My Life in Middlemarch: A Book Review

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I first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an earnest high school sophomore, eager to impress my English teachers and myself by reading through an 850-page 19th-century novel.

MiddlemarchI didn’t understand most of the plot, but I got the most important part for a teenage girl down: the love story.  I read it again in college, where I tried to figure out the plot line about Bulstrode’s finances and began to wonder whether the love story was as great as I’d first thought.  And then I came back to it again as a young wife and mother, where I began to pay attention to some of the other love stories, happy and unhappy.

Although Middlemarch spoke to me as a young adult, it is a book that improves with re-reading, dealing as it does with the theme of middle age: disappointed dreams.  Rebecca Mead has read Middlemarch many times, every 5 years for at least 25 years, and her memoir My Life in Middlemarch artfully weaves her own history with the novel with the history of its writing by George Eliot.  In many ways, her book is even more a biography of Eliot than a personal memoir.

Front CoverMead first read the book as a teenager in a provincial English town she was eager to escape.  As she re-read the book through college, the beginnings of a career, marriage, and motherhood, always the book’s wisdom illuminated her journey.  Now, as a middle-aged writer, she returns again to the story and even more to the story of its writing.

My Life in Middlemarch began with this excellent article Mead published in The New Yorker in 2011.  There she describes the irony of a quote often (falsely) attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”  Mead points out that although Eliot did find happiness and wrote her masterpieces in her middle age, her fiction is all about how it is too late for most all of us to be what we might have been, and yet how beautiful the “unrealized” life can be.  Eliot provides a model of living an ordinary life with dignity.

I found especially poignant the passages about how Eliot acknowledged the loss she felt by choosing not to become a mother, and how she recognized the impossibility of combining writing with mothering.  There’s so much pressure today for women to combine a successful career with a bustling home life, and I always appreciate a writer who acknowledges that it just isn’t always possible to have both.

If you haven’t read Middlemarch yet, start there!  But if you have, I think you’ll really enjoy Rebecca Mead’s book.

I am very grateful to Blogging for Books, which provided me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.  If you’re a blogger who loves books, you should definitely check out this program: free books to review on your blog!

Sweet Summer

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If my blog is quiet, it’s usually because things are either too good or too bad to write about. Thankfully, lately they’ve been too good (and busy). We’ve had a happy summer so far.

Sharing his Father’s Day breakfast

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For our 12th anniversary in June, the kids (with a little help from Papa) set up a candlelit “restaurant” dinner
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…in our closet, the only private space in the house!

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Some high class wait service at this restaurant.

Roasting marshmallows for Pentecost (see the sunflower forest in the background?)

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William’s version of Van Gogh’s masterpiece

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This year’s black bean harvest, which I completely scorched on the stovetop that evening.

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Lots of fishing this summer!

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An 11th birthday

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William drove the ATV for the first time on his birthday (Louis is just posing here :) ).

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Blueberry picking

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Beach days

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Our dog found this little (lifeless) guy.  I don’t know what type of shark it is, but to us it actually looked exactly like a toy great white.

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Fishing for crabs by moonlight

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He didn’t catch any that night, but the boys did on an all-boys camping trip a few weeks earlier. And roasted them!

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At home we’ve been reading lots of library books, learning to play chess,

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planning for next school year, and spending our afternoons at the pool.  When I was growing up in Houston, I used to hate the summer heat.  Now, while I still don’t want to hang around in the sunny backyard in the middle of the day, I am learning to appreciate the good, hot, straightforwardness of Houston summers.  Especially since I can’t stand swimming in cold water!

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Essays and the Trumpet of the Swan

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Recently, we listened to a recording of The Trumpet of the Swan, read by the author himself, E. B. White.  It was so good I actually listened to it twice, once with the older boys while the twins spent a week at my mom’s, and then again the following week with the twins while the big boys went to a day camp.

The Trumpet of the SwanE. B. White is one of my favorite writers, and this book displays the very best of his nature sensibility and dry wit.  The book tells the story of Louis (pronounced Louie by the author in the recording), a trumpeter swan born without the ability to make a single sound.  A trumpeter swan who can’t trumpet!  His father attempts to remedy the situation by procuring a brass trumpet for Louie in a most remarkable way, and the story takes off from there.

It’s a classic and very funny.  We loved it, but I will note that Louie makes a bizarre deal with a zookeeper at the end of the book to insure his mate’s freedom, and it disturbed us all.  It seemed completely out of character.  I don’t know what to say about that except that the rest of the book is worth the strange ending.

E. B. White’s collection of essays Essays of E.B. Whiteis also one of my favorite books, and I was excited to find one of his essays available online here.  I love reading essays; they are so much less work than novels, which often either draw me in so completely that I can’t concentrate on anything else until I finish the story or bore me to tears.  Essays can be picked up and put down quickly and so are a good genre for busy moms, in my humble opinion.  This is why I love First Things.  And blogs.  Just a little something to think about until the next free moment.

Lately I’ve read two books of essays by one of my favorite professors from college and contributor to First Things, Alan Jacobs.  He taught at Wheaton for many years but just moved to Baylor this past fall.

First came The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  This was a fun book that felt like being right back in one of his lectures.  His point: reading isn’t dead or dying.  It’s alive and well, and ebook devices actually help us read more.  I have found this to be so true of my Kindle.  It has probably doubled my reading output (input?).

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The second book was Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant In the intro, Jacobs argues that the essay is the best genre for charting the way the mind actually works–not necessarily stream-of-consciousness writing, which attempts to mimic our sensory experiences, but writing that represents how the mind jumps from an idea to a memory to a question and so on.  The essays here meander from witty book reviews to meditations on trees and the reasons friendships end.  All good reads.

And now, let’s all stop and say a prayer that the reason Jessica hasn’t yet posted her link-up today is that she is having a baby!

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Journal of a Soul: A Book Review

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In honor of Pope St. John XXIII’s recent canonization, Image Books has recently reissued the saint’s spiritual journals under the title Journal of a Soul: the Autobiography of Pope John XXIII.

John XXIII grew up in a poor family of 14 children in rural Italy.  His family was too poor to have even bread (they ate a corn mush instead), yet his mother always offered a place at their dinner table to beggars who came to the door.  He became a priest, served as a chaplain in World War I, and as a bishop in Eastern Europe, which enabled him to help Jews escape the Nazis during World War II.  During and after the war, as a Vatican diplomat, he negotiated the retirement of bishops who had cooperated with the Nazis.

Despite this extraordinary life which gave him a front seat to just about every major event in 20th century European history, when he was elected pope in 1958, his cardinal electors hoped he would be a “transitional pope,” which is Vatican code for “old pope who won’t cause trouble for any of us because he won’t live long enough.”

Image credit: Vatican Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John XXIII didn’t live long as pope (he contracted stomach cancer in 1962), but he did shake things up during his 4 1/2 years in Rome.  Among his accomplishments were removing anti-Semitic language from the liturgy, receiving the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Vatican for the first time since the Protestant Reformation, and initiating the Second Vatican Council, which was one of the most important religious events in modern history.

Journal of a Soul is a marvelous book, but I need to begin my review with a disclaimer.  The title is completely misleading; this book is not an autobiography.  When I requested this book from Blogging for Books, I was expecting something along the lines of Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which was intended for a general audience.

Instead, this book is a compilation of the private journals St. John XXIII began as a teenage seminarian and continued throughout his entire life.  He lived a long and active life and was a very prolific diarist.  The book also contains many of his written prayers, personal letters, notes he made towards an autobiography, several apostolic letters, and his last will and testament.  In other words, this is a tome.  This book would be invaluable to a papal biographer or Vatican historian, but it was next to impossible for me to read it quickly in order to write a review.  This book would be best digested over a long period of time, such as reading one or two entries at night before bed.

That said, as slow, spiritual reading, I highly recommend it.  It’s quite amazing to read this examination of conscience of an earnest 16-year-old seminarian:

I have let my thoughts wander, especially during Vespers; I have given way to the languor that the hot weather brings.  In a word, I find that I am still at the very beginning of the journey which I have undertaken, and this makes me feel ashamed.  I thought I could have been a saint by this time, and instead I am still as miserable as before.

As a 33-year-old military chaplain during World War I:

Tomorrow I leave to take up my military service in the Medical Corps.  Where will they send me?  To the front perhaps?  Shall I ever return to Bergamo, or has the Lord decreed that my last hour shall be on the battlefield?  I know nothing: all I want is the will of God in all things and at all times, and to work for his glory in total self-sacrifice.

As a 58-year-old bishop in Turkey:

Every evening from the window of my room, here in the Residence of the Jesuit Fathers, I seen an assemblage of boats on the Bosporus; they come round from the Golden Horn in tens and hundreds; they gather at a given rendezvous and then they light up…These lights glow all night and one can hear the cheerful voices of the fishermen.

 

I find the sight very moving.  The other night, towards one o’clock, it was pouring with rain but the fishermen were still there, undeterred from their heavy toil.

 

Oh how ashamed we should feel, we priests, ‘fishers of men,’ before such an example! …What a vision of work, zeal and labour for the souls of men to set before our eyes! …We must do as the fishermen of the Bosporus do, work night and day with our torches lit, each in his own little boat.

As a 79-year-old pope:

Above all, one must always be ready for the Lord’s surprise moves, for although he treats his loved ones well, he generally likes to test them with all sorts of trials such as bodily infirmities, bitterness of soul and sometimes opposition so powerful as to transform and wear out the life of the servant of God, the life of the servant of the servants of God, making it a real martyrdom.

At age 80, shortly before his cancer diagnosis:

I await the arrival of Sister Death and will welcome her simply and joyfully in whatever circumstances it will please the Lord to send her.

I think this book might be more accessible to us common readers if it were issued in volumes.  For example, the first volume, containing St. John XXIII’s youthful journals could be very inspiring to teens serious about the spiritual life or considering the priesthood.  Later journals would be interesting to anyone studying 20th century European history, and everyone would be inspired by his journals, prayers, and letters written when he was pope.

There are so many gems in this book that I am tempted to go over my 500 word copyright limit on quotes in a blog post!  I’m going to close with one last one, from a farewell letter to his family explaining that he does not have the means to support them financially.

I am well aware that you have to bear certain mortifications from people who like to talk nonsense.  To have a Pope in the family, a Pope regarded with respect by the whole world, who yet permits his relations to go on living so modestly, in the same social condition as before! …At my death I shall not lack the praise which did so much honour to the saintly Pius X: ‘He was born poor and died poor.’ …

 

I bless you all, remembering with you all the brides who have come to rejoice [in our] family…and oh the children, the children, what a wealth of children and what a blessing!

 

Thanks to Blogging for Books, which provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for this review.

How We Homeschool: Interview with myself

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Micaela of the multiple wonderful homeschool link-ups is asking for posts on how different families homeschool.  Since these are the kinds of blog posts for which I scoured the Internet at all hours of the night when I was starting out, or even now when I’m needing some new ideas, I’m going to add in my two cents, answering Micaela’s questions as well as a few of my own.

How long have you been homeschooling?

5 years total.  We started when our oldest was 4 1/2 and needed some structure to his day.  We took a break for a year and a half when we remodeled our home after two floods.  We returned to homeschooling when life settled down again.

How many kids are in your family? How many are homeschooled? Are any schooled in a more traditional way?  

We have 5 children ages 10 1/2 to 1 1/2.  The older four were all homeschooled this past year, but next year one of them will go to the private school where my husband teaches.

What laws, if any, are there in your state regarding homeschooling? How does your family meet compliance?

In Texas, a homeschool is considered a private school and is not regulated.  There is a law stating that homeschools are required to teach reading, spelling, grammar, math, and good citizenship, but no one checks to make sure we do that.

Because we used some special education resources in the public school for a time, we received a few letters from the school asking us to register our homeschool with the local district so we could continue to receive services.  We didn’t need the services.  Texas doesn’t offer any other help or resources to homeschoolers.

We teach a lot more than the 5 required subjects, and I keep some records, so we’d be fine if we ever moved to a state that actually regulated homeschooling.

Switching gears here: if you could summarize your homeschool philosophy in one sentence or mission statement, what would that be?

Love God and love learning!

What is your homeschooling style?

Eclectic, I guess–I plan my expectations in terms of the classical stages of learning, but I use Charlotte Mason’s methods for science and writing.  But I tend to think Charlotte Mason is a classicist too.

Do you follow any set curriculum?

Over the 5 years we’ve been homeschooling, I have purchased complete curriculum from 3 different providers–Mother of Divine Grace, Catholic Heritage Curricula, and Sonlight.  Although I never used any of them exactly as written, these lesson plans gave me a good sense of what is typical work for each elementary school grade level.

Now I’m comfortable compiling my own curriculum, and this is what we used last year.

MathSingapore and Saxon

PhonicsSonlight beginning readers with Explode the Code workbooks, and All About Spelling

Memoria Press Latin, Saxon Grammar, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child

We read a lot of books from the Sonlight cores but also draw from our own bookshelves of classic children’s literature.

Our garden produces only a handful of vegetables each year and is usually overrun with weeds.  But it is an invaluable learning resource for our homeschool.

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What do your best homeschooling moments look like?  

My favorite homeschooling moments are when we are all engrossed in something together–either listening to a wonderful story or exploring the natural world.

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Park near our home after all the bluebonnets have gone to seed.

This spring, we did one whole week of just gardening and reading.  We all worked in the yard all morning, five days in a row, pulling weeds and planting seeds.

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The kids were an enormous help and they learned tons.  They picked grubs out of the dirt, found a garden snake, played with lizards, re-potted all our houseplants, and planned a little pond.  Then we came inside after lunch and read stories together.  That was an almost perfect week for me.

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What do your not-so-good moments look like?  How do you stay on track?

A not-so-good day usually involves me not starting school on time but still expecting the kids to get the same amount of work done.  They do not like to be hurried.

I stay on track by getting up early in the morning to read the Bible, pray, and go to the gym.  I make time to see my friends and to keep up my intellectual life.  I also have a weekly homeschool check-in with my super-supportive husband.

How do you keep any non-school-aged kids busy?

Toys, markers on the white board, holding him on my lap, and asking the older kids to take turns playing with him.  Sometimes this works better than others.

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What about socialization?

There are tons of studies out there showing homeschooled kids are just as well socialized as other kids.  In some areas (political engagement and volunteerism), they seem to do better.  However, day-to-day, I’ll be honest and say it can feel lonesome when we’re taking our nature walk through an empty, ghost-town-like neighborhood.  And then later drive by the elementary school playground teeming with kids.

Homeschool support groups are really important for making friends you can hang out with during the day.  Sometimes you gotta drive a ways to the events, and it can be a real pain with a fussy baby or a toddler who needs a nap.  But it’s worth it.

I’m also going to go ahead and say sometimes it’s still not enough.  Many days you’re going to have to stay home and let the baby take a good nap and the 5th grader finish a complicated math lesson.  I have a very extroverted child for whom once-a-month, once-a-week, even twice-a-week homeschool support group events are not enough.  He wants to be with friends every day AND play with siblings and neighbor kids every afternoon.  He’s the one going to school next year. :)

When do you do housework or run errands?

When our oldest was just starting kindergarten, I often did housework, errands, and playdates in the morning and did a little schoolwork with him in the afternoon while the little ones were resting.  This worked well for awhile, but as the homeschool has grown to include more students, we can’t finish it all during the space of the toddler’s nap.  Also, now I need a nap most days!

I think of homeschooling as my job and plan life differently than when I was a stay-at-home mom of just little ones.  Like many moms who work outside the home, I do errands on the weekends.  I get laundry and house business done in the late afternoons.

At several different points in time one or another of our kids has needed medical therapy, which we’ve done in the afternoons after school hours.  We hired a housecleaner during those times.  Right now, the kids and I devote one afternoon a week to cleaning the house.

I don’t cook fancy meals at all.  I had minor surgery about a month ago, and several people brought us absolutely delicious meals.  The kids were rather astonished to eat flavorful, well-prepared food (ie, something other than a slab of meat in the crock-pot).  I guess our palates have really taken a hit due to homeschooling.

What do you do in the summer?

Older kids practice math facts and piano; everyone reads.  We’d do that even if they went to school, and I am always so grateful to be “just” a stay-at-home mom during the summers.

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If you could give any homeschool advice to a new mom starting out, what would it be?

1. Take it slow and easy.  (That’s also the advice I need to give myself most of the time!)

2. Get to know older, experienced homeschooling moms who can give you perspective.  I once went to a mom of 10 and asked her if I could watch her homeschool for a day.  She was too self-conscious to let me do that, but she did invite me over and show me all her set-up and books and organization systems and answered millions of questions for me.  Those conversations were more helpful than most of the books I’d read.

3. NEVER stop having afternoon rest time.

Also check these out from the files…

Our Educational Philosophy

What worked/ What didn’t this school year (including recordkeeping)

One of our “best homeschooling moments”

Mid-year review with extracurriculars

The new school year always begins with such grandiose plans

 

 

Don’t You Forget About Me: A Book Review

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20130713-095421.jpgWhen author Erin McCole-Cupp asked me to review her new book Don’t You Forget About Me, she described it as a “Theology of the Body murder mystery.”

For those unfamiliar with Catholic lingo, the Theology of the Body refers to a series of talks given over several years by Pope John Paul II that explained the Catholic church’s teaching on human sexuality in terms of the nature of the Holy Trinity.  As in, pretty deep stuff!  So I was intrigued.

The story begins with Mary Catherine (Cate) Whelihan, a single, 30-something writer debating whether or not to return to her hometown for the funeral of her grade school principal.  Cate had a pretty rough time of it in childhood, with constant harassment from her schoolmates culminating in her horrifying discovery of a murdered classmate in the 8th grade.  If not for a cryptic message she just received from her grade-school crush, Gene Marcasian, she wouldn’t even be considering going home.

Cate decides to attend the funeral, but no sooner does she arrive and another classmate dies.  Then she starts to wonder about the death of her former headmistress, a stalwart old nun who hadn’t been sick a day in her life until a mysterious illness a few months ago.  With the help of her old friend Gene, now an OB/Gyn concerned with the high level of infertility and cancer among their grade school’s graduates, Cate helps to uncover a vast conspiracy involving big pharmaceutical companies, the EPA, the Mafia, and people she’s known her entire life.

On top of all that, this new situation forces Cate to confront all the feelings of inferiority and resentment she’s carried inside towards those who bullied her in childhood.  Her renewed friendship with Gene, now a devout Catholic (though not without a few skeletons in his closet), also inspires her to confront the truth about her own loss of her childhood faith.

This was a very fun book to read!  I enjoyed the fast-paced and complicated plot, as well as the more in-depth exploration of Cate’s feelings upon coming home for the first time as an adult.  I have never attended a high school reunion, much less a junior high reunion, and probably part of the reason is the number of issues I’d have to face if I did!  And my experience of school was nowhere near as difficult as Cate’s.

I also enjoyed that while the mystery was solved by the end of the book, Cate did not work everything out in her personal life.  It would been too much if she had also suddenly decided to embrace her childhood faith after three days of being back home.  She doesn’t, but there are hints she might be open to it in the future.

Also, this book is not a Catholic morality pamphlet disguised as a murder mystery.  The “Theology of the Body” is in the background of the character Gene, who clearly respects Catholic teachings on sexuality in his medical practice and his personal life.  I suspect this will come into play more as his and Cate’s relationship deepens in a possible sequel.  This book focuses on some of the medical consequences of using the birth control pill for women’s health problems rather than the moral issues at stake.

My main criticism is that after everything has worked out at the end, the story ends with a cliffhanger epilogue.  I really don’t like when books do that.  It was clear to me without the epilogue that this could be the first book in a series.  I would have much preferred for the epilogue to be included as a teaser first chapter for the next book in the series.

Now for the fun part…I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  But you can get a free copy too!  Right now the Kindle version of this book is available for free through June 12 on Amazon.

After the 12th, I believe the book will be available for Amazon Prime members to borrow for free at any time.  Even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can read ebooks using the free Kindle app on your computer or smartphone.

Don’t You Forget About Me would be a great addition to your summer beach reading.  Enjoy!

And check out more books, as always, at Jessica’s!

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School’s Out!

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Tuesday was our last day of school, and yesterday was my birthday!  So I couldn’t be happier.

Here’s a bit of what worked and what didn’t this year.  We had a 5th grade boy, 2nd grade boy, and boy/girl twins who were “old” kindergarteners and very eager to start 1st grade work about half-way through the year.

What worked

1. Homeschool Skedtrack

I signed up for this free, online, recordkeeping system at the beginning of the school year, and it’s a keeper.  I think there are others like it out there that you pay for, but I can’t think of anything else I’d like this program to do that I would pay for.  Enter your students, their subjects, classes, and field trips, and it takes care of everything else.

IMG_0981I used it to track the days and hours we spent schooling, but I could have also entered the actual assignments and printed off a daily schedule for each child if I wanted to.  I don’t need a printed schedule for the younger kids, since we’re usually just doing the next page in the math workbook or reading the next chapter in the storybook.

2. Inexpensive student planner with Catholic quotes

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Lessons from the beginning of the year

3. The Story of the World, again

Although we spent most of the year using Sonlight’s history books, which were good, we all missed The Story of the World.  We read and loved volumes 1 & 2 the past two years, but this year I wanted to focus on American, not world history.

The Story of the World, Vol. 3 (Early Modern Times) - HardbackThe past month we started listening to Volume 3: Early Modern Times in the car, and it has brought back everyone’s excitement about history.  I will say, however, that this book deals with more violence and evil than the previous two.  After listening to accounts of the slave trade, the Trail of Tears, and the Boer war over a period of two days as a family, I realized that it was getting overwhelming for my kindergarteners.

“This has way too much killing in it!” one of them called out from the backseat.  William and Louis were quite upset when I turned off the CD at that point, since it was just about to tell the story of the Alamo, but they’ll have to listen to it on their own time.  I’d recommend this book for mature age 8 and up.

What Didn’t Work

1. Homeschooling four kids

It was really a bit too much.  We made it through, and everyone learned what they needed to this year.  BUT, the entire year I felt like it was unsustainable.  The beauty of homeschooling is the chance to work one-on-one with your child.  There just weren’t enough hours in the day to do that anywhere near as much as I wanted to.

IMG_0955Thankfully, Louis wants to go to school very much, we have a wonderful place to send him, and N. can take him every day.  Years before N. even considered applying to teach at this school, I looked over their website and thought, This would be a perfect place for Louis.  I think he’s going to love it.

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What happens when Mom isn’t looking

2. Saxon Math for lower elementary 

See above.  I think Saxon math is great for older kids who can read the lesson themselves and work independently.  But in the younger years when kids still need parents to read the lesson to them, I can’t use a curriculum that takes an hour or more per lesson.  Especially since I have more than one child!

We switched to Singapore for the K-2 set, and while it is not as comprehensive as Saxon, it covers the basics well.

3. Taking a toddler to many museums

Oh man, this part of homeschooling just about did me in this year.  Teddy is such a trooper under most circumstances.  He will take a later nap and still go to bed on time at night.  He will play with siblings in the morning before seeing me so I can get a shower.  He doesn’t try to climb out of his crib, and he doesn’t put Legos in his mouth.

But he DOES NOT LIKE museums where visitors are supposed to be quiet and not touch anything.  Unfortunately for me him, we signed up to go on a lot of museum field trips this year.  The worst set-up was when, due to different group schedules, we ended up hitting both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural Science within one week.

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A brief respite–you don’t have to be quiet in the dinosaur exhibit!

We were supposed to view Renaissance paintings at the art museum and the Magna Carta at the science museum.  After I glimpsed the Magna Carta for all of 20 seconds while holding a screaming, flailing toddler who was threatening to bash his head against the document’s glass covering, I did ask a friend to come with us to the art museum.  At least I could leave the older kids in the exhibit that time while I again carried out my usually sweet-tempered Teddy, transformed into a toddler terror, screaming and kicking every time I dared pull him away from a 500-year-old oil painting.

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Painting a Renaissance-style portrait after the museum tour

 

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Finally allowed to touch something!

Next year, we’re just going to the zoo.