Carolina Chickadee Sketches

We've been watching our bird feeder. Our AV Club president and resident tech-expert, King, even set up a video camera to record who comes to feed. I hope to eventually graduate to real, live bird watching and observing, but we are starting with the videotaping method.

Rainy day bird videotaping set-up by King.

Rainy day bird videotaping set-up by King.

The boys will then choose a bird, identify it, research it and present their findings in our nature study class.

King was first up and chose the Carolina chickadee.

We made sketches from photos found on the internet.

King's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

King's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

Mike's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

Mike's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

To prevent this exercise from being too sweet and perfect, the boys each defaced their original chickadee photograph.
Kings doodled chickadee.JPG
Mikes doodled chickadee.JPG

Book Lover Baby Steps

Summer Reading Bookshelves.jpg

I wish my boys were avid readers. I make sure they always have a variety of quality books from which to choose. Since we started homeschooling using the Ambleside Charlotte Mason method, they are exposed to many classic living books in all their classes. They particularly love our read aloud selections (where I read and they listen), but when it comes to reading on their own, in their own free time, there are a million other things they would rather be doing than reading. [Sigh]

The only time they do read on their own is when we let them stay up a half an hour past bedtime to read. To them reading is at least better than going to sleep at bedtime, but that is not saying much. Despite all the excellent literature I have available to them, the only books I've ever seen them get really excited about are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney (Is it a coincidence that my children's favorite author is also a video game designer?), The Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Recently, however, there have been signs of hope:

King started reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a true classic! (Shout outs go to King's grandparents, Joan-Joan and Bob-Bob, for giving him a boxed set of Tolkien books; and to New Line Cinema for making the books into movies.)

After a long whiny debate with Mike over whether we had any good books to read, he reluctantly agreed to give the book Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata a try. (Shout outs go to Mike's grandma, Mimi, for giving us this book; to Grandpa Mike for bravely serving in the Vietnam War; and to Mike himself for being an animal lover.)

They are still only reading these books at (instead of) bedtime, but I am encouraged that they are truly enjoying books that don't have pictures! King says he intends to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy next. Michael was so excited about his book that one morning he was eager to share a passage that he had read the night before. My heart swelled.

He opened his book and read a few choice lines from a scene where Cracker is being bribed with hotdogs:

He reached into his pocket and took out his secret weapon: a wiener.
"Wiener?" he said in a low voice.
"Wiener for Cracker?"
Everybody in the world seemed to know her name, even this man with a wiener.

My heart shrank a bit. Mike thought it was hilarious. At least he was excited about reading, right? Baby steps.

What books did you love as a child? What books do your children love? Please share!

[This post contains associate links. Please read my disclosure.]

More Galls.

After discovering the goldenrod galls last week, the boys and I went on a gall hunt to see if we could find more of these fascinating formations. It was a rainy day, but we were not deterred (i.e. I made the boys go out despite the rain).

And our (my) tenacity paid off!  In addition to finding more goldenrod fly galls, we found two other types. We found the gall of a moth, which coincidentally also makes its home inside the goldenrod stem, but differs in that it is elliptical in shape, rather than spherical (see photo below left). We also found a blackberry knot gall, which appears as a strange lumpy growth on a blackberry cane (see photo below right). We took our bounty back to the house to dig a little deeper (litterally) and find out who was living inside each one.

Left to Right: two elliptical goldenrod moth galls; four spherical goldenrod fly galls.

Blackberry Knot Galls

We cut open the spherical gall first. We could see the small grub of the fly (Eurosta solidaginis) tucked inside the hollow space in the center of its home (see photos below). Anna Botsford Comstock, in her "Handbook of Nature Study", likens a gall-dweller such as this to a "boy living in the middle of a giant sponge cake, who when hungry would naturally eat out a larger cave in the heart of the cake."

Goldenrod Gall Fly Larva in left half of gall.

Goldenrod Gall Larva in my craggy hand.

Next we looked at the elliptical shaped gall which is also found on the goldenrod plant. This gall is formed by a moth (Epiblema scudderiana). The moth lays its eggs on the goldenrod's stem in the fall. In the spring, the eggs hatch and the caterpillar buries itself in the stem where the plant tissue starts to swell around it. Over the summer the caterpillar feeds on the inside of the gall, which continually expands to accomodate its growing size.  Before its transformation takes place, the caterpillar chews a small tunnel (see photo below) to the outside, but closes off the entrance with a little door made of debris. The tunnel is constructed in such a way, that the door will only push open from the inside, so as to discourage any intruders. In late summer, the metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to moth takes place and the newly formed moth pushes open its trap door and flies off, leaving behind nothing more than its red-brown pupal skin (see photo below).

Goldenrod gall moth empty gall with exit tunnel and pupal skin.

Next we cut open the blackberry knot gall. Inside, there wasn't a single hollowed out center chamber. As its odd outward appearance suggested, the inside of this gall was a random jumble of plant tissue and crevices (see photo below left). The blackberry knot gall is what is called a "colonial" gall, in that it has not one inhabitant, but many. In the spring and summer, the tiny wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) lays several eggs on the cane of a blackberry bush. The eggs hatch and the larvae spend the winter inside the gall. The more eggs that are laid the larger the gall will become. Each larva has its own "chamber" in which to grow, surrounded by gall tissue on which to feed (see photo below right). In the spring, the adult wasps will chew their way out  and leave behind the apartment home they shared with their siblings.

Blackberry knot gall cut into quarters.

Blackberry knot gall wasp larva in situ.

We kept a few intact specimens and put them in a jar outside to see if we can catch sight of emerging insects in the spring. Of course, we won't be seeing any moths, as they have already vacated their homes. 

Goldenrod fly galls and blackberry knot galls in a jar.

If any of our gall dwellers do indeed reveal themselves, I'll be sure to share the event with you.


By Anna Botsford Comstock

Dinosaur Presentations: A Self-Education

We are studying Dinosaurs in homeschool this year. I told the boys I wanted each of them to choose a dinosaur, research it and give a presentation telling what they learned. I gave them very little direction, other than they must include a drawing of their dinosaur which they created themselves.

I was not concerned so much with the presentation itself. What I wanted was to give them an opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. I wanted them to be motivated by their own natural curiousity in choosing for themselves which dinosaur they wanted to know more about. I wanted them to experience what it felt like to be excited about learning, to have a desire to know and have an enthusiasm to share that knowledge with others.

They both dove into their projects with an enthusiasm that was inspiring! They were begging me for time to work on them! They even worked on them "outside" of school, during their own personal free-time. And when they were finished with their projects, they couldn't wait to show us what they had accomplished. I have never before seen such excitement in them having anything to do with "school".

They both decided to make powerpoint slideshows to go along with their presentations.  They did all their own research and prepared their presentations with no help or input from me, although King did help Mike put together his Powerpoint presentation.

King's presentation on the carnotaurus.  [click picture to play]

Mike's presentation on the eoraptor.

These may not have been the greatest presentations ever given, but I know that each of the boys has a relationship with "their" dinosaur that didn't exist before and that they will remember more about it than if I had just told them about it in class.

What we are concerned with is the fact that we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future––with all above us and all about us––and that fulness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depend upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of.

School Education by Charlotte Mason

Goldenrod Gall

On a walk along the edge of our field, I noticed these round ball-like growths on the stems of some tall dried weeds. These swollen sections looked unnatural to the plant, which got me curious. I broke off the section containing the oddity and sliced it open with my knife. Inside the ball there was a small hollow cavity containing a soft white grub-like creature. 

After a little research, I discovered that the plant is a goldenrod and the little guy inside the sphere is the larvae of the goldenrod gall fly. In the spring the female goldenrod gall fly lays her eggs on the stems of goldenrod plants. When the egg hatches the larvae begins feeding on the stem. The stem then swells in reaction to this injury, thus creating what is called a "gall". The larvae lives inside the gall, well protected and well fed by the gall itself. When it is done growing it will chew itself an escape tunnel out of the gall, stopping just short of breaking through to the outside. The larvae survives the winter protected by the globular scar tissue. The next spring the fully developed adult gall fly emerges through its pre-made tunnel, ready to repeat the cycle.

Besides the goldenrod, there are many other types of galls, gall plants and gall makers (perhaps 2,000 in North America alone). I'll definitely be on the look out for more of these fascinating creations.

Discovering Mistletoe

All I knew of Mistletoe was that you kiss under it at Christmastime. I was surprised to hear that it grew wild in the South. I was also surprised to hear that it grew on trees. Mistletoe is not a tree, but a parasitic shrub that grows out of the branches of existing trees like oaks. I began to look up and around, and sure enough, there it was all around me, high up in the trees of my own yard.

At a quick glance you might assume it is a squirrel's nest left over from the summer. But with a longer look and a closer inspection you will notice that it is not a mass of brown dead leaves, but green, like strange and untimely new growth on an otherwise dormant and barren tree. 

The boys and I decided we would try to harvest some for ourselves. Apparently, the preferred way to harvest mistletoe in the South is to shoot it out of the tree with a shotgun. I was a little skeptical about this approach for many reasons. So we hauled out an old ladder we found in the barn and hoped it would reach high enough. That's another thing about mistletoe. It seems to prefer the highest branches on a tree on which to grow. We could only reach a small clump of it from the top of our ladder. Even this relatively "low growing" cluster was a little too high for my comfort and letting go of the ladder to do my clipping (and photographing) left me more than a little uneasy. 

The botanical name for American Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is derived from the Greek words for "tree thief". It is a hemi-parasitic shrub which obtains water and nutrients from its host, although it also produces some of its own food through its own photosynthetic processes. The common name "Mistletoe" may come from the Anglo-Saxon words for "dung twig". This alludes to the plants method of propagation. Some birds enjoy eating the sticky white mistletoe berries which, when passed through the digestive system and deposited on a branch, may germinate into a new plant.

Kissing Under the Dung Twig

It is unclear why we kiss under mistletoe. The practice may have originated with the Druids who believed the plant to be sacred. It is said that if two enemies met under a mistletoe plant, they must lay down their weapons, great each other warmly and observe a truce until the following day. 

In any case, we have been kissing under the "dung twig" for hundreds of years. Washington Irving referenced the tradition in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in 1819. 

the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.** The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.

The only mistletoe we were able to reach was devoid of any berries, so I guess our kissing privileges were gone before they even began.

I think I need some hand lotion.

I think I need some hand lotion.

Have School, Will Travel

According to Georgia law, a home study program (i.e. homeschool) must have at least one hundred eighty days of instruction within a twelve month period. This year we started school on Labor Day, which is a little late for Georgia schools. The longer it takes us to fill our quota of 180 days, the farther our school year will stretch into summer, regardless of how much material we cover.

None of us want to be having school in July, so we look for ways to be creative in what counts as "school", while still remaining within the law (of course!). We are not bound by a school building, so trips that might normally be classified as strictly vacation can be partly counted as "field trips". I try not to stretch this too much. For example, I'm not going to call our Thanksgiving Day get-together with my family a social studies class on intergenerational relations. However, with a little intentional planning and instruction we can check a few days off the school calendar that might otherwise be "lost" to vacation.

This Thanksgiving we spent a week in Wisconsin and Minnesota visiting my family. However, were able to dedicate some time toward educational endeavors.

There was stargazing with Uncle Rod and his telescope. We saw a double star, the open star cluster Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy, and we were able to get an amazing view of Jupiter and its moons.

My dad (aka "Pop") dissected an abandoned paper wasps' nest for the kids.

Thankfully, no one was home.


He also performed a dissection of a reptile specimen. Some found this fascinating...


Others found the blood a little disconcerting, at least initially...


And others just thought it felt suspiciously like school interrupting his vacation.


I have fond childhood memories of picking milkweed pods and tearing them open to reveal their silky white fluff. The boys had never seen any before, so King drove us in the Gator to find some along the side of the road.

I allowed Mike to drive us back, after he promised not to drive too fast.

I'll take it easy, Mom.

It takes great effort and concentration to drive slowly.


Our whole family was able to spend a day at my brother's school. The boys attended classes with their cousins and Curtis and I observed the school's very talented teachers in action. The boys reported that "it wasn't that different than homeschool". (Apart from having more than one classmate and the teachers not being their mother, I suppose). I took their assessment as a compliment.

Through the Schoolroom Window

One of my favorite things about homeschool:

Literature by the fire... in socks.


More math excitement...


Frequent visitors to our American history vocabulary list...

... although the tyrants and the oppressed are always trading roles. Hmmmm...


Slaves would be tyrants were the chance theirs.

- Victor Hugo



This is what the day's schedule ends up looking like when yesterday doesn't quite go as planned:


Addition is really just a short-cut for counting. When adding smaller numbers, like two plus three, it is almost as easy to count to get the answer, as it is to add. However, the larger the numbers get the more difficult it is to use the counting method. This is where the "short-cut" of the addition algorithm comes in handy. Our math curriculum suggests setting up a scenario to help the student "appreciate the method for adding large numbers".

I gave Michael a series of addition problems to solve. Each problem asked him to add together larger and larger numbers. I instructed him that he must represent each problem using blocks and then count the blocks to arrive at the answer.

Mike found the exercise amusing. He enjoyed putting together all the necessary blocks and counting them up to show the answer.

In this set-up scenario, the student is supposed to see that eventually counting becomes an inefficient way to arrive at the total. And when given the final problem, asking them to gather and count two numbers in the thousands, the student is supposed to give you an incredulous look and protest at the enormity of the task.

Not Mike, though.

The prospect of adding 5,342 and 3,254 excited him and he cheerfully got to work counting out blocks. While it is true that given enough time and math manipulatives he could represent the problem and count the answer, he wasn't quite getting the point of the scenario I had set up. Either that, or he had decided that counting blocks all day would be more enjoyable than the other things I had planned.

Exactly, how long was I supposed to let him count out blocks? I decided to push the issue by asking a few pointed questions about our relatively limited supply of blocks and the time it might take to show and count such large numbers.

King jumped in to help by commenting,

Dude, you're still only up to five hundred!

Finally, Mike reluctantly admitted that, even though it was possible to arrive at the correct answer by way of counting blocks, there might be a better way to use our time.

So much for the appreciation of addition.

The next day I put this problem on the board:


+ 339,325,336

I led him through adding each column, starting with the ones. When we were done I asked him to read the problem again, including the number we had just created below it.

Suddenly, something struck him,

Wait! Does that number equal those two numbers added together?! Wow! That's so cool!

Without any elaborately set-up scenarios, Mike had arrived at a true appreciation for addition.

I had found a new appreciation for what a privilege it is to be my children's teacher. It is moments like these, where I have the opportunity to witness the excitement and joy of discovery, that make all the hard work of teaching my children worth while.