Thursday, March 27, 2014

Focus on What Matters

Anyone that has poked around The Zoo Crew, even the slightest little bit, surely has discovered that we are living a life a little less ordinary.  Life has a way of catching us off guard, turning us on our heels, and sending us in a whole different and unexpected direction.  I am not saying this is bad, per say.  It does however pose some challenges.  As the years have gone by we have learned more and more how to respond more effectively and transition more quickly to our new found place in life.

I have learned to pray more; more often, more fervently, and more specifically.  Life is SO MUCH easier when I start my day with prayer and bible study.  It is AMAZING the difference this one act can make on the quality of my day.  Beginning in prayer sets the tone for the day, and it centers my focus.  I am more conscious of my purpose and much more aware of what is truly important.

Listen to my words, Lordconsider my lament
Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. 
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.
 Psalms 5:1-3

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, 
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  
 Phillipians 4:6-7

Our newest transition involves two beautiful girls and a headfirst dive back into active homeschooling.  We have learned some things along the way, and we are working on making a safe and stable home for the entire family.  This means some trial and error has taken place, and we have had to learn a new way of living.  One thing that we do is to begin and end our day with biblical focus.  The kids love it, and it brings us together as a family.  So, not only am I beginning my day in the bible, but the children are as well.

Currently, we are reading the book of Luke.  We have traveled our way through the Old Testament over the last year, learning lessons through our previous curriculum. We loved it and look forward to more in depth study in the future.  Now, we are beginning the day with me reading an entire book from the bible.  Then Harmony reads aloud a complementary bit from another source reinforcing what we just read and helping her to grasp the scripture more fully.  All of the kids enjoy this part of our day, and it sets a nice tone.

I share this with you to demonstrate that we are focusing on what is important and cutting a lot of slack in other areas.  The biggest lesson that I have learned is that there are seasons in all of our lives, and the areas of most importance change with those seasons.  Through it all our foundation, our relationship with Christ, holds the highest importance.  It matters not if we travel the valley, climb the hills, or rest on a plateau.  Our connection with Christ is our life force.  It is our purpose; our guiding light.

And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: 
but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
- Ephesians 6:4

For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, 
but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
- Mark 10:45

For our family it has become essential to get back to the basics, find our center, and focus on the core.  Your basics, your center, and your core are very likely different than ours.  What it means for us now, during this season of our lives, is to slow down and focus on the basics.  We are learning to lean on Christ, respect ourselves and others, and to live life with an others focus instead of a self focus.  It is more challenging than you might think.

What does this mean for our family?

Aside from putting Christ first in our daily lives, each day we keep the same "schedule".  This means we try to have the same flow throughout each day.  The exact time on the clock may not be the same, but the order in which we do things is consistent.  This fosters a sense of security and stability for the kids, and it is remarkable the effect it has on their behavior.  This becomes completely evident when we stray from it too long!

You see?  I am really not a schedule person.  I am a total unschooler at heart, and I LOVE freedom!  However, the most important thing in the happiness, well being, and educating of my children is by far for me to maintain a consistent schedule.  This means 24/7, even on Sabbath!  UGH!  I do it kicking and screaming all the way, but each time I get too "relaxed" with my approach I am quickly reminded of the error of my ways.  So, we keep a schedule of sorts, and the kids thrive in knowing what to expect next.  

He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand, 
but the hand of the diligent maketh rich.
- Proverbs 10:4

In regard to "academics" I have also discovered that there is a season for things of a school nature as well.  We follow a basic outline, but it changes greatly based on our current circumstances, the needs and desires of our children, and even the weather.  Yes, the weather!  Life is seasonal, and learning is life.  So, it makes perfect sense that what we learn flows with the seasons.  I am excited for spring this year for possibly the first time ever.  We are on land now, and we have young children, and this winter was C-O-L-D.  We have projects waiting to be done, and we have children desperate to be outside.  This year will be my first year purchasing rain coats.  We will be outside rain or shine, as long as it is warm enough, all spring, summer, and fall for the first time ever in my life.  The land will not wait for us.  It will do its thing whether or not we are outside and active, so if we want to achieve the plans we have we need to work diligently.

In academics, now is a time for us to explore writing, reading, and math with excitement and interest, not drudgery.  I strive to create an environment rich with opportunity for learning in order to foster natural curiosity and interest.  So far, so good.  The difference is that we are fitting these core subjects in AROUND the things that foster character and family bonding.  Things like cooking, household responsibilities, playing games and doing puzzles, free play, writing to friends and family, doing kind deeds, and being helpful.

Trust me.  There was a time when I could not have approached life in this manner.  I was too busy washing the dishes and folding laundry to focus on the character building opportunity before me with my children.  Our unique circumstances have fostered a new desire for this batch of children currently in my charge.  I am more concerned about their heart, their soul, and their spirit.  I recognize that all those other things, the academics, will come in their own time, naturally.  They need not be forced, and it is all learning, all connected, and all important.  Sometimes we just need to adjust our focus.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mango Languages Review

Mango Languages Review

Our family has had the opportunity to use the beta version of Mango Languages Homeschool Edition.  It had always been my plan to learn Spanish with Avery.  We've done little things over the years using board books and using some phrases that I've managed to hold onto over the years.  It’s been a slow dipping of the toes into the shallow end of the language pool for us.

Now that the girls are here, and we've plunged head first back into the deep end of homeschooling, our approach of learning Spanish as part of our homeschooling journey has taken a little consideration on my part.  Mango Languages has been a great tool in helping me explore how we will implement foreign language into our homeschool.  I still haven’t fully decided exactly how we’ll go about it over the long haul, but we have been enjoying our sampling of the beta version of Mango Languages Homeschool Edition.

Accessing the Mango Languages online is a breeze.  Once we selected Mango Passport Spanish (Latin America) it took its rightful place in Harmony’s personalized profile page under her membership spaces.  She loves seeing her picture there!  All she has to do is click the link, and she’s off learning Spanish.  She easily picks up where she left off during the previous session.  It’s fun to hear her come out and say, “I know how to say good night in Spanish!”  She then proceeds in telling me, “Buenos noches!”  Every time she uses the program she practices what she's learned on us or asks us if we know how to say a certain word.  Through her exploration of Spanish we are all increasing our knowledge of the language.  It definitely has given her a little confidence boost and something to be proud of.  We’re not carrying on conversations yet or anything, but she is being introduced to another language in a very comfortable, easy to learn, non-threatening way.

Just for fun, I took the pre-test before having Harmony begin the journey of learning Spanish.  I absolutely love the way it’s set up.  The fact that you actually hear the word being spoken, and you can repeat it as many times as you like, makes it really easy to learn to speak the language properly.  There is even a feature that would allow you to speak into the computer and have your pronunciation analyzed, but unfortunately we do not have a microphone for my laptop.  This feature is very appealing to Harmony, and I may try to figure that out on our end for future use.

Mango Languages Review

Mango Languages Homeschool Edition in beta form has many fun and useful features available.  We primarily stuck to just using the actual language curriculum due to the age of the children in my home, but there is much more to offer the more experienced and/or older learner.  Mango Languages is designed for use by individuals age six through adult.  There are over 60 languages available to choose from with learning features that include things like progress assessments, built in journals, discussions, and wikis, collaborative learning spaces, eNote messaging, and chat rooms, and so much more.  In the future there will be the added features of enhanced tracking and progress monitoring, including seat time for students and parents, goals and personal lesson plans, and a resume and portfolio builder.

Mango Languages Homeschool Edition is offering the following introductory pricing:

1 subscription is $18/month or $125/year total
2 subscriptions is $28/month or $175 /year total                   
3 subscriptions is $38/month or $225/year total                   
4 subscriptions is $48/month or $275/year total               
5 subscriptions is $58/month or $325/year total
6 or more subscriptions receives a special group rate

More information on pricing and group rates is available on the website.

You can also learn more about Mango Languages via:

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Preparing for St. Patrick's Day

In our family we do two big celebrations each year.  With our family size I don't think I could put together more than that.  Over the years it has worked out that we gather once around Christmas and again for St. Patrick's Day.  Being Irish was always a big deal on my dad's side of the family.  It's the only heritage I was raised to know anything about.

When I was younger I always invited my dad over for the typical Irish-American meal of corned beef and cabbage.  Most of my kids didn't care for corned beef.  Once my dad passed I figured we'd just carry on the tradition within our home.  I never planned to make a big family celebration out of it, but my kids had a different idea.  Imagine my surprise the first year after he was gone when I started getting phone calls from our children that had already flown the coop asking when we were going to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  Thus, a Smith Family Tradition was born.

Over the years I have learned to make a few more traditional Irish dishes that I just love.  One of my favorites is Champ.  This year, however, we are changing things up a bit, and I am making Irish Stew for our celebration with Soda Bread, of course.  Corned Beef is just too expensive to feed to nearly 30 people.  We're reigning it in a bit, and I have locally sourced beef on hand, so I can think of nothing better.  I do get tempted, though, to make Champ to serve the stew over, but the point is simple, right?  We will still be having the "traditional for us" meal on the actual holiday, so we'll get our fill of all our favorite foods this year.

So far the kids and I have made Soda Bread and Scones.  We even made them gluten free this year, and we're having a hard time leaving the scones alone.  They are SO good!

Large Carob Chip Scones

Here's how we made them:

1 1/2 cups   Rice Flour
   1/2 cup    Sorgum Flour
   1/4 cup    Natural Sugar
   1/4 tsb.    Salt
   1/2 tsp.    Baking Soda
   3/4 cup    Plain Greek Yogurt  (I use Fage)
      1          Whole Egg
   1/2 cup     Rice Milk
      2 Tbs.   Butter
      1 cup    Carob Chips or Cinnamon Chips
                 Raw Sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  

Mix together flours, sugar, salt and baking soda.  Set aside.

In mixing bowl, mix yogurt, egg, milk, and butter.  Add the dry mixture a little at a time until combined.

Gently stir in your favorite chips.

I lined my baking sheets with parchment and made both varieties.  We made 12 larger chocolate chip scones  using an ice cream scoop and baked them for 18 minutes.  We made 24 smaller scones using a baking scoop and baked them for 13 minutes.  We sprinkled them with a little raw sugar before placing them in the oven.  The trick is to remove them just as they start to brown.

These are not as dense as traditional scones, and they spread out like cookies.  In the future I plan to try adding a bit more flour.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Follow the Leader

Robin Nest Discovered 2013
There is one thing I've learned over the years, and it is to let your kids lead.  They are expert at this game if we just give them the chance.  Kids are natural game players, and have you ever met a more formidable force than a determined toddler?  I find myself asking myself, "WHY NOT?", quite a lot.  The key is to not only ask yourself the question, but to evaluate your reasons for 'not'.  Are they valid?

For instance, I was doing dishes this evening, and Annabella wanted to help.  Well, any experienced mom knows just how helpful a just turned three year old is with the task of washing dishes.  She also knows the value in facilitating the experience for the child.  So, instead of rejecting her completely, I asked her to move her stool over so I could stand at the sink without acquiring a crazy backache.  Then, I let her watch for a while.  Of course, that didn't last long.  She repeatedly asked to help.  So, I had her go get some of her play dishes that she wanted to wash and set them on the counter.  When I finished my dishes I refilled the sink with warm water, not the scalding stuff I was using, and some bubbles.  I gave her a sponge, and she had fun for a good hour or so.  Then, the resident four year old joined in the fun.  Once the eight year old got involved it started to fall apart a little, but it ended well.  Does it really matter that my floor got wet?  Of course not.  It's one step closer to clean than it was this morning!

Making a train in
the dining room.
There are so many things our kids love to do, and their timing isn't always perfect, but I have been making a concerted effort to really be aware if their request can be honored as opposed to just dismissing it immediately as not doable.  Is there really a good reason, I mean a really good reason, the kids cannot build a fort in the family room?  What about that sleepover they want to do with each other tonight?  Why not?  They want to paint.  Why isn't it a good time for that?  Is there someway their spontaneity can be honored?  If not completely, can there be a compromise made?

When children have the freedom to explore in a way that comes natural to them they are more likely to be happy, independent, and creative problem solvers.  They learn tenacity and gain confidence in themselves.  Teamwork is involved as well as compassion and empathy.

In our home we have taken a slight bend in the road and shifted our focus, for the time being, from primarily academics to a greater concentration on emotions and feelings.  We made (not so for me) calming bottles the other day and learned about anger.  The kids love the bottles and have developed a number of creative uses for them aside from their intended purpose.  If I had to do it over again there are a few things we would do differently, so it was a learning experience for me as well.

All this freedom to explore is preparing the young ones in my home for a summer of exploration.  This will be the girls' second summer here, and there is so much right in our own yard to discover.  I cannot wait to create special areas with them on our property for different activities.  The possibilities are limited only by our creativity.  There is so much that can be done.

Some ideas that intrigue me are:

  • Plant a sunflower house.
  • Blaze a trail.
  • Create an outdoor reading area.
  • Build a performance stage.
  • Create an outdoor music area.
  • Establish a water and sand play area.
  • Build a fort.
  • Build a tree house.
  • Plant a garden
  • Establish a natural water exploration area.
  • Create bird feeding areas.
  • Make a digging area.
Who knows which ones of these will happen this summer, but dreaming and planning is fun.  Without first exploring the ideas, how could they come to fruition.  The kids and I are in the beginning stages of planning and preparing for our garden.  The next step will be to explore the above ideas together, and determine which ones are most appealing to us and make a plan to make them happen.  It will be a little easier to plan and explore these ideas once the snow melts.  (It's so deep right now that I can't even walk through it.) Then we can get outside and survey our property to determine the best locations and maybe even come up with more ideas.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Motivated Moms Review

Motivated Moms Review

Motivated Moms is a chore planning system developed by moms with a desire to dedicate their daily lives to more than just cleaning the house.  It has evolved over time and is now available in several formats.  I chose to use the 2014 Full Size Motivated Moms Chore Planner in Color.  It has been very useful in helping me maintain what little of my sanity remains with all of this shuffling around of our space we have done over the past couple of years.  

Recently, I found myself VERY overwhelmed by the amount of tasks needing my attention in my home.  Due to children moving in and out, and the dynamics of our family changing, we have seen rooms moved more than I can remember in the short two-and-a-half years we have been in our new home.  This has caused my brain to scramble in regard to remembering where things are and being able to set things up efficiently and in a logical, "makes sense to me" fashion.  Add to that our head first plunge into homeschooling, and my brain was about set to short-circuit.

The Motivated Moms eBook is SUPER SIMPLE to use.  It is easy to keep things that need my attention sorted out in logical and non-stressful manner.  I use the eBook by printing out two weeks at a time, the current week and the following week.  Each week is contained on a single page.  That's about all the advanced planning I am capable of at the moment.  I review the chores and tasks laid out on the page.  I cross off ones that don't apply to me, add what might be unique to my week or family, and designate by initial any chores or tasks that belong to someone else.

Motivated Moms Review

Using the Motivated Moms eBook has enabled me to find the time to tackle the tremendous reorganization of my home that is so desperately needed while simply balancing the normal, day to day duties of maintaining my home in a properly functioning fashion.  I don't have to waste my time making my list of chores and tasks that need my attention.  With a quick edit to the weekly page from my 2014 Full Size Motivated Moms Chore Planner in Color I am all set for my week with time to easily complete large organizational projects and small, daily tasks in an efficient and productive manner.

Motivated Moms eBooks, and apps for iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android, are simple to use, easy to download, and affordable.  You can quickly download the eBook for just $8 or use one of the apps for an entire year for just $7.99, or pay a monthly fee of $.99 if you'd like to give it a try before you commit.  When using the app version of the planner you can fully customize your chores and tasks by eliminating items that don't apply to you or adding items that are not listed.  You can even assign tasks to individuals and have them via email.  The iOS version of the app does have a more varied capability than the Android version, but both are extremely flexible and user friendly.

Motivated Moms Review

Although the Motivated Moms Chore Planner is specifically designed for moms, it can benefit anyone in the family.  My resident eight-year-old loves the planner.  I keep ours hanging on the refrigerator for quick reference.  We used to list her daily tasks on a small marker board.  Per her request, we have quit using it and rely solely on the Motivated Moms printout.  The younger kids, ages three and four, have even gotten involved with the daily tasks.  I was struggling to incorporate them into our routine and find personal duties that they could be responsible for.  My four-year-old is VERY proud that he is now in charge of refilling the spare toilet paper holders.  The three-year-old is our resident pet feeder.  Both very important tasks.

The Motivated Moms Chore Planner has taken a load off my shoulders.  It is helping us reclaim our space while simply maintaining our home and creating time for larger projects.  This simple and logical approach makes the care and keeping of our home a much more doable and much less stressful task.

Motivated Moms can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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