Monday, April 26, 2010

This Week's To-Do List (a.k.a. Why I won't be blogging this week)

  • school
  • laundry
  • orthodontist appointment
  • make bread
  • AHG for Alex
  • grade papers & other stuff for Write4Homeschool students
  • Bright Futures
  • school
  • skate day
  • Write4Homeschool stuff
  • clean the house (at least the downstairs)
  • school
  • make lunch for 4 grown-ups, 13 kids for an informal FLL meeting
  • Write4Homeschool stuff
  • reports I do for my brother-in-law
  • pay bills
  • laundry
  • Renaissance Festival
  • Write4Homeschool stuff
  • provide room, board, and discipline for 6 children overnight Thursday night and half of Friday
  • school
  • Write4Homeschool stuff
  • 3 hour informational meeting for FLL coaches
  • parent meeting/luncheon at church
  • clean the house?
  • feed the kids?
  • blog about a crab's funeral?
  • blog about a certain little girl's imaginary friends?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Geek Invasion (a.k.a. FLL for my LLF)

I've been researching. I know, I'm always researching something, always on some kind of mission. Ever since the first time we witnessed the FIRST World Competition a couple years ago, I've had the idea brewing. I had FIRST Lego League (FLL) mostly in mind for my LLF (Little Lego Freak), but after this past weekend, it became clear to me that this is an adventure for all my children.

In actuality, we as a family did not get to see all that much going on when we went downtown to the Georgia Dome for the competition on Friday. Mark was able to get passes for me and for him because his company is a FIRST sponsor; however, two passes weren't enough to get all 6 of us in, so we just wandered a bit and checked out some of the FLL presentations.

It was the evening event that made an impact on me. Because of Mark's company's sponsorship and interest in FIRST, his boss was down here acting as one of the judges, and Mark and I were invited to an adult-only dinner honoring the sponsors. I had no idea FIRST was such an elite organization, but I found myself seated in a room with the CEOs of all of the top tech companies in the nation. The dinner was held at the Georgia Aquarium in a big banquet hall, and I completely enjoyed my grown-up evening out.

There were a couple of speakers who shared their inspirational FIRST testimonies. One gentleman shared how he began a FIRST team with inner city kids in Rhode Island, consequently forcing some of his team members to leave their gangs to be a part of the team. He shared how 100% of his team members came from broken families with parents who never went to college, yet 50% of those team members went on to college. Another guy explained how he had no interest whatsoever in science and technology but was practically forced to join a FIRST team. Now he works for NASA.

Then there was the speech from the founder: Dean Kamen, the inventor. He invented the Segway as well as a particular kind of dialysis machine. Mark reminded me that he is, first and foremost, an engineer, not a public speaker. That reminder came in defense of my comment about what a terrible speech he gave both in delivery and content. At some point in his speech, he drew sort of a bell curve in the air and then explained that there are average--lots of average--people in this world (he motioned toward the thick, top part of the bell)--average, you know, like we who majored in things like English and history--but on the thin end of the curve lie all of the extraordinary people like the scientists, computer programmers, and engineers. OK, so he didn't specifically define average as those who majored in the arts. But I caught his drift. Even though I am just average.

Despite Kamen's mediocre speech, it was an inspiring evening, and I also had the opportunity to talk with people who have been doing this for years, and I was able to have some of my FIRST questions answered. Which gave me a little confidence that I could start my own team. But just a little. And that's when the research began. I am almost finished with my copy of First Lego League: The Unofficial Guide, a book I drove 1 1/2 hours to get because that bookstore was the only one with a copy, and I didn't want to wait for Amazon. And I'm in the midst of reading all of the files on the FIRST website I can get my hands on, plus asking lots of questions of the patient people on the Georgia FLL Yahoo group. I should be a pro at this very soon.

I have begun rounding up team members and have 2 outside of my family already confirmed. The huge confidence builder I've found was in an FAQ section somewhere. The question (according to the Kathleen Translation): Do I have to know anything about science stuff to coach a team? The answer? Nope! The main thing a coach should possess are good organizational and communication skills. You might be wondering about my communication skills the way I'm rambling on and on, but I can pull them out when they're needed!

Anyway, I'm excited and still a bit a lot intimidated by this whole thing, but I know experience will be my best teacher, so I'm ready to jump in. Oh, and that dinner at the aquarium? They opened the banquet hall doors after the program was over and gave us permission to wander. (Shhh! Don't tell the kids!)

One of the Aquarium's famous whale sharks.

This big guy is usually crammed in some crevice, sound asleep when we visit him during the day.
One would expect to be disappointed not to find these guys at their normal, daytime mischievous play, but have you ever seen anything snugglier and cuter?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Invention Station

I thought Michael would be all over this project, but surprisingly, it was Jacob who displayed the most enthusiasm. We're at least a day behind in our history reading, but ironically, we began reading about Leonardo da Vinci today, on his birthday. We read about some of his art but focused mostly on Leo's sketches and inventions.

I have, for a couple months now, been collecting a large box of junk: empty pasta boxes, various lids, pop tops from soda cans, straws, cotton balls TP rolls. You name it, it probably made it into my Box O'Junk. Today I spread all the junk out on the dining room table eliciting many questions from my children.

I finally got to the project instructions. They were to invent something using the items on the table. Like I said, I thought this project would be right up Michael's alley, and I expected great hesitation from Jacob. However, he started right to work with great purpose and was the first to finish his invention. Using a TP roll handle, Jacob demonstrated how to turn the main paper towel roll shaft to wind up a string with a hook on it.

Used to haul in whatever one wants to haul in, Jacob had a great time sitting upstairs with his gadget dangling through the pickets of the overlook.

Jacob's inventive juices were flowing so well today, he also invented a way to con me into letting him have a Coke and a root beer clever drinking system. Mixed drink anyone?

Alex came up with a few inventions of her own as well. A chic purse:

And a tossing game, which they all had fun playing.

As for Michael, he spent a lot of time working with the junk on the table, but he took a more artistic route, creating animals out of colored puffballs. Apparently, none of the critters survived for long, though, because by the time I went to photograph his work, he had only a very colorful penguin. The penguin, I was told, did not wish to be photographed.

Of course, the Princess was not to be left out. She created a Box of Stuff. I am still a little unclear about the purpose of the "stuff" in the Box of Stuff, but with that cutie-patootie smile, I'm confident she'd have no trouble hocking her Box of Stuff regardless of its purpose.

You Capture - Fresh

I haven't participated in You Capture in forever. And a day. When I saw the theme this week was "Fresh", I immediately thought of all the crisp, fresh mountain air I had the privilege of breathing this past weekend in Colorado. It was a great change for my lungs after the week of sniffles brought on by the yellow pollen snow here in Georgia.

I already posted two of these pictures in my post about my trip, but they are worth re-posting for the sake of depicting fresh air. I've also added a new one.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Winners Only

I was pleasantly surprised at our co-op Field Day. I figured we'd just follow the rest of the country and award everyone so our children's self-esteem would stay intact. However, with the exception of the very youngest competitors, only those kids/teams who won an event received a medal or ribbon. Only the winners win. What a novel idea.

It was a fun day, and the wonderful lady who put the day all together did a fabulous job. There were team events like the ball relay and the race to fill the team bucket with spongefuls of water. There were also individal events like the frisbee throw, the limbo, and the beanbag throw.

I was assigned to the boys team, so I only got little glimpses of my girls. Michael took home the first place ribbon in the limbo, and Alex had two second place ribbons, one for the beanbag throw, and one for the frisbee throw. They all earned at least one ribbon because their teams won at least one event each.

It was a fun day under a beautiful sun.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Questions that Occurred to Me This Weekend

Will I survive this long without my family?
True (and perhaps a little bit sad) fact: I have only been away from my entire family for one night on two separate occasions, and those were overnights just down the road in case anyone needed me. Of course, I'm more accustomed than I want to be to TravelDaddy's absences, but when he's gone, I have the kids. And, thanks to our parents, Mark and I have enjoyed many outings to ourselves sans kids. But I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about flying across the country without my family to spend the weekend with a friend I hadn't seen in 25 years. My apprehensions were unfounded, however; we had a wonderful reunion and a great girls' weekend in Colorado.

For our one and only full day there, we packed a lot in. In fact, my summary of activities elicited a question from Mark: You did all of that in one day?

We started at Pike's Peak, which actually wasn't on my list of things to do. Although I hoped against hope that I wouldn't be awarded a runaway Toyota at the rental agency, that of course is exactly what I was given. And by the time we reached the gate at Pike's Peak, two warning lights had come on: the check engine light and another light that we could not identify even with the help of the car's manual. The guy at the gate said the altitude often makes the check engine light come on, and the other light? Well, it was nothing at all to worry about. And since I had known the kind old gentleman for all of 30 seconds, I trusted him and ventured up the steep, windy (& windy) road, praying the unidentified light had nothing to do with our brakes.

We made it up and down with no problems and then visited the Cliff Dweller's Museum. Probably not worth the 10 bucks we had to pay each for entry, but I was able to score some great curriculum additions to our study of the American history next year.

Next was Garden of the Gods. It was such a beautiful day, so we enjoyed the walk to the Balancing Rock and back as well as lunch in the cafe there.

After Garden of the Gods, we decided to try Royal Gorge. It was over an hour away, but I assured my friend it was worth the drive, plus as I remembered it from 15 years ago, it was free. Free is good, right? Well, when we got there, we discovered it was $24. Each. OK, so it was $24 with a second ticket 1/2 price. So $18. Each. To walk across a bridge? we asked. Well, yes, plus the admission price included roundtrip fare on the cable car that ventured precariously across the gorge as well as a ride on the steepest incline railway in the world. A definite no on the cable car, especially on such a windy day; perhaps something I'll add under skydiving to my "Things I'll Do When My Kids Are No Longer Dependent On Me" list.

Can't we just pay $10 if we just want to walk across the bridge? No. OK, so why not? We drove over an hour to get there, so we paid it even though it went against our principles.

And I suppose it was worth it. It was beautiful on the bridge, though very windy. On a windy day here in Georgia, the wind merely whistles; through that gorge, it howled. To get our money's worth, we decided on the incline railway, which was an amazing experience. The bridge across the Royal Gorge is the highest suspension bridge in the world, so to be down in the gorge looking up at the bridge was incredible.

I was curious about the river in the gorge, though, and at one of the gift shops, I asked, What river runs through the gorge?

"I'm not sure," she replied.

Her reply still dumbfounds me. How can you work there and never be curious about the river? I picked up a book that sat on her counter, one on which she probably drums her bored fingers when there are no customers loitering about the store (which was probably often this time of year, judging by the lack of folk while we were there). The answer--Arkansas River--was on the first page. Still shaking my head; I guess some people are just truly and blissfully happy in their little bubble of ignorance.

We spent Sunday in Denver, a charming city. From the park area on the Platte River to the 16th St. Mall, it really is a beautiful city.

It was also fascinating to visit Denver's Four Mile House, the oldest known residence in Denver. We opted for the tour, which provided such an interesting look into early America. I was wishing the kids were with me to reap the academic benefits of our time there.

My friend is a staunch Bronco's fan, so we ended our day with a delicious dinner at John Elway's restaurant. Then it was off to the airport for me, and I continued to ask myself, How little sleep can a 37-going-on-72-year-old survive on? The red-eye flight home would not have been so bad if I had gotten some good sleep Friday and Saturday nights. It wasn't like we were out partying 'til all hours of the night, but I got very little sleep anyway. Probably something about being a pseudo old lady; I just don't sleep well in hotels. I can't push a button to adjust my sleep number, the pillows are usually about 3x thicker than I prefer, it's always too quiet, too cold or too hot.

That's why I was none too happy about facing the red-eye flight back home. And it wasn't directly home either. I went out to Denver on Mark's miles, and one can't always be choosy when things are free. So during my travels, I also had the privilege of sneaking aerial views of both Memphis and Cincinnati. As I crowded on to my completely full 1:30am flight, I wondered, How can there possibly be this many people in Denver who wish to go to Cincinnati at one-thirty in the morning, including that couple with the miserably-exhausted-and-letting-everyone-else-know-about-it 3-year-old little boy?

It goes without saying that I did not get much sleep on the 2 1/2 hour flight to Cincy. Of course, there was an extra 40 minutes in there because we had taxiied out and were ready to take off when the captain said we had to go back to the gate to fix a mechanical problem. That happens to Mark a lot. I still haven't decided if that occurrence is comforting: On the one hand, the problem is being fixed, but on the other hand, are they catching the whole problem? Ironically, my connecting flight took me on the very same plane.

I made it back, spent some time in an airport bathroom (yuck!) changing clothes and making myself presentable for my Bright Futures class. Knowing how tired I would be by Tuesday morning, I had made arrangements with the BFA director to teach my Tuesday class Monday morning on the way home from the airport. On the way there, all I could ask myself was, Am I crazy? I felt a little bit loopy, but taught my class anyway and then headed back to my home sweet home.

And, finally back home, I can only ask, Why am I so blessed? It was so nice to see my wonderful, sweet children and equally as wonderful to see my sweet husband who had not only taken great care of the kids, but also kept the house clean. He even cleaned the cat box and did the laundry because, as he put it, What would a weekend away be if you came home and had to clean up the house?

How sweet is that?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Top 5: SpellQuizzer...Giveaway!!

No matter what spelling curriculum you use there are those dreaded moments in your daily school schedule when you must quiz your eager student on his or her spelling list. Your student rolls his or her beautiful, innocent blue/green/brown eyes. "Do I have to?" he or she whines. It's not a pleasant part of the school day.

This is where SpellQuizzer comes in. SpellQuizzer is a spelling software program that helps kids learn their spelling and vocabulary words. The program is a quick learn even for someone like me. Every week when I'm getting prepared for the upcoming academia, I take the kids' spelling books and record a little quiz right on to the program. Takes about 15 minutes for the 3 olders. AND the 3 olders are using two different spelling curriculum. Doesn't matter. SpellQuizzer is a perfect complement to any spelling program. OR, if you don't use a spelling curriculum, SpellQuizzer has pre-made downloadable spelling lists already available. PLUS, you can export and import SpellQuizzer spelling lists to share with other SpellQuizzer users.

Anyway, once our new week of academia gets going, the kids each take turns at the computer listening to my voice prompts and typing out the words. If they get a word wrong, the program knows it--even if you live in England or Australia!--and will prompt the child with the correct spelling. At the end of the list, the child will be asked to go back and try the missed words again.

I was a little skeptical at first, but as I used the program, something quickly emerged:

The Top 5 Reasons You Should Use SpellQuizzer in Your Homeschool/After School/At School:

Reason #5:
I consider myself to be fairly technologically aware; however, just because I'm aware doesn't mean I know how to employ the things of which I am aware. I have never done anything with recording sound on the computer, so I was a little intimidated. But SpellQuizzer is so easy to use!

I went to Wally World and bought a cheap microphone headset and started up the program. All self-explanatory. You type in a spelling word, press "Start", record yourself saying the word and a sentence, press "Stop", press "Add Word", and you're done! Simple. I love simple. PLUS I am only saying the word and sentence once, not everyday! Beautiful!

Also, let's say Alex misses the word mountain on this week's test. I always re-test them the following week on missed words. All I have to do when setting up the SpellQuizzer list for that next week is select mountain from the word database that grows as our word lists grow. I don't even have to re-record it!

Reason #4:
You can let your inner child flow right out when you record the words. Have fun! You can make up silly sentences or recite them with dramatic flair or in a funny voice. Or a funny accent. Try a British accent, which actually might help your speller! Take the word British, for example. If I say it in my honky American accent, my kid might spell it B-r-i-d-i-s-h. But if I take her to London for a spot of tea, she's sure to get it right!

Whatever quirkiness you decide to use on the spelling lists, that quirkiness makes the words much more memorable for your spellers, and guess what? Making learning memorable cements those words in their brains for longer than the five minutes it takes to pass the spelling test.

Reason #3:
Silliness aside, presenting spelling lists to your kids this way allows you to remind them daily of important rules to keep in mind when spelling. For example, let's say the spelling word is receive. You could prompt with something like, "The next word is receive. Don't forget the rhyme about i and e when spelling this word. Receive."

Or you could help them actually learn what the word means and not just how to spell it. For example, if the word is enthusiasm, you might prompt with, "Next is enthusiasm. Go ahead. Show your enthusiasm for these spelling words by doing a little jig right by the computer. Go ahead! Oh, and don't forget to spell your word! Enthusiasm."

Reason #2:
Kids. Enjoy. It. That's right. They actually enjoy doing their spelling words. I don't get any whining now or eyerolls. This morning, after he had finished SpellQuizzer, Jacob proudly told me, "I got them ALL right, Mom! I didn't have to re-do any of them!"

And the #1 Reason You Should Use SpellQuizzer in Your Homeschool/After School/At School:
IT WORKS! Since we began using SpellQuizzer, all 3 of them have hugely improved their spelling scores. It's no secret that, even with my oldest, we've struggled a bit on the Spelling Front 'round here, but they all did very well on their last test. Judging from Jacob's comments, I'm expecting some perfect scores this week. And of course, these improved scores mean a huge confidence boost to my spellers. Added bonus.

In all fairness, in reviewing a product I try to look for any cons of the program. Well, I certainly didn't find enough for an extra Top 5 [pause while you breathe a sigh of relief since--as you know--I tend to get a little wordy anyway]. I only found one downside. I wish there was a record-keeping system as part of the program. For example, after a child has completed his list, he is asked if he would like to go back and try the words he missed again. I have made it mandatory for my children to go back and re-spell; however, I would love a Gradebook of some sort which would tell me how many he missed and if he re-tried those tough words. NOT that I can ever imagine any of my angelic little children disobeying and not going back (ahem). I'm just sayin'.

(I have been told a Gradebook of some kind is coming in the near future. (The folks at SpellQuizzer are very responsive and helpful, by the way.))

That said, I am more than thrilled that SpellQuizzer is now a part of our daily schedule. It takes a dreaded task out of my lesson plan book and builds my children's confidence. I have a feeling I'm going to hear a lot less of this: "You want me to write a WHOLE paragraph? But I don't know how to spell ANY of the words!"

So...would you like your own SpellQuizzer? I thought you'd never ask. The kind folks at SpellQuizzer have authorized me to give away one free SpellQuizzer license. All you have to do is leave a comment to this post. Your comment will put your name in the proverbial hat (limit one entry). I will pull one lucky winner from that proverbial hat in 1 week, so you have until 5:00pm next Tuesday, April 13, to comment. In your comment, why don't you tell me how spelling goes in your house and how you think SpellQuizzer could help you out?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Today, we were vets.

If you had asked me at any point during my childhood what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered without hesitation: "A vet!" It was only when I got to my junior year of high school and realized how much I loved books and writing that my dreams changed. Well, that and the fact that I didn't exactly, um, excel in Chemistry. If I had had a teacher who knew what she was doing, perhaps I would have taken on a different perspective on the subject. Or if I had been introduced to elementary Chemistry using R.E.A.L. Science, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But I am getting off topic here; there is plenty of time to discuss curriculum later.

Anyway, today was the University of Georgia's annual Veterinary School Open House. Although the various buildings of the vet school sit right across the street from Aderhold Hall where I sat in education classes for many an hour, I never had--or took--the opportunity to visit, so I was excited about today. Just about all of that enthusiasm evaporated, though, when we pulled into the remote parking lot and saw the line just for the shuttle to the vet school.

In case you're slow you don't know, I hate crowds. Do I homeschool because I want the freedom to teach what I want to teach? Yes. Do I homeschool because our public schools here stink? Yes. Do I homeschool because I have an opportunity to typically avoid crowds? ABSOLUTELY!!! OK, again, I'm getting off topic.

The line was long, but my kids were quick to entertain themselves by doing what they could to spread all of the carefully laid pinestraw that covered the hill beside the line. Of course, they weren't the only ones; in fact, it was not even their original idea. Some landscaper is not going to be happy.

When we finally got there, there were lots of activities:

We arrived at the tail end (ha!) of a great show featuring an Australian shepherd and a frisbee. He looked like he was having so much fun!

We saw lots of fun animals like a zebra.

Camels. I think this is the first time the kids have seen real, live camels.

Llamas. This one reminded me of Cuzco from The Emperor's New Groove.

A baby sheep and its mama.

A monkey in a tree.

I couldn't resist this picture of the cow with the prestigious halls of higher education as its backdrop.

We enjoyed a horse show and even got to pet the horse and ask questions.

We were entertained--and informed--by a beautiful black retriever and his trainer.

Michael tried his hand at ropin' a "calf".

We walked an exotic animal exhibit, saw some quail eggs hatch, and even read a book to the biggest dog I've ever seen. Jake the St. Bernard was less than enthused about the story but did indeed make a great pillow.

And we caught the tail end (ha again!) of a stunt show starring some sweet canines.

What we weren't able to do was surgery on a teddy bear. This apparently is one of the biggest attractions of this annual event because the line was as long as the queue in front of Space Mountain at Disney World during spring break. We skipped it. The lines for concessions were equally as long. (Note to self: bring your own lunch next time.) And of course there was some whining about the heat; I kept reminding them that they were complaining about the cold a week ago. Despite the crowds and a few complaints, however, I'd rate it pretty high as far as free field trips go.

Go Dawgs!