, go by the college's.

Grading. It will give the percentages of what everything is worth—attendance, lab, tests, essays, participation, etc.— and how letter grades are calculated from point percentages. Students should be able to figure out their own grades based on this information.

Where to find resources for help. If a student in struggling or just needs extra assistance, the syllabus will indicate how to obtain educational and even personal, whether it is from the professor or another college source.

The syllabus answers the all-important questions: What does my professor expect from me? How do I go about doing it? and When is this due? 

With that in mind, no one should ever stick that syllabus in the back of a notebook. To do so could be detrimental to a student—and really aggravate a professor.

This is #2 in the series: "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well.
#3. Be Responsible
#4. How to Interact with Professors 
#5. Study 
#6. Get Involved

Friday, November 22, 2013

Weekly Wrap-Up

This has been a fabulous week. It is so refreshing to actually be at home much of the week, without field trips or various appointments! Monday was the last day for K-8 co-op classes until January, so Duncan and I both feel free and easy just knowing that he doesn't have co-op homework to do and I have one less class to prepare for.

On Tuesday our support group's teen group did a service project at our local Habitat for Humanity Restore. We had about 20 teens come out to help, and we could probably help there every day and barely make a dent! In the picture above, Laurel and a couple other girls are going through bags of clothing and sorting it. That particular pile was 8 feet high, and we did about 10 bags in two hours. We plan to make this a regular monthly teen service project.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday have just been regular mostly-at-home days. Duncan and I did only history on Wednesday and finished nearly the whole week's worth of our Sonlight World History. We also managed to get in a couple lessons in grammar. We are currently working through The Guide to Grammar and Writing, after having done First Language Lessons K-4 and Easy Grammar 5th-7th. He loves the interactive quizzes at the end of each lesson and is doing incredibly well.

Today we actually had our first art day since September, using watercolor projects from the Usborne Complete Book of Art Ideas. My intention was to do art every Friday with Duncan, but it just seems like something always comes up. I'm also threw in a little classical music study to make it a solid Fine Arts Friday, which is something I was so good about doing when I started homeschooling 14 years ago! I'm using the e-book Beethoven Who? by Marcia K. Washburn for our music studies.

Laurel is doing great in all of her classes. She's just such an organized, motivated student. This week I did an in-class exam in my high school World Literature and Geography class, and she said she really kind of enjoyed doing it. Usually I give take-home tests so that I can use my limited class time (1 hour 20 minutes per week) for discussions, etc. But after the "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew" seminar, I realized that I was doing my students a disservice by not testing them in class. (Be sure to visit the link above for my ongoing posts on that fantastic seminar.)

She should be finishing up her American Heritage Girls Stars and Stripes project (equivalent of the Eagle Scout) next week, and she's also preparing to take the ACT for the first time next month. December 15 is going to be a landmark day for us: she'll be done with the ACT and Jesse will arrive home from his semester in Italy!

And that's all the excitement around here for this week. Well, except for our rat adventures. (The rat, by the way, is now dead.)

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: Write Well

My father, a retired professor from Cornell University as well as a former high school science teacher, was excited when I told him about our panel discussion "What College Professors Wish Freshmen Knew." He has a passion for education and is a life-long learner. He was interested to hear what the faculty would advise, and he readily offered what he called "Number 1, Number 2, and Number 3: Write well, write well, write well."

Our four panelists—two biology professors (Drs. M and S), a psychology instructor (Ms. B), and the head of private college's English department (Dr. O) — agreed unequivocally. (Click here to read the background of our panel discussion.) Across disciplines—no matter what the major— students need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing.

Dr. O emphasized that a student should always find out what set of grammar rules a professor considers important. Having a good grammar reference book is essential. He has two favorites: A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker and Hodges' Harbrace Handbook by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray. Don't just put the book(s) on a shelf; students should be familiar with the content and actually use the book as a reference.

The professors placed varying degrees of emphasis on grammar, but all agreed that good grammar is vital to clear written communication. Dr. S. conceded that in the sciences he is less concerned about the grammar than Dr. O is in English. He is more concerned about how well a student can explain and frame an argument. In his biology classes he expects well-supported, clearly laid-out answers and essays organized by topics. Dr. M. noted that the best students always have outlines or bullet points scribbled on their test booklets, indicating that they have thought through the entire essay before beginning. Ms. B. begged students to proofread their essays (and especially, she pleaded, do not leave an "I" uncapitalized!).

One audience member asked what the most glaring grammatical errors are. The most glaring error is today, just as it has been through the decades, comma splicing. Read up on it and make sure your kids know when to use a comma, when to use a semicolon, and when to use a period.  Students aren't experienced proofreaders anymore, Dr. O mentioned, relying instead on their word processing program's grammar and spelling functions. He said many students use spellcheck but don't catch words like "are" and "our" or "hear" and "here." Dr. O stressed that an excess of technical errors makes an essay unreadable. You might have great ideas, but they are lost in a sea of misplaced modifiers and other grammar gremlins.

The professors felt a true urgency to communicate how critical essay skills are for college students. Writing well is a crucial determining factor in whether a student is excellent or just average.

All the professors urged students to get help when needed in their school's writing labs. Ms. B. pointed out that sometimes professors will even give extra credit for going to tutors. As a writing lab instructor, Ms. B. said that she has very few students actually come in for help, and those that do are nearly always the top-level students—not the ones who really need it.

 And this is a good place to mention the evils of plagiarism. Many faculty have a zero tolerance for plagiarism—and unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.  Students should always make careful notes about where they have obtained information, and they should cite their sources. Essays are usually analyzed by computers to pick up plagiarism, and this is a serious offense. Students should remember that anything that is not his or her idea or common knowledge needs to be cited.

When a student gets to college, stressed the professors, he is expected to know how to write a college-level essay. So how should students prepare in high school? Well, it sounds simple: become a confident writer. By the time students are seniors, they should be so fluent in writing essays that it is second nature.

• Parents, give your homeschooled kids timed essays. Timed, in-class essays are something that many homeschoolers never experience. In fact, I am chagrined to say that I am an English teacher at our co-op, and until recently I had never given a timed essay examination! I had one of those hit-your-head moments when I realized that I was doing a terrible disservice to my students by giving them take-home tests so that we could use our weekly class time for discussion. Wow!

• Dr. O suggests entering a few essay contests in high school. While students might not win, the feedback from the judges can be invaluable and a great way to see how your student stacks up against others.

• Students should be able to fluently write all kinds of essays: expository, analytical, persuasive, compare/contrast, narrative, descriptive, etc. Understand how to write each one. OWL at Purdue and the Guide to Grammar and Writing give great primers, and hundreds of other internet sources can help. A simple search for "basic essay writing" will yield more results that one could possible use!

• Make sure your student has a few research papers under his belt. Do it the old-fashioned way with index cards and outlines at least the first couple of times; after that, allow him to develop his own system.

• Take a co-op class or Bravewriter class. Do dual enrollment at the local community college while in high school to learn what an instructor there is looking for. Most importantly: practice, practice, practice.

Again, don't let your student think that writing well isn't important because she plans to major in math. In every major, students need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing. But beyond college, clear written communication is a life skill that will never stop serving one well.

This is #1 in the series "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#2: Read the Syllabus.
#3. Be Responsible
#4. How to Interact with Professors
#5. Study
#6: Get Involved

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew

Our local support group’s first panel discussion this year provided some of the most valuable information that college-bound high school students will ever receive. We invited four faculty members from three area institutes of higher education to speak to high school students and their parents about what they wish freshmen knew about navigating college.

Our speakers, all homeschooling parents, were: the head of the English department at a small private college (enrollment of about 1000); a psychology instructor and biology professor at our local community college (enrollment of 11,000); and a biology professor at the University of Tennessee (enrollment of 21,000 undergraduates).
We had a wide range of class sizes, demographics of students, and instructor teaching load, and yet these faculty members have remarkably similar experiences, advice, and insight for college freshmen.
Our purpose for the discussion was to provide insight into what professors want from students, their insights into how to be better students and make freshman year easier. We selected topics that the panelists found most important and often most lacking in freshmen and went through these one by one:

Writing skills

Importance of syllabus, handouts, etc.

Personal responsibility/time management

Interaction with professors

Study skills

Campus involvement

Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be posting their words of wisdom, so stay tuned and check back often!

#1. Write Well 
#2: Read the Syllabus 
#3. Be Responsible 
#4. How to Interact with Professors 
#5. Study 
#6: Get Involved

{Special thanks to my 16-year-old daughter for taking phenomenal notes during the session, from which I am working. I am thrilled that she has such excellent note-taking skills!}

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday Miscellany, Mostly About the Rat

* There are some things I never thought I'd have to google, like "how to catch a rat." And yet this morning, I found myself googling just that in hopes that I would stumble on something, anything that Randy hasn't already tried. I may have hit upon it with this one: "hammer nails into a trap so that points stick upward and put rotten pumpkin on the trap." Just so happens that we have a rotting pumpkin on our front porch. I mean, why not?

* Yes. We have a rat behind our dishwasher that is completely disrupting our lives. Yes, we have cats. They are extremely helpful. This one sits on the counter and stares at the wall when she hears the rat.

 And I am so traumatized by the rat that I don't even care that the cat is on the counter. (For the record, the other cat and the dog appear oblivious to the rat.)

* Yes, we've had the exterminator in. He said all he'd do is set more traps and charge us for it. After a week of more traps, we have decided to call another exterminator. Did I mention that our house is beginning to smell like a giant hamster cage?

* But enough about the rat, which basically consumes my every thought. Let's move on to the snake. Apparently, Randy thought this would be a perfect time to buy a pet snake for Duncan. I am pretty sure his thought process went like this: "she is so traumatized by the rat that the snake won't even bother her." Strangely, he was correct. Maybe when the rat is gone, I'll slowly realize that there is a snake living in Duncan's room—in a glass cage, of course. But most likely I'll be so busy sanitizing my house again and again and again that I will forget about it.

* For a bit of non-animal related news, Jesse comes home from his semester abroad in Italy in less than a month! I am so ready for him to be home. He appears to be having a fabulous time and has been quite good about posting pictures of his travels on Facebook. I am so happy for the experiences that he is having!

* Today is our last day of K-8 co-op until January. This semester went by quickly; I am usually completely burned out by now. I do still have two more weeks of high school classes after this week, but I'm done teaching my middle school English class for now. More importantly, Duncan is done with all his classes except for algebra, his one high school class.

* And so the day begins. The windows are open, the sun is filtering through the last of the yellow leaves, and the mountains are periwinkle. I an almost forget for a minute that we have a rat lurking behind our walls.

Hope you have a great one.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Ignite Life Bible Study

First, let's get this part over with. Legal disclosure: I received this product for free and was compensated for my time; however, all my opinions are honest. I am not required to post a positive review. And if you subscribe to my reading blog, you know that I am often painfully honest about the books I receive to review. Sometimes I wonder why the publishers keep sending books to me!

Now on to the good stuff: I love this Bible study. In my 14 years of homeschooling, I have been through lots of Bible studies, devotionals, and curriculum. And I wish that this particular one could go on forever, not just for six weeks. But I'm the teacher; the best part is that Duncan (8th grade) absolutely loves it, too. He actually begged to do it first thing in the morning. I'm not making this up.

Ignite Student Leadership, published by the Life Bible Study division of NavPress, is intended to be a six-week study with 35-40 minute sessions, but this is flexible. We actually did it over the course of a few weeks, doing two sessions each week.

The course includes three components: a leader's guide, student guide, and DVD. When I first received the kit, I thought it wouldn't work as a personal Bible study with just my own kids. It is designed to be used with "any size group" up to 100; however, I was able to easily adapt it to work with just Duncan. That said, I would love to use this in larger groups: youth group, American Heritage Girls, Boy Scouts, or just with a group of teens.

The purpose of the study is to encourage kids to lead like Jesus— to take a love-based approach to leadership rather than a power-driven one. The leader's guide is easy to navigate and includes in each session a variety of large group activities and discussions, small group or individual activities, and videos. It is completely scripted and all Bible verses are listed in the guide, so you don't have to scramble to look up verses while teaching. The student guide follows along appropriately with the leader's guide. (This worked out well with just Duncan, as he followed along and read the verses aloud in each section.)

The videos are a key component of the study. Honestly, I approach video clips cautiously and with a certain amount of skepticism. I've seen so many badly done videos targeted to teens that my expectations are low. Much to my relief, the folks at  Life Bible Study did a fantastic job on the videos! The actors are totally believable. Jake, the main character, is particularly good. The narrators and speakers, who are interspersed in with the story of Jake and his friends, are hip and relevant: guys in t-shirts and Converse rather than golf shirts and awkward slacks. I know, I know: there is a lot floating around right now in church circles that adults try too hard to be relevant and hip, but seriously. This doesn't feel forced, like "hey, let's be cool," but rather that these are leaders who took time to know what appeals to teenagers. And, well, adults, too.

The storyline through the video sessions is compelling. Duncan wanted to watch the whole DVD all the way through on the first day, although of course we didn't. The story follows Jake, the new kid, and Carmen, the overconfident popular girl, in various situations. OK, summarizing that sounds trite, but it really isn't. Between video clips, the leader's guide provides discussion questions and activities, as well as personal assessments.

Duncan and I really learned a lot from the pride vs. fear assessment, which helps the students see barriers to allowing God to work in our lives.

Enough about the format: I really like what the study is teaching. The message here is to learn to lead like Jesus—to be a servant, to put aside ego and fear. After a few lessons that discuss the  heart and head of a leader, the study goes on to provide concrete example of how to go about being a Christ-like leader— the "hands" and "habits" of a leader.

I have spent years as an American Heritage Girls leader and a Boy Scout mom, and I think our greatest goal is to develop strong leaders filled with integrity and confidence. Ignite Student Leadership provides exactly the kind of practical, relevant scripture-based information and insight that I look for in helping kids learn how to lead. You can easily download a sample lesson. Again, this might not appear to be a particularly homeschooling-friendly format, but we found it easily adaptable. If you are any kind of youth leader, I recommend this even more highly!

Would you like to have your own copy of Ignite? I have one digital version of Ignite Student Leadership to give away! All you'll need to do is enter your name in the comments and make sure I can easily contact you. You'll have until Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 5 p.m. EST to enter this giveaway. If you don't win, don't despair! You an purchase Ignite in a couple of different forms (digital or hard copy) on the website. You can also hear more about Life Bible Studies on Twitter or Facebook.

Again, leave a comment for a chance to receive your free digital version!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Weekly Wrap-up

Some years we enter November with a twinge of disappointment—the leaves weren't quite colorful enough or didn't stay long enough; the days turned cold too quickly. But this year, we're all stunned by autumn, honored by the richness of these trees in colors we could never duplicate. Duncan and I shirked school for an afternoon last week and took a friend and my mom to the Foothills Parkway, just to sit on warm rocks and watch the shadows shift on the mountains. And chase a few little lizards, of course.

We had some great school days this week with a few particular highlights. We started the week with our annual Scouting family hayride and chili fest with our American Heritage Girls, Boy Scouts, and Cub Scouts troops/pack. We had about 125 people there for this nearly 10-year tradition. It was a chilly night, but we had a big bonfire and plenty of hot chocolate. Here's what the farm stand looks like before all 125 people are there!

Duncan has had a terrible cough all week, so he's done a lot of lounging on the couch. That means we've been able to get lots of reading done. We're currently reading Hittite Warrior (as part of Sonlight World History), which we both love so far. We've also been making our way through a student Bible study I've been reviewing, called Ignite Student Leadership. This is a fantastic leadership study—probably the best I've seen in my 14 years of homeschooling and working with youth. I'll be reviewing this on my blog Monday and giving away a digital version of Ignite, so be sure to check back here on Monday.

Duncan reading through the workbook portion of Ignite Student Leadership Study.

On Tuesday evening, we presented a phenomenal panel discussion for high schoolers and their parents. My friend Diane and I organize the roundtable discussion feature for our homeschooling support group. We have several university professors (including Randy) in our group, and we had the brilliant idea a few months back to ask them to present a panel on what they expect from college freshmen, problems they encounter, tips for transitioning into college, etc. We had four faculty members from three different area institutions: a small private college (Maryville College), a community college (Pellissippi State CC), and a major university (UT Knoxville). They presented their insights into, advice on, and some admonitions in six main areas: writing skills, the syllabus and reading instructions, personal responsibility, interaction with professors, study skills, and campus involvement. I asked a couple of people (including my 16-year-old daughter, who is a great note-taker and that was one of the important skills mentioned!) to take notes, so I plan to compile those and post them here soon.

Yesterday Laurel and I took another college tour with some friends. This is such a fantastic experience for all of us, and I'm glad we're doing this during Laurel's junior year. We didn't love this particular university, but much of that could have to do with our reception, or lack thereof. After our tour, we discussed how important it is for the admissions office to really treat prospective students like royalty—or at least like honored guests and not intruders. But touring campuses is enlightening. Next week we are visiting two more universities, and then I think we'll be done until spring.

That's about all for this week! Randy and Duncan are going on a weekend backpacking trip with Boy Scouts, and Laurel and I will be helping out with her best friend's Stars and Stripes project (equivalent of the Eagle Scout award) for American Heritage Girls. Laurel should finish up her own project by the end of this month and the write her project summary. She's 75% done with her project at this point!

And that's what is going on in our own SmallWorld. Check out more Weekly Wrap-ups at Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Watching Autumn on the Foothills Parkway

A few days ago my 12-year-old and I took my mother (my Dad, at 88, was teaching a class on grafting fruit trees) to the mountains. We took the Foothills Parkway, which is just outside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and has absolutely stunning views. It's a short drive for us, just 15-20 minutes from our house. I am still astounded that I live so close to this majesty.

These days are precious to me. Who knows how long our days are, whether we are 16 or 47. But my mother is 86, and I treasure each day with her. I do not carve these hours out as often as I should, whole afternoons spent just basking in the love of my parents and children and the simple joy of beautiful things.

We didn't do anything but sit with the wide expanse of the Smoky Mountains displayed before us. What more is there to do but watch the shifting shadows, feel the sun warming our shoulders, and soak in the yellows, oranges, and greens that lay like a quilt on every inch around us?

I sit with my mother, and we talk of nothing and everything. She tells me how much she loved the camp she used to go to as a child, where her mother was the cook and she was able to run free all over the camp. She tells me again, and 10 minutes later she tells me again. I don't care. I would hear her stories a hundred times each day if it meant I could sit with her on a warm rock, watching the immoveable mountains breathing, cloaked in the simplicity of autumn.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Weekly Wrap-Up

As always, our formal schooling has been hijacked, mostly by outrageously beautiful weather and fun. Oh, don't worry. We're still doing algebra (1 and 2), writing essays, reading novels, and finding sentence fragments. But we've also been…

Tagging monarchs and catching butterflies as part of the citizen scientist program at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont …(Don't we have awesome field trips?)

Eating soup and carving pumpkins…

 Going to hear the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra… (This is while waiting. Homeschoolers, it really is true, don't line up well.)

Going trick-or-treating…

And doing lots and lots of lesson plans and teaching…

Students doing a presentation on Asia in World Geography class
 November is here, and the leaves are at their peak—or maybe just a little past. Today Duncan crumbled at the thought of math, so we finished Mara, Girl of the Nile and did most of his French homework. It's going to be one of those unfortunate weekends that he'll have to do the rest of his enrichment class homework on Sunday afternoon. But the mountains really are calling, and we are playing hooky for the rest of the afternoon. We'll pick up my mother and head up to the Foothills Parkway to drink in the fall colors and breathe in autumn as long as we can.

Need a reason to homeschool? There you go. When your mother is 86-years-old, you choose hearing her and your 12-year-old praise the colors of the maples over doing algebraic equations and writing an essay. When the mountains call, you listen. It really is that simple.

Linked up at the Weekly Wrap-Up

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In the Smokies: Cosby Campground and Hen Wallow Falls

The last camping trip of the year is always bittersweet. Sweet, because huddling together with friends by a fire on an October evening is just about perfection. Bitter, because, well, it's the last camping trip of the year—for me. Randy and all the menfolk will continue camping throughout the winter with Boy Scouts, but I reach my camping tolerance when I have to wear a ski jacket to bed.

This camping trip was especially wonderful because our beautiful Smoky Mountains were "closed" up until two days before our scheduled trip! What excitement there was around here when those crazies in DC decided we could have our park back. The whole thing reeked of insanity. But anyway, back to the mountains.

For a few years now we've been gathering with this same gang (actually, one family replaced another that couldn't go this weekend) to camp at Cades Cove and do the loop on bikes. But this year the Cades Cove campground was booked before we could reserve our spots. Our second choice was Cataloochee, but it was also booked. No one besides us had ever been to Cosby, so we thought we'd head there. It's one of the least used campgrounds in the Smokies, probably because it's a bit of a ways from Gatlinburg.

The weather was absolutely perfect—low 70s during the day, 40s at night. Perfect for soup and chili, hot chocolate and plenty of blankets.

We took a hike to Hen Wallow Falls on Saturday. This was a 4.4 mile round-trip hike, moderately strenuous. We were taking it very slowly with a 7-year-old, so we had plenty of resting times.

The falls are gentle and the rocks are fantastic for climbing on.

The boys, of course, had to explore all the nooks and crannies, including a cave or two. They are sitting waaaaay up on a ledge in this picture.

There's nothing better than a hammock and snack food after a hike.

The leaves were just starting to change there, so we got a good preview of the fall colors. Back here in town, we are just barely getting some color. With all the rain we've had, I predict fabulous fall colors!

It was a fabulous weekend, and we were all terribly reluctant to come back to reality. I could almost be convinced to do winter camping after a weekend like this. Almost.