Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Waldorf Homeschooling: Preparing for Eighth Grade

Summer Nights Spent Reading

The public school kids are back to school already; it's only the middle of August. Our district decided to start earlier this year to make sure they could get in all of the required 180 days without deducting from the teacher in-service days. I am so glad we homeschool! It still feels like sun; sticky air; the cicadas buzz sawing; I would HATE to have to be in school. 

Even though we are not ready to start yet, I have been preparing. I think about the upcoming year all summer long. And I usually try to read as much as possible about the potential subject matter before I dig and plan. This summer I did not. I took a much needed break and decided to give myself a start date of August 1. I could think about things....but  NO PLANNING. I just needed to breathe a little.

As the Boy advances toward high school, our subjects get "meatier." Which means more preparation on my part...getting a real understanding of the subjects so I can present the main ideas at a deeper level. It is no longer enough to present everything through story. The Boy wants to know about things: how they work, why events ocurred, how things affect his life.  I spend much of my time looking for resources that i can use to articulate what I think is really important for him to know and understand. Thank goodness for the public library!

This year I need to concentrate on math. We are still a bit behind; I wanted to introduce Algebra last year but didn't get to it. So, along with Geometry in Art and Nature and regular Mathematics, I will be introducing Algebra. It will be a big math year for us. Ive decided to start the year off with Geometry and Algebra.

Some of the other subjects we will tackle include:
Latin III using the Cambridge Latin series, taught at Lancaster Center for Classical Studies
Dissection, taught at Lancaster County Parks
Geometry, also using JYP
Physics: electricity, incline plane, levers, aerodynamics, hydraulics
Anatomy and Physiology: digestion, circulation, reproduction,
                                          skeletal and muscular systems, eye, ear
History: Reformation, Revolution (including French, Russian, American, and Industrial)
Meteorology: Weather systems
Geography: South America, Africa, Eurasia, Asia
Language Arts: Short stories
Drawing: continue black and white drawing
Handwork: sewing
Piano and Voice: Tina Davidson
Drama/Speech: various plays through local theater

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Warm Spring Days Bring Swarms: On Capturing a Honeybee Swarm

The Swarm!

April marked my one year anniversary as a beekeeper. It was a rough first year, to be sure. But I did have some success. My hive survived the winter, and that is a huge success of its own. So many friends lost hives this year.

It has been quite the year of learning the ropes but, yesterday something happened that made me feel as though I crossed over to new level of beekeeping. I caught a swarm.

Let me backtrack just a little: Last Thursday I checked my hive for swarm cells. I had hoped to see some; I was waiting to get a few swarm cells before I split out a nucleus colony, or nuc as the experienced folks call it. No such luck. It was looking a little tight in the boxes, but no swarm cells.

On Monday I decided to look again. I'm impatient, something I've mentioned before. In just a few days time the girls had created a handful of swarm cells. Yeah!

I ran up to the garage and grabbed my nuc box and some empty frames. Juggling this extra equipment I hustled back down to the hive and carefully placed everything out on the ground. Don't like my equipment in a bunch...nice orderly rows of boxes, frames, and tools for me!

By this time I needed to take a break. Storm clouds were looming, the humidity was oppressive. It was our first sweltering day of the, humid, no breeze. I could no longer see for the sweat blurring my vision.

After a short breather, I donned my suit, lit up the smoker and got to work. I'll write about the process of splitting out the nuc another time. I've not yet gotten to the whole reason for this post....the swarm.

As I was finishing up, the Boy pulled up on the lawn tractor, which was making a weird noise. Upon inspection I found the problem and looked up to tell him what tools I needed to make the fix. And there, just a few feet behind him I spied a glorious, humming, thriving swarm ensconced on an Autumn Olive that I had failed to pull out over the winter. (Invasive species, but the bees love it.)

Oh glory! I started screaming and jumping up and down with joy! Had any neighbors been home I'm sure they would have thought I was nuts. Well, I think they do anyway, but I'm sure I looked the part that afternoon.

My first swarm...and in my own yard! Hallelujah! And only 3 feet off the ground. It seemed a gift from the Divine! Placed within reach just for me!

I broke into action, heat be darned. Rubbermaid box and lid, check. Bee brush, check. Quick set up of a new hive, check. Extra bee suit for the Boy, check.  And cameras, check, check, check. Seriously, this had to be documented, which was the Boy's job in all of this.

Evaluating the best placement for catching the swarm.

I approached the swarm, trying to decide the best angle for the catchment box. Knowing I needed to get that queen along with all the bees was a bit intimidating. After studying the swarm for oh, 30 seconds, I grasped the top of the sapling, bent it over the box, and gave it a whack. Splat! a billion bees in a box! I shut the lid and walked the whole 10 feet to the new hive box and dumped them in. Shut the lid; walked away. 

Bending the sapling

The whack!

Recongregating bees. Whack, wait, repeat.

Ten minutes later a few hundred bees had regathered on the sapling, so I repeated the process. This time the flying sisters congregated on the front of the hive box. Yes! Yes! Yes!

After all was done, I contacted my mentor to see if I had done right. So maybe that was a bit backwards but I was Excited! (Yes, with a capital E). He assured me I had and gave me a few cues to look for to determine success. Were the bees gathering in the entrance? Were they going back to the tree? Yes. No. It was looking good.

Later that evening they were still there, buzzing in and out. I put in a frame of honey from another box...minus worker bees. I debated on putting another box on, it was a pretty big swarm. But I didn't want to disturb them too much. I wish I had. 

The next morning they were still there. Whoo hoo! It really was tight in there....every frame covered by bees. So, I promised them I'd have a new box for them that evening.

Sadly, when I returned home from taking the Boy to Latin and picking up new equipment, the colony was gone. But I still felt elated. I had caught the swarm! All on my own! I think the space I gave them was just too small. But I am ready for the next time, please let there be a next time!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On Falling Behind, Letting Go, and Origami Yoda

The Boy and his origami Star Wars family

It happens every year. Always a different reason, but every year: I am behind. Incredible mountains of snow that needed shoveling. Chickens and bees had to be dug out. Frozen waterers exchanged two and three times a day. Ill parents to care for. Orthodontist and doctor appointments. So many outside commitments to attend. It doesn't matter; I am behind.

I get overwhelmed thinking about all I need to do: how many blocks I'm behind in school, the seeds I haven't started, the eggs I haven't hatched. I haven't even purchased some of the supplies I need to teach some of our scheduled subjects, or ordered seeds for this year's garden. Or bought chick feed for chicks that I will eventually hatch. Or scheduled our state required portfolio review. Or finished my portfolio! (Because we haven't covered all of our subjects!)

Then i take a breath and ask myself what it means to be "behind." Behind what? And, does it actually matter?

And to that question, I say yes, and no. 

I've read lots of homeschooling advice regarding the pressure we put on ourselves. "Relax; don't get so uptight; let it go." Which, in some cases is great... Sometimes you do have to let it slide. Who wants to sit over a math book when your nose is running all over your face? Or run chemistry equations with an overflowing basement? Not me, nope. When there are emergencies, let it go. Forgive yourself. Have a cup of tea, read a good story aloud, go for a nature walk. After wiping your nose and bailing the basement.

But, y'know, if you let it slide all of the time... gotta take the dog to the vet, need to buy groceries, let's have a play date....well, maybe it's time to rethink priorities. I am in charge of my child's education. I have to hold myself accountable. And having two adult children who constantly remind me of this, I can't always just let it go. We have to do school.*

Yep, I said it. Throwing of cabbages may commence.

But really, sometimes we need to pressure ourselves. Or maybe I just need to pressure my self because those are the things that throw me off track. Dentist appointment in the morning? Forget ever getting back to school work afterwards.

Some days I just need to tell myself: fetch that second (or third) cup of coffee, light the darn candle, and get the day started. Even if it is noon. No one made a rule that lessons have to begin at 8 am. (Made myself laugh at that one, 8 am? Who am I kidding?)

But back to whether it matters or not:

On days I get thrown off track, we will find ourselves immersed in some type of learning. The Boy has great interest in origami right now (especially Star Wars origami). So he folds about a million Yodas (and all the other major players) a day, experimenting with different folds, creating his own versions. He has been writing creative pieces like mad. I couldn't get him to write a paragraph last year and now he's writing all kinds of short stories. He reads any book I pick up for him, so I throw him piles of historical fiction. Fill that in with a library trip, gym class, piano lesson, theater practice, and Latin classes and we still had a full week even if I didn't break out the Algebra book.

This year has been especially tough on our rhythm, but I've learned to throw in one or two "learning activities" on the days I get thrown off track. I give him a book I had tucked away, or we go on a walk and talk about some historical event. And I plan for the next day, and make an attempt to get everything I wanted to accomplish done by week's end.

Let it go?  Sometimes. But sometimes I just need to kick myself in the rear and get going. Never by 8 am, but usually by that third cup of coffee.
Origami Yoda, based off the books by Tom Angleberger

* Doing school is a loosely based term in our house. We do not "school at home," which is obvious from any of my previous posts.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Good Enough Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

Good Enough Gluten Free Semi Low Carb Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oldest Son had been experiencing stomach issues for a few years, but last year they became much worse. As in he felt-like-dying worse. 

It was June 25th, 2013, we were on our way to what Husband and I thought was a family picnic. It was a family gathering, but the purpose was a surprise celebration for our 25th wedding anniversary. We were all piled in the car when Oldest Son asked his father to pull over. He was green, and in pain. We offered to take him home, not knowing that he was part of the surprise plan. He refused, got back in the car, and moaned his way to the gathering.

During the 3 hour ride we talked about how his issues had become much worse recently. I suggested an elimination diet, just to see if there was a lactose or other dietary irritant or allergen. He opted to go gluten free as his first trial. Starting after the party, of course. Within a week of adopting a gluten free diet he started feeling better. 

Now, a year later, he can tolerate small doses of gluten. But, he usually ends up feeling cruddy so stays pretty true to gluten free. As his mama, I've tried to be supportive and have added more gluten free recipes to my repertoire, as well as generally altering our family's diet to low sugar/low carb. 

Because I like to cook, and because I believe in the value of whole foods, I stay away from pre-packaged stuff. Besides, packaged gluten-free foods are tremendously expensive and many are devoid of any real nutrition (just like their full gluten versions). Dairy, fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts...they're all gluten free, naturally!

But we still do occasionally crave a sweet: a cookie, a brownie, a piece of cake.

There are a few things I've discovered over the year in regards to baked goods. The first being that no gluten-free/low carb baked item will ever taste like its full floured/sugared counterpart. No cake, brownie, cookie, bar, pie crust, whatever, can match the taste and texture of a "real" baked good. So when you read a recipe for "Best Ever  GF Low Carb Muffin" just remember, it says "gluten free low carb muffin," not "best muffin ever." Not the same, no how.

 Another thing I have found is that by going without any sweets for a period of time, say 2 weeks, your sense of sweetness changes. For instance, I once put 2 tsp of sugar in my coffee, plus cream. Now, the cream adds enough sweetness without added sweeteners. I've realized that American food is just way too sweet, our recipes call for too much sugar.  

And like gf/lc baked goods, no alternative sweetener tastes "just like sugar." They all have an aftertaste or slightly different taste. Suck it up....lose the sweetener or discover which ones taste best to you. The benefit of reducing the amount of sweetener you need is that when you do use an alternative sweetener, you reduce the risk of a funky aftertaste.

Once you get over those distinctions, you start to judge recipes differently. Is it gross vs. good enough? Will it satisfy that craving enough to keep you from snarfing down a box of Otis Spunkmeyers? We each have our criteria and our methods of judging recipes. To keep or to toss? (To the chickens, of course, not the trash). I used to ask my family "Is it a keeper or just okay?" Now I ask if it's good enough? Hence the Good Enough Scale. "How does it rate on the Good Enough Scale?"

So, on this lovely spring day, the Boy decided he wanted to bake real chocolate chip cookies for his dad. Knowing that Oldest Son and I would not indulge, I decided to try a gluten free recipe. Like most cooking projects, I looked over several versions for gf and lc cookies, then made my own mash up. Oldest Son rated it "pretty good" on the Good  Enough scale.

One other thing I've discovered: many items made with coconut or almond flour have a better texture after cooling, rather than eating warm. And some, like cookies, are better frozen.

So much for hot, gooey chocolate chip cookies. Guess I need to suck it up.

Good Enough Gluten-Free Semi Low Carb Chocolate  Chip Cookies
2.5 cups Blanched Almond Flour
.5 tsp sea salt
.5 tsp baking soda
.5 c softened butter
1 tbsp vanilla extract
.25 c sweetener (I used Swerve)
1 c dark chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl. Stir butter until smooth. Add egg and vanilla to butter. Stir to mix. Add dry ingredients to wet. Mix together. Add chocolate chips and stir in.
Form half inch balls and place on greased cookie sheet (or sheet lined with parchment). Press lightly.
Bake for 7-10 minutes until very light golden.  Remove from cookie sheet to cool. Put them in the freezer if you like the resulting texture better.

Makes about 44 cookies. Serving: 2 cookies. Approximately 7 carbs/139 calories per serving.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sixth Grade Waldorf: Geology

Geology was a fun subject to explore! I thought it would be a snooze fest, but like most subjects, if you can discover some interesting bits and find a way to bring them to your child....well, that's the Waldorf way isn't it?

Sometimes I read through subject matter and think, "How in the world will I ever bring this to the Boy in an interesting manner?" Actually, I think that when preparing for most subjects— but some are more difficult in teasing out those interesting, important bits.

In preparation for this block, we visited Fairy Stone State Park in southern Virginia. "Fairy stones are staurolite, a combination of silica, iron and aluminum. Together, these minerals crystallize in twin form, accounting for the cross-like structure. Found only in rocks that have been subjected to great heat and pressure, the stones are most commonly shaped like St. Andrew's and Roman crosses."

We started the block off with learning some basics about the earth: various names the earth has been given (Mother Earth, Gaia, and the like; it's structure; continental shifts and drift; earthquakes and volcanoes.)

We explored crystals and crystalline shapes. On the first day of crystals I spread some salt crystals on black paper and we looked at each under a magnifying glass.  What a thrill when he discovered that table salt crystals are cubes!  We compared them to rock salt, sea salt, sugar and sand.

We then made crystals from super-saturated sugar water.

Salt Crystals

Sugar crystals....rock candy!

We followed crystals with Minerals and Elements and the combinations that! In this section we pretty much went by the Waldorf proverbial "book." We studied igneous rocks, namely granite, then sedimentary – limestone, and metamorphic – slate, marble, and quartzite. We spent a little extra time on quartz and quartzite as the Boy has always had a "thing" about quartz.

We finished by following up with caves, fossil fuels, and metals.

I know this isn't really descriptive of all we did, and so may not be really helpful. I used various resources to get through this block, mostly from my local library. I am not typically fond of DK books, but found, for this particular subject, they worked really well. Lots of pix of different types of rocks with short descriptions. I also downloaded some science articles from the Waldorf online library. I followed the Waldorf outline of which elements, rocks, etc. to highlight, but found my own resources to explore.

The one main item I purchased was a set of sample rocks from another home school family. Towards the end of the block, after we had delved into properties and "met" many of the rocks in their natural surroundings, I opened the samples and arranged them on our dining room table/school space as a centerpiece that the Boy could play with anytime.

We took a family trip to Massachusetts during this block and took advantage of a nearby geological wonder: Purgatory Chasm State Reservation, a massive exposed vein of granite. The area also produces quite a bit of the gem, beryl, of which we found a piece.
The Boy at Purgatory Chasm outside of Boston, Massachusetts

  I had meant to visit a local limestone quarry during this block, but the winter weather caught up with us making our autumn shorter than usual.

Fom Hatch to Harvest

We did it. After several years of raising chickens for eggs, then adding meat birds to the mix, we finally accomplished a self-sufficiency goal: hatching our own chicken eggs, raising them to adulthood, filling the freezer, and replenishing the laying stock. (Previously our meat birds and new layers were bought as day old chicks from a hatchery.)

It was a sometimes disappointing, but overall exciting process. And I feel so satisfied opening the freezer to see 14 lovely birds, knowing what they were fed, where they lived, and how they were handled.

What a blessing to have the confidence to serve safe, healthy chicken throughout the winter. No recalls. No added yuck. Just pastured, organically fed chicken. Woo hoo!

So, to recapture the process, let me begin at the beginning. Which in our case started with the chicken, not the egg.

We are raising several breeds, trying to find the right mixture of egg layer/meat bird to food conversion ratio. (The most meat and eggs for the least amount of grain food.) Leghorns are fantastic egg layers. But as meat birds they just aren't worth the trouble, averaging out at about 2.5 lbs at 20 weeks. On the other hand, Cornish x Rocks make lots of meat in just a few short weeks, but trying to get them to propagate their own species is a no go...they need to be artificially inseminated. Plus they are just plain gross frankenbirds. (In my opinion.)

For the past two years we have worked with New Hampshire Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Ameracaunas. So that is what we hatched. (I tried some Leghorn eggs, too, but only had one hatch and grow to Ameracauna Leghorn mixed rooster.)

I'll not go into too much detail about incubation — there's lots of info on the web about incubating eggs. But here are some of the highlights:

I collected the eggs over 8 days, placing them in cartons then putting the cartons in a cooler in my basement. One end of the cooler was propped up on a brick. Two or three times a day I switched the position of the cooler, simulating the rotating that a mama hen would do. Simultaneously, I started up the incubator to get it warmed up and at a consistent temperature.


Let me just say that my incubator sucks. It is one of those square styrofoam jobs, about 15 years old. A friend gave it to me, for which I am grateful, but it still sucks. It is hard to regulate the temperature, and there is no humidity gauge. So, I went to my local hardware store and bought a thermometer/humidistat, in addition to using the included mercury-style thermometer.  After a few days the temperature finally hit 99.5 steadily. Time to add the eggs.

The eggs were situated in the egg turner, which is in the incubator. I really didn't want to have to hand turn the eggs several times a day. Mostly because that means opening the incubator, and mine is so hard to regulate. One thing I learned
 — put the incubator in a place that has a constant temperature. In February my house warms nicely during the day, but gets pretty cold at night, since we use a woodstove. My basement proved to have the steadiest, albeit coolest, temperature.

On day 10 I candled the eggs. (Yes, I had to open the incubator!) I made a homemade candler with a toilet paper tube and a bright Christmas tree bulb. As I candled I marked my observation in a notebook. Any egg I thought was not developing received a penciled "x" across its shell. Everything you read tells you that unfertilized eggs could potentially explode in the incubator, but since I am new at this, I put everything back whether I thought it was growing an embryo or not. (My percentage of "guesses" was about 80% correct...determined at hatch.)

And then I left them alone for 11 more days, just checking to make sure the temp and humidity were ok.

And finally...they hatched. And I left them alone for a day, although I spent many hours just watching.

After removing the chicks to a brooder, I completed the very unpleasant task of opening any unhatched eggs (After leaving them go for another 2 days, just in case.) It was gross work, but I wanted to see 1) how correct I was at candling and 2) what stage the chicks stopped developing so I could adjust whatever was needed.

Cute and Fuzzy

I found that I did a decent job of candling, erring on the side of thinking there was something growing when there was not, rather than thinking it was a dead egg when it was live. I now know that in the future I can remove any eggs that I define as "nothing is growing" without too much fear of throwing out a live egg.

I also learned that the embryos stopped developing at various stages. It seemed that the majority died either right before hatch or in late development but not feathered yet. My research has led me to lots of possible conclusions, but nothing definitive.

After two weeks, the chicks were moved out to the brooder in our garage, where they had much more room to grow. And eventually, as the weather warmed, they were moved to an outdoor coop to fatten up on grass and bugs and yummy (to them) tidbits. At that time, I did a basic evaluation, noting which birds I might want to keep and which would go.

Barred Rocks

I evaluated again at 16 weeks, whittling down the keeper list. It was at this time that I realized the Barred Plymouth Rocks were putting on size faster than the other breeds. After much discussion we decided to get rid of all the New Hampshire Reds. We were starting to have difficulty with the rooster attacking us and his hens. And their laying:food ratio was not as good as the Rocks. I wanted to keep the Leghorns, because they are the best layers; and the Ameracaunas for their lovely blue-green eggs; and the Barred Rocks as they proved the best meat birds of my flock. The Reds could go. (Please note: the particular strains of Rocks and Reds that I have may be different than those of someone else, so their results may be different.)

At 20 weeks we separated out the keepers (5 hens and one rooster) and the remainder were packed up for a road trip to the butcher.

Average weight after dressing was 3.5 pounds, with one 2.5 pounder at the low end and a 7.5 pounder at the high end.

Joad Longshanks, the Ameracauna/Leghorn mix and his Leghorn harem.