Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Home Again, Home Again!

Well, we had a pretty amazing trip.  In case you’re not aware, we just spent three weeks in southern Africa – mostly Namibia, but we had some stops in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa as well.  It was beautiful and amazing and worth the suffering finances (please, please, don’t let anything go wrong with the house in the next two years!).

This is just a few snippets of our three weeks on the road.  I will say that Africa, especially Namibia where we spent so much of that time, was so much easier than I anticipated.  We’re reasonably well-traveled, being lovers of visiting the world, but I admit I was a little intimidated before we went.  Now I know I didn’t need to be.  The food was good, the supermarkets were plentiful, the people were mostly very friendly and the roads and drivers weren’t nearly as bad as we had heard.  In other words, if you have the time, money and inclination, then GO!

One of our first stops was Sesriem, in Nambia.  Above are Mushroom and BalletBoy in a little cave they climbed up into in the canyon and below is Mushroom sitting on one of the tallest dunes in the world.

For much of the trip, we were driving around Namibia in a truck with pop up tents on top of it.  We were, ahem, a little more lax about seat belts when we were in the national parks, driving really slow and the kids were nearly as thrilled about that as the sights.

We saw a lot of animals as we drove around and occasionally were driven around.  Giraffes, zebras, lions, elephants, hippos, baboons, a rhino, and more bird species than I could count.  It was like being in an aviary.  And we learned to spot the differences between various antelopes like impala, springbok, kudu and so forth.

Well, you get the general idea.  And as beautiful as the land was (with or without animals), sometimes we got a bit bored.  There’s BalletBoy and me mocking the Husband, whose tongue cannot curl.  Poor man.  There’s probably some springbok outside that truck that we’re totally ignoring.

I was really pleased that there were so many geology tie ins on our trip.  We learned all about how the Namib is the oldest desert in the world.  And the Tsumeb Museum was full of crazy minerals.  Like, really crazy awesome.

And, since it turns out there are unusual roadside attractions even in Namibia, we also took a small detour to see the world’s largest meteorite.  It was really, really big.

Continuing the geology theme, Victoria Falls was one big geology lesson (it was formed through volcanic activity).  Below is the Husband and the kids getting drenched in the spray.  It was truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.

Okay, now this is all out of chronological order, but whatever.  We also got a nice dose of culture.  If you look closely, you can see the ancient rock painting in the picture of me and the kids.  We hiked a long way up a mountain to see it and there were lizards and geckos everywhere around us.  It was pretty cool.

And there were a lot of tourist cultural encounters.  Finding the supermarkets and fast food of a place is always an experience.  When we were in the fancy hotels instead of camping on top of our truck, we saw a good bit of singing and dancing that was somewhat authentic, I’m sure, but also somewhat staged.  Still, BalletBoy was pretty thrilled to be called on “stage” here to dance in Zimbabwe.  He was the only person to do so!

And when we were in South Africa, we got a lot of Apartheid history.  The kids had prepared by reading about Nelson Mandela and reading books like The Day Gogo Went to Vote, but it was still a lot to take in to see prisons and townships.  Mushroom was especially affected during our quick time in Jo’burg and we decided to skip doing much more with that when we were in Cape Town.  Instead, we just enjoyed the seals, the views from the mountain and the beach.

Now that I’m home and we’re all easing back into routines (though we’re off school until after Easter), I’m just feeling grateful for homeschooling and how it allowed us to not only take this trip, but to build learning around it.  We got to devote all our social studies to it beforehand for two months and I know we’ll devote a good bit of writing and project time to processing it afterwards when we start back with school.

Bon Voyage to Us

The Rowhouse is taking a little vacation.  We’re all packed up with a bag full of on the road amusements and homemade journals (plus, of course, underwear, shampoo and malaria pills).  I’ll post a picture or two from the road if I get a chance, but I’ll see you guys in April otherwise!

Week in Review in Photos

I kept thinking I’d get it together to make a post this week.  But with getting ready to travel, getting ready for Destination Imagination, hosting co-op and having a weekend visit from my mother, it just didn’t happen.  But here’s a few pictures from the last week.

We were sent a Flat Stanley by some of our Georgia cousins.  I’m sure they thought we’d take him to the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian and the White House and all that.  We did, but first, we took him to DC’s most famous restaurant.

We enjoyed the tunnel in the National Gallery with Nana Bebe before we did Stories in Art.  Really, the Stories in Art program just rocks.  And I suddenly realized that next year we’ll graduate to their Artful Conversations program.  Both are free.  I just love homeschooling in DC sometimes.

We celebrated Mardi Gras in style with a pot of jambalaya made by our budding chef Mushroom with some help from Nana Bebe.

Finally, with a little help, we realized that all those wacky finger games the kids keep doing have actually made their fingers double jointed.  It’s especially weird on BalletBoy’s fingers.

Thankful Homeschool

Sometimes I struggle with my kids.  Sometimes I wish we had unlimited funds for exciting things.  Sometimes I dislike that the porch is pretty much falling off the rowhouse.  Sometimes I see all the things that are wrong, from that crack over there to that tantrum Mushroom had.

But really, we are very lucky.  We have plenty.  We are healthy.  We love each other.  We are able to mostly live the way we chose to live.  I’m blessed with wonderful children.  I’m thankful for BalletBoy’s focus and easy going nature.  I’m thankful for Mushroom’s passions and his ability to express himself.  I’m thankful that they both have amazing imaginations.  I’m thankful for the big table where we learn every day and where we’ll break bread for Thanksgiving.

YouTube Science

I’ve been really enjoying a science on YouTube lately.  Some of the videos I’ve seen, I’ve linked here in my science posts, others I’ve found on the wonderful The Kid Should See This.  However, others are just from awesome YouTube channels.  If you’d like to also enlighten yourself and your kids, here’s a few options:

Minute Physics
This channel explains various concepts in physics, especially in weird quantum physics, in about a minute.  They use hand drawn illustrations and a spoken explanation.  It’s extremely well done.

Steve Spangler
These are extremely simple, quick, well-produced videos that show experiments you can easily do at home.

The Periodic Table of Videos
At least one video about every element.  Plus a bunch of others.  These are some chemists with a bit of a sense of humor about themselves.

Sixty Symbols
Much in the same style as the Periodic Table of Videos (perhaps because both come from the same university) this set of videos attempts to explain every astronomical symbol there is.

This one is really, really weird.  Mixes of famous scientists (and occasionally other celebrities) explaining basic concepts remixed to sound like they’re doing some sort of trance music.  No, really.  Check out Morgan Freeman, Michio Kaku and Richard Feynman all trip hopping.

Smarter Every Day
Kid friendly videos about basic engineering concepts, often featuring the video maker’s kids and toys like water balloons and tinker toys.

Short excerpts from the famous PBS series, including the NOVA Science Now video podcasts.

Another academic enterprise, this time from Australia.  The host often interviews people on the street then talks to professors to explain concepts.

Sagan’s Cosmos
Excerpts from various programs by the famous scientist and author Carl Sagan.

National Geographic
Excerpts from National Geographic’s wide array of videos.  This one requires more sorting because they have so many, some of which are basically just ads for the magazine or their shows, but many of which are nice little short bits from longer pieces.

BBC Earth
Another set of excerpts, this time from BBC’s wildlife and nature programming.

Robert Krampf, the Happy Scientist
The Happy Scientist offers an expensive set of pay videos, but he also has a YouTube channel with free videos where he explains all kinds of science concepts with enthusiasm.

The Real Bill Nye
A collection of Bill Nye excerpts.  I probably link these pretty often in my science posts.

Science Friday’s Video Pick of the Week
Not a YouTube channel, but a nicely curated collection of interesting videos on all sorts of subjects.

I’m sure there are others I have never even heard of.  Just the other day, I learned about a cool little 15 program called Backyard Science which can be found mostly on YouTube (uploaded by different people – here’s a link to the search that yielded lots of results). Anyone have any other favorite spots for science videos?

When Books Attack

Prepare yourself.  This story is straight out of a horror movie.

Picture it.  At the end of the day, a tired me goes upstairs to get ready for bed.  I pause by the bedside.  There’s a lot of library books waiting for me, but I’m ready for sleep and decide to pick up an old book from the windowsill instead.

The book is an ancient paperback copy of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.  It’s a well-loved book, one of my favorites, one I can dip into for a few pages then dip back out of and go to sleep.  I’ve had it since middle school and it’s seen better days.  The back cover is bent.  The front pages are yellowed because of a lemonade spill circa 1988.

I take the book and get in bed.  I lean back, open the book and…


They’re everywhere, crawling in and out of the pages.  They can easily do that because THEY ATE A HOLE IN THE BOOK.

I scream, of course.  I fling the book on the floor, also of course.  By then they’ve already spilled out everywhere on the bed and me.  They’re teeming on the floor.  They’re everywhere.

I spend the next half hour killing them, scrubbing the floor, changing the sheets and trying desperately to shake off that shivery disgusted feeling.  So much for a good night’s sleep.

And the poor book!  My wonderful, well-loved copy!  Poor Harry!  Poor Damarians!

If it were a horror movie, you know that as I pick up the next book, the audience would be crying, “No!  Don’t!”

You Should See This

Science is on hiatus this week thanks to two weddings (both we and the other family we do science with had to take wedding trips!), so I thought I’d just take the opportunity to say how completely obsessed, besotted, over the moon in love I am with the folks behind The Kid Should See This.  It’s a blog devoted to finding interesting, conversation-provoking, awe-inspiring little online videos appropriate to kids and adults alike.  It’s not science related per se.  Some of our favorite entries have been old Sesame Street clips and pieces about music and art.  However, many of the great clips we’ve seen there have been science, building and engineering, such as how a slinky falls, how Kapla blocks make a chain reaction, how water bugs move, how lava flows and how incredibly big manta rays are.  In case you’re one of the people who hasn’t yet seen this site, you’ve now been commanded.  Go!  Now!

I like that we have our science progression all planned out, with things we’re covering and learning about.  It’s just also lovely to have little random bits thrown in with nature walks, classes, and normal questions.  By the way, The kids look at The Kid Should See This on their blog readers most days.  It also includes (along with lots of Lego blogs, some friend blogs and so forth) The Happy Scientist’s science photo of the day, which is another nice little daily science dose resource.

We Geek Out at the Book Festival

I’m catching up on some old business, but I’d be remiss not to write about the fun we had doing two days at the National Book Festival.  In case you don’t know, this is a massive festival on the National Mall where authors of all genres as well as book supporting organizations like C-SPAN, PBS and Reading is Fundamental all turn out to give talks, sign books and promote reading books.  Past talks are already up on the website of the book festival and I’m sure this year’s will be as well before too long.  Check it out here.

The Good…

We saw a bunch of authors for a short spell in various places and got to hear Michael Buckley read a bit of the newest (unpublished) Sisters Grimm book, Harry Bliss draw a bunch of cute pictures, Jon J. Muth talk about Zen, and Bob Shea talk about becoming a writer and illustrator.  For the kids, one of the Saturday highlights was seeing Tomie de Paola, who talked about becoming an artist and taught everyone to blow three kisses the way Strega Nona would.  They also enjoyed getting free Magic School Bus books and meeting a costumed Ms. Frizzle.

The Best…

One of the best things quite surprised me.  I dragged the kids in to hear the first part of Rita Williams-Garcia’s talk.  I adore her books.  I reviewed One Crazy Summer awhile ago here.  She was so sweet and clearly a little nervous.  Then she told a couple of stories from her childhood – about growing up without enough and having to draw on her inner resources.  I pulled the kids away for something else I thought they would enjoy more.  Later on though, they talked about her speech and were clearly very affected by it.  I was impressed.

The next highlight was William Joyce.  He came in dressed in some excellent gear – a helmet, goggles and a fake jet pack.  Then he proceeded to give an wonderfully nutty speech about crazy relatives, becoming a children’s book author, and all the guardians of childhood from his new series.  He walked a fine line where he never gave it away that he didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so forth.  In fact, I’m sort of convinced he does.  I don’t review fiction picture books often for this blog, but we had already read Joyce’s brand new book The Man in the Moon and were simply amazed.  It’s beautiful.  The illustrations and the zany elements of the story are pure Joyce, known for his Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lazardo and Rollie Pollie Ollie.  However, it’s also got a magical quality to it and the illustrations are slightly gothic and steampunk influenced.  I highly recommend it.

The final highlight was definitely Kazu Kibuishi, who writes the Amulet series.  BalletBoy asked him at his talk about the fifth Amulet book, and he told us he was working on it right now, then he pulled the binder out of his bag and showed off the pages before quickly closing it up!  Wow!  Mushroom asked about his characters and we got another cool answer.  I appreciated hearing him talk about his Miyazaki influences and hearing that his great Flight series is going to be rebranded under the Flight Explorer label for younger readers.  Overall, it was just a true geek out moment.  Later on, we stood in line so BalletBoy could get his copy of the third book signed.  We’ve already read the fourth one, but from the library, so it probably wasn’t okay to get that one signed.  He drew BalletBoy a picture in the front and I gushed my thank yous to him for doing what he does for young readers.  I really mean it too.  He said immediately that there’s not enough out there and it’s so true.  There’s more coming out, but kids need high quality graphic novels like his, books that respect the readers.

After we left, BalletBoy clutched his signed book all the way home (yes, even the Metro ride).  Then he paid the series one of those ultimate compliments from a kid.  He declared he wanted to be Emily, the protagonist, for Halloween.  So, now I need to come up with an awesome costume.  He has also declared that he needs me to be Miskit, the giant pink bunny robot.  Hmm…

The Bad…

Not exactly bad, but we were pretty amused by this organization, which tries to get parents to read aloud 15 minutes a day to their kids.  When they asked the kids if the parents read aloud for 15 minutes a day to them, Mushroom rolled his eyes at them and BalletBoy looked very confused.  “You read way more than that,” he told me.  And Mushroom added, “Everyone reads aloud more than that.”  Oh, would that it were so, kiddo.

This year the festival introduced a “Family Storytelling Stage” sponsored by Target and featuring a mix of storytellers, authors and bands, including Justin Roberts and other kid friendly musicians.  Great idea, right?  Well, I guess it could have been, except when we were there, the emcees were Disney channel emcees and they spent the whole time trying to encourage kids to watch Disney, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon and Discovery Channel.  You all know I’ve got nothing against TV.  I love TV.  My kids watch TV, including things I think are excellent that were produced by those outlets, such as Phineas and Ferb and Avatar: The Last Airbender.  But do kids need a pep rally to watch TV?  I was pretty disgusted by it all.

The Ugly…

This year at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, they provided water for people for the first time via big water dispensers where you could refill your bottle or cup.  But the Book Festival folks decided to go with untold boxes tiny plastic bottles for everyone.

That was nothing compared to the “prize” you see above from the PBS Kids tent.  It’s a piece of sticky plastic with an online only PBS Kids character on it that you put on your phone to keep it from sliding around.  I just…  am speechless.  Who is this really for?  Why did they give thousands away?  Why do children need a thing for phones?  Why would adults want a phone sticker with a very obscure children’s character?  You guys, I’m not much of an environmentalist.  I recycle, I bring my bags to the grocery, but that’s about it.  But this is really bread and circus level waste, right?  And at a book festival.  I’m just sort of ashamed for us as a society.

I Wish I Was that Kind of Book Blogger and Other Thoughts from Last Week

Prepare yourself for a rambling post.

All ready?  Okay.

We’re slowly working our way through our Great American History Expedition Checklist.  Not many done so far, but two that seemed appropriate for while we’re doing pre-Columbian America and the dawn of the 16th century were the National Museum of the American Indian and the exhibit about the “discovery” of the Americas at the Library of Congress.  We’ve done them both for fun before, but this time it was school related.  Yeah, it’s not that different, but still.

There are a lot of things to recommend the American Indian museum.  Architecturally, it’s pretty awesome.  The collection is fascinating.  While we were there, we saw tons of interesting artifacts – both things we haven’t gotten to yet in our studies and things we have like Clovis points and Mayan sculpture.  We went through the “Our Universes” exhibit, which highlights some different tribes (including the Maya and the Inka, which was useful for us studying those two cultures) and focuses on traditions and storytelling.  The problem is that everything is such a mishmash.  I feel it every time I’m there.  I understand the benefits of seeing a whole bunch of animal sculptures in a single case so you can do cross cultural explorations.  And I get that they were trying to make a unified political statement about the value of indigenous American cultures across the board.  But when you can’t find out what culture or geographic region anything is from because there’s a total lack of signage and the computer touch screens that are supposed to stand in for signs are complete junk, then you’ve really over homogenized a diverse array of peoples and robbed us of our ability to get any sense of the scope of history and geography as visitors.

Luckily, while the scope was very different, the small exhibit at the Library of Congress was excellent.  They had a larger number of indigenous artifacts than I expected along with European documentary records about the initial clash between the two worlds.  Things were arranged in a logical progression.  Plus, there were cool old maps at the end.  I’m a sucker for old maps.  Also, their touch screens not only work, but provide real information I wanted to know about.  The whole thing reinforced for me how utterly frustrating I find the American Indian museum.  Plus, it’s architecturally interesting too.  There’s the kids fascinated by the floor on our last visit.

After we finished the exhibit, BalletBoy begged me to go down to the Young Readers Room.  This is a seemingly secret basement children’s library inside the Library of Congress where they keep lots of current children’s literature that has been stamped “extra copy” and looks about as beat up as at most regular libraries.  Maybe if you’re a senator, you can take your grandkids there and check out books for them?  But for the rest of us plebs, it’s for looking only.  It’s a bright, happy space with room for programming, lots of comfy chairs, tables of coloring pages, and a pretty adorable little puppet theater you can play with.  They have a few interesting things, like an entire copy of a Harry Potter book in Braille (it takes up a whole shelf!) and, most tantalizingly, a whole table of ARCs and galleys.

I must say, when I saw the selection of ARC’s, I wished quite fervently that I were the sort of book blogger who might receive ARC’s occasionally.  Alas, I am not.  But there was a new Grace Lin,  a new Catherine Gilbert Murdock fantasy, a Daniel Handler YA, and a Katherine Paterson novel called The Flint Heart that which looked downright delightful.  I read the first few pages of that one and I suspect it will make a great read aloud when it comes out.

Most excitingly, though, one of the books BalletBoy has been bugging me about literally every week was there!  The next Squish book by Jennifer Holm doesn’t come out for another month, but there on the table, I found an ARC for him!  He sat and read the entire first half of the book, but wanted to save the rest for when he can have it for real.  If they’d had an ARC of the next Amulet book, I suspect he wouldn’t have been able to be pulled away.

As we left, the kids picked up posters for the National Book Festival in a few weeks.  If you’re local and don’t know this event, it’s really a treat.  In our most memorable year, we had the pleasure of seeing (nearly back to back), Holly Black and Tony Diterlzzi, Mo Willems, Steven Kellogg, Megan MacDonald, and Jon Scieszka and David Shannon.  It was just as amazing as it sounds.  You know you’re jealous.  Here’s the lineup for this year.  They’ve added an extra day and a “storytelling stage” which includes a lot of great authors too.  Sorry soccer practice, but we’re totally there – books over brawn.  The weekend of September 24-25.

In my final bit of ramble, after we left the Library of Congress, (and bought BalletBoy’s new ballet shoes since we were on the Hill anyway), we went over to the brand new Yards Park next to the Nats stadium.  I’ve been meaning to go for awhile, but it kept not happening.  We’ve not been at a lot of baseball this season.  Well, I must say, it’s completely and utterly awesome.  If you’re local you must go.  I command it!  Mushroom, BalletBoy and I played a slightly epic game of Hide and Seek there.  But that’s not a commandment, just a recommendation.