Quilting to teach Elementary History

lucy with doll blanket

For the younger kids, we are still using The Story of the World series as a basis for world history studies.  We own both the book and the accompanying activity guide, and enjoy finding additional reading suggestions and project ideas, as well as coloring pages and maps to study in the guide book.  This week, we read about abolitionists and slavery in our history chapter.  One of the ideas in the activity guide was to make a log cabin quilt block, because not only was quilting a very important part of pioneer life, it was a way houses on the Underground Railroad could carry messages to others who helped slaves to escape.  The pattern of the quilt hanging on the clothesline could convey a specific message.

While I am not aware of any specific message conveyed by the log cabin block, it is an easy and fun block for kids to make.  This was not Lucy’s first time quilting.  In fact, she completed an entire rail fence quilt last year.  I was hoping to involve Max in this project, but he decided he would rather build with Legos instead.  I decided to let him follow his interests as Lucy and I worked on this project together.

The Log Cabin block is traditionally built around a red or yellow square.  If the square is yellow, it means the light in the window of home, while red means the fire in the hearth.  We used a 2 1/2 inch square, pink, because we had strips of various colors which would match this square.  The strips were cut 2 1/2 inches wide, but of various lengths.  We did not cut the strips to length before we sewed.

Lucy sewed the strips to the square in order.  Remember — Log Cabining means going around the square in order adding strips, so that the strips are dependent on each other to make a square.  Afterwards, she ironed the seam to one side and trimmed the strip even with the edge of the square.

lucy using sewing machine lucy ironingUsing a sewing machine and iron are both important skills for kids to learn.  They can improve on these skills later by their own practice, but it’s good to have the first try under the watchful eye of an adult.

We continued adding strips until the block was finished.

lucy with blockWhen the block was complete, I explained to Lucy how to cut the batting (the filling inside the quilt), the back, and how to finish the block, and she was able to turn this block into the little doll blanket you see her holding at the top of the post with no further help.  It was an excellent project for a wintery afternoon.  Imagining making a whole quilt by hand, and usually with much tinier pieces than we used today, helped us to know what pioneer life was like.

As a side note, Eden’s English curriculum contained a page of information about quilting and log cabin quilts this week as well.  In a short story she will study this week, the woman was making log cabin quilt blocks and canning cherries when she was taken away on suspicion of murder.  The curriculum felt like they needed to explain what quilting was and why it was important to pioneer women, and how the canning process worked.  It made me smile to think that not only does Eden know what both of those things are, she has personally done both of those things!  We love canned cherries, and Eden is working on finishing her fourth quilt.

This was a great project for us, and I hope it gives you an idea you could use for your history curriculum.  Do you like to “experience” history?  What do you do for your historical studies?  Please leave me a comment below.


Why I Believe in Dessert

pecan pie

At a women’s conference recently, I listened to the Food Nanny explain how to have home cooked meals for your family most nights of the week.  While that is a situation I currently have well under control, I was interested in the things she said.  Even more so, I appreciated her statement that dessert was important because sweet smells coming out of the kitchen really build family bonds.  I personally am a firm believer in desserts.  Yes, I know we shouldn’t reward/punish/etc., ourselves or our children with food.  But if you divorce food from the pleasure of eating, what culture are you achieving?  After all, humans enjoy food.  Cars don’t savor gasoline — food is more than fuel.  Here are a few reasons I believe in dessert:

1.  Dessert is a great way to convince even reluctant teenagers to socialize with their family.  Even if they aren’t anxious to turn off their video game for an instant, it’s really hard to eat cake and ice cream and hold a game controller.  All members of the family come running to eat dessert, and this leads to (accidental) socialization.

2.  Desserts convince reluctant cooks to step into the kitchen.  Max wasn’t going to learn to cook — until he discovered that his “specialty” was going to be chocolate chip Cowboy Cookies.  Then he was eager to put on his apron.  Many desserts– cookies, cakes and quick breads — are easy ways with an instant reward to lure someone who is reluctant to learn cooking skills into the kitchen.

3.  Making someone’s favorite dessert can cheer them up like nothing else.  After a long, disappointing day at a concerto competition a few weeks ago, Eden and I came home and made homemade doughnuts.  We overdosed on sugar in a way we hadn’t done for a long time.  We felt better.  Our home was a warm, safe haven where we are capable, happy and appreciated.  A favorite dessert can celebrate an achievement or help mourn a loss, and either way, when it is homemade, it rarely leads to the kind of chronic overindulgence that typifies the American diet.  After all, who has time to make homemade doughnuts daily?  But as a splurge toward happiness, it really works.

Do you think dessert is an important part of your family life?  How often do you make dessert for your family?  Please leave me a comment below.

Lemon Meringue Pie

lemon meringue pieMy Dad’s favorite kind of pie is lemon meringue (although we all like just about every kind of pie,) so when they came over for dinner, I made lemon meringue pie.  I thought it would be great for this month’s pie installment.

The easiest way to make lemon pudding is of course the Jello mix you can buy at the grocery store, but homemade lemon pudding is super easy and worlds better.  If you can invest in farm eggs for your lemon pudding, do so.  It adds a beautiful yellow color that wimpy store eggs just cannot.  If all you can buy are store eggs, you’ll still enjoy the wonderful flavor of the homemade pudding.  This recipe come from Mark Bittman’s cookbook How to Cook Everything and is just one example of the always-successful recipes he prints.

Lemon Pudding:

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup cornstarch

Pinch salt

2 cups boiling water

4 eggs, separated (save whites for meringue)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons lemon zest

6 tablespoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed)

Combine sugar, cornstarch, salt and boiling water in small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until smooth and thick, about 10 minutes.  While it is cooking, beat the egg yolks until smooth.  When the cornstarch mixture is thick, remove from heat and stir about 1/4 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks, beating well to warm the yolks, then add the yolk mixture into the cornstarch mixture and stir vigorously.  Return to low heat, add butter and lemon zest and juice and cook and stir about 5 minutes until smooth and hot.


4 egg whites

1/4 cup powdered sugar

pinch cream of tartar

In clean glass or metal bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar using an electric mixer until soft peaks start to form.  Continue beating while adding slowly the powdered sugar until the mixture is shiny and holds stiff peaks.  Take care not to overbeat.

To make lemon meringue pie, first pre-bake a 9-inch pie shell.  While pie crust is still hot, fill with lemon pudding and spread meringue over the pudding, spreading clear to the edges of the pie.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes until lightly browned on top.

Lemon pie is also wonderful with whipped cream in place of meringue.  This is even simpler, but it will leave you with finding something to do with your egg whites . . .

Please share your pie recipes or links below!


Ocean Science at the Beach

This post could be subtitled “Why we count beach vacations as school days.”  One of the things I love about teaching my children at home is being able to recognize the real learning that comes about in the course of our lives, without worrying about catching up on busy work missed from school.  Our recent trip to the ocean really reveals how that works in our family.

We had hands on experience with ocean science last week, as we took a quick trip to Pacific Beach to revel in sunshine, warm air and beach sand.  The kids had studied up on ocean science in the few weeks before our trip, learning about currents, tides and tidepools, so they were interested in thinking about some of the things they had learned.  But mostly, they were just delighted to play at the beach.

Max and Lucy running from the waves Max running from wavesWe visited Scripps Aquarium to see fish in aquariums.  My favorite part of this aquarium is the huge kelp forest tank, where the kelp forests off the coast of San Diego are recreated.  The kids especially enjoyed the jellyfish and the sea horses, which Scripps has in abundance.

seahorse aquariumScripps also has tidepool aquariums — man made areas where we saw many of the huge variety of creatures that live in this specialized environment.

seeing tidepools at scrippsWe were able to observe the tide going in and out, something not too easy for kids living in Utah to understand.  At low tide one evening, we visited the rocks on the beaches just south of Seal Rock in La Jolla to enjoy the tide pools.  We saw many anemones, large and small, small fish caught in the tide pools, barnacles, mussels, and hundreds of hermit crabs.

tidepools at La JollaThis sort of “live” experience is better than any sort of youtube video or book reading for helping us understand what the ocean really is.  Although the huge variety available in an aquarium or seen on tv is wonderful, it doesn’t match the experience of seeing it for yourself.  Of course, we didn’t have our camera with us when we walked to the end of the pier and watched dolphins swim past under our feet.  But our eyes saw it and our hearts will remember it.

There were some parts, however, that I’m not sure how to label as school — for example, would you call this mining science?  Or perhaps spa therapy training?

lucy burying Max buried in sandAnd the only name I can think of for what we did at Balboa Park was People Watching 101.

castle van, san diegoI guess in unschooling or interest-led learning, those are perfectly practical course options!

Another very interesting lesson was learned by the older kids.  Both Brett and Eden are reading The Grapes of Wrath right now, and traveling across the desert and through Barstow to southern California really made them understand the Joad’s journey.  What we traveled in a few hours in great comfort must have been quite a trip.  Eden kept commenting about the “weirdness” of reading about Barstow in Barstow.

Anyway, it was a great break from our normal routine, and left us refreshed to finish off winter with a smile.  Do you take a mid-winter break?  What is your favorite way to continue learning during vacations?  Please leave me a comment below.

February Reading List

February reading


Wow!  How is it the middle of February all ready?  There is a good reason for the silence — we had a great trip to San Diego, enjoyed the sunshine and thought about our “ocean science.”  I’ll share some of that in the next few days.  For now, I want to tell you about a few books we’ve enjoyed in the past month.

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth.  This book, with its wonderful illustrations, is one I remember from my childhood.  I began reading it aloud to the little kids, and as usual with books I am reading aloud to them, I had to hide it so that they wouldn’t finish it before I did!  It is the story of a boy whose hen hatches out a Triceratops.  Definitely not scientific, but a great read-aloud nonetheless.

Dinner:  A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach.  I came home one evening last month to an Amazon package on my bed.  Since I hadn’t ordered anything, I was sure I was going to be in trouble with Shandy for an “accidental” purchase.  Instead, I found a gift card from my mother and this great story/cookbook.  For those of us who believe getting dinner on the table for the family every night should be a top priority, this book is a definite must read.  Whether you are already a pro, or need a “dinner doula” as she calls herself at one point, you will enjoy the book and the recipes.

Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson.  The only thing I had ever read by this author was her famous short story The Lottery.  When I heard that she had written some autobiographical books with these titles, I was instantly interested.  Some of the things she chronicles (searching for her cigarettes, and moving the brandy and cigarettes around from bed to bed while sleeping with sick children) are shocking to a more modern way of life, these were humorous books that were good, relaxing reading.  I also checked out from the library a book of her short stories, and these were not relaxing at all.  In the two I read, children were involved in discussion that I can only describe as horror.  I did not continue reading.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  The last time I read this book, I was in high school.  Now, both my teenagers were assigned this book as part of their curriculum, and so I read along.  This is a well-written, tragic work, even if you don’t buy into the Jesus Christ allegory that my high school teacher tried to sell us.  It means much more to me now than it did when I was a teenager, and is so often the case with classics.  The assignment I chose for myself on this book was to match a candy bar to each character.  I’m still working on that one!

Soon . . . sunshine and ocean pictures!  Stop back by!

What have you been reading?  Please leave me a comment.