A Morning in the Sugar Bush


Even though the calendar indicated spring, ice still floated on the river.  Although a few days had been warmer this particular morning was cold and brisk.   The weather was right for maple sap to flow, below freezing at night and into the 40s or 50s during the day.IMG_1760

Our guide led us through the sugar bush, pointing out maple trees that were suitable for tapping.  Since this particular area is set up for educational purposes there were a variety of collection types – wooden buckets, metal buckets with lids, plastic bags, and tubing systems were all represented.IMG_1764

The tour focused on the history of maple sugaring from Native Americans through present day, so they also showed various methods used for concentrating the sap into syrup.  IMG_1766

E had a chance to demonstrate how children used yokes to balance the buckets of sap.  I can only imagine what hard work it would have been to collect enough sap to make syrup.  It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup and I’m sure any farm children working in the sugar bushes wanted to make sure every drop was turned into either syrup or sugar. IMG_1768


The kettle over the fire has been replaced by a more modern evaporator system, but finding the exact consistency seems to remain an art.

One of the talking points I found interesting was that maple sugar was a “free trade” sort of product at one time.  The cane sugars exported from the Caribbean almost always used slave labor, therefore maple sugar was the preferred sweetener of abolitionists.

Even though we’ve been on this sort of tour before it had been a few years.  Too often we think that because we’ve done something once it isn’t worth doing again, but I frequently find the kids are processing things on a new level or at least challenging themselves to remember their past experience.

Special thanks to the Cleveland Metroparks and Rocky River Reservation for offering this tour and to NEST Homeschool group for organizing our group outing.


Real Spring

IMG_1795We were walking in the woods last week when we heard them, spring peepers and wood frogs.  It’s one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.  When the peepers and wood frogs emerge and sing their mating calls, a person can’t help but feel the hope and renewal of spring.

IMG_1803As we were walking my son said, “There should be two first days of spring.  The equinox and the day the peepers come out.”

It doesn’t look like much.  The trees are still bare.  Only the earliest plants are pushing their way up through the soil.  BUT the air is warming up.


Many of the local park services are hosting night hike visits to vernal pools.  During night hours the spring peepers can be absolutely deafening.  It’s amazing to me that a creature barely larger than my thumbnail can emit such piercing call.  For just a few days the yellow spotted salamanders come above ground to mate in the pools before heading back to their holes for another year.


We found this super cool fossil next to a creek the other day.  The shell filled with mud and sand that solidified.  It’s amazing the things we find and the deep learning that takes place when we have time to just explore.



Engineers Week – Part 1

Engineers WeekMy favorite tradition in our homeschool is celebrating Engineers Week.  Last year we tried celebrating a different type of engineering each day.  This year we decided to focus on one project.

Over the years I’ve found weapons are a great avenue for my boys to learn about history.  The evolution of technology and weapons is helpful for placing events in chronological order.  It’s amazing how intertwined technological advancements are with military conquest.  Sometimes armies are just better at utilizing new technologies, but quite frequently research is funded solely for military purposes.

I thought you might be interested to see part of our learning path for this semester.  I mapped out the paths that were relevant to our current project.  It’s purposefully a bit messy to illustrate the non-linear nature of interest led learning.

Catapult Map.001

Given our current interest in ancient history, we decided our project should have something to do with onagers or ballista. (Trust me before having boys I had no idea what the difference was between a trebaucht and catapult.  I certainly would not have been able to correctly describe a ballista or onager.)   A search of the library system lead me to The Art of Catapults.  I placed a hold but we weren’t able to pick it up until Tuesday.  That left us a bit short on planning and build time during our official Engineers Week.  No big deal we will just continue into next week.

The boys were so impressed with The Art of Catapults we ordered our own copy of the book within a few hours.  We decided to make a model sized wooden ballista for C and a pair of large PVC “Stone Thrower” catapults to launch water balloons at each other.

Catapult Parts

Wednesday we did the shopping which was a good experience for the boys.  They found all the pieces and loaded the carts.  They also loaded the car while I questioned my sanity.

I purchased a special PVC pipe cutting tool, which I managed to destroy it in just two cuts.  Then we used a saw.  The boys were somewhat helpful with the hacksaw, but it was taking forever.  My husband came home and hooked us up with his reciprocating saw.  Yeah, power tools for mom!  The cuts went much quicker on day two and we got about halfway finished cutting and dry fitting.

I’m hoping we will have things completed in a few days and enough warm weather to do some enjoyable testing.  I’ll keep you posted on how this project comes along.

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Homeschool Gratitude

I heart homeschoolThis was one of my “I LOVE homeschool” weeks.  We all have our times of vulnerability, but for every time like that there are so many others when I say, “YES!  I love my job and there is no place else I want to be at this point in our journey.”

What made it such a great week?

Individualized Learning – This is what we are all hoping for when we start homeschooling.  Unfortunately sometimes I get caught up in comparing what we are doing to traditional school.  This week I was really able to appreciate the unique characteristics of our environment and how those elements support learning and growth.

Science Olympiad Team – Several months ago one of the moms in a Facebook group asked if anyone would be interested in putting together a Science Olympiad team.  I’m so thankful for all the work she did.  I’m also thankful for the awesome mom who volunteered to coach Aerodynamics and Simple Machines.  Over the course of the last couple of months the boys learned so much. More importantly we made new friends who enjoy science and engineering and just as much as we do.

Geography Club – Another mom put together a Geography Club for homeschoolers.  Once a month we gather for the kids to do presentations and enjoy a potluck lunch.  Each month has a theme like desserts, rivers,  or countries on the equator and each family group presents on a different area.  The kids range in age from 4 year old helpers to 13 year olds.  The presentation can be anything the kids want,  so there are skits, power points, presentation boards and games.  It’s a very supportive environment, perfect for increasing the kids comfort with public speaking.

Testing – Lately my social media feed has been full of PARCC testing / common core backlash.   Out of curiosity, I took the practice English and Math tests my oldest would take if he were in public school.  To sum it up in one word – tedious.  I could see it being frustrating for some kids and exceedingly tedious for others.  Given – most standardized tests share those characteristics, but these really seemed to take it to a new level.  It may sound selfish, but I’m so thankful we aren’t part of the public school system and forced to take these.  When we started homeschooling our dyslexic son, it was so we could focus on doing the things that would truly be helpful for him instead of wasting time and energy fighting for the things he needed.  We also wanted to focus on learning instead of constant assessing.  I really feel a lot of empathy for the parents and teachers who are working to improve the system.  Most parents want more time to be spent on learning activities that are truly beneficial to the kids.

Milestones – Those learning to read days can be exhausting, especially with dyslexia, but they make certain moments so completely precious.  This week my son picked up a book he was interested in and read independently.  This isn’t the first time, but these moments really warm a homeschool mom’s heart.  His love of reading is intact!!

Achievements – I keep a spreadsheet of “school” hours for the entire school year.  This week we completed the 900 hours mandated in our homeschool notification.  It’s very freeing.  We still have some math and grammar to complete before the end of the year and there are lots of other projects on our “to do” list, but knowing our hours are complete feels good.  Beyond checking the box, it felt good to look at the mix of hours and think of all the things we get to do with our time.  There are so many valuable learning experiences outside the scope of traditional school.   I’m not sure how many hours we will have by the end of May, but I am confident we’ve spent plenty of hours on “core” subjects while fueling our interests with experiences and hands on learning opportunities.

Flexible schedules – The weather has been brutally cold here lately.  This week we had a few breaks where things were a little warmer and the kids were able to go outside and enjoy the sunshine.  We even went skiing one morning!  We still logged 30 hours of school.  I know some people act concerned when homeschoolers are out having fun while other kids are in school, but it is actually good preparation for white collar and independent work situations.  The work is always there.  You have to find ways to schedule your time to accomplish your goals, but make sure life isn’t completely taken over by work.  This is one of the major adjustments students have to make in college.  They’ve never had the ability to schedule their own time and it can be a difficult skill to learn.  I’m glad we are getting practice now.

Meaningful volunteer opportunities – I enjoy that homeschooling gives me the time and flexibility to work on projects that are meaningful to me.  I’ve gotten involved in a group that is supporting the growth of FIRST LEGO League in our area.  It’s great to be able to contribute to increasing STEM learning.

We started this homeschool journey four years ago as an experiment.  Every year things change a little.  We find more and more experiences we enjoy and groups that fit us well.  Things are always changing, but each year I grow more and more thankful that we took the path less travelled.




What Went By : Elementary Science Olympiad

Today I’m focusing on resources to help you prepare for the “What Went By” event at an Elementary Science Olympiad.  If you have a child interested in animals and nature you will enjoy this list as well.
Wild Tracks! by Jim Arnosky is a fantastic resource.  It may look like a child’s picture book from the outside, but it is full of helpful information and LIFE-SIZE Prints.  Kids will learn that hoofed animals walk and run on their toes and wildcats use the same tracks over and over again, however this book stays away from scientific terms such as digitigrade and direct register.  Instead it is written in a friendly, digestible form perfect for independent learning even at younger ages.  The tracks examined are mostly common mammals of North America.

Animal Tracks and Signs by Jinny Johnson from National Geographic is another great resource.  The foreward does a nice job of explaining reasons a person may want to identify animal signs and tracks. The introduction provides a great list of scientific vocabulary terms that are useful for a young biologist and covered by the “What Went By” event.  The pictures of scat are very useful as most books don’t include color pictures of scat.  The scope of this book is very broad and contains information about animals from all over the world.

The Nature Series: Science on Tracking Expedition kit is also useful for kids interested in learning more about animal tracking.  The focus of this kit is purely tracking.  It comes with plaster of paris for making your own cast in nature or from the supplied molds.The matching cards that come with this kit are useful for memorizing different track attributes.  If you are creative you can create

National Geographic has a teacher’s guide that is pretty helpful when it comes to identifying scat.  We thought about doing the candy scat project, but decided we didn’t want to solidify those associations in our brains.

Our local natural history museum had a teacher’s resource kit that was very helpful.  You may want to check with your state conservation department or local park system to see if they have any kits available for loan.

In addition to the resources listed above, we found local nature centers did classes specifically about animal tracking with Science Olympiad preparation in mind.   These classes yielded some helpful hints we didn’t find in the books.


Perhaps the best preparation was just spending lots of time outdoors with an eye toward animal signs.

Mousetrap Car : Elementary Science Olympiad

This year our homeschool group put together a Science Olympiad team for the first time.  We were competing in the 4th to 6th grade division.

Our task was to design a car power completely by a mousetrap that would go EXACTLY 10 meters.  Every mm short OR long of 10 m would result in points.  Teams also gave a time estimate for completing a run.  Points were given for the difference between predicted time and actual time.  Keeping the centerline of the track between the wheels was worth a -20 point bonus.  The goal was to have the LEAST number of points.

IMG_1658The boys came up with an original design that works quite well.  The chaise is made entirely of LEGO Technic pieces.  The drive wheels are CD’s with LEGO pieces taped to them to allow for attachment to the axles.  Balloons increase the friction on the cds to prevent spinning. The final design uses florist wire to attach the mousetrap to the chaise.  A K’nex rod is taped to mousetrap as an extension rod.  The final design used the wheels shown, but without the tires.


This mousetrap car was quite capable of going more than 10 m.


After a lot of trials on different flooring surfaces the boys thought they had the right distance figured out.  For some reason their results at the competition didn’t match what they had the day before.


Adjustments to the pull string length seemed the most reliable way of adjusting the travel distance.  A shorter pull string traveled shorter distances.

We tried a braking system, but our design was hard to set and tangled too easily.

I was really pleased that the boys came up with a design that was completely original.  It made the project a lot more fun and interesting.

Using LEGO pieces limited the axle length.  A larger width would have made it easier to earn the centerline bonus, but their design did earn the centerline bonus on one of its two runs.

Almost all the cars at the competition used the same design,  a rectangle of basswood with four cd wheels and threaded axles.  They used a longer extension arm that was pinned down when the mousetrap was set.  The result was they could leave the string attached to the axle and self brake.

Keeping our Sanity in the Cold – A Weekly Wrap-up

How does a homeschool family keep their sanity during the harsh snow filled days of winter?  Read on to find out what we’ve been doing to stave off the winter blues!

It’s been COLD.  Bitterly cold.  Freeze the snot in your nose while you take out the trash cold.  Locally we’ve set records for the coldest temperature on a particular date.  Today the high was 19 F and it felt like a break.

So what’s a homeschooling family to do with all this cold weather?  Lots of school work apparently.  This is our highest monthly total school hours for this year.  The boys have been book worms this month really upping their hours.  That doesn’t mean we’ve just stayed home and done school work though.

Winter hike - Creek and Snow

We still went for a hike this week.  We followed coyote tracks through the woods which was pretty cool. We also found an intersection with deer tracks.  E is participating in the “What Went By Event” in the Upper Elementary Science Olympiad, so we’ve been taking every opportunity to find animal tracks in the snow.  The squirrels have been kind enough to leave tracks on the back porch, while a bunny regularly leaves prints as he hops down our sidewalk.


It’s important to get exercise too.  As a treat we took the boys to a mountain bike park.  It was fun to be back on our bikes even though it was -2 F outside.  It’s nice to go late in the evening, because there aren’t many other customers making it possible to really ride your own pace without worry.

E handfeeding birds

One of the local nature centers encourages hand feeding birds.  E was amazingly patient and stood still for about half an hour in the cold.  He was rewarded with birds coming to his hands 30 times.  It was such a delight to watch his expressions.

C wind testing house constructions

Our local science center is hosting Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition.  It’s a fun traveling exhibit.  There was a house of brick, wood, straw test station that the boys enjoyed.  The exhibit also had tons of other fun stuff.  The final section included building sleds, boats, and parachutes using duct tape.  Of course after our visit the boys used up all the duct tape in the house and we had to buy more.  E made a rather impressive boat out of popsicle sticks and duct tape.

Over the last two weeks we’ve also gone to a community theatre production, visited the Jewish Heritage Museum, gone to a professional theatre production, attended zoo class, and met with our Science Olympiad partners.  Soccer and scouts were on the list too.

I don’t like our schedule to get too crowded and despite the long list of activities it has all felt very manageable.  This year I think we are finally managing to get the right amount of physical activity including outside time.  It also helps that the kids are getting older and have stronger immune systems (or maybe we’ve just been lucky this winter).

I almost forgot.  E’s FLL team did a segment on the local news along with three other teams from the area.  E’s team in purple is in two of the segments.  A special thanks to the building custodian who came in on a snow day to make sure the building was open for the kids.

On the bookshelf:  Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan

In the kitchen: Pulled pork sliders (although we do a lot of vegetarian dishes, during the winter we all crave meat), Spinach enchiladas, Seared Chicken Breast with Balsamic Grapes, Sautéed Spinach, and Nutty Bulgur (this is a “food bag” from my husband’s work, they do all the prep work and I just cook and assemble. Yeah!)

Hope you are having a great week!  What are you doing to stave off the winter blues?

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Happy Mardi Gras!

Mardi Gras always makes me a little homesick for Louisiana.  We lived in Baton Rouge for a few years.  It was a really wonderful time in our life.  Hard work, good friends, and just an amazingly special place.

IMG_1682When we moved away I had to learn to bake my own king cakes. (You can order them, but they aren’t as fresh as picking them up at the bakery.)  I still miss the warm weather and crawfish boils of Louisiana.  I miss Spring coming in February.  But today, even as the wind batters the house with numbingly cold winds, each bite of King Cake brings warm happy memories.

So today I’m sharing my favorite King Cake recipe, in case you too find yourself far away from the bakeries of Louisiana!

Zulu King Cake


  • 2 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 cup lukewarm milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3+ cups flour
  • Filling
  • 8 oz cream cheese (softened)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teas cinnamon
  • 1 teas vanilla
  • White Icing
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp milk
  • Chocolate Icing
  • 1 cup chocolate chips, melted


  1. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in milk, sugar, oil, baking powder, salt, egg and 2 cups of flour. Beat until smooth. Mix in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.
  2. Turn dough onto well floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.
  3. Place in greased bowl. Cover and let rise in warm place until double, about 1 1/2 hours. Dough is ready if an indentation remains when touched.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  5. While dough is rising, make cream cheese filling by mixing softened cream cheese, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla on high speed until fluffy.
  6. Roll dough on a floured surface into a rectangle about 16" x 8"
  7. Place cream cheese filling down the middle and fold dough in thirds to make a roll.
  8. Place on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper with the seam side down and shape into a circle.
  9. Bake covered for 20-25 minutes and then finish with about 5-10 minutes uncovered.
  10. Once the king cake has cooled top with a simple white frosting, melted chocolate, and toasted coconut flakes(optional).


King Cake season runs from January 6th through Mardi Gras.


Have fun with it and make it your own.  Try pecan fillings or fruit fillings or go a more traditional route by making a cinnamon roll ring.

Happy Mardi Gras! 


I want an Orrery


This week at the Natural History Museum I noticed a display case for the first time.  POCKET SUNDIALS!  What a cool invention!  All the one pictured here include a compass for proper alignment. We’ve heard a lot about pocket watches, but I’d never given any thought to their predecessor.  One of the pocket sundials was calibrated to three different latitudes, so it could be used throughout Europe.

It’s always amazing to think about the intersection of science and technology with history.  Whether it’s the telegraph and railroad creating a war time advantage,  vaccines shifting population demographics, or computers making space travel possible, technology and history are fantastically intertwined.


Isn’t the orrery cool?  The time and workmanship that goes into making those is just amazing.  I would like to own something like this, but they are so expensive and typically rather large.  Other women want designer handbags, I want an orrery.


Science Olympiad Update:

What Went By? – E and his partner for the event attended a clinic put on by the local park system.  We also met at the Natural History Museum and spent some time looking at the display of local animals and talking about habitats and habits.  We borrowed a kit that had life size stamps of front and hind prints from the museum.  I think the scat identification might be difficult, but I think at least some of the questions will be about making observations about the scat without actually narrowing it to one species.  The scat of a grazing herbivore will be different from the scat of an omnivore.  Predator scat may contain bone fragments.  Some of the tracks can be narrowed done to 3 or 4 local animals and then other clues will provide more information.  Muskrats and otter slides might look similar but we might expect chewed up twigs and cattails with a muskrat.  E also worked on spelling animal names this week.

Not much happened with the Mousetrap car this week.  We need to take it up to the school to test it out.  I just haven’t been in the mood to get out in the cold.

Aerodynamics – Observations this week – (1)  It is hard for 10 and 11 year old boys to throw gently.  When throwing gliders asking them to throw in slow motion seemed to help. (2)  Those old Pamper Chef scrapers work great for smoothing airplane folds.  (3) Testing gliders is hard – big spaces and high ceilings are necessary.  (4) Making designs of their own and testing them is really part of the fun of this.

Simple Machines – The mom of C’s partner is doing the coaching for this event.  I’m impressed with what they’ve learned over the last few weeks.  They know their simple machines and are really learning a lot about calculating forces and mechanical advantage.


We went to see a local production of Shrek the Musical on Sunday.  A friend of ours has a lead role in the play and lots of kids we know are in the production.  The cast did a spectacular job.

I attended a meeting this week with a group that has formed to promote FIRST LEGO League in our area.  It is a really great bunch of people and I’m excited to see what we can do to get more kids involved in robotics.  When I asked my own kids about career paths this week, they both expressed interest in programming.  E  lists his top pick as mechanical engineering and C is considering wildlife biology or bio-medical animal science with programming as a hobby.   I don’t know if bio-medical animal science is really a thing, but I figure as much as people love their pets, it will be by the time he is in college.  He also thinks he might want to do some combination of food and science like that guy that cooks steaks in a water bath (sous-vide)  and has the huge cookbook (Nathan Myhrvold).   It’s always interesting to check in on the career aspirations of kids.

I’ve mentioned I developed a simple spreadsheet to track our school time.  In Ohio part of our homeschool notification involves signing a paper stating we will spend 900 hours covering a list of subjects.  That is approximately the amount of time children in elementary school spend in class each year.  I’m so glad I started tracking our time.  This week we reached 800 hours for the school year.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.  It’s not like anything will change when we hit 900 hours.  I’m just happy to know we are spending so many hours on learning activities even though our school time is relaxed.

This week I’m including my “What’s for Dinner?” list.  I’m always looking for ideas myself and I was reading an article this week about parents feeling guilty because even though they are cooking it doesn’t fit their ideal.  I want you to know that it’s okay to keep dinner simple.  Some of the dinners I listed took less than 15 minutes of prep and cook time.  The pulled pork dinner was probably the easiest, since it took about 3 minutes to put in the crockpot.  Raw carrots, broccoli, apple slices, and strawberries are about as fancy as we get for sides.

 What’s for Dinner?

Blackeyed Pea Dip

Salmon Mac (super quick and easy)

Corn Dog Muffins ( I know, I know, it embarrasses me that I allow any hot dogs in the house, but C loves these.  Corn Muffin mix with a 1/4 of a hot dog stuck in the middle.  I buy the preservative free ones but still.)

Pulled Pork Sliders w/ Sweet Potato Fries and Baked Beans

Butternut Ravioli

Butternut and Black Bean Enchiladas

Hope you have a great week!

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Let it Snow – A Weekly Wrapup

Frozen Brandywine Top of Falls overlooking creek

View above Brandywine Falls


It snowed a lot this week.  According to the weather service we have 18″ of snow on the ground.  There would be more snow on the ground if we hadn’t had a few patches of rain mixed in with the snow.

One of the big differences between living in the north vs. the south is that a forecast of 8-12″ of snow doesn’t send everyone into a panic.  I went to the grocery store a few hours before the storm hit and was able to purchase everything I needed.  When we lived in the south, even a few inches of snow in the forecast would leave the store shelves void of milk, bread, tuna, and bottled water.

IMG_1649Tuesday was cold but sunny, so we got out of the house and went skiing and sledding and took a hike.  We still had plenty of time for school work in the late afternoon.

Wednesday we had a few lessons then zoo class.  On our way home it started snowing so we decided to skip the boys’ parkour class and do some baking.  In just a few hours we got about 4″ of snow so I was glad we weren’t out in it.

Frozen Brandywine Falls

Thursday we went to geography club for the first time.  It was a really nice event.  Each family gave a short presentation on a river.  The kids ranged from 4 year old assistants to about 14.  It was great to see the variety of presentations and the creativity the kids demonstrate.  After seeing the presentations, my boys agreed to do a presentation next month.


Most of our days this week included some prep work for Science Olympiad.  We are  learning about simple machines, aerodynamics, mousetrap cars and animal tracking.  The mousetrap car is working well, but we still have some tweaking to do.  The objective for the competition is for the mousetrap car to travel exactly 10 meters.

Hope you are having a great week!