". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Christmas in August

Hey, you. Yeah, you with the computer and to-do list a mile long. Stop what you're doing and listen to this. It's a video of the attendees at this weekend's Doxology retreat in Schuyler, Nebraska, singing Lutheran Service Book 384, "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Yes, I know. It's a Christmas hymn, and here we are with almost a month left of summer. But the message of this hymn--one of my all-time favorites--knows no season. So give yourself a 4-minute breather and hear of the love of the Father for you, His precious child. (By the way, that's my hubby singing the first stanza and providing piano accompaniment throughout. Notice what happens in the piano on the final, doxological stanza. It's as if the piano breaks out into its own, spontaneous song, leaving the singers to carry the melody on their own. I think they do a pretty good job of it, don't you?)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Be Back Soon

Life has gotten the better of me this week. To be honest, I almost forgot I have a blog. And tomorrow I will be hitting the open road with the family as we head to Nebraska, where my husband will be providing music for a Doxology gathering and where my son will be visiting the University of Nebraska to see if he might want to spend the next four years of his life there (starting in 2011). So the blog remains on hold. But I'll be back soon. I promise. Hope you will, too.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On the Fly Homeschooling

Last week I outlined our plan for homeschooling my youngest (age 6) this year. Revisiting that post this week, I think it looks a lot more complicated than it is. There are several areas in which the goal is primarily to splash around and have fun (science, history, math). There are a few other areas that are more intentional (writing, Bible/catechism, piano). Much of the time it's just a matter of seizing on the thing that is most interesting to Evan at the moment and extending it (that's the unschooling element of our approach). Here's an example.

A few weeks ago I was discussing the subject of children's literature with some of my Facebook friends. There were several recommendations for stories/series with which I was not familiar and I made a note to myself to look into them for Evan. One came courtesy of this guy (and he's the sort of guy you tend to listen to because he's just so danged smart). I knew immediately from the title that I needed to get this book: "Stand Back," said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze!"

We read it yesterday, and I thought I would share a bit about what we did for those that might find it useful or interesting. None of this was planned. This was simply an instance of "Hmmm, I haven't thought about what we're going to do today; let's read that fun book that Bi-Colored Python Rock Snake suggested."

The story is about an elephant that announces he's going to sneeze. All the other animals, having been through this before, panic at what is coming and beg him to forbear. The story is written in verse, which makes it all the more fun. It's all silliness, but there are also opportunities for learning. When the buffalo protests--"Your sneezes send everyone flying along"--he compares the elephant's sneeze to a gale or hurricane. Voila! Ready-made vocabulary lesson! "Evan, do you know what a gale is?"

When it comes to the bees, their concern is that once again the elephant's sneeze will blow off their stingers and they'll have to again "make do / With rose thorns and glue." So we learn that bees don't bite but have stingers. The fish are afraid the elephant's sneeze is going to blow off their scales and give their gills the chills, so we learn about what scales and gills are. The bear worries that the elephant's sneeze is going to again blow off all his hair and leave him spending the winter (hibernation, anyone?) in long underwear: "Nothing's so sad as a bear that is bare."

Jackpot. Later in the day, after we had read the story several times through (and the part about the hippopotamus falling on his "bottom-us" at least ten times), I found a simple drawing book that we already had on our shelf. I gave Evan a sheet of storybook paper--blank on top and ruled on bottom--and had him draw a bear step-by-step with me modeling the steps for him on another sheet of paper. (As simple as the approach in the book above is, I simplified it even more. Our bears were mostly made of circles and ovals.) Then on the lines below the drawing we wrote, "The bear is bare." We talked about the words "bear" and "bare" and how they are different and discussed how sentences start with capital letters and end with periods.

So much more interesting than copying lines of a's and b's in a handwriting book or working our way in order through a spelling or drawing book. And because the lesson grew organically out of something Evan enjoyed he was fairly cooperative. Mostly. Invoking his points helped keep him on task. (We have a point system by which Evan is able to earn points for above and beyond behavior. Once he has earned 50 points he can cash them in on a reward, and right now he is particularly motivated because his DS is broken and he is trying to earn points so as to get help from Mom & Dad in buying a "new"--it will be used--one.)

When Evan was done with the picture and writing I had him carry it to his sister and brother for affirmation and then we hung it on the bulletin board to share with Dad when he got home. All in all a pretty successful lesson, and I didn't find it in a curriculum guide. And it may be a week or more before we do something similar, and that's okay. It will happen when we stumble on another great reading moment.

There's more to "Stand Back," Said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze!" than I can adequately share here, both in learning possibilities (all those animals!) and enjoyment. I recommend it for anyone that has children in the preschool/primary age group.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Children's Cantata, Part 2

Here are three more video installments of the cantata, "The Cost of Following Jesus," presented by children of my church's summer music camp. More information and the first video of the opening chorus can be found here. The texts are below each video. I will post the closing movements later this week.

(Those of you are who are either extremely alert or insomniac may have noticed an installment posted, then withdrawn, a few days ago. I realized after I posted it that I had uploaded the wrong video to my Vimeo account. If I had left it here it would have been out of sequence. But a cantata is a story, after all! I didn't want to give you the end before the middle! And I couldn't immediately fix the problem because of the uploading limit on my free Vimeo account. But I think I should now be able to wrap this up in a few days.)

"The Cost of Following Jesus" - II. Recitative - Luke 9:51-53 from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Recitative: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51-53)

"The Cost of Following Jesus" - III. Aria, Recitative, Aria - Luke 9:54-56 from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Aria: Take up your Cross! Take up your cross, do not be ashamed, not let your foolish heart rebel; for I, I, the Son of Man have come to bear your sin and save you from hell. - Charles W. Everest

Recitative: And when the disciples James and John saw it, they asked: "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. - Luke 9:54-56

Aria: Christ, our rock and sure foundation, chosen , precious Cornerstone; we are built on You alone!

Fierce, the world's denunciation; though the gates of hell assail; they shall surely not prevail.

On the Holy Scriptures grounded, we will never be confounded; Trusting all that You have spoken, for Your Word cannot be broken!

Jesus, Author of Salvation, on the cross You died for all; sinners ruined by the fall. Your great love for ev'ry nation seeks to save and not condemn; nor are You ashamed of them.

On the Holy Scriptures grounded, we will never be confounded; Trusting all that You have spoken, for Your Word cannot be broken!

By Your Spirit's inspiration, strengthen us with faithfulness, that we may Your truth confess. Bless, O Lord, this congregation all we plan or say or do, laying down our lives for You.

On the Holy Scriptures grounded, we will never be confounded; Trusting all that You have spoken, for Your Word cannot be broken! - Stephen Starke

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Homeschool Literature Notes

This year for literature study we will be focusing mostly on the other side of the pond, but first we are spending a few weeks on 20th century American writers. It's not enough time, but we read a smattering of 20th century American poets a few years ago when we did our poetry unit. So we'll do what we can and move on. And hey, we're showing solidarity with our brick and cinder block counterparts by upholding that sacred educational tradition of never finishing the book, right?

So, last week we read some Cather ("A Wagner Matinée") and Frost. When I was a young, misguided high school student, I didn't have much use for Frost. He seemed so old-fashioned and, well, boring. I set him aside and luxuriated in Whitman. But with age comes experience and wisdom and a proper perspective. I'm sorry, Mr. Frost. I didn't understand back then. I'm smarter now, and I think I'm starting to get it.

My children's literature book includes an excerpt of an interview Frost gave to the New York Times in 1923, after he won his first Pulitzer Prize. Here's some of what he said:

Today almost every man who writes poetry confesses his debt to Whitman. Many have gone very much further than Whitman would have traveled with them. They are the people who believe in wide straddling.

I, myself, as I said before, don't like it for myself. I do not write free verse; I write blank verse. I must have the pulse beat of rhythm. I like to hear it beating under the things I write.

That doesn't mean I do not like to read a bit of free verse occasionally. I do. It sometimes succeeds in painting a picture that is very clear and startling. It's good as something created momentarily for its sudden startling effect; it hasn't the qualities, however, of something lastingly beautiful.

And sometimes my objection to it is that it's a pose. It's not honest. When a man sets out consciously to tear up forms and rhythms and measures, then he is not interested in giving you poetry. He just wants to perform; he wants to show you his tricks. He will get an effect; nobody will deny that, but it is not a harmonious effect.

Sometimes it strikes me that the free-verse people got their idea from incorrect proof sheets. I have had stuff come from the printers with lines half left out or positions changed about. I read the poems as they stood, distorted and half finished, and I confess I get a rather pleasant sensation from them. They make a sort of nightmarish half-sense . . . .

(Reprinted in Elements of Literature: Fifth Course. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 2000 ed.)

If I were to start a blog today, I think I would call it "Birches." The banner would have a photo of a landscape with birch trees, and the subtitle would be the last line of Frost's magnificent poem:

"So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May not fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." (Robert Frost, "Birches," ll. 41-59)

Of course, I do know where things are likely to go better. But man, what a poem! Earth is indeed "the right place for love," especially when you're "weary of considerations" (what a line!). And the image of the climbing and swinging back down--actually, the being gently set back down (by whom?)--both of which are good "going and coming back," strikes me as a perfect picture of vocation, of the daily pattern of trying, succeeding, and failing that is the life of a human being.

One could indeed do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

First Grade

A few days ago I shared academic goals for the senior members of Philipp Nicolai Lutheran Academy* (known affectionately around the house as "The Big Kids"). Today I thought I would share what we have planned for the first grader.

First, let me say that the label of "first grade" is an indication of Evan's age more than anything else. He is six years old, so if he were attending an institutional school, he would be entering his first grade year. But when it comes to learning around here, we don't much care what grade someone is in. That's why if you read my last homeschooling post you may have noticed that even though they are three years apart in age, my two oldest children are studying many of the same things. Since they can, they do. Makes my life easier and theirs more enjoyable. But when their paths part academically (as they must with some more sequential subjects, such as math), their studying does, too.

So, back to Evan. What does he have to look forward to this year? Here's a list of the areas of study we will undertake, how we will approach those areas, and the primary books we will be using:

Language Arts
I have been fortunate to never have to teach reading. All of my kids, including Evan, just learned, and I really can't tell you how. My only explanation is that we have always read to them, a lot, from a very young age. Books that teach letters and their sounds have certainly helped (such as a Random House series we bought when Trevor was little that had a book for every letter). Dr. Seuss books with their rhyme and repetition have been invaluable. I also credit Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, and Garfield comic strips with helping Evan make great strides forward this past year. The pictures combined with the short number of words to decode make for a great and highly motivating reading experience. I would say at this point Evan is easily at a third grade reading level, maybe higher (he was reading Luther's Small Catechism to us this morning). But while he knows how to read, he is not able to spell and write at a comparable level. And he could still use some basic phonics to help with sounding out unfamiliar words. So to that end we will be using Explode the Code, starting with Level 1. Additionally, at least once a week I will have him do some copy work (nothing long, just a Bible verse or line from a hymn or story) and will try to move him towards generating his own, not just copying, sentences by the end of the year.

I think at this age the best approach is to incorporate math learning into other subjects or everyday life ("There are seven continents. We just named five of them. How many are left?"). But I think it is also good to do some math worksheets on a limited basis, if for no other reason than to have the child practice writing his numbers. So I purchased A Beka's Arithmetic, Level 1, and we will use it occasionally. I will not have him work through the book in a methodical, one-page-per-day way, but will give him just enough math sheets that when he gets one he thinks it's interesting and fun.

We already have a lot of great nature and science books on our shelves (my two older children always loved the Scholastic Question & Answer and the Magic School Bus books), but the kindergarten level of Sonlight science looked really fun to me, so we bought some, but not all, of the items. I did get the curriculum guide and after a few days am glad that I did because it does have some helpful suggestions for simple (yay!) activities. I also bought the A Beka science and health readers for first grade as supplements (which again means we will only use them to the extent they are fun). But note well: I do not buy any of the A Beka peripheral materials (test booklets, teacher guides, etc.). The workbooks are only about $10 each and I think I am smart enough to use them without a lesson plan or teacher's guide. (Please don't burst my bubble.) We don't do much testing around here, especially not at the primary level, we never stick to the prescribed schedule, and I don't think I need answer keys for first grade material. (On the other hand, today I told Evan that the North Pole is in Antartica. Sheesh. It was a lapse, OKAY??? But maybe I do need the answer key for geography . . . . ).

Social Science
Nothing too formal here. Some broad reading about times past, using some of the books suggested by Sonlight for elementary world history: things like Usborne's Time Traveler, Then and Now, and Living Long Ago ; the Sonlight Book of Time and paste-in timeline figures; A Beka's My America and My World; and selected historical fiction at Evan's reading/listening level. Also some map study, as it comes up in history and other subjects. (Yesterday we read Robert McCloskey's One Morning in Maine. Seemed logical to look up Maine on the map. Evan was fascinated. We found Illinois, too, and Chicago, and traced the path from here to Maine, also taking note of Indiana--which we visited last week--and Texas--where we have family. This book is a great example of the myriad of things that can be learned through literature. If you followed every bunny trail in the book, learning about the geography, the animals, and the lifestyle of the people, you could spend weeks on it. )

Catechism & Bible
Evan participates in daily family devotions with Bible reading, hymn singing, and catechism study. Each week we will have a Hymn of the Week that all of us will work to commit to memory (thanks for the inspiration, Hymn Addict), at least in part. This week's hymn is "Christ Be My Leader," Lutheran Service Book 861, chosen for its accessibility and suitability for starting off a new school year (it's also coming up in church in the near future, so learning it now will help Evan to sing it later). Last year Evan learned and memorized the Ten Commandments. This year he is starting out by learning the Apostle's Creed. He will probably also likely have the meanings of both down soon as a result of listening to the Small Catechism set to music (see Sing the Faith in my left sidebar.) In addition, he and I are going through Every Day With God, which has 52 weeks of Bible stories at his reading level, with one story for every day of the week, M-F. (I bought the first book of Concordia Catechetical Academy's Bible Stories For Daily Prayer a year or two ago, but at this point Evan will only experience it indirectly through me.)

We are blessed to have a lot of people in our house to help with Evan's schooling. This kid has an entire teaching team! Trevor will provide a weekly chess lesson, I will teach piano, Dad will provide enrichment with God's World News, and Caitlin will help out with art projects and science experiments (I am no good with the hands-on stuff). Evan will also take a combination ballet/tumbling class at our local park district (he does not handle anything competitive well, but he's great with the cartwheels, so we are hoping this works). Top that off with lots and lots of reading for fun, as always, and you have a first grade curriculum.

Now, for the die-hard homeschoolers that are still reading and wondering what one of our homeschool days looks like (homeschoolers always want to know what each other's days are like), here's a run-down of Evan's:

9:00 Wake up, get dressed, have breakfast (Yes, he sleeps until 9:00! No, I'm not kidding! Yes, I know how lucky I am!)
9:30 Family devotion
10-11 School time
11-12 Free time
12-1 Lunch
1-2 School time
2-3 Free time
3-3:30 Some kind of activity (piano, chess, craft, experiment, or the like)
3:30-4 Pick up room and/or house clutter
4-6 Free time
6-7 Supper
7-8 Free time
8-9 Bath & get ready for bed
9-10 Story & prayers & quiet play in room

It helps us in our home school to come up with a schedule, but we are not dogmatic about it. When we need to adjust (which is most of the time), we do. Sometimes people ask me what our homeschooling "style" is. The best answer I have found is "relaxed." We are not unschoolers, because by definition unschoolers are those who primarily allow the students to determine what is to be studied and when. My kids don't decide what they are going to study; I pretty much tell them, and I decide what materials we are going to use. On the other hand, we are definitely not structured "school at home" types. We don't do a lot of busy work. We read. A lot. We do use some textbooks, especially in the high school years, but we also use a huge number of "living" books. If we start a book and hate it, we toss it aside and look for another. We don't obsess about "covering" material, and we don't concern ourselves much with grades until we have to put something down on a high school transcript. We follow tangents and pursue passions. And we NEVER, EVER let "school" take precedence over spontaneous, natural learning and daily life. Have you ever heard financial guru Suze Orman's slogan? "People first, then money, then things"? I think you could summarize our general philosophy as "God first, then family, then school."

We had our first day of the "new" "school" "year" yesterday (all of those terms are open to definition). We followed the above schedule pretty well. But when it was time for Evan and Mommy to read together, he was deep into a Lego "Knights of the Castle" book. He read it to me and it became part of our school time for the day:

How do you tell a kid that is wrapped up in blankets, enjoying the comfort of his couch, engrossed in a favorite book, to Stop Reading because it's time for school now?

You don't. You let him read. And if you must, you put off until tomorrow what you didn't get done today. Because loving to read is more important than "school."

And how do you tell the contractor who is overseeing the remodeling project that will allow your elderly mother to move in with you that now is not a good time for him to welcome a series of sub-contractors into your home because you're "doing school"?

You don't. You set the studies aside for a couple of hours, even though it's only the second day, because Grandma, too, is more important than "school."

God first. Then people. Then school. That in a nutshell is what I love about homeschooling.

*our "official" name for our home school, after the hymn writer Philipp Nicolai

Sunday, August 8, 2010

He's Going

In September my husband will depart for a 10-day teaching and recording trip to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with Democratic Republic of the Congo), to promote the new French version of the Lutheran Service Book. This hymnal, Liturgies et cantiques lutheriens, will be the first thoroughly Lutheran worship book to be used by the churches there. It has already been introduced in parts of Togo (see Kantor Jonathan Mueller in action here) to a great reception. My husband will be traveling with Rev. James May of Lutherans in Africa and will be training local pastors in the liturgy and making recordings that can be used in local congregations for teaching purposes. He is especially suited to this work not only because of his musical skill but also because of his proficiency in the French language and his appreciation for African music.

Much financial support is needed for this project. Travel alone for Rev. May from Nairobi and for my husband from Chicago will cost thousands of dollars. They will also be purchasing and shipping/carrying hymnals to the churches in Congo, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Cote D'Ivoire. And of course, there will be expenses incurred on the ground for room, board, local transportation and daily needs.

My husband has already started the process of preparing for travel to Africa. There is still much to be done and I will be keeping you posted and asking for your prayers as the trip nears. In the meantime, if you would like to make a donation in support of this trip, you may send it to Bethany Lutheran Church, 1550 Modaff Rd., Naperville, IL 60565, and label it "Send the Cantor to Congo!"

Saturday, August 7, 2010

School Planning

We're starting back into our homeschool routine on Monday. Don't be impressed. Our normal approach is to do "school" year round, taking breaks as needed due to holidays or trips or family demands or pure exhaustion. We do typically take off the full month of August. Not this year. Our homeschool routine has been so frequently interrupted this past year and the interruptions have been so extended that we all agree we need to refocus now, not next month.

I will be spending the weekend trying to get our books and plans in order. Here's the first step: a listing of what we plan to incorporate into our studies this year. It's a pretty big list. My older son has one year left at home before he heads off to college, and we plan to make the most of it.


British Literature, using Elements of Literature (Sixth Course) from HRW as the framework and supplementing as needed/desired.

A survey of grammar, using my accumulated knowledge and textbooks from English courses of lore.

A research paper, which I have not yet had either of my teenagers do. As a former classroom English teacher, I think that research papers are overrated and prone to abuse and that most students in traditional schools are required to do too many of them (every year starting in junior high or earlier is overkill). But it's now or never with my son, and I do want to guide him through one before he has to do it on his own in college.

How To Read a Book - To hone reading skills for all those college texts.


Caitlin started Algebra I last year and will finish it this year. I have told her she can take the whole year if she wants. She does fine with math but it will not likely play a significant role in her college studies or career path, so as long as she has the equivalent of three years of high school math (geometry and Algebra II are on the horizon) I will be satisfied. Our math curriculum of choice for some time now has been Teaching Textbooks.

Trevor completed pre-calculus/trigonometry his sophomore year. Last fall he took Introduction to Statistics at one of the local junior colleges. This fall he is signed up for Finite Mathematics.


We spent last year working through about half of Apologia Biology. We will finish it this year. Trevor also wants to study Advanced Physics, and he will be doing that concurrently on his own.


Our approach to history from the beginning has been to attempt to follow the 4-year ancient through modern cycle suggested by most classical educators. It has been a rather slow go. This year we are going to do whirlwind reviews of both world and American history using the Short Lessons texts from Walch Publishing. Once those are under our belt I would like to end the year with study of the 20th century, which always seems to get neglected.


Trevor will be studying Government this year using Clarence B. Carson's Basic Government and several supplementary texts: What Would the Founders Do?; Lies My Teacher Told Me; Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity.

Art History

There have been times in our homeschooling journey that we have incorporated art study, but never in a systematic way. This year we will try to do so using another Short Lessons text, this one a survey of Western art.


My huband, fluent in French, will continue his dearly held desire to pass that fluency on to our children. Our curriculum is French in Action, a great immersion program which my husband and I used to watch on PBS early in our marriage. The videos are now free online, and the supporting texts are widely available for purchase. We just ordered and received the audio cassettes, workbook and teacher's guide for Part 2 (Lessons 26-52). I doubt they will finish Part 2 this year, but they'll go as far as possible. Maybe I'll even drop in to class and do a little auditing this year (there was a time I took part regularly, but Crazy Life and Mommy Brain finally got the better of me).


This is a particularly weak area for all of us (except my husband, who knows everything. I'm serious. He knows everything.) The Short Lessons incorporate some geography and map study, but not enough. We will supplement with The Complete Idiot's Guide to Geography (yep, that's us) and The Handy Geography Answer Book. I have also purchased one of Sonlight's markable maps (we had one years ago but they have updated/colorized it), and we plan to do some listening to world news and marking corresponding places on the map.

Philosophy & Psychology

We have long been teaching our kids about the variety of world views that are out there. It is a natural by-product of bringing them up in the faith, since so much of what we teach and confess is foreign to the culture. But before Trevor goes to college we would like to arm him with the fullest possible understanding of what he may encounter in the secular culture. To do so we will use three texts (and Caitlin will join him in reading them):

100 Essential Thinkers - for some historical context

Understanding the Times (we have an older edition of the book, purchased used)

Homeschool Psychology - to prepare for and provide balance to college psychology


Let's see, have I left anything out? There will be piano lessons, of course. And church choir. And chess for Trevor and Tae Kwon Do for Caitlin. Lots of work on life skills particularly for the young man that is about to fly the coop.

I haven't included Bible and catechism because those are incorporated into our family devotions, which my husband leads and selects the materials for. But in addition to whatever he does, I plan to read some more C. S. Lewis with Trevor and Caitlin. We have read The Screwtape Letters. Next on the list is Mere Christianity. Maybe we'll do a few more.

I know. I have one more kid. I'm saving him for another post.