Three Girl Pile-Up

…adventures of our homeschooling family

Month: October, 2008

Her debut performance

I come from a theatrical family. My mother was a professor in the Theater Department at the University of Illinois, and my brother now works for a big children’s theatre in Milwaukee. From the time we were pretty small, my brother and I were called upon whenever there were roles for kids. We both continues performing as we got older, although I basically gave it up when I finished college.

Maggie has just taken her first steps continuing the family traditions. in “Dracula’s Night Out,” she played both Dr. Jeckyll….

(that’s Mr. Hyde she’s sharing a lab coat with)…and also Scratch the dog, a part she was born to play, I think….she’s certainly had enough practice pretending to be a dog around the house.

I admit to being a terrible theatre snob, and I’ve been really pleased with this experience for Maggie. The emphasis has seemed to really be on having fun, which seems appropriate for this age. And my goodness, Maggie had a wonderful time!

Maggie wouldn’t let me leave without signing her up for the next session! (And the big thrill is that her grandparents will be in town for the Februrary performance).


Yes, I’m still here…

but I’m in Chicago visiting family for the week. Still dealing with some computer computer (at home) is back up and running, but iPhoto mysteriously is not…and we had an incident  yesterday involving tea and my brother’s laptop.  I have a big file full of photos I look forward to sharing once I’m home again.

Happy Halloween!

Even better than Baskin-Robbins

When I was a kid, every Friday after school my dad took us to our local Baskin-Robbins for an ice cream cone.  And while I flirted with a variety of exotic flavors like Quarterback Crunch and Pink Bubble Gum, my favorite standby was–and is to this day–good ol’ Chocolate Chip.  So when we found ourselves with a bounty of glorious milk and cream and eggs from a local farm, it seemed only right to attempt a batch of our own chocolate chip ice cream.

We started with the vanilla ice cream recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. (I realize you can’t actually access the recipe without a subscription, sorry about that.  For the record, the $20 I spend each year for my on-line membership is worth every penny.)  I’m not sure that I’ve actually ever made ice cream with a custard base, although I remember my mother telling me as a child that this was the secret to my great-grandmother’s legendary peach ice cream.  Anyway, the recipe was fairly simple, and the fresh ingredients were glorious.  Would you look at the color of those egg yolks?

Maggie enjoyed using the candy thermometer to monitor the temperature of the custard…

…and both the girls enjoyed balancing the custard bowl over an ice bath to cool it down.

Fortunately, we had a busy day, so it wasn’t too hard to wait the many hours needed for the custard to get nice and cold.  While we ate dinner, the ice cream maker worked its magic.

The idea for the next step came from the wonderful cookbook The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz.  I had always assumed that chocolate chip ice cream that was filled with chocolate flakes just had grated chocolate stirred in.  From Lebovitz I learned that the this is the standard Italian style of chocolate chip ice cream, called stracciatella.  To get this effect, melted chocolate is poured into the ice cream in a steady stream at the end of churning.  (No pictures of this, as it was definitely a multi-handed operation.)

The immediate result was a bit soft due to the warm chocolate, but there were no complaints from the crowd.  In fact, I think their exact words were, “This is the best ice cream in the whole world!”

More chemistry (with videos!)

There is clearly something magical about mixing and “doing chemistry,” because we’ve been at it again.  It started when Anna brought me a tiny grater and container and wanted to do some experiments involving grating cheese.  Reluctant to part with any of my precious raw-milk cheeses,  I set her up with a plate of samples to test, ranging from baking soda to olive oil to sprinkles.  (Scientists have a name for this, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it is.)  I filled her container with vinegar, gave her a dropper, and let her have at it.

The cocoa powder and the sprinkles were pretty fun, as was the vinegar.  No big surprise, the most fun were the baking powder and baking soda, which bubbled like crazy.  Anna loved that.

(not the greatest photo, but I just love that look on her face.)

Of course, this was only the first round.  Soon, colored water and a new round of powdered reagents were added to the mix.  Eventually, the careful droppering gave way to pouring.

It wasn’t long before Maggie caught wind of what we were doing, and each sister had a station set up for doing her own experiments.

Maggie suggested we take some video of her experiments, so here they are.  The poor quality is due to recording it on the video setting for my still camera, but it gives you an idea of what she was doing.

I can’t wait to see what crazy experiments we get up to next!

Actually, even a seven-year-old can make it.

Last week, Maggie came up to the computer as I was doing a little surfing around, looking for some recipes to insert into our dinner rotation.  I was looking at a favorite source, the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recipe page.  While I was checking out the sweet potato quesadillas, something else entirely caught Maggie’s eye: “Holiday Corn Pudding a Nine-Year-Old Can Make.”  Never one to shirk from a challenge, Maggie thought that probably even a seven-year-old like herself was up to the task.  So we printed out the recipe and made plans to include it in the week’s meals.

If I’m lucky–and the stars align–around about dinner-making time, the girls are fully involved in an elaborate imaginative game.  This was the case when the time arrived to make the corn pudding, so I thought I might be on my own.  But when I told Maggie that it was time to make dinner, she seamlessly shifted the game to fit the task at hand.  Suddenly we were a family in colonial times, and she was the big sister in charge of making dinner AND taking care of her little sister.  Somehow she bounced back and forth between finding things for Anna to do and putting together the pudding.  By her side, I was making the aformentioned quesadillas and wondering at this flurry of activity that I could never have coordinated myself.

We tweaked the recipe a little, using fresh parsley and cilantro instead of the dried herbs, and using cheddar cheese instead of gouda.

Maggie wouldn’t let any of us help, doing everything from preheating the oven to greasing the pan.

The product of her efforts was so delicious that we made it again last night, a double batch this time.  The scenario was a little different–Maggie was chef, and I was her sous chef.

It’s really fun to watch the pleasure that Maggie gets from following a project through from start to finish, completing each step along the way herself.  It seems that this is another important thing to remember as we homeschool; Maggie needs opportunities to work independently and get the satisfaction that comes with her accomplishments.

Best of all, we get to enjoy the fruits of her labors.  Steve had corn pudding for a bedtime snack last night.

Check out the 7th Carnival of Green Crafts!

The Carnival of Green Crafts is a bi-monthly event sponsored by Crafting a Green World; in their words, “a celebration of all things eco and crafty.”  Check out Carnival #7 here, which includes a link to our project making recycled paper.  Enjoy!

We love the Eno River.

One of the most wonderful things about the place that we live is the abundance of beautiful natural spaces.  Right out our door, we have woods and a creek…although we live in the middle of an older neighborhood in the middle of our small city.  Just a short drive away is Eno River State Park, in particular a favorite stomping ground of Steve’s.  I admit I had never been inside the park before we met, but we spent many a courting afternoon hiking along the trails.  It’s really an amazing place–this piece of unspoiled woods and river right in the middle of town.

Since Anna was born, I haven’t spent nearly as much time out hiking.  Instead, Steve often takes the girls to the Eno for hiking and water play so that I can grab a few hours to myself.  Last weekend, though, the weather was just too beautiful to resist, and we spent part of both Saturday and Sunday “with our whole family!” (so said Anna) getting a dose of the river.

It was fun to be a fly on the wall with Steve and the girls.  They all know the river and its paths so well (unlike me), and have their own rituals–landmarks to notice, things to collect, places to climb.  Steve is so in his element here, and I love getting to see him sharing both his love of the natural world and his keen eye with our daughters.

There are so many things I love about the Eno.  Perhaps most of all, the way that my whole body seems to relax as we descend along the path to the river, Anna racing ahead of us with that exuberant little-person joy of being free in the woods.

Ahhhh.  A dose (or two) of the Eno each week is definitely a good idea.  I think the dishes can wait.

We made a motor!

Many, many months ago, I picked up this kit on a clearance table somewhere. On a recent afternoon when the girls were getting squirrelly, I pulled it out to see if we could have some electricity fun.

One thing I realized while working on this: while I am very much a science geek, I’m really a biology-and-chemistry geek much more than a physics geek. I don’t know much about physics and electricity, and it’s not very intuitive for me. I suspect that it is generally harder to grasp because it’s more abstract than the life sciences, but perhaps that’s just my own bias. At any rate, this was an interesting process for me, because I was really out of my comfort zone in terms of expertise. In some ways, this was a little frustrating, as I had fewer resources to fall back on when we had trouble; at the same time, it was great to find myself in the role of learner alongside the girls.

The first project in the book was to make an electromagnetic motor. This involved wrapping wire and sanding and bending paper clips–all very satisfying. Then we hooked it up to the battery, and….nothing. Tweaked it here and there, and still nothing. Put it aside for several hours and came back to it, looking over the instructions once again. I was about ready to give up for the time being, when
Anna suggested that we try another battery. Figuring it was worth one last shot, I substituted the battery, and shazam! our little coil was spinning. We all cheered out loud.

The only other project in the kit we’ve tried so far was a little generator, which was less satisfying–the burst of power was very short, and the kids couldn’t really get it to work themselves. I’m thinking about trying Snap Circuits, which seem to be well designed for learning about and having fun with electricity without requiring so much fine motor finesse.

Maggie and I are looking forward to making some of the other things in the kit, though, including a radio and a telegraph. I’m not sure how much she’s understanding about how these inventions work, but the satisfaction of putting them together and watching them flash or click or spin is plenty of thrill for both of us.

Art and War

Maggie has for a while been asking for “art lessons,” so together we’ve been working through the first book by Artistic Pursuits. I like the lessons pretty well, and Maggie loves them. I like that each lesson includes a work of art to discuss. Part of the excitement is also that we bought a set of special art supplies to go along with the book–drawing pencils, watercolor crayons, etc.–and we pull them out specifically out for doing the lessons. Plus I think there is something about working through a book that gives her some concrete evidence that she is learning and making progress. Interesting that she craves that, since I’m doing my best to remember that we don’t need it!

This week’s lesson was on observation, and the plan was to go on a nature walk (i.e. run around the backyard) and draw things that we saw. The rain thwarted that, so instead I set up a bunch of found nature items on our screen porch.

Meanwhile, Anna and I pulled out her decks of cards to play some War. Anna has played this game before with my dad, but I was recently inspired by Let’s Play Math to get it going again–how can you resist a description like “The Game that is Worth 1,000 Worksheets“? She suggests making “math decks” by removing all the face cards from the deck. This opens up all sorts of new possibilites, starting with basic War, in which the person with the highest card wins. After that, you can move on to addition War–each person turns up two cards, and the one with the highest sum wins. Then there’s subtraction War, and multiplication…check out the website for lots of other suggestions. Anna and I started with basic War. When Maggie joined us, the girls decided to try addition War; I thought Anna would need us to do the adding for her, but she surprised us by counting up her cards for herself.

It’s pretty exciting that Anna’s getting big enough to be able to play these kinds of games with us. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the only way Maggie and I could play a game would be when Anna was asleep, or else the pieces inevitably ended up swept onto the floor by some little hands. Something tells me it won’t be long before Anna gets in on the Scrabble action around here…

Even botched brioche is pretty good.

For some time now, Maggie has been wanting to do a complicated baking project. Twist my arm. Originally she got it in her head that she really wanted to make puff pastry, but as it turns out, this was more because it sounded cool than because she really knew what it was. I pulled out A Passion for Chocolate, a now out-of-print book that I recently recovered from the depths of our basement. Rose “The Cake Bible” Levy Beranbaum translated this French pastry cookbook for the American kitchen, and it contains marvelous and extremely involved projects. (If you like this sort of thing, it’s definitely worth the 64 cents it’s now selling for on Amazon!) Anyway, we first looked at pain au chocolat, but I must admit that I was daunted by the prospect of making croissant dough from scratch. A good alternative seemed briochins, which were little pockets of brioche dough wrapped around bars of dark chocolate.

Brioche is a very eggy, buttery yeast dough. For the kids, I think the best part was kneading in a LOT of soft butter by hand.

Brioche has a long, slow rise, much of which happens in the refrigerator. So the dough wasn’t actually ready to form until the next morning. As I pulled the dough out of the fridge, I remembered that we added half the eggs in the first part of the mixing, but I was pretty sure that we hadn’t added the rest. I re-read the recipe and realized that indeed, we had missed a step entirely–the one in which we added another 4 eggs! (This also explained why the dough was so stiff, and probably didn’t rise very much). In a last ditch effort to salvage the project, I beat the eggs into the cold dough, an effort that was only somewhat successful. But we forged on, rolling out the dough and shaping it around the chocolate.

We formed them and left them for their final rise, and rise they did, thankfully. They puffed and browned pretty nicely in the oven, though I would say that the texture left something to be desired. Given how badly we botched the recipe, though, I’d say they came out great! And let’s face it, how bad can warm pastry filled with chocolate really be?