Category Archives: Family

Authentic Learning with 4-H

My boys have been 4-H members for a number of years, but as I tell people: we’re not really animal people. I get strange looks with that statement, especially when I tell them I love the 4-H organization. The county fair, with all those show animals, is the primary event, but we’ve also participated in a marine ecology tournament, a 5K run, and the annual non-livestock fair.

A picture of two hand sewn items with ribbons attached

C, age 8 made a handsewn needlebook and a badge.

4-H Non-Livestock Fair

My boys experience authentic learning with 4-H through the non-livestock fair. They don’t show animals — which is a good thing since we gave away our chickens last year! However, the non-livestock fair provides the perfect opportunity to showcase their homeschool work. According to Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, students need an audience to show what they’ve learned (in whatever way they choose to present it).

Although Lori advocates for complete self-control, I recommend it only after students have been creating projects for a couple of years. I found that when my kids were younger, they needed guidance. They didn’t have the experiential knowledge of how to create a “final” project.* Initially, I offered some suggestions and had them choose what type of project they wanted to make (after determining what they wanted to learn about). It was less overwhelming for a young child. They had a topic, and they could see what they were working toward. That might be a poster, a written report, an art piece or a computer program. (FYI – we did projects and traditional school work).

A picture of a trifold with the title: My Shell Project

C has really been into shells this year and delved deeper into the topic as a result of this poster.

A Project-Based Learning Venue

The 4-H non-livestock fair provides a great opportunity to share their projects with others. In addition, there are a number of projects to see for inspiration. Kids can submit traditional projects, such as book reports or tri-fold posters. My kids usually do a couple of those projects, but also submit original artwork, sewing pieces and woodworking projects.

C’s Scratch project. The topic was a chapter from Story of the World concerning Louis XIV: The Sun God.

A picture of two wooden slat boxes stained dark brown.

Each boy made one of these wooden boxes with the help from a fellow homeschool parent. He cut the wood, but the boys put it together and stained it (with his guidance).

Reflecting on the Learning Process

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I have been a non-livestock fair judge for the last two years. Although the day usually falls on, or near, my birthday, I love the experience. All day, I get to speak with kids about their projects. They have a receptive audience in me, but they also get my teaching experience. This year, I was the art and craft judge. I spoke with some very, very talented students. I also encountered some very reserved and hesitant students. I dealt with them differently, but asked every single one: what is your favorite part of this project (and/or what did you think you did well)? I also asked them: what do you think you could do better (if anything)?

Not only do my own children benefit from reflecting on their learning, but they get to see a bunch of other kids doing the same. Like I said, it’s a fabulous organization.

A picture of a printout from the Scratch web site. Printout has blue and purple ribbons attached.

R, age 12, made a Harry Potter computer program in Scratch. (Yes – 4H judges computer programs)!

**The way I conduct project-based learning at home is slightly different than Lori Pickert recommends. I think students should have a choice. They should be able to define and redefine how they want to showcase their learning. However, I don’t think just reading about something constitutes a project (at least not past 2nd grade). I need them to have some reflection on their learning — whether that’s by writing, doing a poster or creating a Scratch computer program. The research on learning (and growing a growth mindset) means you have to help them push through the frustrating parts of not knowing.

Current Projects

Keeping Track of Projects

My husband and I tend to forget all of the really cool things we do – and work on – each year. We get caught up in the day-to-day activities of working, teaching children, worrying, making lunch (and dinner), cleaning the house (again) and shuttling kids to various activities. Like most people, we are often busy, so we need a little help remembering all of the unique things in our life. We are fortunate to experience new places  – and make a lot of cool stuff. Here’s what we’ve been working on lately:

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. He' sitting it on a top of a re-purposed bookshelf (which he made years ago).

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. It will sit on top of a re-purposed bookshelf. Oh yeah – he made the bookshelf years ago.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh that he created a 4-H project.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, he created a 4-H project. Two weeks ago, he presented his project to a 4H judge. My shy, reserved son beamed when the judge praised his work.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. (He won a grand prize last year). This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Liz has been developing her colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had years ago.

I have been developing my colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had; I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils.

Joe took our distressed, chipping dining table and stripped it. He then proceeded to sand, stain and lacquer it – repeatedly. It looks amazing.

My Thoughts on Reading

I was trying to think about the activities that we focus on at my house…why do my husband and I think these are more important than others? And, well, quite frankly, I could come up with no good reason, other than they are important to him and me. I have read a lot of books on parenting, homeschool, teaching, learning and most of it boils down to one thing: personal interest.

We have found this to be true in our own household as the topics and activities we value are reflected in our children’s learning. And, not just because we choose to “teach” them, but rather, because we are actively learning about and participating in them. At our house that means French language study, playing guitar and computer programming. The kids have their own interests too (robotics and animals) and they pursue that type of learning through the books they pick out at the library, items they choose to ask for, etc.

However, the one “skill” that I consistently teach, beginning at birth, is the importance of reading.
DSC_0807We give books as presents – to reinforce the idea that books are special

As I am a trained librarian, reading has always been important to me. It was a key point in my decision to be a librarian, as the keeper of knowledge, the defender of the everyday rights to knowledge – regardless of income or race or language.

It is the one goal that I have for them at an early age – to love books. I was lucky enough to come across Jim Trelease’s book a few years before my oldest son was born. It validated my thoughts and helped me to preach to others. And, since then, there are a number of other books (this is one here) that support this research-backed opinion.
DSC_0659My younger son, age 3, with an interactive book he received for his birthday

We all know that reading to a child is important. And, yet, even I struggle to find the time on certain days to read aloud to my youngest child. He is learning to read, but he still needs a lot of exposure to books, reading, content. This is key. It’s not just that by reading, you are showing them you think books are important. You are. They are. Another key purpose to reading aloud is to introduce them to content.

My oldest son, looking through a homemade content book at age 6

Dr. Montessori said that true reading was being able to match up the word with understanding (hence, comprehension). An easier way to put this, I might technically be able to read a 2nd year medical school textbook, but I wouldn’t be able to understand it, therefore, rendering the “reading” of it, useless.

In addition to the books my children choose from the library, I also bring home some reality-based picture books for them as well. This is where we are “just reading,” but also imparting real-life content. I am building their vocabulary and helping them to figure out how the world works around them. Dr. Montessori called this the absorbent mind, and she said this was the main way a child, aged 0-6-years, learns.

So, while we have Dr. Seuss books in our house, they are mostly for the capable six or seven-year-old. We focus on non-fiction books and reality-based picture books for five and under (which is not to say we don’t read those other books, if asked, just that we don’t offer those books first).

To recap: 1) read to them, 2) read to them a lot – especially reality-based fiction or non-fiction books,  and 3) let them see you reading.

DSC_0739A picture of my oldest son’s bed, taken September 2014, age 8.5


“Man himself must become the center of education and we must never forget that man does not develop only at the university, but begins his mental growth at birth, and pursues it with the greatest intensity during the first three years of life.”

– Dr. Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind





Christmas Crafting

Since I have a squirmy two-year-old in my lap and his favorite words right now happen to be, "No, I do it," this crafty wrap-up will be short and sweet.

The Christmas Eve pajama pants. Handmade by me and fabric picked out by Calum. (Ronan played socer twice this past year…I think it rubbed off on Calum).

The best present ever from my hubby: a completely suprise "elf" hat – to be worn in subsequent Christmases while working on the presents I make. Showcased by my brother-in-law, Kenny. (No, that's not his real name).


A barn to accompany all of the horse and tractor related things that my kids got this Christmas. Made by Joey (based vaguely on this tutorial).


And, finally, the big time-consuming project: quilts for both boys. I made one for Ronan and my sister made one for Calum. The boys share a room and so these quilts are similiar, but different. The pattern was "the end of the day" from More Quilts The Quiltmaker's Gift pattern book.

This is the second quilt I have made with this pattern, though the first for our family.  I absolutely love it. It uses triangles on a roll and makes a beautiful finish. We both had them professionally quilted – that skill is not yet in my abilities and I knew I would need to wash them often.



Ronan knew I was working on something special for him and Calum. He knew I was using my sewing machine and he was irritated that I wouldn't tell him what it was. I prepped him before he opened it and let him know that this is what I was working on. I was thrilled that he was so excited to see that it was a quilt.

But, the best part of all? A sleepy Ronan waking me up at 2:30 in the morning on December 28, just to tell me how grateful he was that I made him such a warm quilt. He gave me a hug and pattered away, returning to his cozy gift.

Learning on the road

In addition to working with the movable alphabet and those blends (we're up to -ill, -ing, -ack), we were fortunate enough to take a trip to Pennsylvania to see some extended family. Some of our pre-trip planning included some writing (less we forget how-to on a week and half-long trip).


But, really, the whole trip was one big homeschooling adventure. We saw the leaves change (a little), we visited two cousins' working dairy farms, the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC and Mount Vernon. And, they watched a little bit of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood when the driving got too rough for the little one.

We got to go apple picking at a local orchard. We also learned that we would like to visit PA a few weeks later next time since the only apples available were red and golden delicious. Although, I must admit that they were much better right off the tree than trucked 1,000 miles to Florida.


We also visited the cows. Sweet creatures…and LOTS of calves. (The farm is a few hours west of the apple orchard). Adorable calves, really. And, no, they don't feed them by baby bottle…this was only for our benefit. They were hardy little creatures and the boys (and I) really have a whole new perspective on a dairy farm. The calves were super sweet and enjoyed being petted and liked to gnaw on your hand.


But, of course, for my tractor-loving boys…this was the best part of these two farms. Tractor rides! Seriously, Joe's relatives were so generous with their limited time and were so very wonderful with my kids. We also got a nice visit in with Great-Grandma — and we all enjoyed that.



As if that wasn't full of learning – we headed down to Washington, DC with many grand plans (a number of museums, ride around the city). As this was at the tail end of our trip, we realized that, after wrangling a 2-year-old around the Air and Space Museum for 3 hours, perhaps, we might cut out some of those proposed museums. And, so we did. Ronan was most excited about the Air and Space Museum because of his keen interest in all things space-related. We saw the recreation of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's walk on the moon, the Spirit of St. Louis (Lindbergh's plane) and we saw the original 1903 Wright Flyer. The Wright Brothers are quite popular with my eldest son at the moment. We have been reading and re-reading the book, First to Fly, a pretty complicated book for an almost-six-year-old. But, he loves it. And, probably understands it better than I do.


We made that our only museum destination and got a much-needed rest that evening. Visiting with all of those relatives can really take it out of you. We finished up our journey with a visit to Mount Vernon. This year, Ronan had been very interested in George Washington and so we had read some books on him and they mentioned Mount Vernon. (His favorite was A Picture Book of George Washington). We also have the book, George Washington's Cows, which takes place there. He was very excited about seeing the house because he had read so much about it. We enjoyed seeing it through his eyes. And, it took us a bit by surprise, but we found that we got a lot out of our visit as well. Gardens. I'm not quite sure if the garden looked this way during his tenure (the location was the same), but as suburban gardeners, we were impressed with the integration of fruit trees, veggie beds and herbs in such a small space.




We did little "formal" schooling, but we did look for letters and recognizable words while driving. However, I think the personal lessons on George Washington, the Wright brothers and a working dairy farm were far more valuable to my young kindergartner. I know I learned a lot.

A Walk in the Woods

…according to Ronan.









On Sunday we were able to get out to a local park and do a little "hiking." (In Florida, it's mostly walking with a wee bit of an incline, but lovely, nonetheless). Our adventure started a bit like this:

Me: "All right, Ronan can you go to the bathroom? Joey, can you change Calum's diaper (hee hee)? I'm going to finish getting the water bottles together."

Ronan: (in a whiny kid voice) "I don't want to go to the park. I want to watch…"

Me: "Argghhh!"

At which point, I may have lectured a bit about the perils of TV addiction and the outcome of said "discussion" was me mentioning something about when he is an adult and no longer living at home he can watch all the TV he wants. Ugh. It sounded vaguely like something my parents would say. So, I promptly realized that the TV at Calum's nap time has gotten out of control. I filed it away and planned my strategy with regards to hiking. Meanwhile, he planned on going to the park and staying in the car with me while Daddy and Calum went hiking. I was a bit agitated. And, so I put on my "parent" hat. (You know, that hat you keep in the bathroom so you can lock yourself inside and think about the situation without yelling?)

And, that's when I remembered about the scavenger hunts. I suggested we make one up and he looked interested, but he wasn't completely in my camp, until I said that he could take pictures of everything we found. BINGO!

And, that's how he ended up with my camera and some completely awesome pictures. I definitely think this boy is ready for his own camera.


And, if you'll notice my new "banner," we seem to be doing a lot of hiking these days. A big thanks to Jen for the completely awesome design (it's a bit easy to tell that you do this for a living, Jen)! It looks great and I LOVE the camping Zebra.


As a native Floridian, I have never really felt like I was missing anything during the winter months. There was the ocassional ping of desire for a "white Christmas," but it was usually a passing feeling. I never missed the sledding or skiing or fort-building that a lot of kids had growing up. Nor, did I miss all the driving on icy roads and shoveling driveways. (Or, perhaps, that would be my Northern-transplant parents talking).

I think that I never realized exactly what I was missing. After this past weekend, I know what a cool thing snow can be. And, thankfully, so do my kids.







We are so lucky to have lots of family just north of Atlanta. They got lots of snow and we had a chance to partake in all of the fun. (It doesn't hurt that they back up to a golf course…perfect sledding hills for the kids and I). Not so sure I would want to shovel the driveway, but everything else was a blast.


Christmas creating

It is the season for crafting. Even now, with the Christmas season drawing to a close, I feel the anticipation of working with my hands and some fabric to create something new. There is something about Christmas that gives me permission to spend every waking moment crafting, creating or dreaming. It is all right to be busy with these types of pursuits. The house will be messy for days on end and the bathrooms will only get cleaned on December 24th when relatives will soon be coming for a visit. I made a few things for the boys (a later post, I promise). But, my absolutely-have-to-get it done item? Handmade stockings.


When our family number grew to four, I knew the old set of stockings would never do. It was not possible to add just one more and have it be cohesive. So, I set aside this thrifted flannel sheet (last year's Christmas Eve pants) in the hopes of making a set of stockings. Which, I did. It took me more than a year to do it, but this Christmas they were hung and waiting to be filled for Christmas morning. Plus, I have enough leftover to make myself some pajama pants.

I was not the only one "crafting" during these holidays. Ronan and Calum are blessed to have two wonderful sets of grandparents (and two aunties, as well), who shower them with love…and great gifts. They will be playing outside a lot more with their new tower. "Play town" has its official first inhabitant.




Ronan and Calum's Groppy (my dad) and Joey worked together to assemble their tower a few days after Christmas. (Of course, those happened to be the two coldest days in Florida – the highs were in the low 40s. Brrr…). And, Ronan helped too.





It's a start. It's a place to drive to pretend fires and race down your firefighter ladder. It's a place to practice your climbing skills (Calum). And, it's a place to cozy up with a good book during those lovely Spring months.

But, that's not the only thing we have been crafting. My eldest child has come into his own with those tiny plastic bricks. LEGOS. Plastic? Yes. Completely amazing and brain-buidling? Yes. An exception to the no-new plastic rule? Definitely. With most purchases, I have been trying to think of the long-term consequences of our products. Where will this end up when we are finished playing with it? Will it hold up to the rough and tumble nature of my two boys? Can I re-sell it or give it away after they are finished with it? Yes. I must admit that I am in love with the tiny LEGOS. We all still play with the Duplos, but five-year-olds can really handle the tiny ones. The skills he learns and then uses with these tiny toys just amaze me. His spatial awareness is awesome and I enjoy watching him create. For now, he follows the directions, but he is gaining confidence and soon will begin creating his own masterpieces. I can't wait.






From the hand to the the heart

Our house seems to be a very busy place. I know we don't have the monopoly on activity – in fact, we probably can't even come close to lots of situations. (Especially since I have a cousin who is the mother to four boys). FOUR! Oh goodness…

…but, they love her a lot and are fiercely loyal to her (two are grown up and out the house and they are still this way). I want that for my boys. And, so, I quiet the "messy" voice in my head and turn up the "let's go outside" voice. I try to listen to the "he's learning something" voice. I place special emphasis and value the "homemade" voice the most.

So, of course, we've been busy…

(Winter squash medley for Calum…ready to be frozen)

(a 1st birthday crown for a friend)


And, in my house, homemade can't be complete without a sewing project (or two) left out on the table. Waiting for a few minutes here and there to be eventually be finished.

It's completely normal to listen to the voices in your head, right?