Book Review: Before They’re Gone by Michael Lanza

Front Cover

If your summer has been like mine, and hiking isn’t happening with the frequency you’d hoped, you probably shouldn’t read this book.  It will create jealousy and sadness.  This great account of hiking with kids in America’s beautiful national parks will leave you desperate for a hike — TODAY!

In just one year, Mr. Lanza hiked with his 10 year old son and 8 year old daughter to locations in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, Joshua Tree National Monument, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Everglades, Glacier Bay in Alaska, Mount Rainier National Park and the Olympic coast.  This book, half climate-change warning, half hiking journal, speaks to a desire most people have– to share the things they love with the people they love.  Unfortunately, many of the things we love, including the national parks, are endangered by global climate change.  While Mr. Lanza speaks very definitely about the way climate change is and will effect some of the world’s most beautiful places, he also talks about the wonderful character growth kids experience with frequent exposure to natural places.

Although the places they visited were probably among the most beautiful and unique in the world, many share one problem in fitting in with my hiking plans:  too many people.  Hiking in a line to see Upper Yosemite Falls doesn’t sound like a way I want to spend a day.  In fact, we spent a recent holiday hiking with many other people, and while I am glad to see others out enjoying nature, I have a hard time enjoying my day with that much noise around.  The time for me to see those wonderful sights will have be a time when no one else is around (I think I’m going to be waiting a long time.)  In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy more pristine (if less beautiful) areas without the company of crowds.

My favorite parts of this book were his details about hiking with his children.  Hearing his children try to decide which was their favorite trip must have made him so happy.  I feel similarly when my kids are making top 10 lists of their favorite hikes.  In a world where so many kids have no exposure to nature and no love of the outdoors, hearing them express their feelings is delightful.  Of course, no one loves the exertion and effort of hiking all the time, and this is reflected in his children as well.  I laughed over his “potty break” to put a little distance between him and his (stationary) children so that he could calm down after listening to the kids complain and bicker.  And his advice about feeding them often is something we’ve put to use in the last couple hikes to good effect.

I hope you find this book and read it.  You’ll enjoy it.  Have you read any good hiking books lately?  Please leave me a comment.


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.

October Reading List (in November)

Even though November is well underway, I wanted to share with you a few of the books I have been reading lately.  I’ve noticed a trend in my reading toward “lighter” reading right now — both fluff fiction and fluff non-fiction.  Do you agree with me that much of the non-fiction published right now is fluff?  These journalistic books could be published in installments in a current women’s magazine and feel right at home.  I am going to try to stop checking these books out of the library:  books on “clean” eating, how exercise helps depression, and books examining the way teenagers are turning into adults:  mostly just a waste of time.  I end up skimming, reading portions and returning these books without gaining anything of benefit, but having wasted my hard-won reading time.

These three books, while on the lighter side, were worth a review.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.  Alice wakes up on the floor of the gym, having forgotten the last 10 years of her life including her three children, her best friend, and her divorce.  This book was a very quick read for me.  I actually couldn’t put it down, and stayed up late two nights in a row just to finish it and get on with work that should have been done.  While Alice was discovering that in many ways she had made a mess of her life, I was rejoicing that I do not feel regrets over the past 10 years of my life.  So many things we have begun in the last 10 years–homeschool, hiking, running — have brought me such joy and happiness.  Thank goodness I don’t need to re-live those years in a “do-over.”

The Year of Learning Dangerously — Adventures in Homeschooling by Quinn Cummings is one of my fluff non-fiction books.  This is not a book of homeschooling how to, neither is it a book of one family’s journey in homeschooling.  Instead it is a book of a journalist’s experiences traveling and observing different homeschooling occasions and events, mainly while leaving her daughter (in her first year of homeschooling) at home.  I guess from the tone of the previous sentence, you realize I did not approve of this mother’s attempt at commercializing her homeschooling attempt.  While many may have some sort of prurient interest in a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling convention, or a home school prom, of what benefit is it to disguise oneself, attend the event, and then write about it?  I hardly believe it was for her daughter’s benefit that she did this, especially since this family is professed atheist and the daughter is in fourth grade.  (I’m wrong.  It’s probably for her daughter’s financial benefit.)  So, this is one book I am glad I found at the library (rather than buying!)

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green feeds my young adult fiction addiction.  Not your standard hope-despite-cancer story, this novel follows Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters from their meeting at a cancer victim therapy session to the end of their story together.  Funny and sad, its themes of quiet heroism — the kind that affects one life, not millions– and endurance were presented in an easy to read story.  Eden read and enjoyed this as well.

My November reading list includes more classics, as I try to wean myself from fluff.  Although I read for relaxation and enjoyment, I want to read for education as well.  Even now, I am halfway through Henry James’ first novel, Ward and Watch.  I’ll let you know how it goes soon.

Do you read whatever catches your eye, or do you try for book “assignments?”  Please leave me a comment below.

Unschooling Rules #37: Be the perfect enabler.

From Craig Aldrich’s Unschooling Rules:

Feed passions and embrace excellence.

Enable your child to follow his dreams.  This will cost time, effort and money.  Do it well.

I already told you about the bluegrass workshops we attended this summer.  While 3 hours of classes every day for 2 weeks was a big time commitment for the whole family, it was totally worthwhile in the enjoyment and growth the kids experienced in playing their instruments.

I have found, however, that it is much easier for me to be an enabler for things I view as interesting and important:  music, of course, museums, theater, hiking.  It is much more difficult to help the kids follow their interests when they do not coincide with mine.  This is something I intend to work on, as well as making sure each of the kids are free to follow their own interests, not just follow the interest pre-imposed by the rest of the family.  In order to work on this goal, I have begun trying to think of things Max and Lulu may not have been exposed to, and finding ways to allow them to decide if these things are interesting to them.

I have only shared 4 of the 55 rules found in this book, and even more encouraging than the rules is the application that accompanies them.  Another of my favorites list 15 better models for schooling than public schools.  Get the book.  Read it.  E-mail me and remind me to read it!  It will help us do our best for homeschooling our children.

Have you read this book?  How  do you become the perfect enabler?  Please leave me a comment below.

Unschooling Rules #12: A Great Mentor is Best

From Unschooling Rules by Craig Aldrich:

Internships, apprenticeships and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks and tests.

As a parent, I know how challenging it can be to find great mentors for your child.  But especially as they grow, they need the further encouragement to reach out to other adults and find people who can guide them in their quest for knowledge if their interests differ from yours.

Immediately after reading this rule, I met a local drama teacher at the beauty salon (yes, I hate to call it that, but that is what you call the place you get your hair cut.)  With this prompting me, I asked him if he ever needed an accompanist for his musical theater class.  Voila!  An interesting volunteer experience for Eden.  She went 3 days last week to a junior high class to accompany for the musical Legally Blonde, with lots more opportunities coming up!

While I wouldn’t necessarily be happy having Eden in this class, I love being able to participate in the activity on our own terms, and in a way that furthers her interests.

We also paid an exorbitant amount to a mechanic to fix Shandy’s truck last week.  While paying for the repairs, I encouraged Shandy to take the opportunity to ask if they would allow Brett to come help out (for free) and learn.  So, Brett spent two afternoons this week watching and learning in the mechanic shop.  While I don’t know if this will develop into a full-fledged apprenticeship, even the experience of being in the mechanic shop while they are working was beneficial for him.

My next search . . . an artist mentor for Lucy.  Art lessons are not affordable for us right now, but it would be wonderful if she had an adult to help her learn how to use her supplies in the best way possible.

Of course, our kids are mentored by their music teachers, and this is an excellent influence in their lives.  And the best influences of all are their extended families, who help and guide them with love.

Keeping this unschooling exhortation in mind will hopefully make me look for more opportunities for the kids, and be brave enough to ask for them.  Just one more reason I am glad I read this book.  By the way, it was $2.99 on Kindle today.  Have you checked on reading it?

How have you arranged for new mentors for your kids?  Who are your child’s best mentors?  Please leave me a comment!

Unschooling Rules #2: Focus on the three Rs

This is a series of posts discussing the book Unschooling Rules by Craig Aldrich.  I wanted to share with you just a few of the 55 rules he listed, and my take on how we could use them to be better homeschool teachers.

From Unschooling Rules by Craig Aldrich

Focus on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Take away:  As you are planning your shorter school day, focus on the three things that are the most valuable and useful for everyday adult life.

Mr. Aldrich states that these subjects were considered the basics by our ancestors for a reason.  They are the subjects which are children will use every day for the rest of their lives.  I would further his statement by stating that as parents are starting with preschoolers, focus just on one:  reading.  Once a child can read well, he can teach himself anything he wants to know.  Schedule time for reading in two different areas:

  • Child learning to read or reading aloud.  This may include workbooks (I loved Explode the Code) or simple readers (like Bob books.)
  • Parents reading aloud to children. This is the most important because without a desire to enter the world of books, the child will not make the effort to learn to read.  That desire comes from the realization that what is in a book is valuable: for entertainment or education.  Parents should read both fiction and nonfiction to their child at levels far more advanced than the child’s reading level.

After reading, writing follows naturally.  A child has a natural desire to “draw” letters.  As a parent provides opportunity for practice:  making lists, writing notes, and perhaps art projects that convey information (science posters, anyone?) writing can evolve naturally from a child’s reading experience.  A child who is read to and reads often will naturally desire to communicate with others in lasting, written form.

Math also begins naturally for a young child, and it is that math that we learn at a young age that is the most valuable to an adult.  I also believe that while using manipulatives is important to teach concepts, learning to do what the Saxon books calls “mental math” — use basic math inside their heads rather than on paper– is a very important skill that parents should reinforce nearly daily.  This skill will serve them well later in life when they are staying inside a grocery budget, checking a bill before paying, and even estimating gas mileage for a car.  When you don’t need an exact number, that kind of mental calculator is very valuable.

What if you don’t have time to study anything else after you’ve studied the three R’s?  Don’t sweat it.  Soon, your child will be an excellent reader, and you can use some of his reading time to read science or history.  Or, choose those type of books for your read aloud.  Other knowledge is picked up easily by learners, which is what you are creating.

Are these subjects the main focus of your homeschool?  What subjects do you consider vital?  Does it change as children mature?  Please leave me a comment below.

Unschooling Rule #28: Shorter school hours for homeschoolers

Over the next few days, I want to share with you just a few of the 55 rules listed by author Craig Aldrich that really made me think about I teach my children and how our learning can improve at home.  I have reflected on the disservice we do ourselves and our children by calling it “school.”  After all, that gives most of us the immediate idea of the public school we attended ourselves, and may make us strive to duplicate that experience at home.  Yet, the very reason we are homeschoolers is that we didn’t want that experience for our children.  Here is one of the rules I thought very most important for homeschoolers.

From Unschooling Rules by Craig Aldrich:

One traditional school day includes less than 3 hours of formal instruction and practice, which you can cover in 2.

Take home lesson:  Stop trying to fit in so much schoolwork!

As long time parent-teachers, we know that our kids do not waste as much time as public school children.  There is no roll, no waiting for another student to finish the work or to understand a concept, nor waiting for another student to quit disrupting the class.  Since our formal work takes so much less time, therefore, there is the temptation to fill up the rest of the day with busywork or even valuable learning experiences.  If the child is learning, is this a problem?

The problem may lie in the amount of learning that a child can do in a formal way during a certain period.  Mr. Aldrich makes the case that there is a capacity filled in about 3 hours per day for most people.  Most of us just cannot take in more new information that would be accommodated in 3 hours of instruction.  After that, it’s just like pouring more water into an already full glass.

What can we do, then, to make our homeschool more effective?  Keep track of the number of hours of formal instruction we are scheduling for our children.  Even homeschoolers who are “relaxed” or mostly “unschoolers” often have a few things that they refuse to leave entirely to chance (math is the most common.)  Do not allow these hours of scheduled learning to take up too much of our child’s day.  Instead, allow time for exploration of other subjects and life experiences as leisure time by your child.  These allow for a different kind of learning which is equally useful to the child, and also allows time for the absorption of the more formal instruction.

How do I put this into practice in my home?  For my younger children, I still make a list of what I would like them to accomplish during each day.  This includes any assigned school work, lessons, and chores.  As I make my lists, I make sure that (if they stick to their work) these assignments (including chores) will take less than four hours during any one day.  That means that on music lesson days, we don’t have time to do math or English lessons.  On days that math or English is assigned, we often do little or no other formal instruction.

How do they fill up the rest of their days?  There is no television in our house, so reading is the relaxation of choice.  It is certainly not all educational reading:  right now Max and Lucy are drowning themselves in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  They play outside in the sandbox, inside with Legos, doll house, or cars.  They started learning to play chess this week.  Sometimes they whine about being bored (and I offer to help them find work to do!)

I was glad to read this rule because it is liberating to stop trying to fill the days with worksheets and allow kids to really love learning.  It is a lesson I wish all homeschoolers could learn in their first week of homeschooling, rather than coming to it gradually over a course of years as I have.

Do you keep track of the hours you schedule for schooling?  How do you make sure your children have freedom in their learning experiences?  Please leave a comment below.

Unschooling Science Experiments

I have always had a slight problem with doing science experiments.  Here’s why

  • They are messy and time consuming, and yet often the results are not dramatic or the experiment doesn’t work at all.
  • Kids love to do the experiment, but they don’t necessarily want to use the “scientific method.”  It’s a hassle to get them to write down the steps they took or the results.
  • Kids can’t always make the connection for the narrow to the wider subjects.  That is — just because they can see red food coloring swirling around in a bowl, doesn’t mean they get the concept of convection currents.

I always count myself more of a naturalist.  I like to observe and name things in the natural world, drawing conclusions about how things work without doing actual experiments to duplicate the results.  However, kids love doing science experiments, and they don’t really care if they’re learning to see the big picture.  Fortunately, a kind aunt sent us these this summer:

We have checked out many of these Janice VanCleave books from the library before, but have never owned any.  The kids were delighted to receive this box, and immediately went through marking all the experiments they wanted to try out.  Since these experiments were not dangerous and involved mostly household items, I decided we would completely “unschool” with these books.  This meant that Lulu and Max would be completely in charge of the mess, the clean up, and whatever learning they did.  If they wanted help or more resources, they could ask me.

So far, this has been a successful way for us to do science experiments.  It led to green pennies (made by soaking them in vinegar) and the statement from Lulu, “So that’s why the Statue of Liberty is green.”  Again, I didn’t even read this experiment with them, so I don’t know if it was a quote from the book or if she reached the conclusion on her own.  I am guessing the former, but that’s fine.  She learned something that she will be able to use as a building block later on.  It also led to volcanoes in the sandbox.  Now, I don’t know what you are supposed to learn from mixing baking soda and vinegar to make a volcano, because that has nothing to do with real volcanoes, and I heard no talk of acids and bases.  However, it is a classic childhood activity, and they had a blast.



I don’t think this is the way we will do science forever, but the kids have sure enjoyed this way so far this summer.  Either way, the  books will be a great resource for them to extend whatever science studies they pursue.

Do you like to be in control of science experiments for your kids?  Do you feel like they have to “write down” about things in order to learn and remember, or do you have a more relaxed approach?  Please leave me a comment.



July Reading

After a long phase of non-fiction reading, I’ve switched back to fiction for the last couple of weeks.  I read A Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, a book which I enjoyed very much.  It was very reminiscent of her book The Accidental Tourist, and made me want to watch that movie again.  I finished The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  I had not read any books by this author before, and it is really not my usual style.  I am not a mystery reader.  This book was an enjoyable read with an engaging heroine (actually 3 or 4 engaging heroines) and a plot which although fairly transparent was interestingly developed.  I usually say “this was written on a postage stamp” when the solution to the mystery is obvious halfway through the book, but enough of this mystery was left unknown to make finishing the book worthwhile.

Eden recommended Impossible  by Nancy Werlin.  It took me an afternoon to read, and was not a typical rewritten fairy tale but a twist on a classic ballad, Scarborough Fair.  The most interesting thing to me about this story was the description of the attachment between the pregnant woman and the child she is carrying.  It made me nostalgic for the days when I would “speak” to my pregnant belly, longing for the day I could hold the baby in my arms.

I also read Finding Ultra by Rich Roll.  I have read several endurance training stories recently, since I read Born to Run. This book actually contained far more information about his recovery from alcoholism than his training and change to a plant-based diet.  As such, it educated me about some of the challenges facing a recovering alcoholic, but did not fulfill the promise of its title.

Lulu and Max have been reading the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull.  She has read all 5, and Max just finished book 3.  They really like this series, and have been using these ideas in the imaginative play all week.  Perhaps your kids would like these books, too.

The other books on my list for July are nature essays.  One is a book about the Grand Gulch area of southern Utah that I am really excited to start, and I am also looking forward to reading the others.  One problem I have with essays and short stories is that I have a tendency to gobble them down.  I think of a book of essays or short stories as a box of chocolates.  I really should just eat one, enjoy it, and come back for another tomorrow.  Instead, I gobble them down quickly and end up with a stomach ache!  I am going to exert myself to read these books slowly.

Do you enjoy reading essays and short stories, or do you prefer novels?  What is on your reading list for July?  Please leave me a comment below.

Curriculum Review: Life of Fred Math

About 3 weeks ago now, I purchased three books in the Life of Fred math series.  I had heard lots of recommendations of this book, and sources I respect (including the Rainbow Resource Center printed catalog,) had painted glowing pictures of the books as a way to interest kids in math and help them find practical application which would make math meaningful.  Although the cost of the series seemed prohibitive, I decided to try a few of these books out this summer.  Turning to the Life of Fred website, I determined that Lucy was definitely ready to start in the Fractions book, but Max probably was not.  I decided to order just the book Life of FredFractions, and see if both kids could possibly work in that book since Max already understood multiplication and division, even though he does not have the tables completely memorized.

We were very excited when we received the book, and Max and Lulu wanted to start immediately.  After reading the first chapter, which they both enjoyed, I immediately realized that Max would not be able to work along with Lulu on these problems.  Lulu was capable of doing the extensive multiplication required to determine how many seconds are in a year, Max definitely could not.  The style was so engaging, however, that they were both very anxious to continue with the story.  Therefore, I rushed quickly to the local homeschool store (how lucky it was there!) and bought the first two books in the Life of Fred series — Apples and Butterflies.  I started at the beginning knowing they would be very easy for Max but also realizing that we could do them quickly and he would enjoy them.  (I am also hoping to be able to sell these very lightly used copies so that I can buy the next books.)

Now that we are finished with the first book, I am able to offer an educated opinion about the books.  First, the pros:

  • The story and illustrations are engaging.  I ask the kids if they want to do Life of Fred, and they come running.  They beg for the next chapter.
  • The concepts are presented clearly, in story form.
  • The “Your Turn to Play” problems at the end of the chapter in the Fractions book are challenging but not impossible.
  • There are specific ways to use the math concepts introduced in real life.

And the cons:

  • I would never use this as a stand alone curriculum.  Besides very limited repetition for memorization, there is limited explanation.  If you don’t already understand how to do the math, you might not be able to figure it out from this text.
  • The answers to the “Your Turn to Play” are printed where you can’t avoid seeing them as you work the problems.  That leaves little incentive for actually making sure you know how to do the math.
  • The cost of each book ($16) is prohibitive.  If only you could check these out at your local library . . .

So you can see I am giving a half-hearted recommendation.  These are fun for summertime math extension, but I’m not sure I will buy the whole series.  I will probably sell the beginning books as we finish them (a used Life of Fred, anyone?) and reinvest that money in the next of the series, but continue to rely on Saxon as the backbone of our math curriculum.

Have you used the Life of Fred books with your kids?  How do you choose a math curriculum?  Please leave me a comment below.