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Category — Homeschooling Life

A Tale of Two Shoeboxes


All year long, Kellen and Kerrick each worked to fill a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child, a mission project coordinated by the Samaritan’s Purse relief organization. Every December, Samaritan’s Purse delivers the boxes—containing fun things such as toys and candy, as well as essentials like toothpaste and soap—to impoverished children all over the world.

This was our first year to participate, and the boys kicked off their efforts in January by purchasing plastic shoebox-size containers. (We debated at length about whether to use plastic or actual cardboard shoeboxes—favorable because we’d be recycling and the box would be biodegradable. But in the end, plastic won out because we thought the recipients might appreciate a more durable, waterproof container that could later be used for another purpose.)  Kellen and Kerrick each opted to fill a box for a boy in their age group (5 to 8 years old) and—following the guidelines outlined on the organization’s Web site—they made lists of the items they wanted to include. The next order of business was planning their purchases. (I need to explain here that anytime the boys earn or receive money, they are required to divide it into “save,” “share” and “spend” categories. With this year’s project in mind, their “share” money quickly became allocated for shoebox items.)

Our shopping excursions provided plenty of lessons in budgeting (the boys learned to make their money stretch by looking for sales and by buying some items—pencils, toothbrushes—in bulk that could be split between their boxes). And, with a little coaxing, they even turned their joint birthday party into an opportunity to draw their friends into the fun, requesting voluntary donations in lieu of any gifts.

By November, Kellen and Kerrick had filled the shoeboxes to the brim with the following items:
• Clothing (shirts, underwear, socks)
• Candy
• School supplies (pencils and sharpener, erasers, crayons, paper)
• Toiletries (toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap)
• Toys (Hot Wheels, LEGOs, Playmobil figures, tennis ball)
• A letter from—and photo of—each boy

Kellen’s shoebox stuff. . .

Kellen’s shoebox stuff. . .

. . .and Kerrick’s.

. . .and Kerrick’s.

When we discovered that the church we attend would serve as a collection place for shoebox donations this year, we scheduled an afternoon when we could both drop off the boxes and volunteer to help with collection efforts. The day we were there wasn’t a particularly busy one, but Kellen and Kerrick still got to help put rubber bands around all of the boxes that came in and load them into larger cartons that were packed into 40-foot semi-truck trailers to be hauled to regional sorting centers. The highlight for the boys was getting to climb inside one of the trailers and pose for a photo. (Kennah even got in on the action, and has decided that she wants to fill her own shoebox—for a girl her age—next year. Of course, knowing Kennah’s fascination with footwear, chances are pretty good that her shoebox will actually contain at least one pair of shoes.) 🙂

Several days before Christmas, we learned that our shoeboxes were both delivered to children in Peru. So the learning experience can continue as we find out more about that country and what life might be like for the boys who received Kellen’s and Kerrick’s gifts. And a slim possibility exists that we might actually hear directly from the children who opened our boxes. But even if we never do, we know we helped make two Christmases a little brighter, and we can’t wait to do it all over again next year!


December 27, 2009   2 Comments

25 Carols of Christmas: No. 19

Of all the music I’ve included in the countdown so far—and that I plan to include in the next week—this is my favorite. And not so much because of the music itself, but because the performer is my 9-year-old son, Kellen, who absolutely nailed his first-ever piano recital last night! To hear it, you’ll have to endure my rather low-tech recording of the event on iTalk using my iPod Touch, which I simply placed on the stage as he was ready to walk out. (You’ll hear a lot of random shuffling noises and some silence before his teacher, Eunice Elie, introduces him. Also, Kellen’s squirmy 2-year-old brother, Keillor, adds a few vocalizations of his own here and there. And then there are some muffled coughs from someone in the audience, as well as a few distracting camera clicks from—ahem—someone else in the audience.) 🙂

The actual Christmas carol, Joy to the World, comes at the end of Kellen’s performance. (His first piece is a medley of children’s songs: London Bridge, Mary Had a Little Lamb and French Children Sing.) The carol is a special finishing touch because he almost didn’t get to play it for the recital. Two weeks ago at his piano lesson, he was struggling with the song, and his teacher decided he wasn’t quite ready to perform it. But instead of just letting it go, Kellen worked really hard to master the piece, and his teacher decided two days ago that he’d gotten it up to par. Whew!

Without further ado, here is Kellen in concert:

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December 19, 2009   7 Comments

Grossology 101

As most homeschoolers know, the most fascinating lesson of any given day is likely one that isn’t planned. That was certainly the case at our house today, when Kellen and Kerrick decided that learning how to create fake-but-realistic-looking wounds was much more important than finishing their math. If I had to guess, I’d say their sudden interest in special-effects makeup has to do with the fact that Halloween is two weeks away. Not to mention Kellen’s recent participation in a Civil War re-enactment event put on by his scouting troop. (He played a Union soldier in the Michigan 7th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Although he hadn’t been assigned to “die” during the staged battle, he got a little caught up in the drama and ended up sprawled out rather convincingly—at least from the photos I saw—on the field.)

After lunch, I got Kennah and Keillor down for a nap and was all set to dive into the flashcards and formulas that awaited our attention. Instead, I was greeted by two enthusiastic boys who had resourcefully gathered all of the ingredients (red food coloring, cocoa powder, toothpicks and tissues) they needed to bring to life the “injuries” that were occupying their imaginations. The only thing they couldn’t find was petroleum jelly—and only because they didn’t know what it was. Their excitement must have been contagious, because I soon forgot all about math and joined the search for the elusive final item, which we found in the drawer of the baby’s changing table.

Click here to see the directions we followed to create a large gash on Kellen’s forearm and a bullet wound on the back of Kerrick’s hand. And take a look at our results:



I think we need some more practice to make the wounds look more realistic, but our first try was a lot of fun. And in case anyone worries that we set all learning aside, I did sneak some scientific stuff into the ensuing discussions (Why would your blood appear darker in some areas than others? How would you sustain such a wound, and how would it be treated?). Oh, and we eventually managed to get our math done, too. 🙂

October 20, 2009   2 Comments

Falling for Comfort Foods

Autumn is finally in the air—or, at least as much of that season as we can seem to muster here in the desert Southwest. While we haven’t yet packed away our shorts or pulled out the flannel sheets, we find ourselves gravitating toward the warmer, more substantial meals we typically turn to when the weather cools off.


This week, I sprouted some more pinto beans and then cooked them for just about an hour before using them in a hearty crockpot chili that—along with a batch of gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free cornbread—really hit the spot after a busy homeschool co-op day. (On Wednesdays, we usually have piano lessons in the morning, and then meet with friends in the afternoon to study chemistry, art and Spanish together.) Along with the sprouted beans and some of their cooking liquid, the chili included one pound of grass-fed beef, a diced onion, a 12-ounce can of tomato paste, and a mixture of herbs and spices that I threw in, unmeasured, until I liked the taste—such as chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, oregano, crushed red chili flakes, cayenne pepper and sea salt. We topped it with grated raw cheddar and sour cream. The cornbread recipe I use is an adaptation of one I received via e-mail from Living Without magazine’s free Recipe of the Week newsletter. (Click here to sign up for the newsletter and to view the recipes posted on the publication’s Web site.)


In addition to beans, I sprouted some organic soft white wheat I’d ordered from Azure Standard, dehydrated it in the oven, ground it into flour in my Vita-Mix and used it to make chocolate-chip cookies—adapting a recipe in Janie Quinn’s book Sprouted Baking. (Her recipe calls for maple sugar and carob chips, which I didn’t have on hand, so I used Rapadura—unrefined cane sugar—and Enjoy Life chocolate chips—dairy-free and gluten-free—instead.) I really watched the grains during the sprouting process to determine whether I was achieving the goal of truly sprouting (and not drowning) the grain, as I expressed concern about last week. After soaking the grain overnight, I did observe that the endosperm had emerged from each grain (whether because it was swollen or not), but I also observed definite growing shoots that could only be considered true sprouts. I’m calling it a success! The cookies I made with the sprouted wheat flour were delicious, and while I didn’t test them out on Kellen (they included dairy and eggs), I did manage to convince my sister-in-law, an officially diagnosed celiac (and a very brave one, I might add!), to try one. It’s been less than 24 hours since she ate it, and so far she is symptom-free. I’ll keep checking in with her over the next few days to see what, if any effects she experiences. At the request of my editor at Living Without, I’m on the lookout for a medical doctor specializing in celiac disease to interview about whether sprouting gluten-containing grains might make them tolerable and safe for those who are gluten-sensitive. It’s controversial, and so far I haven’t had much luck.

This post is part of the Tuesday Twister blog carnival hosted by www.gnowfglins.com. To link to today’s Tuesday Twister on that site, click here.

October 6, 2009   2 Comments

Loafing Around

My 9-year-old son, Kellen, let me know this past summer that he wanted to learn how to cook. So, being the “capture-the-teachable-moment” kind of homeschooling mom that I am, I said, “No problem. We’ll make it part of your curriculum this year.” (Hey, it’s good reinforcement for working on fractions—and it’s kind of related to chemistry, which also happens to be on his current list of study subjects. And I figure it’s a skill that will serve him well if he happens never to outgrow those pesky food allergies.) I decided we’d start with something absolutely essential: his gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free bread. It’s tough to keep enough of it on hand for him. He easily polishes off a loaf a week—and there are weeks when I just can’t get around to the job of baking it. He’s a good sport when he has to go without it for a little while, and he’s so grateful when he gets some. (I’ve never known another kid to be quite so thrilled about the possibility of having a turkey sandwich for lunch!)

For awhile now, his favorite bread has been one I make from a modified version of a recipe for Potato Sandwich Bread published by Rebecca Reilly in the August/September 2008 issue of Living Without, a magazine for people with food allergies and sensitivities. For his first loaf, I mostly just introduced Kellen to the ingredients and let him add them to the mixing bowl. I talked him through the techniques of measuring accurately, outlined the steps involved in following a recipe, allowed him to operate the mixer and preheat the oven, and explained some of the safety precautions required for working in the kitchen. I think it will take a lot of practice for all of those things to really sink in—not to mention a lot more time for us both to be comfortable with him flying solo on this or any other cooking endeavor. But we’re off to a good start!

Kellen first loaf of breadBread mixes

While we were at it, we mixed up just the dry ingredients for several more batches of the bread and stored them in plastic zipper bags so that we’d have a head start on making future loaves—both for Kellen and for friends who have similar food allergies. It’s a goal of mine to have our pantry stocked with such mixes for the staple items we bake. And I think I know just the student whose lesson plan will include that particular line item from now on. 🙂

This post is part of the Tuesday Twister blog carnival hosted by www.gnowfglins.com. To link to today’s Tuesday Twister on that site, click here.

August 24, 2009   2 Comments

First Day Back to (or Away From?) School

It’s all in the way you look at it. You see, for us, home is school. So I guess you could call the one day a week that my two oldest children spend in a traditional classroom setting “school away from school.”

Brotherly love: Pals Kellen and Kerrick prepare for a day of “school away from school.”

Brotherly love: Pals Kellen and Kerrick prepare for a day of “school away from school.”

We have always homeschooled our children, beginning when our oldest son, Kellen, was about 3. At that point we knew, given his lengthy list of food allergies and the severity of his symptoms, that it would be all but impossible to keep him safe in a regular school environment. Instead we flung ourselves headlong down the homeschooling path—an adventure I certainly hadn’t anticipated—and we’ve never looked back. (Though food allergies served as our original impetus, many other factors continue to sustain and motivate us—such as the opportunity to provide the kind of individualized, one-on-one instruction that fosters a love of learning, as well as the gift of time to create strong family bonds and instill important character qualities through life lessons.)

One of the best books I ever read when I initially began researching the idea of educating our children at home was Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Works, by David Guterson. Written almost two decades ago (and several years before then-public high school English teacher/homeschooling dad Guterson made it big with his novel-turned-movie Snow Falling on Cedars), the book so intelligently and eloquently supports the notion of parents teaching their own children as a natural course of action—especially in the face of an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the state of public education. The fact that Guterson himself was, at the time, a part of that system lends both irony and credibility to his writing. (Which, by the way, is just beautiful: I remember being moved almost to tears by one passage in the book that describes the subtle but incredibly meaningful transference of knowledge from a grandfather to his grandson.) And although Guterson distinctly made the case that institutionalized education is errant, he also laid out a vision toward the end of the book for a mutually beneficial partnership between homeschooling families and local public schools, decrying the notion that such a relationship need be adversarial. I remember thinking his idea was a nice one, but that it was probably a bit too pie-in-the-sky to ever really work.

Then, just before Kellen reached kindergarten age, I discovered that such a program actually existed right in the city where we live. Created by homeschooling parents with the cooperation of a local school district, C.A.S.A. Vida (the acronym stands for Community Assisted Schooling Alternatives, but is pronounced like the Spanish word for “house,” followed by the Spanish word for “life”) provides a way for homeschooled children from kindertgarten through sixth grade to attend one full day a week of extracurricular classes (art, music, P.E., technology, Spanish and some science) together in a classroom setting at a local public school. No standardization, no assessment or grading. Simply enrichment on top of the heavy lifting handled by homeschooling parents (who prefer to provide their own instruction in major subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, history and more science). The students learn alongside other homeschoolers of multiple ages under the direction of teachers who have come out of retirement to participate in the program (and who love that they can do what they do best—teach!—without the incredible pressure of preparing students for standardized testing).

It’s all about the backpacks: Pirates of the Caribbean for Kellen, and Power Rangers for Kerrick.

It’s all about the backpacks: Pirates of the Caribbean for Kellen, and Power Rangers for Kerrick.

Kellen is now beginning his fifth year in the program, and Kerrick is starting his third. We’ve experienced incredible support and understanding from both the staff and other students with regard to Kellen’s food allergies, and he has never had a reaction while in attendance. (Of course, he takes his own lunch, and I’m on campus keeping an eye on things occasionally, too). Their one day away from home each week gives both me and the boys a bit of a break from the 24/7 homeschooling routine. They get to experience a small taste of what traditional school is like, and I get a minute to breathe and regroup. We miss each other during the day, and we come together at the end of it eager to share what went on while we were apart, as well as refreshed and energized to start our schedule again.

We catch a bit of flak sometimes from other homeschoolers who frown on any interaction with the public-education system. But that’s OK. It would be difficult for me, I think, to adopt a completely separatist stance on the issue considering my admiration for the gifted professional educators in our extended family—all of whom, by the way, are in complete support of our homeschooling efforts. They say (and I agree!) that we really have the best of both worlds. Homeschool parents opposed to such a program also express their fears that it might cause homeschooled children to resent being taught at home and could create in them a desire to attend traditional school. All I can say is that that hasn’t ever yet been the case for us. In fact, I vividly remember Kellen saying sometime during the second year that he attended C.A.S.A. Vida as I picked him up one afternoon, “Mom, one day a week is enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

August 13, 2009   6 Comments

Water: Logged

Despite the fact that daily high temperatures are still registering in the triple digits where we live, “summer” is on the wane for us, and we have, for the most part, resumed our regular school-year schedule. (Actually, we tend to homeschool year-round, but during June and July we deviate somewhat from the routine as we find ourselves involved in seasonal activities and eager to get together with friends who aren’t as available at other times.) This year, the transition was marked by the end of swim team for Kellen and Kerrick, who made a splash both in and out of the pool during their debut as Piranhas (the team mascot).

Determined to capitalize on the learning potential provided by the experience, we plunged into it with enthusiasm. We hung up a poster of Michael Phelps in the boys’ bedroom, where it would be the last thing they saw before they closed their eyes each night and the first thing they saw when they rolled out of bed for morning practice and (even earlier morning!) meets. (Phelps’s recent poor choices and their resulting consequences aside, we are fine with him holding hero status in our boys’ eyes for his athletic ability. Like everyone else, Kellen and Kerrick were riveted by his Olympic performances last summer. And actually, their limited knowledge about his subsequent news-making activities has served to help them realize that he is, after all, human and that character counts, whether or not someone is watching your every move.)

Sibling ribbonry: Wall of fame helps keep Phelps fans Kellen and Kerrick motivated.
Sibling ribbonry: Wall of fame helps keep Phelps fans Kellen and Kerrick motivated.

We also created charts to record their race times, and the boys enjoyed comparing their “stats”—both with each other and against their own previous times. I think we were all surprised to see their strokes improve and their speeds increase so dramatically in such a short period. In at least a few strokes, they each shaved more than 20 seconds off their race times from the first meet in early June to the sixth and final meet in mid-July. And timing their races inspired a desire to time other things—for example, how long it took to drive from our house to the library, or how many minutes they practiced the piano—and helped them to develop a sense of time and their relationship with it. This morning, for example, Kerrick learned during a math drill that he could correctly answer 12 addition and subtraction problems in the same time that he can swim the 25-yard freestyle: about 39 seconds. Gotta love those awesome “aha” moments!

Sewed-up stats: We folded over the top of each ribbon to attach tags we made to detail each race—and to provide us with a way to string the ribbons up, banner style.
Sewed-up stats: We folded over the top of each ribbon to attach tags we made to detail each race—and to provide us with a way to string the ribbons up, banner style.

Now that the season has ended, it seems strange not to be at the pool every morning. The boys have made the adjustment with ease, but having had a taste of what it’s like, I’m sure they’ll be eager to dive into it all again next summer. For now, they will enjoy the ribbons they earned (from the highly treasured single first-place and three third-place ones—neither ever won second—to the equally hard-won fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place ones) and their other accolades. (Kerrick, probably the youngest on the entire team, was named Swimmer of the Week early on and by the end of the season was dubbed King of the Pool by his coaches. And Kellen, whose dedication was unmatched—he hated missing practice even when he wasn’t feeling well, and he was a champ at cheering on his teammates—was described as having the Biggest Heart on the team.) As for me, I loved that the physical exercise wore them out enough that they went to bed tired (and at a decent time) every night! 🙂

July 29, 2009   4 Comments