Sunday, December 06, 2015

Up Go the Christmas Lights and One Dedicated Dad

The kids have been begging to decorate the outside of the house with Christmas lights. Jonah got the lights out and started doing things while daddy was gone. When I suggested doing this one part and waiting on dad before continuing with the rest, Jonah looks at me and says, "No, just no." When I asked why he said, "You can tell daddy doesn't want to put them up" as if it was all up to him.

Well, now, daddy is home and up in a tree while Jonah and his sister are playing and spectating. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Winter When and Where We Can Get It

A roadside stop to experience the snowfall near Northumberland National Park
We have had a long hot summer here in Central Florida this year. In the last week, Orlando had two separate days with record highs in the low 90s and that doesn't take into account the humidity. Needless to say, it has not felt like the holiday season is upon us which is a bummer.  In order to allay my disappointment in this unseasonal weather, I intend to remind myself with this post of the wintry weather we experienced in April and May of this year while in Britain.

On our second day there, we noticed sleet hitting our jackets while visiting Carlisle Castle in the borderlands. The next day, en route from Hadrian's Wall to Edinburgh, we experienced snow in Northumberland National Park. We were so excited that we stopped the car to get out and let the snow fall on us. The weather was cool and crisp for the duration of our travels in Great Britain.

The climax of the wintry conditions however occurred in the middle of our trip when we found ourselves near Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles. On a whim, we decided to ride the Gondola up to the snow line of the Nevis Mountain Range. The kids made snowballs and snow angels and even tried to bring snow home with them. We took a little hike out to a low peak at the worst possible time as the wind blew icy snow into our face. Poor Jonah was soaked through and nearly numb by the time we returned to the lodge to warm up with hot beverages. Looking out over the Great Glen, sipping coffee and hot chocolate is a memory we shouldn't soon forget.

This is not the only time we have experienced winter like conditions at an odd time of year. In 2013, we sold our house in North Carolina during the summer and headed north to Maine and Newfoundland with our RV. That year we experienced very cool weather during July through September (the hottest months here in Central Florida). We may just do that again next year, God willing.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cairngorm Reindeer Centre

On our trip to Scotland, we were able to get up close to real, free-ranging reindeer in Cairngorms National Park. This was a great stop that we may have totally missed if not for seeing an episode of Travel with Kids in advance of our travels.  
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd consists of over 150 individuals that currently call the Cairngorms Mountains home. They were reintroduced to this area in 1952 by a Swedish Sami or Laplander named Mikel Utsi. For a fee, visitors can make a hill visit to feed and see the reindeer or for those with limited time or physical ability there is a quaint paddock at the Reindeer House where two or three are kept on rotation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hostels: Family Accommodations in the UK

Oban Youth Hostel, Oban, Scotland
During our trip to Great Britain earlier in the year, we found reasonably priced accommodations for a family of four a little hard to come by. In order to keep accommodation costs down, we spent a few nights in hostels. This was a first for our family of four. We had our doubts as to how comfortable and safe we would feel, but our experiences were generally very positive.

Our very first stay in a hostel was just one night spent in the Oban Youth Hostel in Scotland. This hostel had 4-person rooms (two bunkbeds) with an en-suite bathroom which worked out very well for our first hostel experience. Sharing a bathroom with others was our biggest anxiety about staying in a hostel. The location along the waterfront and walking distance to the center of Oban is superb at this hostel though parking is limited. We brought take-out (Indian food of course) to eat in the kitchen/lounge. Afterwards, we took a walk by the water since dusk in May at this latitude isn't until after 9pm.
Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge in Drumnadrochit, Scotland

Our second hostel experience was a bit different. We stayed two nights at the Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge located minutes from Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. This hostel has only two family rooms. Our room contained a full-size bed and bunk beds. The bathroom facilities at this location were shared with all the house guests. Fortunately, it was located right next to our room. I would have hated to traipse through the whole house in my pajamas every time I had to go to the bathroom. Still, it was odd to be taking a shower while an unfamiliar guest of the opposite sex brushed their teeth right outside the shower stall. Other than that bit of awkwardness, we had a pleasant experience. We were able to get some clothes washed for a nominal fee during our stay, and I had an enlightening conversation with a Scots and English couple about the impending elections.

Dorm 9 at YHA Oxford London
During the final days of our trip, we stayed three nights at YHA London Oxford Street before our departure. Here, we again had a 4-person room with two bunk beds. The bathroom situation was different from the other two because there were individual shower rooms with real doors and separate water closets to use a British term. All were just a few steps down the hallway and being separate facilities you never felt like you were "sharing" a facility at least not in the way they were shared at the Lock Ness Backpacker's Lodge. In addition, the staff at this facility were very helpful in getting us reduced tickets for bus tours and were invaluable in securing us a very early and inexpensive taxi to the airport for our return flights. The location near the Circus Oxford Station of the Underground is also a big plus.

When considering a family trip to the United Kingdom, don't rule out hostels. If you plan to stay at multiple hostels, you may want to consider membership in YHA or Hosteling International. With a YHA membership you are automatically made of a member of Hosteling International (HI). Membership gets you discounts on your stay as well as attractions and tours. Knowing a hostel is in the HI network gives peace of mind about cleanliness and safety. The Loch Ness Backpacker's Lodge is not in the HI network. We were in a pinch during those nights because of a 3-day weekend, however, I do not regret our stay there.

Keep in mind that not all hostels allow families. Hostels that do have accommodations for families can be more than adequate. The novelty of the accommodations can add to the family experience. For example, our children enjoyed sharing bunk beds with mom and dad and we appreciated the unexpected additional services not to mention the savings. So get out and go hosteling....

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, Drumnodrochit, Scotland
Image Source
What child doesn't know about Loch Ness and the fabled monster that calls it home? Loch Ness is a favorite tourist destination in Scotland as a result. Our own children's familiarity with Loch Ness motivated us to make it a priority stop during our trip to Scotland earlier this year.

Urquhart Castle is a picturesque ruin on the banks of Loch Ness. It is believed that St. Columba of Iona visited a Pictish nobleman on his deathbed here in about 580 AD and baptized him. Interestingly, one of the oldest stories about the monster of Loch Ness comes from a biography of St. Columba written in the 7th century. Supposedly, he rebuked a water beast who had just bitten and killed a man.

Not unexpectedly, we didn't see any signs of a monster from the promontory of Urquhart Castle. So we decided to tour the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition to get our Loch Ness Monster fix. Visitors are guided into several themed galleries where audio visual displays reveal historical references, foundational thoughts, and evidence that support the existence of such a creature. As the tour advances, the themed displays and video focus on the scientific expeditions that have endeavored to determine the existence of the Loch Ness Monster one way or another. Each expedition is described in detail - what tools were used and why, and what conclusions could be drawn from data collected. As someone with basic knowledge of the scientific method and biological sciences, I was very impressed with the flow and thoroughness of the exhibit. I would have thought the whole thing a bit too cerebral for our 6 and 8 year old to enjoy, but the quality of the exhibits and cinematography kept their interest. By the way, 6 and under go free.

All in all, if you are anywhere near Loch Ness on your Scottish travels, Urquhart Castle and the Loch Ness Center are a must see.

Jonah with the submarine Viper Fish used during a 1963 investigation into the existence of the Loch Ness Monster

Friday, October 30, 2015

English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass

Stonehenge April 2015
Are you planning a trip to England with plans of hitting three or more the the English Heritage Sites during your stay? If so, I highly recommend getting the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. We saved about $100 by purchasing this pass.

Here is the breakdown of entry fees for a family of 2 adults with up to 3 children for each place we visited during our stay:
Old Sarum £12.20
Avebury £7.00 for parking; visiting the stones is free
Stonehenge a wapping £41.60
Carlisle Castle £17.40
Housesteads £19.00

We would have paid a total of £130.40 in entry fees for these stops which equals approximately $200 US. We paid half that for our Overseas Visitor Pass.

You can buy them online before you leave home or at one their staffed heritage sights. Proof of foreign residency is required. There are many heritage sites that are free but those may have parking fees. The more popular castles and manor houses as well as famous sites like Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall have some pretty hefty entry fees. 

So, if you are planning a trip to England, save some money with the English Heritage Overseas Pass. And don't miss my post An American Driver in Great Britain for ideas on renting a car and driving during your stay. Cheerio!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Maker Faire Orlando 2015

Our family attended both days of the Maker Faire Orlando this year. The first time we went to a Maker Faire it was many years ago and held in a rented space in a strip mall in Durham, NC. That was where we were first introduced to a 3-D printer and we were amazed by the little 2-inch creations. 3D printing technology and Maker Faire have come a long way since then - both bigger and better.
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3D printed sculpture and vase
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tabletop 3D printer with product and man-sized floor model in the background
There were several opportunities for hands-on "making" during this years Maker Faire at the Orlando Science Center. The kid's each had an opportunity to screen-print a shirt. (Watch video of Elisabeth making her shirt.) My husband was happy that we all were introduced to soldering while making our own little blinky-eyed maker pins. While, there were many tech-makers represented, there were almost as many crafty makers and vendors there as well. Elisabeth was able to sample the pottery making with Super Awesome Cool Pottery and did a simple looming craft that really piqued her interest.
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Soldering workshop at Maker Faire Orlando 2015
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Jonah screen-printing a shirt
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Shirts screen-printed at Maker Faire Orlando 2015
There were lots of interesting things to see as well. My son has been obsessed with dinosaurs since this summer's release of Jurassic World. So we absolutely had to go check out the visiting baby ankylosaurus. (Video link here) It's amazing how well the actor made him seem like a puppy; it reminded us of the Ankylosaur in the Disney's Dinosaur movie.
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Jonah "feeding" the ankylosaur
R2D2 Robot by R2-D2 Builders Club
One highlight of the Maker Faire was getting to see one of large combat robots from the most recent season of BattleBots - Witch Doctor.  Saturday's Maker Faire attractions included a contests between smaller combat bots. We only stayed for one match but it was exciting.  Watch it here!
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Witch Doctor from Battlebots @ Maker Faire Orlando 2015
We also attended the Tesla Coil show. I didn't really know what to expect and it turned out to be the highlight of our second day at the Maker Faire. There were Tesla coils of various sizes demonstrated for the audience. Watch our video of the small coil making electricity to Star Wars music and then watch the Big Tesla Coil create larger lightning bolts in the auditorium.

Another well attended attraction was the Human Powered Snow Cone maker. There were more kids than adults in the line but anyone can make a snow cone on the giant hamster wheel. (Watch Elisabeth and Jonah make theirs.)
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The kids enjoying the snow cones they made at Maker Faire Orlando 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

How to Get Started Homeschooling a Kindergartener

English: Source: http://historyproject.ucdavis...
English: Source: Public Domain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Occasionally, I get questions about how to get started homeschooling. I recently took the time to write out a response to someone asking specifically about curriculum for Kindergarteners and thought I would share my thoughts here. My experience in homeschooling is limited to elementary grades at this point. But, since I do have a 2nd and 3rd grader who have only been homeschooled, I can speak from a certain amount of experience and, as such, I can at least offer some suggestions.

One big thing to keep in mind is that there is an extremely broad range of homeschool approaches from A) a total dedication to unschooling or child-lead learning to B) bringing an entire classroom home complete with lesson plans and chalkboards. There is a very large gap in between and I fall somewhere toward the middle. I consider my teaching style eclectic. Some people have more of a Charlotte Mason style while others do Unit Studies (I love Unit Studies but they can be a lot of work for mom). 

Being eclectic means that I pull from a lot of different methods doing things very free form. I will switch things up as opportunities present themselves or topics of interest come up. But I also have things that I can pull off the shelf and continue on from where we left off last time (like our Math curriculum or First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind). Other homeschooling parents are much more scheduled and make plans for the whole year. I have a general idea of where I want to go and I don’t always follow the straightest path in getting there. But I like it that way. The freedom and flexibility of schedule and topics in my opinion is the best thing about homeschooling. A lack of confidence by the parent is one of the biggest hindrances to homeschooling. So if this bit of advice helps break through that barrier, then I have accomplished my goal in sharing! When I started out, I was very unsure of myself. Now, I can’t imagine not homeschooling my kids. Often, I am learning along with them and, for the most part, we have fun in the process.

So, if you have one or more little ones at home and you are considering homeschooling, here are some curriculum suggestions that have worked for us.

When it comes to Kindergarten and 1st grade, I recommend focusing on reading and writing and simple number recognition and counting.

I personally found the idea of teaching my child to read a little intimidating because I think English is very illogical. A friend recommended “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 easy lessons” to me and I ended up teaching both my son and my daughter to read using this curriculum. It is great because everything is written out verbatim - what you say and what the student is to do.

One thing all parent-teachers should keep in mind regardless of the subject is that every child is different and has different aptitudes and preferences. My now 9 year old son has to be encouraged to read 2 chapters in a chapter book where as my 7 year old daughter reads two chapter books a day and has read Heidi and the Secret Garden. My son can and does read but he prefers perusing nonfiction books.

Upon overhearing a conversation about Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy, I bought the book. I have been interested in getting the corresponding curriculum for some time, but I have put off diving into it because of the expense of the teaching materials. They do have a kindergarten (ages 4-7) curriculum called Foundations.
From the website: In Foundations students gain phonemic awareness, learn to read and write the 74 basic phonograms, and increase reading fluency through structured but playful activities. The innovative Rhythm of Handwriting™ method aids students in developing fluid handwriting. Step by step, students grow as readers, moving from phrases to sentences to paragraphs to books.
My kids can write and read already so I will opt for the Essentials curriculum if I choose to get this.

If you end up going with a curriculum like Foundations it has most of what you need as far as curriculum for a kindergarten/1st grader as handwriting is included. A math workbook from any local store to begin working through would make a good supplement.

It was apparent early on that my son was a lefty and the thought of teaching him to write caused me some consternation. When I shared this at a small homeschool conference that I attended a few years ago several folks recommended Handwriting Without Tears. After some research, I was sold and bought a workbook and teacher’s guide. It really did wonders and the funny thing is my lefty (may take his time but he) writes beautifully.

There are a lot of great math curriculums out there. But one shouldn’t feel the need to jump into a formal curriculum in Kindergarten. At first, I just picked up some Kindergarten workbooks here and there and we worked on learning to count and shapes. If your child is ready in 1st or second grade then a more formal math curriculum can be helpful. We use Singapore Math. I was intimidated by it at first but once we did a couple of lessons I found it very simple to follow and I saw how the teaching methodologies were much superior to the the ones I learned in grade school.

Some other popular curriculums include MathUSee, Math Mammoth, and Saxon Math.

This is key - especially at first. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself or your kids. Kindergarten should be fun. Get outside. Observe. Go to the library. Read to them - a lot. Play with them. Color with them. Talk with them. They are going to be learning for a long time and you potentially teaching them for equally as long, so start out slow and keep it light. And don’t feel like you have to make a classroom at home. Keep it super simple at first and go from there. And don't forget that your relationship is more important than anything else.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Homeschool Science: Plant Absorption

We picked up this book at the Science Center: Cool Biology Activities for Girls by Kristi Lew. Here are the components and result from her first experiment on plant absorption.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Maker Faire Inspired Weaving and Crocheting

cardboard loom
We attended Maker Faire Orlando at the Orlando Science Center last weekend. The kids saw a lot of cool crafts and tech during those two days. Events like this always inspire us to get creative. 

One of the activities that really got Elisabeth's attention was this very simple weaving project on a cardboard loom. 

So this week I took one of those lovely 50% off coupons from Michael's and bought her a ALEX Toys Craft Fashion Weaving Loom. She immediately set to work on her first creation. 

We'll see what she ends up making next. She has aspirations for a scarf and blanket. 

Her enthusiasm has rekindled my own interest in crocheting. I think I'm going to have to watch some videos or join a knitting club to get beyond the basic stitches though.
Showing off her completed project
Starting a new weave on her loom with my crocheting instruction book lying nearby

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Daddy is Teaching Computer Science

My husband recently told me he found a free computer science curriculum called CS Unplugged: Computer Science without a Computer. My response was, "Great! When are you going to teach us?" He is the computer programmer after all.

After dinner tonight, we started in with the first lesson. I enjoyed playing student; one of the biggest perks of homeschooling is how much I learn along with the kids. However, it us not often that daddy plays teacher.

I was very impressed with the first lesson and, as a result, I now get binary numbers. So far, the curriculum seems very straightforward. I could probably handle it, but don't tell my husband I said that. Nevertheless, it's good to know the instructor doesn't need to be a computer programmer or have a degree in computer science.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Corbridge: A Roman Town

The last stop on our tour of Hadrian's Wall was the remains of Corbridge: A Roman Town. Corbridge is significant for several reasons - the most obvious being the easily discernible stratification of several eras of Roman construction.

During the Roman occupation of the the British Isles, forts were constructed to secure areas of conquest. However, there was a secondary benefit. Roman soldiers meant opportunities for trade. So villages would spring up outside the forts. This process was a convenient way to Romanize (or civilize) the occupied area. Corbridge became one of two successful Roman towns in the area around Hadrian's Wall (the other being Carlisle). While Corbridge was growing and inhabited right up to the end of the Roman occupation, there was very little development thereafter in contrast to Carlisle. The Roman remains there are buried beneath a castle and modern town. But Corbridge is surrounding by rural lands lending itself to much more extensive excavations. Therefore, the remains of at least four forts built one on top of the other are apparent followed by a large legionary supply base and a full-blown town. Subsidence of the upper layers shows is the first clue that the town was built on top of previous forts.
The undulation of the ground in the center reveals settling due to the underlying Roman construction
I believe this was a granary - ventilation kept out the wet and pests
Subterranean drainage system
Storage Room
The museum at Corbridge houses a variety of items uncovered in the area including Roman armor and other items found as part of the Corbridge Hoard and the Corbridge Lion which is believed to be a gravestone.
Hunt cup from Corbridge Roman Town
Corbridge Lion
See our tour of Hadrian's Wall on YouTube