Sunday, November 23, 2008

Missionary biography project

Sometimes part of the challenge of teaching is coming up with assignments – assignments that aren't just busy work, but will actually teach the kids life skills. Being able to write a paper and deliver an oral report about a researched subject is a valuable life skill. I've done it many times as an adult. I dreaded public speaking all the way into my 20s; now I love it, especially if I'm talking about a subject that I'm passionate about, like missions. So after reading many biographies of missionaries, I came up with the following assigment, which I'll give the kids tomorrow:

- - - - - - - - - - - -

JACOB: Samuel Morris: Missionary to America by W. Terry Whalin
ALEXANDRA: Mary Slessor: Light for the Dark Continent by Sam Wellman
LARISSA: Gladys Aylward: For the Children of China by Sam Wellman

For this assignment, you will:

- Read a biography about a missionary.

- Write a report summarizing the interesting and important events in the missionary’s life (5 – 10 pages, double-spaced).

- Deliver a 5- to 10-minute oral report about the missionary – with notes but not reading your report – to the family at devotion time.

1. READ the assigned book by Friday, December 5.

As you read, take notes and, if you wish, use sticky notes on pages where there is important information. Jot down interesting or humorous details as you read because you will forget them! In your notes, write down important events and page numbers so you can look back at important facts when you write your report.


  • David Livingstone got into trouble for reading on the job in a spinning factory, but under questioning, the supervisor saw how studious David was and that he could recite all 176 verses of Psalm 119 by heart, so he allowed David to continue reading on the job, as long as he did his work as he read. – p. 17
  • Factory boys rarely knew how to read, but David not only read, he also studied Latin at night after work. David was determined not to work in a factory all his life. - p. 27

2. WRITE the report by Friday, December 12.

Write a report 5 – 10 pages long, Times Roman 12, double-spaced. Summarize the interesting and important events in the missionary’s life. Include:

  • Whether the subject was raised a Christian, and if not, when/how did he become a Christian
  • Any pivotal event that inspired the subject to go into missionary work
  • The reason that the missionary choose the country he served in, or if he wanted to serve in one country and ended up in another, describe how that happened
  • How he got there (not just means of transportation, but whether someone paid his way or he earned the money, whether through mission organization or on his own, etc.)
  • What did he do in the country? Be specific and descriptive.
  • What you admire about the missionary

3. GIVE AN ORAL REPORT 5 – 10 minutes long one evening during the week of December 15.

Write down bullet points that you may look at while delivering your oral report. The report should include the main information covered in the written report, but may also include additional information. Practice giving this report out loud before actually delivering the report. It must be at least 5 minutes long so you can give a lot of interesting details, but no longer than 10 minutes.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A routine for teaching English (at last)

From all the subjects I’m teaching my teens, the single most important academic subject, I believe, is English. It’s not because I’m a Shakespeare fan. Nor do I expect my kids to grow up to be authors. No, I consider English so crucial because it’s a basic skill that my kids will use in any career. Engineers, teachers, doctors, policemen – all have to write reports, requests, summaries, invoices, proposals… something. Others often judge a person’s level of ability and intelligence by their writing skills.

Thus, I am stressing English. And I don’t mean just reading literary classics like they do in our local public high school; I’m talking about reading literature and doing drills in vocabulary, grammar, and writing. Beating those skills into them through practice, practice, practice.

However, until this past week, I still didn’t have a method to my madness. I’d assign daily literature reading plus vocabulary exercises, and then sporadically I’d give them a grammar lesson from a workbook. Or a creative writing assignment. I had no strategy, no schedule; I wanted to throw all the information at the kids, but I wasn’t doing it systematically. When I recently noticed that the grammar workbooks were several hundred pages long, I panicked! I’d never get through it all, and time was slipping away. My oldest is a junior, so I have very little time left to teach him!

I assign the literary works as long-term reading assignments, and the essays based on the reading as long-term writing assignments. I expect the kids to work on them every day. This has been our standard. Read a book; write an essay. And on top of that, I assigned a vocabulary exercise every single day. But that left no time for grammar. And when would be do those clever creative writing assignments I’d dreamed up?

Then it hit me. I can’t believe that I didn’t think of it sooner:

Monday – vocabulary
Tuesday – grammar
Wednesday – vocabulary
Thursday – grammar
Friday – creative writing

It’s so simple. Why did it take me since last January, when I first started homeschooling, to think of it?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

First snow

View out my home office window

It actually happened two days ago. I was not ready. On Friday, it had been over 60 degrees - warm, fall-like. Then just a few days later - wham! Now it's winter...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Last night after everyone was in bed, I pulled out a box with dozens of envelopes of photos that I had brought from my late brother’s house. In the quietness of nighttime, I observed Greg’s life from a perspective I didn’t have while he was alive.

These photos were mainly from the time he was married. Wedding photos. Exuberant smiles. Cake and glasses of champagne. Only Greg’s two closest friends and their wives attended Greg’s private wedding ceremony in snow-covered Vermont. Yesterday I glimpsed their joyous party. The sleigh ride. The giddy delight of close friends celebrating.

It pained me that all three couples eventually divorced.

I looked on at other photos. Photos of ski trips. Hotel rooms. A jacuzzi. Ski slopes. Mountains. Driving somewhere with a dog in the car. A ride on a ferry. Orcas. A dinner party. His pet dogs and cats. The view from his lake house – the one he left to his ex-wife. Spectacular sunsets.

I felt like a voyeur going through all those pictures. A smile. A look. A gesture. Moments between two people caught on film. There was nothing indecent, just a depth of feeling that it pained me to see. It pained me because the marriage dissolved. It hurt because Greg will never again smile at anyone. Ever. And he was always smiling, always upbeat.

It was the joy of his relationship, the love and delight that shone through the pictures that pierced my heart.

Sometimes it’s really hard to look at photos.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bit by bit

My first garden project was building a water garden in 2001 – pond, waterfall, rock border, stone path, and a flower garden on the berm created from the soil dug out of the pond. I worked on this water garden every night after work for several hours (I ate after dark), and every Saturday from morning until nightfall. My family was away at the time, and I wanted to surprise them.

The project took me four weeks to complete.

Today, this home of goldfish and frogs is the focal point of my backyard.

The following summer, I cleaned up an area between two spruce trees, an old garden so unkempt that the periwinkle and lilies of the valley were completely intertwined, and most spadefuls I dug out some of each. Patiently, I separated the two types of plants, placing periwinkle in boxes on the right, lilies of the valley in temporary containers on the left. It was the summer I was first diagnosed with lupus, so some evenings I had the strength to dig out and separate only two or three spadefuls. But each evening I persevered, dug and divided.

“I don’t know how you have the patience for that,” commented my husband one evening as I teased apart plants and put them in separate places, then dug up another spadeful of plants. “I would have dug all that up in one day and just bought new plants.”

“But these are perfectly good plants,” I defended. “Just neglected over the years. I don’t mind doing this a bit at a time. Besides, it would be far too expensive to buy enough lilies of the valley and periwinkle to cover the areas I have in mind for them.” I had a vision for that garden, so I persisted.

At the end of the summer, I planted the periwinkle on the right, lilies of the valley on the left, and hostas and astilbes in the center. It’s a delightful and orderly garden now. The lilies of the valley thrive in their separate area; the periwinkle grows profusely in its spot.

Every summer since 2001, I’ve tackled a new garden project. Mostly I’m bringing order to the chaos of gardens planted decades ago, then neglected. The majority of the projects are daunting at first. Putting in a new garden is far easier than making neatness out of a mess.

”As long as you do something every day, even for 10 minutes, you’re making progress,” a coworker once told me. I have recalled those words often.

This fall, I put in a new garden. It hadn’t been in my plans to do so, but when my brother, an avid gardener, died suddenly, I wanted to create a memorial garden using some of the dozens and dozens of stunning hostas from his yard. But I have not been well, so I certainly couldn’t put in a garden in a weekend, not even a small new one. So I’ve worked on it bit by bit. When weather permitted, I broke ground in front of my house. I turned over a few spadefuls of earth. Improved the soil with a bag of cow manure. Installed a stone step or two in the hill. Planted a dozen daffodil bulbs. A couple dozen crocuses. Placed a large rock by the bottom step. Carted compost from the backyard. Planted a hosta. Then another. Baby steps, not major leaps, day after day, week after week.

And now I’m done.

As I was thinking about the “baby steps” I was making on my memorial garden, I thought how this applies to teaching children. I can’t teach my child grammar in a day. Or even in a year. That task indeed is daunting. But if I teach a little every day, bit by bit, year by year, my child will learn whatever it is that I want to teach her. I must remember to have the same patience with teaching my children as I do working on my gardens.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Everyone's Encyclopedia

“Do we have sand?”

“Yes, it’s behind the green shed. It’s labeled ‘play sand.’”

“Where is the toilet cleaner?” Jacob continued.

“Why do you need that?” I wondered. Could it be that he had a sudden urge to clean?

“For the experiment.”

“What experiment? You must be on the wrong experiment.” Luckily I had read the experiment – and the rest of his Chemistry assignment – last night as I continue to relearn Chemistry. I knew he needed sand – plus salt and filter paper and beakers – but certainly not toilet cleaner.

“Oh. Maybe I turned to the wrong page.”

I’m relearning a lot more than just Chemistry. As I sit in my home office writing for my company’s website, I get a parade of family members through my office door. Today I decided to write down all the questions they asked me because it was getting comical. The door would remain closed only a few minutes before the next person would barge in with a question.

“I know this is sad,” Larissa introduced what she figured was a ‘dumb’ question, “but how do you subtract fractions, say 5/2 – 17/5?” She was doing review and she had, quite understandable, forgotten how to do this task. I had relearned it several years ago when Jacob was introduced to fractions in elementary school.

“They have to have the same denominator for you to subtract them. Do you know how to make both numbers have the same denominator – like 10 in this case? Multiply the top and bottom numbers by…”

“Oh, yeah…”

“Is China or the US bigger?” Jacob was now working on Spanish; this must have been one of the questions he had to answer in his workbook – in Spanish.

“China is bigger,” I said offhand. “Russia is the biggest country – Siberia is huge – then Canada, then China, then the US. That’s how I learned them. But let me check…”

I quickly Googled “countries by area.”

“Wait, what’s this? Disputed territories? China is bigger according to some lists, and the US according to others, depending on whether or not you count the disputed territories?”

“Never mind,” waved Jacob, probably wondering how he’d phrase such a complex answer in Spanish.

It was Alexandra’s turn. She came in, vocabulary book in hand. “In this sentence, does ‘allure’ make sense? A career in show business held a certain BLANK for Jodie Foster from a young age.”

“Yes, allure makes perfect sense there. It means attraction or appeal. Jodie Foster is an actress, by the way,” I called after Alexandra since our kids are not into TV or movies. But Alexandra was out the door as soon as she heard my initial “yes.”

Larissa was next, back with her math. The door had barely closed. “I have to place brackets around this math statement to make it true. Do I need two sets of brackets, or is one enough?”

“Let me see. Four minus one times three divided by… Definitely two sets of brackets.”

“Do you have any strong perfume?” This time it was my husband, and his queer request caught me off guard.

“Perfume? Whatever for? Oh, never mind, it’s in the bathroom medicine cabinet.”

“Mom.” It was Larissa again. “Last time you gave me exercise 5C; this time you gave me 5E. Why did you skip 5D?”

“Because with three of you to keep track of, I make mistakes! Do exercise 5D in the vocabulary book.”

OK, so not all the questions required encyclopedic knowledge. But I am regularly expected to spell words, give a definition without looking up a word, explain anything to do with science, help with math problems, recall facts from history, and take care of organizational matters – plus cook and clean, of course!

“Did you know that wigs had to be maintained – recurled and perfumed regularly?” This time it was Jacob telling me something that I hadn’t known. He was working on his history lesson.

“No, I didn’t know that.”

Perhaps someday he can take over being the encyclopedia.

Monday, November 3, 2008


In two weeks, the first 10-week marking period will be over and the quarterly reports will be due. I’m not relieved about that, but I am breathing an inward sigh of relief that we’re almost on track with science.

Larissa just finished chapter 4 (out of 16) of her Physical Science today, so she’s actually a bit ahead. Jacob and Alexandra are finishing up chapter 3 (out of 16) of their Chemistry. They won’t quite finish chapter 4 before the marking period is over, but we’re not as far behind as I’d feared. With my brother’s death and the kids’ struggle with chapter 2, I was afraid that we’d be so bogged down that I’d be homeschooling science year round just to get through it. So despite the setbacks this fall, we’re almost on track with Chemistry, the subject I’d been most concerned with.

In math, the kids don’t seem to get as much homework from the math tutor as I had expected, especially since they go to her only once per week. (She lives over 15 miles away, so math takes a big chunk of the day when we do go there.) I was assuming that they’d be doing an hour of homework per day — but they aren’t.

“You’re not getting as much homework as I thought you’d be getting,” I mentioned to Jacob today. “Do you think that you’re learning as much as you did in school?” Jacob had been in public school until last January, so he still often compares homeschool to ‘real’ school.

“Yes, I think we are. In school we’d go over the homework in class over and over and beat it to death. Here we’re moving along more quickly. We’re not going over the same thing so many times.”

Hm, I hadn’t thought of that. But I do remember how Jacob and Alexandra, both in the same Spanish I class at the public high school last year, lamented how slowly they were covering their material then, waiting for the slowest student to catch on before going on to the next lesson. That class never did cover all the Spanish I materials before the end of the year. Once Jacob left public school in the middle of the year, he sped ahead of the public school class even though he took Spanish only twice a week. His sister, whom we pulled out of public school only this year, still sat through each painfully tedious Spanish lesson day after day, falling more and more behind.

Perhaps, despite my trepidation and insecurity, I’m not doing as badly as I’d feared.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)