Sunday, June 16, 2013

Author Spotlight: Bonny Becker

We love to read at our house.  Library visits happen about once a week to replenish our supply of  books.  I wish I'd kept better records on our favorite stories.  Some have been forgotten, but others we've actually purchased because we loved them so much.   

Bonny Becker's books A Visitor for Bear and Bedtime for Bear are two beloved favorites at our house.

I think a good children's book needs to have: rich vocabulary, engaging pictures, and an interesting story.  If I don't like the illustrations, forget it!  I don't even bother with the book.  Kady MacDonald Denton does a fabulous job of portraying the stories.  Besides great illustrations, the vocabulary is fantastic in these books, and my kids use the words correctly in daily life.  (Recently my 3 year old used the word mournful.) The teacher in me loves that!  The stories are hilarious, which makes for an enjoyable read aloud.

Plus we've had all kinds of fun having tea parties and impromptu dramas to recreate these books.  One day we went out to eat at a restaurant that had a working fireplace.  My son flopped down in front of the "crackling fire" to warm his toes...just like Bear and Mouse did in A Visitor for Bear.  I was a bit humiliated as he made quite a fuss about the crackling fire, but he was absolutely delighted.   

(All of the photos were taken in 2012... I've been meaning to write about these books for a long time!)

I need to mention that there are two more books in the series about Bear and Mouse (small and gray and bright-eyed), but review them before you share them with your kids.  I waited for quite a while on The Sniffles for Bear as it mentions writing a will.  (Bear, over-dramatic about most things, has a cold and thinks that maybe he's going to die.)  A Birthday for Bear, was written to be an "easy reader", so the vocabulary was simplified for beginning readers to be able to read it on their own.  It lacks the charm of the other books, and honestly I think Bear is so rude that I didn't want my kids to hear the story.  They've since published a full-sized version of the birthday book, but I don't know if they've enriched the text or kept it simple.  Either way, preview it first to see whether you feel the message is appropriate for your little ones.

The kids and their cousin listening in as Gram reads AVisitor for Bear

Monday, May 6, 2013

Series for Young Readers: Trucktown

My son (age 5 1/2) is sometimes a reluctant reader.  He is always eager to have stories read to him, but he's not always keen to read books on his own.  So, I'm always looking for books that are interesting to him and easy enough that he can read them without help.  If he does engage and read an easy book, it builds his confidence and he's more apt to try it again.

One series he really enjoys is called Jon Scieszka's Trucktown.  The illustrations are funny and full of personality, and the characters are wacky and always in motion.  The text is very simple, but the stories are still interesting.  This is rare to find all of these qualities in an easy reader.  Most boys will really enjoy them.  My three year old daughter also finds them entertaining, probably because some of the vehicles are girls and the pictures are very colorful.

We just finished reading Truckery Rhymes together.  It is a hilarious re-write of common nursery rhymes.  For example, instead of "Pop Goes the Weasel", it says..."Pop! Blows the Diesel".  This book was more complicated than the other Trucktown stories, so I read it to the kids.  I think your family might find it entertaining as well.

Do you have any suggestions of fun books that are great for beginning readers?  Please share your suggestions in the comments.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Our Reading Curriculum for 2012-2013

One of the biggest tasks of homeschooling is choosing what curriculum or learning plan to use.  It is overwhelming to choose as there are so many options available.   Talking to other families who homeschool and doing a lot of research on-line has been invaluable in the decision making process.  Although I've been "homeschooling" our kids from the moment they were adopted, this school year was the first official year for us as our son is now five.  I wanted to share with you what we've done this year for reading. (Keep in mind that he's doing 1st grade reading this year.)  I apologize for how long this is, but hopefully it will be a help to you!  

There are tons of products out there for teaching a step-by-step approach to phonics.  In 2011, I purchased Hooked on Phonics (pre-K thru 2nd grade pack) to teach my son how to read.  It was a season in my life where I was constantly tired with one child who was energetic all day and another (newly adopted) who would not sleep at night.  I had to have a reading curriculum that would require little or no prep from me, and be engaging enough to interest my high octane four year old.  H.O.P. is definitely all of that, and it doesn’t require any handwriting in the early books.  It’s pricey, but a lot cheaper than preschool!  Now that I’m not exhausted all the time, I would not choose Hooked on Phonics as my go-to reading curriculum.  Since we have it, I’m using the preschool activities with our daughter.  However, I rarely use it with our son as we’ve found other books that suit us better.  We do use H.O.P. as a supplemental to get more practice in areas (like consonant blends) that challenge him.  We skip the companion videos completely as they seemed to decrease my son’s ability to focus.

What we really love for learning phonics…Explode the Code workbooks.  Yes, there’s writing, but we modify whenever possible to keep the frustration level down.  These workbooks are simple with silly illustrations and goofy sentences.  They teach phonics in a step-by-step sequence with lots of opportunity for practice, and the kids like them because they’re funny. There is a great three workbook series for pre-readers that I just purchased called Get Ready for the Code.  My daughter (age 3) and I are really enjoying book A, and it’s perfect for her ability level.  My son (age 5 ½ ) is currently working on Explode the Code book 3. We started using Explode the Code when H.O.P. got too challenging (it moves along quickly) for my son, and he began to strongly resist learning to read.  We took a break from the hard stuff and had fun going slowly through the blends in Explode the Code book 2.  Once we got through that book, he was back on track with reading and eager to read out loud with me again.

Rather than go right back to H.O.P. where we’d left off, I decided to start something fresh so we could distance ourselves from the frustration that had caused my son to plateau before Explode the Code.  Thanks to a good friend who homeschools, we decided to try the Pathway Reading Series.  There are 13 books in the series that range from first to eighth grade.   The first book is called First Steps, and is considered a beginning of the year first grade book.  It's hard to find these books, but Exodus Books always has them in stock as so many homeschool families love them.  They are very also very reasonably priced at $6.00 for a hard-bound book, and $2.50 for the workbooks.

Pathway Reading Series begins with First Steps (1st grade) and ends with Our Heritage (8th grade).

We all love this series of books!  My son and I read the stories aloud together and my daughter eagerly listens in.  I love the books because they are similar to what I had when I learned to read back in 1981.  I also chose these books because they teach values through the stories like sharing, obedience, kindness, and being helpful.  The characters are fascinating to my kids, and the stories engage their interest.  The books have simple black and white drawings.  These books were created for the Amish, so there are no pictures of people in them.   I like this because my kids are free to invent their own images of what the characters might look like.  They do enjoy the black and white illustrations of animals and farm life.

There are also workbooks that go along with each book.  The workbooks are very basic in appearance, but that’s fine with me.  I pick and chose which pages to do, focusing on activities that test comprehension, critical thinking, and grammar.  We skip a lot of busy work, and often I will write in the answers as the lines are too tiny for my son’s level of handwriting.  There are auditory tests where he has to circle the word I say, or chose the picture that matches the scenario I read about.  I especially like to do these pages since his answers give me a better understanding of his listening and comprehension skills. 

To round out our reading curriculum, we read aloud twice daily to both of our kids.  We often visit the library to have fresh stories to enjoy together.  I try to get books to engage each of my children individually and some books that they both will like.  We also get books with a CD so they can sit together and listen to a story being read to them.  Most nights, my husband has been reading a novel to the family.  He’s read: The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, Little House in the Big Woods, Stuart Little, and the entire series about Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.  Of course, there was some editing of certain things when it was inappropriate for little ears to hear.  I’ve been impressed with the kids’ ability to listen to a chapter and actually comprehend some or most of it.  They really enjoy this family time and often beg for another chapter.  Love it!

My husband reading The Gruffalo's Child to our two cuties.

A great resource to inspire reading together is a book called First Favorites by Veritas Press.  It recommends 13 different fairly well-known children’s books, some classic and some more modern.  After reading the book aloud, there are activity pages to do together.  It’s writing intensive, which we skipped for reasons already mentioned.  However, it was still fun for us to go beyond the story and do something fun together.  For example, after reading the story Blueberries for Sal, we learned about how bears hibernate.  We colored pictures of bears and then tucked the pictures away in closets so they could hibernate.  When spring arrived, we took our pictures out and celebrated that the bears woke up.  I also bought some blueberries and we made a blueberry pie! 

In a 2012 post, The Next Steps Toward Learning to Read, I mentioned some great books to check out for beginning readers.  These books are very easy so your just learning to read child can delight in reading a story to you. 

Got some great reading books or ideas to share?  Leave me a comment.  I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Fitness Pal

After my 30 day No Sugar Challenge, I decided to use an app called MyFitnessPal to help me track how many calories I eat every day.  My goal is to keep off the extra pounds that I lost during the sugar fast.  I'm not sure if I will only go 30 days with this new challenge, or keep it up for longer.

MyFitnessPal works. If you are wanting to lose weight, it really works!  Check out my husband's blog to read about his weight loss journey.  He has lost 35 lbs. in 100 days!!  I am so proud of him and how he has inspired many others to join him.  My husband's example and using this new app are definitely helping me keep myself in check.  In fact, I've even lost a pound in the 15 days I've been tracking my calories.  I'm happy with that since I'm eating enough to maintain my weight rather than trying to lose more.

M.F.P. is a free app, and easy to use.  Of course, it takes time (and can be a hassle) to track down labels and barcodes to find out how many calories are in your meals.  But the benefit is you start to develop healthy eating habits.  One of the most important habits is portion control.  We've learned to budget our calories.  We can eat whatever we want, but since we only get 1400 or 1500 calories a day we don't want to blow 1/3 of them on a cinnamon roll!  We have found that we eat more fruits and veggies and fewer processed foods since they are so high in calories.  At the end of the day, if we still have calories left we enjoy a treat.  Actually, I think we both aim to have leftover calories so we can have a cookie once the kids are asleep.  :-)

Here's one other bit of good news, you don't have to exercise!  If you do exercise, MyFitnessPal will give you more calories to eat on that given day.  So, if you really want that piece of pie you might go for a walk or run up the stairs for ten minutes.  My extended family is also using MFP.  My sister and mom were wanting to have dessert the other night but had both run low on calories.  So, they went for a jog around the neighborhood!  We all had a good laugh about that.

Well, what about you?  Are you tired of feeling like you are losing the daily battle to control your food cravings?  Try using MyFitnessPal, and get a friend or spouse to join you.  I promise that if you stick to the calories suggested you will see positive results!  Let me know how it goes.

October 2012, this picture really motivated my husband to make
some dietary changes.  

April 2013, after three months of using MyfitnessPal, my husband is 35lbs lighter!
This is the thinnest he's been in the 13 years we've been married.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Typical Homeschool Morning

When we started on the adventure of teaching our kids at home, I had no idea what a normal day should look like.  Perhaps you are also wondering how to get started.  Let me share with you some of the details of this morning so you can get a glimpse into our routine. (My son is five and my daughter is three.)

Here are the resources we used for today's lessons.

We started off at 10:00 am with handwriting pages that I’d printed out from  Yesterday, I noticed that my son was not writing his e’s or u’s properly, so I printed out the worksheets for extra practice.  Some of the pages were too simple for him, so I gave them to my daughter.  She likes to be included, and my son is an extrovert and prefers to have someone else working with him, so they were both happy.  

While my son worked independently, I sat on the floor next to my daughter and we counted eggs on her letter e worksheet.  I helped her write the numbers in the box.  Then we colored eggs that had capital E and lower case e on them.  We also had time to do the letter u page.  Once we finished that, I gave Marisa markers and she colored her pages.

That gave me time to help Kieran think of words that started with E, and write out the word egg.  We focused on staying in the lines and writing as neatly as possible.  I could tell he was getting frustrated after one page of handwriting, so I gave him the option to move on to math.  He was happy to skip the letter u worksheet.  I decided we could tackle that tomorrow.

I gave my son a brief explanation of the two math pages and hopped back to my daughter.  She was done coloring, so we moved on to reading.  I used a flip chart to review the –at words she’s been learning to read. The few words she needed to sound out, my son chimed in and sounded out with her.  (He gets distracted easily, so I had to remind him to move away from us and get his math done.)

These are the activities I did with my daughter today.  

Since Marisa got through the flip chart so easily, I pulled out her Hooked on Phonics preschool book and we hunted for pictures that started with the letter L.  By the end of that page, she was getting antsy to do something else.  I let her choose some stickers for her good work, and then she was off to play.  She plays quietly and independently- which is a huge blessing- so now I was able to give Kieran my undivided attention.

I must add that throughout the time I was helping Marisa, Kieran was interrupting to ask for help, or just to show off his work.  He is a brilliant boy, but often needs reassurance.  He is progressing at being able to finish a whole page, but when we first started kindergarten, he was not able to do three problems on his own.  This may be typical for some kids.  Thankfully, they all mature eventually and get past needing someone to hold their hand all the time.

Back to math…my son is doing Horizons math book 1.  It is actually quite easy for him, but because of his struggle with handwriting we are moving through it at a slower pace.  Today he was enthusiastic about the pages and wanted to do two extra pages.  Great!!  This is the beauty of homeschool.  We go at the pace of each child.  Too hard, slow down.  Too easy, move ahead.  Not working, find something else that does. 

Here is a peek at some of the pages my son did today.

So, we breezed through math and moved on to Explode the Code book 3. I modified the assignment to focus on just the phonics and skip the writing portion.  Asking him to do more handwriting at this point in the day would have pushed us both over the edge! My son did well, but struggled with reading plate vs. plane.  This was a clue to me that he’s not really looking at the whole word, but just enough of it to make a guess.  I made a note in his book to practice more words like these next time.  

After Explode the Code, we moved on to our final assignment: short and long vowel words.  I have a list of 18 short vowel words on a page. I put a plastic cover over the sheet so we can write on it with a Vis a Vis marker, erase, and use it again later.  I had him read the word can, then I wrote an e behind it to make cane.  When we got to man/mane it prompted an interesting discussion on the definitions of mane, Maine, and main.  Once we were done, I made a quick note of the words that were difficult for Kieran so we can practice those next time. 

I got this idea from working at Sylvan.  It's a great way to help your child practice the silent e rule.

By 11:00 my son’s attention span was spent.  He was eager to run to the window and watch his daddy mow the lawn.  While the kids watched my husband, I made brief notes on my iPad for our next class based on the progress and struggles we had today.  It took me about five minutes to complete.

That’s a fairly typical homeschool day.  Although the official learning time has ended, we are never really done teaching.  All day we will have teachable moments where we are imparting something to them.  But that’s a post for another day. 

Next time I will post more specifics on the books we are using this year as choosing curriculum can be one of the most daunting parts of jumping into homeschool.  

Friday, April 5, 2013

No Sugar Challenge Day 30 and Beyond

I did it!  I went 30 days without eating sugar.  It was harder than I expected, especially the last week as PMS struck and I found all my cravings for sweets came back.  I wanted to give up on the final few days, but why quit when the end was in sight?  So, I hung in there and completed the challenge.  Although it was tough, I'm so glad that I did the sugar fast.  I gained some valuable insights, both spiritual and physical.

First, I discovered that I was relying on sugar to help me feel better.  When I felt stress, exhaustion, self-pity, or frustration I would turn to sweets to alleviate the negative emotions.  Going through 30 days without my "sugar fix" definitely made me more understanding toward people who struggle with other types of addictions.

Second, I learned that God wanted me to turn to Him - not sugar - for emotional support.  Psalm 34:8 says, "Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who trusts in Him." There is a sweetness to God's presence, and as I turned to Him in my frazzled moments I was refreshed.  This is still a work in progress.  It's easy to reach for food to comfort, but turning to God takes discipline and practice.

There are three books I am reading that have been a great source of inspiration on this topic:
-Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food by Lysa TerKeurst
-The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
-Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young

Third, I realized I don't really need sugar.  Remember how I loved chai tea?  I broke my sugar fast on Easter by having a chai.  I was surprised to discover that it tasted like maple syrup mixed with hot water.  Crazy, that is not how I remember it tasting thirty days ago!  I've had a few chai teas since then, but I don't really care for it anymore.  Chocolate, on the other hand, is still delicious!

What's next?  I'm starting to plan ahead each day rather than waiting for hunger to strike and then deciding what I'll eat.  For the next thirty days, I've also decided to use My Fitness Pal.  It helps me count calories so I don't fall back into bad eating habits.  (I'll post more about My Fitness Pal in the future as it deserves a post of its own.)    

Although my challenge has ended, it is just the beginning of a journey to eat better and live better.  It's not just eating habits that I need to change, but also heart habits.  Every day I'm working at changing my perspective on things.  When I need help, I'm retraining myself to ask God to help me instead of seeking a momentary fix that doesn't really fix anything.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

No Sugar: Day 20

This challenge to avoid sugar for a month has been so educational.  After about two weeks of fasting sugar, I noticed that not eating sweet things wasn't hard anymore.  I didn't crave it insanely, and fruit seemed to satisfy my desire for something sweet.  I still wanted sweet things, but I was content without them.

Then I invited a group of ladies over to my house for coffee.

One gal brought muffins to share.  I thought it would be rude to not eat one, and I didn't wish to offend her.  So, I ate half of a muffin.  It had chocolate chips in it, and I tried to savor every bite.  It was a store bought muffin and wasn't bad, but it wasn't as amazing as I expected it to be.  Even though it wasn't fantastic, the other half of that muffin was so tempting to me!  I looked at it and longed to eat it for a day.  Finally I gave it to my kids so I wouldn't eat it.

After eating that half of a chocolate chip muffin, I felt like I was starting over on day one of my sugar fast.

I had terrible sugar cravings for about three days!  My mind was screaming at me, "Give me sugar!!"

I was so surprised at how my body reacted to just that little treat.  Thankfully, the feelings of insane craving have subsided and I'm once again content with my sugarless diet.

One thing that has helped me immensely is to find replacements for the foods I used to love.  I've purchased all kinds of tea to replace my beloved Chai.  When stress strikes, I get a cup of tea.  When I'm craving a pastry type of sweet, I eat gluten free rice Chex.  When I just want sweets, I have some kind of fruit.  When I make peanut butter and honey sandwiches for my kids, I have a pb and banana sandwich.  It's not bad!  I've tried applesauce on my peanut butter sandwich too.  That wasn't so great.  By far, my favorite treat is home made fruit smoothies.

As I'm nearing the end of my fast, I'm wondering what I should do now about sugar.  I don't want to avoid it for the rest of my life.  But I also don't want to be a slave to it.  I definitely don't want to go back to the sluggish, tired, pants feeling-too-tight living that I had before this challenge.  I guess these thoughts will be explored further on my day 30 post.