Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Pioneer "What" Light?

The kids all did a double take as we walked through Old Trail Museum in Choteau, MT.

"Mom, does that sign card really say that?"

I can't arch a single eyebrow, but if I could, I would have - "Well, it seems to.  I guess we'll...er...I'll have to look that one up, when we get home."

Which I did, very carefully, and it turns out a "bitch light" refers to a piece of twisted rag, soaked in a pan of grease, usually bacon grease, lit for indoor illumination, in the pioneer era, when candles were in short supply, or too expensive to be had.  In fact, there were a number of similar, but slightly different grease lamps - the Betty, the Phoebe, the cruise, the button, and the slutt (sometimes written "slut") lamp.  

As to the etymology of the word...that seems to be lost to history.  Or, it is at least, buried deeper than I am willing to venture with such a search phrase.  I imagine it was derived from some German or Dutch and English word combination, and it does seem to have to do with the rag wick which was originally called the now offensive word.

I popped around to a large number of history and antiquing sites to glean this bit of information (too many to name sources here), but if you are curious about the lamps, I would suggest "pioneer grease lamps" as the safest of the search phrases to learn more without learning "more".  There are even a number of Little House on the Prairie, Long Winter-inspired, hands on projects for (well supervised) children, out there.  We might yet try our hands at making one, but first we have a few more items to check out.

You really never know what you're going to find in a museum (or what it's going to be called).

 "Thunder Bucket"

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Science - How to Turn An Afternoon in the Park into a Simple, No-Stress Science Lesson

Long time readers will know I love to sneak science lessons into our summer fun. Really it's not so much sneaking in, as it is taking advantage of the teachable moments that present themselves every time we step outside the door. We're outside more in the summer, so it's hard to miss all the science going on around us.

Take for instance this weekend. We jumped back onto the dinosaur trail with another homeschooler family (they're studying Montana history, and by coincidence most of the dinosaur museums not only highlight the prehistoric history of our state, but also have some regional pioneer-ish type history exhibits, as well).

Of course, dinosaur museums are full of scientific information and fodder for future lessons, but the real lesson came when we stopped by a local park, to let the "children" (most of whom are teens) blow off some steam before stuffing them back into the vans for the trip home.

The park wasn't much, but it did have a creek.

It wasn't long before one of our group was in the creek...

...only to discover they weren't alone.

We spent some time watching, and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch (most of us watching from the shore) the little fish in the creek (which at the time we were calling guppies, but on double checking at home, realized were minnows) by hand, and then loaded up and headed home.

On the way home, we (possibly more me, than anyone else) lamented that we hadn't caught any of the fish to take home as pets. Questions arose (from the skeptics in the back of van):
  1. How would you even catch fish so small?
  2. Would they survive in a fish tank?
  3. Is it legal to harvest them?
  4. How big would they grow?
  5. What would you feed them?
And just like that, a science lesson was born.  A few minutes at home with Google, led us from the question of :

"What are the small fish in Montana streams?" (minnows)


"Types of minnows in Montana" (the Montana field guide lists 22)

 Kingdom - Animals - Animalia Phylum - Vertebrates - Craniata Class - Fish - Actinopterygii Order - Minnows / Suckers - Cypriniformes Family - Minnows - Cyprinidae


"How do you catch minnows?" (after a quick check with the department of Fish and Wildlife to check the regulations - there is always a legal side to fieldwork).


"Is there a way to observe an identify minnows without traumatizing or harming them?" (the ethical dilemma of field work - Mary Low's Creek Stopmin' & Gettin' into Nature suggests making an "underwater viewer" by removing both ends from a can, and securing plastic wrap tightly across one end with a rubber band).

And (since we were already searching books anyway) to:

...which we could download for free through Amazon Prime.  It's a very simple book, but does contain a lot of facts about the tiny fish.

Now, all of this "research" was done over the course of about an hour, after we got home.  The lesson was shallow, and introductory at best, but we picked up a couple of follow-up projects to do, and we're armed with that much more information to build on for our next park visit.

So, how do you turn an afternoon in the park into a simple, no-stress science lesson? 
  • Go outside.
  •  Look around.
  •  Be aware of what's catching your child's eye.
  • Share experiences from your past (we used to catch crawdads in our creek when I was girl).
  • Encourage questions.
  • Seek and share the answers - using the Internet and library for free, and quick resources.
  • Don't be afraid of making mistakes, or admitting you might be or were wrong (the little fish were not guppies, after all).
  • Remember if you're going to touch or remove anything, to check the local regulations.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Progressive Drawing

Just for kicks today, I pulled out one of our paper rolls, crayons, colored pencils, paint brush pens, and markers...

...and called the girls in, one at a time, to work on a progress drawing - like a progressive story, but instead of each girl writing a sentence or two...

...they took turns adding to a drawing.  C started with some flowers...

...E added a tree...

...and A turned the whole scene into a daydream...

...on a winter's day, which then they continued to add to, bit by bit, turn by turn until we ran out of time.

I'm sure we'll be trying it again. Maybe next time we'll make a progressive doodle, and limit the number of pen strokes per turn for a more geometric/modern art type effect - or set a time limit for each turn to add a quick draw, game like feel to the fun, or let the boys join in to up the chaos level. There are just so many possibilities.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lite-Brite Fun With Fine Art

I was cleaning out our game closet last night, and came across our old Lite-Brite.  As a toy, we've pretty much outgrown it, but I wondered if it might not still have a use in our art explorations.  T (age 18) has been studying, this week, for an Art of the Western World final, and I have to admit to looking over his shoulder to see if there's anything to glean for the younger children.

Anyway, I'm sure that's why when I looked at the Lite-Brite, that my first thought was - 'I wonder if we could recreate the Mona Lisa?' and not 'I wonder what we could get for this in a garage sale?'

Honestly, I'm not that into garage sales anyway, and my enthusiasm for cleaning out the closet was waning, and I remembered the color by numbers Mona Lisa coloring sheet we'd used a few summers ago with our tracing box...

 ...and thought, why not give it a go?

Of course, the Lite-Brite pegs are all the wrong colors, which led to some interesting creative choices, and there weren't nearly enough of them to complete the full picture...

...but it was an interesting exercise, that not only got our creative juices flowing, but also turned our focus back to the original painting (checking colors, and details) and on to other works, as we looked through our art books for works that might be better suited to the Lite-Brite colors and limitations - I'm thinking maybe something from the cubists...?  First though, I think I better finish with the closet.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Glow-In-The-Dark Dinosaur Fossil Hunt

The museums of the dinosaur trail (a series of museums across Montana with bones, fossils, and other prehistoric paraphernalia) are set to open for the summer season on Memorial Day weekend.  Hoping to jump back onto the trail this year, I've been looking for ways to gear up some dino-related excitement in the house.

So, when I saw glow-in-the dark, build your own fossil sets from Ja-Ru (who make excellent little dino-digs) hanging tantalizingly from the shelf in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, I snatched one down with glee.

My thinking was, that I could leave the "fossils" out in a window all day on Wednesday (we have church Wednesday evenings, and the younger girls are up well past dark that evening anyway)...

...and then place them around in our nice dark basement, not exactly hidden, but where they wouldn't be terribly obvious...

...unless the lights were off.

It would have worked great if:
  1. The fossils actually glowed in the dark for longer than 30 seconds once the lights were off (I would suggest buying an inexpensive wooden set, and painting it with glow-in-the-dark paint, instead).
  2. I had remembered that by staying up late, the girls would be growing tired, and might not be up for too much of a challenge (I probably shouldn't have mixed the two sets that came in the together, or spread them over the entire basement).
  3. I had made a map of the hidden pieces, so completely lost pieces could be found.
  4. I hadn't snapped a few of the bones in half while breaking them free of the packaging.
Actually, the last two probably didn't matter so much.  We simply glued the broken bones back together (not all fossils found in the field are intact, you know).  And, as rain set in for the rest of the week, and we were stuck inside anyway, we took our time searching (most digs take more than one expedition to complete), and finally found every last piece (with great cheers and accolades to the finder of the final fossil), last night.

It might not have been the exactly the experience I was aiming for, but we are much more focused on fossils now than we were a week ago.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Box of Summer

It's not quite officially summer, yet.  But, I've already been stocking up on a few summer essentials, as I've bumped into them on sale in the various stores around town. And this year, I've stumbled onto a great way of storing and presenting them, that has really sparked some summer excitement for the whole family (from the teens on down) by taking the whole lot...

...and packing it up into a spare box (a plastic tote might be even better - but then, there's just something magical about an Amazon box), and placing it on the floor of a closet.   That way, when it's time to head outside on those long summer days, or when neighbor kids come knocking, or we head to the park with friends...but run out of things to do...there's plenty of little items to spark creativity, already on hand, and ready to go.

To begin with I've loaded the box with the basic essentials (a relative term, at best):
  • bubbles (they come in so many different types and varieties, a person could create an entire "box of bubbles" if they wanted)
  • a few squirt guns
  • a couple of jump ropes (to be joined later by a frisbee, or any small, portable, outdoor sporting type equipment)
  • sidewalk chalk
  • water balloons
  • a beach ball
  • sun screen
  • mosquito repelling bracelets (this summer the insects are not going to be an excuse to stay inside)
  • and a couple of craft/baking kits (for those rainy days) 

I still have hopes of adding a summer reading list (I'd like to stock up on books relating to the movies coming out in the theaters or on DVD, this summer), some geocaching supplies (for the teens), and maybe some sketch books, and field guides (along with insect jars or binoculars, or whatever goes along with the guide), and a science kit or two.  At any rate, I'll try to keep it fresh, with a few surprises thrown in throughout the summer to supplement the basics of bubbles and chalk. 

Really, it's not so much what's in the box, as it's the idea that there is a box...just waiting to be rummaged through.

Now, I just have to stock up the freezer with popsicles, and ice (for beat the heat art, science, and engineering fun) , turn on the sprinklers, and wait for summer to arrive.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Qixels vs Perler Beads

We watched Kung Fu Panda 3 again, on Friday evening.  I pulled out our Perler beads, thinking that the girls (ages 9 and 11) and I might make some Perler bead pandas while we watched the movie.

The girls spotted a couple of sets of Qixels in our "box of summer" though (more on that later), and decided to give the little square beads a chance instead.

If you haven't seen Qixels yet (I'm not sure how long they've been around, but they were new to me), they are sort of a cross between Lego blocks and Perler beads. 
  • They are cube shaped instead of round, and they snap onto their little peg board (over stencils that come with the kit, if you like) instead of just setting on the pegs.  This is nice, because you can't really dislodge and scramble your creation by bumping the board (the sad fate of my original panda).
  • They are made of some kind of glue, so instead of using the heat of an iron to fuse the beads together (as with Perler beads) you simply have to spritz your creation with water - and kits come with little spray bottles.  Water activates the glue, and once dry (in less than an hour) the creation is securely glued together, and ready to played with... 
 ...or posed on stands...

...that also come with the kits...

...as well as little pop in Lego like pieces...

...to turn your creation into...

...a pendant for a key chain or necklace.

As I mentioned the kits come with stencils, and a theme, and contain blocks in colors for making the suggested designs.  My girls opted to ignore the theme and make their own designs, and that seemed to work just fine.

The upside of the little blocks is that since they don't need heat to fuse together, the girls could make their creations, from start to finish, complete independently.  If the blocks come apart later, they can just be popped back on the pegboard and sprayed again, and the glue will activate and re-stick the blocks together.

I suppose the downside is that if the creations get wet while they are being played with - or worn, they will get gooey and sticky, and not be very pleasant.

Also, because they come mainly in kits, they are a little pricey in comparison with Perler beads (in the $7-$15 range for each kit, making three or four medium sized figures).  There are a couple of refill packs available, but you can't buy individual colors of cubes - which would be nice.  And, because they are glue, or glue coated, you really don't want children putting them in their mouths, while they are being made, or after they have been given as a gift to friend. Although I'm thinking, you wouldn't want children popping Perler beads in their mouths, either.

All in all though, given the fun my girls had with them, and their overall ease of use, I can easily recommend them.  This is not a paid review, just a mom to mom type recommendation.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Re-evaluating the Pros and Cons of Online College Classes - After the First Year.

T (age 18) is just finishing up the last bit of what amounts to his first year of an online college degree.  Before he started in on his first online class (then a long summer vacation, and on into studies in earnest) I posted a list of pros and cons we had considered before he decided to try online studies rather than packing up and heading out to a brick and mortar university.

Now that he's had some time to try out online college classes, I thought it might be good to look back over the pros and cons list, and add a few thoughts.  These are my thoughts, not his.  I'm hoping after his last exam has been turned in, and he's had time to recover, I might talk him into a guest post, so he can give a students opinion (keeping in mind he has nothing with which to compare online classes).  For now, you get a mother's opinion.

From my perspective, it's been an interesting year, or so.  It turns out that the online collegiate experience is about as different from traditional college or university classes as homeschooling is from public school.  I'm inclined to think the differences are for the most part good - but it does require a reorientation of thinking, and a true commitment to learning, over the commitment of the trappings of "school". 

I've reprinted our old pros and cons list below (see the original post for sources), with new thoughts in blue.


  1. Greater flexibility - Instead of having classes at set times and days, in many cases lectures can be watched online, or listened to, at the students convenience.  Classes can be scheduled around work and family obligations, instead of the other way around. This has turned out to be a fantastic advantage.
  2. Convenience - Again, in many cases, a student can choose when they want to start a class, rather than waiting for the semester to officially commence.  While this isn't true for all online programs, it is for the one that T is enrolled in, and has also been a very nice feature.
  3. Can set your own pace for learning - While some classes do still have set time schedules, and all have an eventual deadline for completion, many classes allow students to move faster if they wish.  Instead of taking six months, a class might be completed in 4 months.  In fact, some schools even offer a discount on the next class if you complete one early.  T has played around with taking one class at a time, and completing each in a month, or taking several classes over a four to six month period, finding his own pace, while sticking to his ultimate completion goal for the degree program.
  4. Introverts might be more likely to speak up and ask questions in an email format - The online format allows for slow introspection, and time for thorough formulation of an idea, before it is written onto a chat board, or into an email, as opposed to the quick blurting out of an idea or question, before the professor moves onto the next thought or topic.  This type of communication suits some personalities better than others. I'm still inclined to think that a little more "live" class discussion wouldn't be a bad thing, even for the introverts.
  5. Fewer pressures of limited space - Student numbers are not limited by classroom space, and classes are not limited by classroom availability.  T has found, especially in the newest classes being offered, that it is not uncommon for him to be the only student in the online version of his classes - class availability has not been a problem - but message board discussions have been a little wanting.
  6. Lower costs - in tuition and on campus expenses - parking, room and board, club fees. Very true. Just remember, low price isn't everything - you want to make sure the program is accredited, and the school has a good reputation not only when it comes to their online courses, but also for their physical campus.
  7. Availability - Not only are classes ready when you want them, but potentially, if you can't find the class you want at your chosen school, you could easily transfer in a credit from another school, without changing physical locations.  T is working through a specific degree program, and has not needed to transfer in any credits from other schools - so we can't really speak to the ease of this option.
  8. Continual access to lectures - Can't make out your notes? No problem! Just re-watch that bit of the lecture.  As long as you are enrolled in the class, you can watch the lectures as many times as you like.  True, but listening back through lectures (if the class has them) can be time consuming, so good notes are still important.
  9. Innovations and advancing technology - From video chatting, to message boards, setting up files in the correct format, to taking online quizzes, distance courses are utilizing the latest in technology, and an online student gains a natural familiarity with it.  Again, this is very true, and sometimes a bit of a stretch - but in a good way.
  10. Lack of in class distractions - No person chewing gum loudly behind you, or sniffing every thirty seconds.  If someone is bothering you at home, you can simply pick up your computer, and move to another room.  Whether it's your little sister practicing piano while you're trying to read, or your dad visiting loudly in the next room with your exam proctor (a person overseeing the exam), a distraction is still a distraction, and not always avoidable.

  1. Isolation - Anyone used to homeschooling is familiar with this objection.  While isolation can be an issue for students studying on their own, it does not have to be.  There are plenty of community and church clubs and events to keep a student connected in with people, but you do have to go looking for them.  T works, attends a small college and career group at church, and joins the older homeschoolers (high school and recent graduates) for ultimate frisbee on the weekends, but his opportunities for rubbing shoulders with large groups of other college students are pretty small.  I'm not sure yet whether this is good or bad.  It is how life is after college anyway, does it hurt to join the normal world while still in college?  Time will tell.
  2. Requires self motivation - Again, something homeschoolers are already familiar with.  Although, I'm thinking that brick and mortar schools also require some self-motivation.  I don't remember any early morning wake up calls from my college professors, no one walked me to class, or held my hand while I researched papers.  It was simply expected the work would be done according to the syllabus.  That much works the same for online classes. I'm finding, as a mom, and as the only other person in the house with college experience (and to be honest - as a type A personalty) it has been difficult to step back and force T to be self motivated.   This is more my challenge though, than his.
  3. Limited interaction with professors - While it is true, you cannot stand chatting with professors in the hallway after class, or corner them in their offices with a quick question.  You can email them, or call them in their offices.  Most likely you will have a distance office representative to run on campus interference for you, if you can't get through to a professor as well.  T has found this to vary a lot depending on the professor.  Some email, or even call, to check-up, encourage, or offer feedback. Others are practically non-existent.  But, the distance office has proved to be an invaluable resource.  The staff are always quick to respond, and very helpful as a go-between to the professors, when needed.
  4. No extracurricular campus activities - This is very much like the isolation argument.  And it is true, you won't have football games to cheer at, or chapels to attend.  In the end it really depends on your purpose for attending college in the first place, as to how much this one will matter to you.  True again, but local schools offer plays, lectures, and sporting events, that are open to the public - so you don't have to miss out on everything.  T is hoping to make a trip to the brick and mortar campus of his school later this year, so he can get a feel for campus life, and join with the rest of the student body - if only for a conference or student weekend.
  5. Stigma - Thanks to a "Sally Struthers' school of all things ridiculous" perception still lingering from the days before distance learning had really taken hold in the accredited schools, there is a sense that this kind of learning isn't "real college".  However, if the school, and program are accredited then this is completely a false perception (though one you will still face).  A transcript, and diploma from an online degree program looks identical to what you receive if you attend classes on campus.  It is the same degree.  We found most of the negative reactions to T's decision to be from family members (many of whom are college professors or connected with college campuses in some way).  In the community at large, T has bumped into many adults continuing their educations online, and found a pretty good acceptance.  Anyone who has experience with online classes, knows how to tell a legitimate school from a degree mill, and appreciates real programs for what they are - an education.
  6. Lack of financial aid - Distance programs are not always eligible for financial aid, because of their reduced cost.  We found that the reduction in tuition more than made up for the lack.  The lower cost of tuition does really reduce the need for financial aid.  T has been able to pay his own way - working part-time while in classes and full-time in between.
  7. Natural technology problems - Even under the best of circumstances, internet connections can be lost, computers malfunction, and printers jam.  There are bound to be some frustrations along the way.  Imagine loosing your connection in the middle of a midterm exam - will you be allowed to restart it?  These are things to find out before you sign up for your first class, and to be prepared for.  T has experienced a few bumps and blips, but these have proved to be good learning experiences rather than major obstacles.
  8. Not getting out - experiencing new places - This con could also be applied to attending local colleges.  It is true that you will not have the experience of loading up all your belongings and heading off for an in-dorm adventure with your buddies.  That does not mean you can't join with a short term volunteer organization, or simply travel on your own, along the way.  Going away to college is not the only door out of the house.  An adventurous spirit is always going to find its way out.  It has been an interesting year watching T beginning to test his wings - staying at home has given him a safe haven, and time to move at his own pace, but it hasn't stopped him from maturing, branching out, and making plans of his own.
  9. Degrees are limited - This one is simply true.  In all of the schools we looked at, there were far more degree options being offered on campus than through the distance program.  Hopefully this will change with time.  However, in the meantime, there are still a number of online degrees to choose from, and even if the degree you're seeking cannot be completed online - the basic core classes can.  For the moment T has opted to work towards an associates degree in general studies that will stand alone or allow him to take his core credits on into a more specific degree on campus if he decides to pursue one.
  10. Not able to ask questions in the moment - If the professor says something that puzzles or outrages you, you will not be able to ask for instant clarification.  However, sometimes by listening, instead of speaking, you manage to learn more.  And, not always being able to say what you're thinking, the moment you think it, is a good thing.  Given the rest of the lecture, and time to research and consider, a more complete question or objection might be presented to the professor through an email or chat board.  This has made for some lively discussions around the house, though.  We often work just as well as a sounding board as the student in the next chair would have.
  11. Professors cannot tell if they are “getting through” - A professor lecturing at you through a computer screen will not be able to see your confused look, or glazed eyes, and modify his approach in the moment.  T has found through feedback on papers, that on occasion, he has completely missed what the professor was trying to say.  On occasion it has been frustrating, but there is something to learning to read, listen, and consider carefully to determine if what you're hearing is really what is being said.
  12. It’s new to professors, and not all of them are comfortable with it - Just because a professor is teaching an online class, it does not mean he or she appreciates the format, or understands the technology necessary to make it work.  Educators are often slow to embrace change, especially when the change can bring additional work for them along with it.  Many have very strong opinions about the importance of in class participation.  Again, this varies from professor to professor.  Some are very good at working with online classes, and some are not.

Overall, T has had a positive experience with his online classes, and is on track to complete his initial associate degree this next year.  At that point, he might decide to go on campus to work on a bachelors, but the online option will still be there if he chooses.  As parents, we'll be happy to support either option, feeling confident that he is gaining a valuable education either way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Using Jell-O Jiggler Molds for Homemade Peanut Butter Cups

I was looking at a couple of Jell-o Jigglers Mold Kits that have been in my cupboard for a while (an impulse buy from some previous trip to the store, or other)...

...when it occurred to me...

Melted milk chocolate chips

...that while Star Wars and Jurassic Jello-O Jigglers...

spread evenly

...might be nice and all...

peanut butter mixed with powdered sugar and butter

...I'd really much rather have...

topped with more melted chocolate tapped to make smooth.

...a Darth Vader or T-Rex shaped...

Comfort of Cooking has a good recipe.

...peanut butter cup.

Wouldn't you?