Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Caspers Wilderness Park, located on Ortega Hwy (a freeway alternate to the Inland Empire that winds through the Santa Ana mountains and spits you out in Lake Elsinore) is one of the places that really starts getting you into the local mountains of Orange County. I recently took the kids to their Wildflower event and even on a cloudy day, this place is beautiful. Right next door to Caspers is the Tree of Life Nursery that specializes in California Native Plants and often hosts talks on Native Plant gardening; it's a smallish, but great place to learn. 

They had a booth with displays of our local flora

Apparently, we didn't have much rain early on this season so we're not seeing much of a show of Wildflowers this Spring - at least that's what the rangers tell me, but in some places, there are flowers galore. Like the hill I drive by every day; on one side it's a perfect yellow blanketed in mustard blooms, then on the other side it is a peachy orange covered with sticky monkey flower.

My friend Isabella pointed out that if you touch the very center of the stigma on a monkey flower, it closes up as if to say "I'm pollenated, thank you. Go find another!" Isn't that fascinating? Here's a not so great video of it. You really have to try it yourself to see.

Here's a new beauty for me this year - Farewell to Spring. Don't you just love that name? They are reminiscent of Poppies, yet unmistakable with their blood red patches. They're blooming (of all places) in the parking lot at San Joaquin.

Thanks to an Audubon Pocket Guide I picked up randomly at a used library book store, I've started learning more about flowers. Last week, Isabella and I sat and took a closer look at composite flowers like these:

Encelia "California Sunflower"


A less mature Dandelion?

This part in the back is called the "involucre" which consists of bracts.

Here are petals from each - well, in composite flowers each 'petal' is actually a flower in itself because it has all the parts necessary to produce a seed. These are the ray flowers - the outer flowers.

 Here is a cross section of the California Sunflower. You can see the outer ray flowers, and the inner 'disk' flowers are very different.

Here are each of the disk flowers. The top left ones from the California Sunflower are clearly showing the yellow curled stigma and I believe the purplish part right below are the anthers. On the very bottom set from the dandelion, you can see the white feathery "pappus" which creates the globe of feathers the kids love to blow away. It's their wings that end up carrying the seeds far away to start again.

Here's a closer look at the dandelion's outer vs. inner flowers. You can see the one on the left is more mature. In both, you can see the ovary at the bottom where the seed will come from.

I've come away from this wondering if each of these individual flowers within the composite flowers need a bee to pollinate them or if they are somehow equipped to reproduce on their own. It seems every dandelion produces hundreds of seeds, but I can't imagine a bee has gotten to each one.

In any case, the amazing thing is that this is the first time in all my life I have really looked this closely at a flower. And isn't that just how nature study is? It's been there... all along.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Gift of Time

One of my favorite things about reading Robinson Crusoe was his thoughtful reflections on what was happening in his life. The author gave us a window into the thought process in Crusoe's mind as his character is forged through circumstances hand placed in his life by God Himself.

I was reminded of this today as I read Carroll Smith's blog "Some Thoughts on The Sabbath of Learning". Smith writes:
The time to ponder, reflect and consider is a rare commodity for children and is considered ... “unimportant and superficial.”  

...Time to process learning and to integrate it deeply within one’s self isn’t allowed.  There is no time for the sacred process of internalizing what one is learning.  This is quite tragic in its effect on children because children need time to internalize information and when they do not have that time they often tune out or disengage.

...the purpose of education is not to teach and encourage students to gain more data so they can get a great paying job, but to live all of life and to live “excellently and deeply.”  The problem then is that children are hurried and scurried day after day to memorize (quadratic equations, for example, with no conceptual understanding) but not to live richly and deeply or to love wisdom. 

Children need time to reflect.

In vol 1 pg 154, CM says:  
...thinking, like writing or skating, comes by practice. The child who has never thought, never does think, and probably never will think; for are there not people enough who go through the world without any deliberate exercise of their own wits? The child must think, get at the reason why of things for himself, every day of his life...
This is one of the reasons why books are read slowly; it allows the child time to chew on their books rather than devour them without ever really tasting them. It also affords plenty of time for the child's life to happen and be contrasted with their books. Because what is a character building, life giving education if it isn't personal?

Thought and imagination grow in time and space. As we cart our kids from one activity to the next, sign them up to fill every spare moment for this learning and that, turn on the TV, the video game, the music to fill the void... are we affording them time to think?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shakespeare King Henry V

We've completed reading through Henry V, our first Shakespeare play!

Well, we'd read many of his plays in story form in Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, which I'm now re-reading with my 8yo son, but this was our first 'real' play in full Shakespeare language.

Here's a list of the Lamb's tales we read over the first three years (YR1 - YR3) in AO:

YR1/Wk7 - Midsummer Night's Dream
YR1/Wk9 - The Tempest
YR1/Wk16 - As You Like It
YR1/Wk19 - The Winter's Tale
YR1/Wk29 - King Lear
YR1/Wk32 - Twelfth Night
YR2/Wk1 - The Two Gentlemen of Verona
YR2/Wk7 - Romeo and Juliet
YR2/Wk15 - All's Well That Ends Well
YR2/Wk19 - Cymbeline
YR2/Wk26 - Macbeth
YR2/Wk35 - The Comedy of Errors
YR3/Wk4 - The Merchant of Venice
YR3/Wk7 - Pericles, Prince of Tyre
YR3/Wk14 - Taming of The Shrew
YR3/Wk19 - Measure for Measure
YR3/Wk28 - Much Ado About Nothing
YR3/Wk36 - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

We keep track on note cards or a legal pad as we read because the plot and characters always twist and turn and disguise themselves and use different names. I'm sure my silly sketches will forever be tied to Shakespeare in their minds. (And yes, that says UK! It should say England, I know, but apparently quickness overrides correctness when I'm reading Shakespeare!)

Additionally, in YR3, Term 2 we read Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare by Peter Vennema and Diane Stanley, a fun picture book which talks about the kinds of plays he wrote, the Globe, Queen Elizabeth's love of plays, how we really don't know what his exact name is, and many more interesting things including a surprising list of common phrases and words we owe to his pen like "tongue-tied" and "lie low" and "green-eyed jealousy" and "without rhyme or reason" and "eyesore".

With all this, my daughter loved Shakespeare heading into the full language version and looked forward to the readings - she didn't know any better. AO recommends one play per term, we took two since it was our first and this was a play that was completely unfamiliar to us.

Additionally, before beginning, I talked to her about just reading through these without any expectation other than that we would grow familiar with the sound of his language and read through to the end regardless of what we 'get' or don't 'get'. There would be no narration, although we did talk about our readings afterwards. This took the pressure off and allowed us just to be spectators for a while. I also knew it would get difficult at points so this set the stage for pressing through; there would be no quitting Shakespeare.

We read about two or three scenes per week and for the first three weeks or so, she picked characters and read their parts, stumblingly. After that, I read all the parts with her following along in her book.

They giggled through the gift of tennis balls and we talked about that possibly being some kind of novelty at the time (the blind leading the blind here!).

My 8yo son, who listens in to my daughter's readings, had fun with me on a nature day at that time, following the idea of the French ambassadors he sent the second youngest Johnson boy over to me to demand his lunch! So I sent him back with threats that if he didn't come and get his lunch himself, he would have none! It was fun.

I worked on my French pronunciation which is always fun :)

We had tears one day when she complained that she had no idea what was happening, so I reminded her what we said about just growing to know his language. I read through to the end of the scene while I cuddled her in my best "I know it's hard sometimes but we'll get through this" way.

We laughed out loud at the exchange between Pistol, the French Soldier and the poor boy trying to translate.

We read the St. Crispin's Day speech, which I told them was famous, I don't know how I knew that... she didn't respond in awe, as I'd secretly hoped - she probably won't even remember it - and that's okay, because all we're doing for now is working towards understanding a language. These things take time. And if someday she needs to know it, she can Google it in two seconds like I did!

They giggled at Fluellen's P's - his b's are p's! And listened attentively as they wanted to hear it again. We didn't know if it was intentional or maybe something with the language back then? Nonetheless, it made for fun. And I always think leaving these 'unknowns' gives them something fun to discover someday for themselves if they care to.

At the end, my daughter asked about 'Kate' "Does she love him Mommy?"

And that led to a short discussion on reasons for marriage and what it meant to be a noble woman. She may have loved him or not, I didn't know I told her. To which she replied "I think she was agreeing to it, it seemed like she was okay with it at the end."

Is that what all we we're supposed to get from King Henry V? Are we doing it all wrong? I really don't know! I'm sure many experts out there would find it laughable the hack job I'm doing with it. But it doesn't matter, because I have no expectations other than to read Shakespeare with my kids. After all, most 2nd and 4th grade kids aren't reading it at all, what have we to lose with our feeble attempts?

I look forward to being able to read these together, each taking our own parts as the kids' reading improves. Apparently my husband enjoys Shakespeare too so maybe he'll join in the mix, his Canadian French would be an improvement over mine.

Next up: Merchant of Venice!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Things We Learn While Gardening

It's a little funny that I'm writing about the benefits of gardening, seeing how I'm happy if my plants survive the season, my composting hasn't decomposed at all lately, all my red worms fled their Rubbermaid habitat, and I'm occasionally in danger of getting kicked out of my community garden plot. In order to not exaggerate my failures, I should say that do have a pretty constant supply of vegetables and herbs which we eat due to my gardening, and I am a pretty capable weeder. And in the four year that I've had a 20' x 30' garden plot, my boys have gone from helping me with my garden to having their own garden bed in addition to helping with the rest, to now wanting to maintain a second bed all their own. So overall, I love what I'm seeing at my garden.

Recently I mentioned to my boys that I love how much we've learned through our gardening work. They both were surprised to hear me say that, thinking that they hadn't learned anything. Either they didn't remember a time when they didn't know what they know now about plants, or they didn't consider the little bits of knowledge gained here and there significant. Our talk continued, and as I listed what we now know about gardening, learned through our attempts and mistakes in our plot, they agreed. We have learned so much.

Sometimes on the drive to my garden plot, I ask myself why I keep up this project. That's when I recite this list to myself, a list of some of my favorite things we've learned through maintaining our garden plot. The following is that list:

When we show up at our garden plot and our blackberry canes are full of flowers, my boys cheer, knowing that means lots of berries for us soon. We have previous to this seen in botany books that the fruit develops from the flower's ovary. But it is a much more exciting thing when berries are involved, especially when those are berries which lead to pie.

We have also seen how even something as sweet as wonderful as a ripe blackberry can dampen your spirits after weeks of berry picking. What starts as a labor of love can become a tedious necessity. And that is Solomonic wisdom for a boy of 8 or 9 year old.

We can now visually recognize many of the plants which produce the vegetables we see at the grocery store. A few years ago a brussel sprout was a thing without a stalk or huge protective leaves. Now we know it's history.

My children now know that the round reddish thing labeled 'tomato' at the grocery store has nothing to do with its garden counterpart. We know how vegetables are supposed to taste.

We now know that if you plant new plants above the level of the soil and build a little mound of soil to cover the exposed roots, that mound will quickly rinse away, leaving you with exposed roots (and likely dead plants). We have learned other ways to kill plants too.

Plants and pets and babies all have regular needs that can't be overlooked if you want things to turn out well. It doesn't matter if you really don't feel like it today.

My kids know the joy that often (although not always) comes from working hard, working in dirt, and being surrounded by interesting bugs and accomplishing something in the earth.

Not long into this whole gardening adventure, my then six year old son said, “I wish Adam never sinned.” This longing was provoked by weeding. My kids are learning the effects of the curse are unrelenting and widespread. We need the Savior who comes to make His blessings know far as the curse is found.

Hawks hunt rabbits. Rabbits each lettuce. Caterpillars eat leaves. Birds eat caterpillars. We see it all, all in our little 20' x 30' ecosystem.

Where else could my boys have an opportunity to shovel mulch and manure and to push a wheelbarrow? And 8 year old boys need to shovel mulch and manure and to push wheel barrows.

If you know a lot about plants or gardening, I know my list is not impressive. But hopefully next year, my list of gardening attainments will be even longer. But if not, at least we will have memories of working together and enjoying the smell of the soil and exhilaration of being finished with our work. And hopefully lots of blackberry pie too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Foreign Language Plays

This school year, my nature group tried our first attempt at foreign language plays. It has always seemed out of the ordinary to me that of us ten or so moms, seven different languages are spoken or being studied. One mom is fluent in Japanese, another in Afrikaans, one in Armenian, and one is fluent in Danish. In addition, a few families are learning French, two are learning Spanish, and one is doing sign language. For those of us with a fourth grader or older, Latin is also being taught, along with our other foreign language. So I thought we should take advantage of this diversity and allow our kids to hear what their friends are learning. Each family prepared five minute skits. I loved seeing what each family came up with. They were all as different in concept as in languages.

Arica and Kristin teamed up for a skit of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. The three goats ate leaves and crossed the bridge...

...only to be opposed by a scary troll. Arica narrated their parts in Spanish.

The Lanes marched around and sang a cute Danish song for us.

Isabella had her whole family in a French dialogue which included a French song.

My boys played the part of French soldiers at a restaurant.

Ella was their shy waitress.

our French menus:

Not everyone in our group could be there that day, and we hated missing out on seeing out friends' productions. But we are planning to do this again sometime. After all the skits were performed, we shared food from the culture we are studying. The tamales almost made me switch to learning Spanish. But then the croissants brought me back to loving French.

There were moments preparing for our play when I felt like I and my children were making something shamefully less than excellent. Rather then memorizing Baudelaire's Les Fleur du Mal, we were working on a dialogue about whether there are good sandwiches at a fictional restaurant. But a foreign language play turned out to be a good way to test whether our French vocabulary is actually turning into something we can use in the Francophone world, or whether it is just an ever growing list of vocabulary. And it gave a feeling of purpose to working on our accents, because by using the wrong accent we were often not saying the same word as we intended. So in the end, I feel the value of the exercise outweighed the negative high school flashbacks I experienced. And I can't wait to do it again.