Friday, November 23, 2012

Advent Traditions - What Are Yours?

At our local homeschool co-op, during a "free" hour, some moms were discussing what we do for Advent.  I have a confession: I don't do much.

I have wonderful intentions. I have Jesse Tree books, Advent calendars, Advent devotionals, and an Advent wreath. I want to do ALL THE THINGS. What typically happens is that I try to do several things and none of them get done. Last year, for example, I tried to have the girls work through a Bible study with me, and make Jesse tree ornaments while reading a book, along with reading another book. We finished none of them.

Back before we had kids, Todd's mom made us this beautiful Advent calendar. I love it, and I particularly appreciate that it has wooden ornaments that don't break when they hit the floor. When small people are trying to hang them, you're going to have a few misses and some are going to fall. These have held up very well, and it's an extra-special thing because Grammy made it for us.

My sister-in-law, Jennifer, gave us this beautiful Advent calendar one year. Her mom, Mary, made it. It is beautiful. I don't have words to describe how much I love it. However, the ornaments are ceramic, and they *do* break when dropped. I'm sure you can guess how I know that. Sigh. I haven't been hanging it these past few years. Isaac is a little too enthusiastic, and doesn't have a great deal of self-restraint when it comes to things like this. I can see him collecting all the little ornaments in his garbage truck and driving them merrily around the house, dumping them when necessary. It would not bode well for those fragile pretties.

Another idea I love is the Inductive Advent Study by Eleanor Zweigle. I've taken an inductive Bible study, and it's a fascinating way to study the Word. We did try it last year, and didn't make it all the way through. I think we will wait another year or two, until Isaac is ready to work through it with us, before trying this again as a family.

My current plan is to hang Grammy's Advent calendar, and have the children take turns hanging the ornaments. Also, we will read Jotham's Journey, one of three books written for the Advent season by Arnold Ytreeide. I've heard lots of good things about these books, and hope that we will enjoy reading through this first one together.

A wonderful resource for Advent ideas is my friend Jennifer's blog, Advent Idea Box. She and her husband have put it together, and it's a wonderful collection of resources for Advent. I may try to pull out some of her craft ideas.

I hope you are gearing up for a joyous holiday season with your family! Do you have any Christmas/Advent traditions you'd like to share? I would love to hear them!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Homeschool and Co-Ops

One of the "big" questions I hear from other homeschoolers is whether or not they should join a co-op. A homeschool co-op is a place where classes are offered for homeschool students, usually taught by homeschool parents (most often moms). Occasionally we might have a teacher who is not a parent, if we find someone willing to teach an area out of our expertise. It's a great resource, and a good place to hang out with other homeschool families.

In our area, we have a great co-op. My kids have enjoyed going, and we've made some friends, which has been a HUGE blessing to us since moving here two years ago. However, as the girls get older, I find that while it's good for social purposes, it's not accomplishing things that we aren't getting done at home. In fact, it's making more work for me, because I teach two classes. Truly, I have no criticisms of our group, but over time, I've seen that it has not been working well for our family.

At the CLUSA conference this past June, Nancy Kelly met with some of us to discuss a Charlotte Mason-style co-op, or community. Hers is called Truth, Beauty, Goodness. Isn't that lovely? She described what they do, and told us that her group meets and covers things that we all find it too easy to let slide: Shakespeare, poetry, folk songs, hymns, composer study, artist study, handicrafts, and nature study. Until this year, I didn't know any other Charlotte Mason homeschoolers in the area, so I was not sure that we would ever be able to participate in such a group.

However, God answers prayer, and I met my friend Sara at the conference, who lives quite close to me and has 5 boys. They live out in the country off a dirt road with lots of nature and chickens. We have been meeting twice a month for our own little CM group, and it has been LOVELY. I can't tell you what a difference this has made for our homeschool and our family.

We printed off the schedule from the Truth, Beauty, Goodness group, and follow that for the most part. We've made a few small changes; we start later, for one thing, because neither of our families gets going quite as early in the day as 8:30 am. We listen to our composer's music while we do our handicraft, because we're studying Debussy and no one likes just listening to the music. Heh. We're talking about perhaps changing things up a bit and doing nature study in a different time slot, because we've found at the end of our day, sometimes our little people have had enough and we don't quite get to it.

For the most part, though, it's working very well. We've been reading and listening to Shakespeare's  Merchant of Venice. We were fortunate enough to be able to see the play in August, and I think that has helped the kids understand the readings quite a bit. We're able to talk about what we saw in the play, and that's a fun shared memory.

Our poet is Emily Dickinson. I'm using the Poetry for Young People book, and found some riddle poems, which we have enjoyed. (Our first poem was "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," because it has a special place in my heart from the CLUSA conference. There is a lovely song that goes along with the poem, and all the kids enjoyed that.)

We've been using the Ambleside Online selections for most things. Our artist for the term is Renoir. Our handicraft, thanks to Sara, has been calligraphy, and I've enjoyed that a lot. The kids have struggled with it a bit, but it's been good for them. We're choosing our own folk songs, and so far we've learned This Land is Your Land, Mairi's Wedding, If I Had a Hammer, and Where Have All the Flowers Gone. Sara is choosing our hymns, and we have learned Dona Nobis Pacem (in a round - lovely), Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and And Can It Be that I Should Gain.

All the children enjoy our time together, and I have to say that having 5 boys to play with has been great for Isaac. We've all been making our own connections, and it has been such fun! For example, Renoir, Debussy, and Emily Dickinson were all "rule breakers" in their genres. I didn't know that when we started out, and it's been fun to look and listen for the ways in which they break their rules. We learned about slanted rhyme in poetry, and look for that in each poem.

Overall, it's been a great experience. There is one more family interested in joining us, and I'm excited about that. I hope, in time, to be able to include more people.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Scents of Autumn - Homemade Apple Sauce

I love fall. It vies with spring for my favorite season of the year. It's become ever more dear to me since moving to the south, because it brings cooler temperatures and a blessed reduction of the intense humidity. I love the sound and smell of autumn leaves as Isaac and I crunch through them on our "nature walks." (These involve the two of us each pulling a wagon through our yard and picking up sticks, leaves and acorns.) And, I love to make homemade apple sauce! I don't want an apple-smelling candle - I want the real thing.

This year, a friend picked up a box of Winesap apples for me when she went to an orchard, as I didn't think I would have a chance to go. Then, another friend wanted to get some Pink Lady apples, so the kids and I tagged along, and we got a box of Pink Ladies as well as a bag of Fujis. This added up to a large quantity of apples in my garage. Time to get cooking!

My husband does not like "chunks" in his apple sauce. After we were married, his mom gave me his grandmother's Foley food mill. I had never seen one before. Have you? It looks like a little pot with a piece of a propeller inside.

The blade squishes the applesauce through the sieve-like holes in the bottom, keeping the peels inside the pot. It's a wonderful tool. I love that I don't have to peel the apples first. My sister-in-law told me once that she is "lazy," and doesn't want to use a food mill, so she peels all her apples first. Her family doesn't mind the chunks. That's not lazy! Peeling apples is time-consuming work! I would rather not peel them and use the food mill.

I've made many batches of apple sauce using my "vintage" device. However, Grandma Hollmann's old food mill has been dripping rust into my applesauce for the last few years, and I finally decided to replace it. (Also, it makes my arms very tired.)

There is a fabulous website that tells you what produce is in season in your area, and where you can go to Pick Your Own. They also describe any equipment you need, as well as providing instructions for preserving. While I was looking for places to pick apples, I saw this wonderful attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

It is called a Fruit and Vegetable Strainer. You have to have the grinder attachment to go with it, and I had that, also thanks to Todd's mom, who gave one to me several years ago for Christmas. You put two bowls under it: one to catch the applesauce, and one to catch the peels.

I tried this out for the first time yesterday, and I LOVE it! It makes apple sauce much more quickly than using the Foley. Even with a sick boy, I was able to make three batches yesterday. After the first batch, I thought I might need to run it through the strainer twice, because I thought I saw apple still in with the peels. I tried that, and ended up with bits of peel in the sauce. Not what I was going for.  The old Foley is a great tool; you can keep turning that handle until every last bit of apple is off the peel. However, the KitchenAid attachment is a great time-saver, and doesn't drip rust, which is a major point in its favor.

The best part of getting locally-grown apples is not having to add any sugar to the apple sauce. I just throw in a cinnamon stick while it's cooking. Winesaps and Pink Ladies are listed on the Pick Your Own site as "good" for apple sauce, as they are not as sweet as some varieties, but since they were ripened on the tree, they are plenty sweet enough for us. I don't have a particular "recipe" that I use, but so far, I've used 5 Fuji apples and 10 Winesap apples per batch. The kids decided they'd rather eat the Pink Ladies, so I will save those for last if we don't get them eaten quickly enough.

Can you get apples in your area? Do you make homemade apple sauce? If you've never tried it, you should consider it. It's not difficult, and it's so much better than anything you can get in a store.