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Whether your children attend school or learn at home, studying geography and trivia can be a fun part of your daily outings.  I don’t recall being particularly enthralled with U.S. geography as a student.  We learned the about the 50 states, their capitals, and memorized a United States map.  In music class, we learned to sing the states in alphabetical order- a catchy little tune that’s stayed with me all of these years later.  I never forgot what I’d learned, but that was the extent of my passion for U.S. geography.

Now that I have my own children, these topics have never seemed more exciting.  I’ve made it my life’s mission for them to embrace U.S. geography.  To give our pursuit some structure, I purchased Road Trip (http://www.confessionsofahomeschooler.com/u-s-geography), an inexpensive guide that teaches facts, trivia, and geography for the United States.  We listened to many versions of the 50 states song, settled on our favorite, and singing it became the opener to our geography lessons.  Then, we began the license plate game.  Whenever we’re out and about, we keep our eyes peeled for out-of-state plates, keep track of what states we see (and their capitals), and discuss the relative distance the car owner traveled to get to wherever we are.

As an unexpected surprise, we came across Tour the States, an amazing music video that we have not stopped singing.  Or learning from.  The geniuses who made this masterpiece (Marbles, The Brain Store) created another music video featuring the entire world (WHUT?) but we haven’t gotten there, yet.  File away for future use.

Finally, the fun parts.  I invested in a map of the United States that is actually a giant wall decal, with stickers to put on for each of the states.  As we learn about each state, we stick its decal on the map.  Every once in a while, I print off blank US map and have my kids fill it in.  Recently, I gave them a list of the 50 state capitals and had them fill in the corresponding states.  I was surprised at how exciting this was for them, especially given how many capitals they’ve learned.  Each time we study a state, we go on a “virtual” road trip.  We watch tourism videos about the state, look up the “Top 10 places to visit in…” and also look for clips of locals talking about and giving tours of their area.  After we’ve watched people drive around town, studied the architecture, and compared capital buildings from one state to another, we feel like we’ve actually experienced their unique culture.

Part educational and part fun, learning geography with your kids spices up daily errands and even road trips.  Find different ways to sprinkle this into your family life, and share your ideas with our readers.

Many of the things I want my kids to learn don’t come from a textbook.  In fact, some of them don’t even have anything to do with school.  Throughout the homeschool day we spend plenty of time learning academic subjects.  I hope they’ll retain it, but odds are, much will be forgotten until they learn it again in the future.  Meanwhile, I focus on life skills which I hope will stay with them and allow them to function as confident, responsible, competent adults one day.  These random life lessons are not all-inclusive, but here are a bunch that come up often.

Using the Library

Finding desired materials online, looking them up and ordering them through the library system’s website, and even calling the library to request materials.

Shopping/Making a Purchase

Knowing how to find items in the store, politely asking for help when needed, how to compare prices including an understanding of unit prices, estimating a purchase price, presenting the proper amount of cash, counting change received, and interacting with the cashier.

Finances

How to count money, safely store it, open a bank account, understand interest, deposit/withdraw money, and how credit cards and loans work.

Answering the Phone/Making Calls

Politely answering the phone, knowing how to make a call to a business and ask for help/make arrangements, request assistance, make appointments, and develop an overall confidence with speaking on the telephone.

Respect for the Elderly

Spending time in a nursing home/assisted living, developing a comfort with individuals in various states of the aging process, learning how to interact with and value the elderly, and how to help take care of older relatives or neighbors.

Meal Preparation

How to plan, shop for, and prepare a healthy meal, including reading labels and recipes, kitchen safety, and use of kitchen appliances.

Cleaning/House Maintenance

How to treat a space respectfully, clean up after oneself, wipe up spills, sweep, change batteries in household devices, use a washer and dryer, be a conscious consumer of water and energy resources, and use household tools such as a hammer/screwdriver/drill.

Animal Care

Respectful care of pets, and how to feed, water, and properly clean up after them.

The ability to help shape our children into functional adults rates high on the list of privileges and responsibilities as parents.  I’m sure I’m forgotten a few, so feel free to share what skills and lessons are important in your family!

This time of year begs for warm, comforting, hearty dishes that come together quickly.  Who has time to spend in the kitchen when there’s two feet of snow to shovel?  The beauty of minestrone soup is that it’s never the same twice and doesn’t get boring, at least not in our house.  The basic formula does not vary- beans, vegetables, broth.  The specifics, however, tend to change as the wind blows.

Minestrone Revisited

Using the Year of Slow Cooking recipe as my guide, I vary what will go in the soup each time.  Kids can help prep the vegetables, even choosing which to add, and help measure and pour the ingredients.  Even if you put the soup together after your kids have already left for school, they can chop the night before to make your morning smoother.  My kids love peeling and slicing carrots, and who can say no to that?

I love zucchini in minestrone, but it’s not something I tend to have in the refrigerator in the dead of March.  So we did without, and that was fine.  This particular time around, we were shortly post-snowstorm, and I was dipping into the bottom of the crisper and back of the pantry to make dinner happen.  I used red kidney beans, chickpea (garbanzo) beans, a large can of diced tomatoes, lots and lots of chopped carrots and celery, some diced garlic, and dried onion flakes.  Unlike the original recipe, I use chicken broth rather than beef, and canned beans instead of dried.  An hour before serving, I added frozen, thawed green beans, and five minutes before serving, a few cups of fresh baby spinach.  I find the fresh spinach is so much better in the soup that frozen, as called for in the original recipe.  In an effort to keep the carbs lower, we skipped the pasta, but did serve the soup with crusty bread and Parmesan cheese.

We enjoyed the soup after a chilly day outside, and had enough leftover for two days of lunch.  It provides an awesome way to get a ton of vegetables and lean protein.  Naturally gluten and dairy free, vegetarian, and low in fat, it makes the perfect meal.  Everyone feels genuinely happy to see this soup for dinner, which is a nice compliment to the recipe. While the temps are still low, make your family a warm and healthy dinner that comes together quickly, and spend your time making memories instead.  Share your favorite wintertime recipes with our readers, below.

I grew up in New York.  We serve chicken for dinner, and waffles for breakfast (unless you’re having breakfast for dinner, then waffles may grace the table).  Chicken and waffles together, though?  I don’t get it.   My husband, the meat eater, totally gets it.  So much so that he ordered it in a restaurant recently.  He loved it, of course, and thus began his quest to recreate it at home.

Chicken and Waffles

Our standby waffle recipe comes from the culinary goddess Silvana.  They’re crispy, fluffy, perfect-every-time waffles that just so happen to be gluten-free.  I make her pancake/waffle mix in bulk and keep it in a jar, ready to go.  If you’re gluten-free, you can’t go wrong with her recipe, or substitute your own family favorite.

There are as many fried chicken recipes floating around as there are, well, chickens.  Quite honestly, I wasn’t home and have no idea which recipe my husband used.  Unless he wrote it down, he probably doesn’t know, either.  He did use chicken breasts, to keep it healthy (well, healthier; it’s still fried chicken after all).  If you’re gluten-free, fried chicken is best made at home, substituting the proper flour.  So, you can google a recipe and decide if you want it baked or fried, buy your chicken already made if you so please, or steal it from your neighbor’s ranch- that’s up to you.  I can tell you that marinating it in buttermilk first leads to it being extra juicy.  We did this, as I always keep buttermilk powder in the fridge for impromptu cooking.  I love having the powder on hand so we can whip up pancakes or other culinary delights without worrying about what to do with the extra buttermilk in the carton. If you’re dairy-free, use any non-dairy milk and sour the milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.

I like my waffles with eggs, most preferably a spinach or broccoli and cheese omelet.  My husband giddily piled his chicken, waffles, and omelet all together, as you see here.  I ate my waffles and omelet as I normally do, thank you very much, but did try the chicken to be polite.  It was good, but I still can’t figure out why I’d want to eat it along with breakfast for dinner.  To each his own.  If you have some adventurous eaters in your home, give chicken and waffles a try.  Something different can be fun, so why not?

My favorite recipes are the ones that can easily be gluten free (or not) will little modification.  I find these types of meals more accessible and well-liked.  A friend just recently found out she has Celiac Disease and became gluten free. Chatting with her about favorite cookbooks, resources, and meal ideas got me nostalgic for those early days when the impossible-seeming transition loomed ahead.  Even though it’s been years for us, it’s still fun to discover something new.  She shared this recipe after trying it out with approving results, so I decided to make it for my family.  Hearing we were making Chinese food, my older daughter asked to make lo mein, and my younger one wanted to make her famous honey carrots.  Who can turn down kids who want to help in the kitchen?

Chinese Food Night

The blogger designed her honey chicken recipe as gluten free (cornstarch rather than flour, and gluten-free soy sauce) but it tasted no different than regular Chinese food, and would appeal to anyone who enjoys this type of dish.  My husband was home to clean and cube the chicken (my least favorite part). Meanwhile, my older daughter prepared the glaze for the chicken, and then worked on lo mein.  Our favorite lo mein recipe comes from the original Gluten Free on a Shoestring cookbook.  For both of the dishes above, we substitute coconut aminos for half of the soy sauce, since it has less sodium and we try to consume minimal soy.  Finally, my little one worked on the honey carrots, which come from her favorite kids’ cookbook.  Other than my helping cut the carrots into coins using a sharp knife, this is one she was able to do independently. They come out well, and she’s always pleased to have made the dish herself.

This dinner took a bit of time to prepare. None of it is particularly hard, but the chicken has to be browned and sauteed in its glaze, the lo mein sauce needs to cook down, and carrots have to be steamed. Fortunately, all four of us were in the kitchen and working together. Everything tasted great, so it was worth the wait.  More importantly, there’s such value to opportunities for kids to cook along with their parents, and we had lots of fun.  Give your feedback on the honey chicken, or share your favorite family dinner ideas with our readers.

Homeschooling has grown dramatically in recent years.  Reasons to homeschool vary as widely as the families themselves.  The Hudson Valley features families homeschooling for so many fascinating reasons, worthy of sharing.  To the mainstream public school community, the secret life of homeschoolers may seem mysterious, but there’s no reason not to learn more.  I’ve been chatting up local homeschooling families willing to share their experiences with our readers.

Homeschooling Outside of the Norm

This week’s spotlight is on an Orthodox Jewish family with four children ages two through nine, originally from Brooklyn.  Mom shared, “We keep strictly kosher, [and observe] Shabbat, all holidays.  It was hard to make the decision [to homeschool]!”  Orthodox Jewish families traditionally send their children to religious private schools, so homeschooling can be stigmatized in their culture.  They feel the decision has not been accepted by their community, and have had to distance themselves from unsupportive friends and family.  Mom identified a turning point when her parents remarked, “Wow, I didn’t think this was a good idea, but your kids are so much more well-adjusted than our other grandchildren.”

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Although they live in the Hudson Valley, they travel to Long Island to find like-minded Jewish homeschool families.  They appreciate this opportunity, but are hopeful they will develop a network of local homeschoolers, regardless of religion.  They began homeschooling thinking it may be temporary, but now feel “it has been the best decision ever.”  Without the financial burden of sending their children to expensive private school, they were able to buy a home, adopt a dog, and travel, with funds leftover for field trips and activities in the community.  Their schooling is described as “part time structured learning, two to three days a week, the other days are more of an unschooling way of thinking. Trips to zoos, walk in the park, taking the pets to the vet, etc.”  They utilize www.time4learning.com and Melamed Academy (a Judaic curriculum) for their academics.   Mom likes to turn to outside sources for academic learning “so that the kids see me as their mother and guidance rather than the teacher.”

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A family willing to step outside of the traditionally accepted educational standard for their culture demonstrates the power and benefits of homeschooling.  For them, homeschooling offers peace of mind.  “We know where and how our children get their knowledge, and we get to be involved and watch them grow up.” They are certainly not the traditional homeschooling family, yet they have found a way to incorporate their faith into their ideal educational environment for their children. Their photos show engaged, active children who enjoy varied learning both at home and in the community.  The combination of homeschooling with Orthodox Judiasm results in an unusual blend that works well for this local family, and offers inspiration to others wanting to give this a try.  Mom sums up, “We are a religious Jewish family living in a religious area, but living outside the box of ‘normal.’” Much appreciation to Mom for her candor in sharing her family’s experiences with Hudson Valley Parent. Please join us over the next few weeks as we continue to learn about unique and exciting families who engage in everything from Shakespeare to BMX biking to fulfill their children’s dreams and academic potential.

Stuck inside during this cold weather, I decided to clean out my pantry.  Noticing the boxes of lasagna leftover from Christmas (our main lasagna-eating time) I wanted to use them up but make something different.  This sat in the back of my mind until I was making my shopping list.  I suddenly felt the desire to roll up the lasagna noodles with cheese and spinach.  Lasagna is something I grew up eating, watched my grandma make, and can do from memory.  I decided to go sans recipe and see how it turned out.

Spinach Lasagna Rolls

8 lasagna noodles

8 oz. bag of baby spinach

8 oz. part-skim ricotta cheese

8 oz. part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded

2 c. pasta sauce

Lasagna Rolls

Boil lasagna noodles al dente since they will be cooked further in the oven. Rinse under cold water, and let cool to room temperature.  Get the kids involved, as rest of the steps are simple and require no tools.  Cover the bottom of a 9×13 baking pan with a layer of pasta sauce.  Working on a clean, flat surface, spread out each lasagna noodle.  Divide the ricotta cheese among the eight noodles.  Spread the ricotta cheese evenly on the entire noodle. Layer spinach leaves on top of ricotta cheese.  Sprinkle shredded mozzarella on top of spinach.  Holding firm to the end of the noodle, roll each one individually.  Spoon additional sauce onto the tops and sides of each roll.  Cover with foil, and bake for 30 min at 350, until sauce and cheesy are bubbly.  Cool slightly, and serve. Add a tossed salad and your meal is complete!

Lasagna Rolls 2

Now that cold temps and snow have finally arrived, soups, stews, and chili call like sirens from the kitchen.  I’ve shared my turkey chili recipe before, and it’s one that we always enjoy. I typically make a double batch, freeze half for the future, and all’s well.  I came across a different recipe this week that looked delicious, and decided to try it.  My family was surprised when they heard what I was making, “Chicken chili?  Why chicken?”  Yet afterwards, we were all glad I tried something new.

Southwest Chicken Chili

Crockpot cooking offers a great opportunity for kids to help with meal preparation. Especially in a recipe as simple as this one, ingredients are measured, poured, and mixed. Kids can help with every step, and other than using a can opener, there’s nothing sharp or tricky involved.  As always, the beauty of slow cooking becomes evident when you return home from a busy day to find dinner waiting, without the mess of last minute prep.

Creamy Chicken Chili

The biggest difference between this recipe and the one I usually make (other than the chicken) was the addition of the ranch powder and cream cheese.  We make our own ranch powder and keep a jar of it in the refrigerator (using this great recipe), and it worked beautifully.  The only change I made to the chili was to use salsa in place of the diced tomatoes, and I omitted the chili powder as a result.  I used two frozen chicken breasts, and cooked it on low for eight hours.  We ate it with shredded cheese, a dollop of sour cream, and some crumbled tortilla chips, and it was delicious.  Really, really good. I will most definitely make this again.

Share your favorite crockpot recipe with our readers, especially ones suitable for kids in the kitchen.  Keep warm! Snow’s on its way.

A day of homeschooling is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you’re gonna get.  Not only do our activities vary from day to day and week to week, but the children offer more surprises than the schedule.  As their personalities develop and knowledge broadens, we engage in on-going discussions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I kept track of a recent Monday, marveling at the variety of moments that made up a “typical” day.

Late Wake-Ups

After a busy weekend, my sleepyheads slept later than usual.  My younger daughter woke up around 8, grabbed the laptop, and began her math.  (Math done willingly and independently, you ask?  Follow the link, you’ll understand).  My older daughter woke up an hour later, which meant she needed to get straight to work since we had a class in the afternoon.  Even though my kids are no longer little, I still maintain “never wake a sleeping baby.”  My older daughter began her math test, and the morning was underway.

The Sewing Box

I’m not sure how working on vocabulary in the dining room led to my little one finding herself in the closet downstairs, but suddenly, there she was.  She came upstairs with my grandmother’s sewing case, and sat on the floor to comb through it.  My grandma passed away a few months ago at age 94, and embodied values and skills that are no longer the norm.  Her sewing box was a perfect example of this- full of zippers, claps, snaps, antique buttons, and all kinds of sundries used for making one’s own clothing.  Even though the sewing box distracted us from school, what a neat historical lesson on then vs. now resulted.  We all agreed that Great-Grandma lived in the “Olden Days,” and I was relieved when my kids generously decided that my age qualified me as “from now.”

Lunch

Meal prep frequently serves as an educational activity.  Today’s lunch was brown rice wraps filled with rice, beans, and cheese, steamed mixed vegetables, and clementines.  As a quick interlude to seat work, my kids took turns heating their wraps on the stove, shredding cheese, and spooning the rice and beans onto their plates.  We discussed nutrition and the importance of including protein, fruits, and vegetables in our meal.  Then they cleaned up after themselves and emptied the dishwasher.  Life skills, hooray!

Science

We’re in the middle of a lesson on plant reproduction and life cycle.  Did you know that on a rainy day, the sperm cells of a fern plant swim down the stem to the egg?  I didn’t either, and frankly, would not have believed this if I had not read it with my own two eyes.  A few days ago a cable guy was repairing wires at our house while we were discussing how the sperm and egg of plants work similarly to humans.  I can only imagine what this poor guy must’ve been thinking as he overheard my kids asking questions about this process.

Stereotypes and the Portrayal of Women in the Media

What?  Yes, this came up today.  Over the weekend, my girls and their friend watched Clueless, the 1995 coming-of-age film about California-bred Cher and her gal pals.  After watching the movie, the girls had a realization- girls and boys are often portrayed in stereotypical ways.  In a nutshell, they wondered why girls are shown with messy hair and sweatpants, sadly eating ice cream out of the carton just because “a boy broke up with them.”  They couldn’t figure out– why don’t girls in media utilize social support?  Why should a girl feel devastated just because a boy broke up with her, and why can’t the girl be the one who ends things?  Why wouldn’t girls derive their worth from other aspects of their life?  They also noticed the girl trifecta- the smart girl, the pretty-but-dumb friend, and the follower.  They wondered why the athletic boys always coveted the “popular” girl, but that in the end, the shy, geeky guy often won her over.  Every time we watch a movie, I capitalize on the themes present, jumping on teachable moments.  Imagine my surprise when this time it was my kids initiating the discussion.

The Afternoon

After lunch, we attended a STEAM class at a local library.  In the car on the way there, my girls read geography lessons aloud, then we listened to a book on CD.  At the library, they built marble runs and interacted with other kids.  Back at home, they finished up school (practicing piano, working on a project due for a homeschool class on Wednesday, reviewed spelling words) then did their chores and helped me start dinner.  All in all, a successful day.

I receive the gamut of responses when sharing that I homeschool my kids.  Everything from, “Wow, that’s amazing, I could never do that,” to “My kids would never listen to me, yours must be saints,” to “You think you’re better than the teachers?  Do you even have a teaching degree?”  Many people ask questions, which I think is great, but others seem to think I’m either judging them for not homeschooling, or they judge me for whatever kind of freak I must be.

We’ve been homeschooling for almost five years, and you know what, perhaps I am a freak.  Day after day I’m living a Jekyll and Hyde kind of experience.  Some days represent our ideal learning—peaceful, passionate, excited, efficient.  Other days end in a chaotic jumble of disorganization and frustration.  I view homeschooling as an extension of parenting.  It has always been my mission to choose the best foods,  activities, and experiences for my kids, and as a homeschooler, their education falls under this umbrella as well.

As for the “I could never do it” response I often hear, the truth is, you don’t know until you’ve tried.  Homeschooling is not for everyone, and I’m not implying otherwise.  Many parents find themselves successful despite initial doubts and insecurities.  I look at the ability to homeschool as a muscle.  At first, it’s weak.  It’s easy to doubt yourself, and hard to believe you will do a good job.  As the homeschooling journey begins, there are lots of opportunities to practice and strengthen this “muscle.”  Eventually, you become a homeschooling athlete, completing a triathlon with confidence and skill.

So who is the homeschooling mom?  She’s kind of like the mom of little kids, but years later.  Moms of infants and toddlers rarely get a break- the intensity and needs of young children tend not to let up.  Homeschooling shares similarities.  While the children mature and their needs change, at the end of the day, you’re still meeting needs all day long. Homeschooling and parenting become blurred.  Sometimes mom serves as the teacher and other times, the teacher also has to be the mom.

The homeschooling mom cannot imagine what parents whose kids go to school do all.day.long.  (I know, you guys are busy, just a different kind of busy).  When she enrolls her kids in a two hour class, she fantasizes about the many, many things she will do in that time.  Grocery shopping!  Clean the house!  Nap!  Read!  Exercise!  Catch up on emails, phone calls, and paperwork!  Coffee with a friend!  Lunch date with the husband! Somehow, though, those two hours fly by and it ends up not being enough time. Exercising will have to wait for later (um, tomorrow), texting can suffice instead of calls, and we’ll see the husband during dinner, which will be made from what was already in the house, thank you very much.  The homeschooling mom won’t have her hair or nails done, because, when? She’ll be wearing yoga pants or jeans, because, why not?  She may stay in her pajamas on the rare day when no one has anywhere to be, and she’ll probably consent to reading and snuggles on the couch on a rainy afternoon.  She’ll have the kids cook lunch and count it as “culinary arts,” and realize that playing outside can count toward P.E.  She doesn’t get snow days, or sick days, or days off, but she also doesn’t have to say goodbye every morning, or make her hair presentable for afternoon pick-up.  She forgets to start dinner, leaves the laundry in the dryer (whoops), and brings the kids rollerblading at 10 am for “recess” because everyone needs a break.

In other words, she’s a mom.  Whether homeschooling or not, she parents the best that she can, makes mistakes, tries harder, reaches out for support, and hugs her babies tight. She may look a little more harried since she’s with the kids from morning to bedtime, but we’re all working in one way or another, whether we get paid or not.  No, homeschooling parents don’t have teaching degrees, but may have teaching backgrounds.  Their kids are not saints, but they know how to make all kinds of learning work.  They might just be amazing, but aren’t all moms?

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