Saturday, 25 October 2014

Care to Join Us for Scary Tea?

It started with our grocery shopping at the supermarket this week.

Although Halloween isn't traditionally celebrated as such in Britain, the modern festival has its origins from the Celtic/Gaelic practice of Samhain.

There are so many pumpkins and Halloween-related items in the supermarkets that one cannot walk past without knowing that Halloween is around the corner.  I don't intend to make a big deal out of this festival because: (1) I don't like what the festival represents and its associations, and (2) I don't want to encourage the increasing commericalisation that comes with it.  However, we do mark the festival in a small way at home every year, so we bought three small culinary pumpkins with the intention of making the most of them, as we did last year.

I made pumpkin soup and roasted the seeds with sea salt.  The boys vehemently refused to touch the pumpkin soup, so I had the pleasure of having the whole pot to myself (over two days).  I just looked through last year's post and realised that the boys have been very consistent with their dislike of pumpkin soup, and I have been persistently trying to feed it to them every year!  In this household it's often difficult to determine which one of us is the most stubborn: is it the boys, for flatly refusing to taste the soup every year, or is it me, for trying it on every year?  It's hard to say.  Anyhow, nobody backed down, as usual.  Maybe I'll give up trying to get them to like pumpkin soup next year.

After the unfortunate pumpkin soup saga, we moved on to the more agreeable activity of pumpkin carving.  Tiger and I spent some time looking through the different pumpkin carving templates before deciding upon a goofy face, a scary face and a ghost (both templates came with the pumpkin carving kit we bought).

Since the pumpkins we have are small, I had to draw the patterns onto the pumpkins with a marker pen instead of pinning the templates directly onto them.  In the process of drawing, I realised that our pumpkins are too small to show the ghost pattern clearly, so I persuaded Tiger to change that to the Hissing Cat, which I think has simpler outlines which make for easier carving.

Once the outlines were drawn, I passed each pumpkin to Tiger for him to do the carving, but not before watching the instructions from Lucinda's daughter and from the following clip to get some ideas of how to do it perfectly:

Each year as we carve the pumpkins, Tiger is able to take over more of the process.  This year, he did all the carving using the small serrated saw from the pumpkin carving kit.  Now the three pumpkins are used as a centrepiece on our dining table.  They look alright in the day, but they look best at night.

Tiger then said that he wanted to make some scones for tea, for he suddenly realised that it has been a few months since he last cooked.   I reckon we would have starved to death by now if he were in charge of cooking in this household... Since we're working with pumpkins, we decided to make pumpkin seed scones by adding some pumpkin seeds to this traditional recipe before putting the scones in the oven.

Master Chef has been advised that his credibility will increase when he can spell correctly!

When the scones were baked after 20 minutes, and the table was set, we were ready for our Halloween Tea Party!

Would you like to have a closer look at what's being served for tea?

 This week's special:
1.  homemade pumpkin seed scones (see above)
2.  roasted pumpkin seeds (see above)
3.  liquorice tea (only because it comes in a purple box, which fits nicely with one of the Halloween colours)
4.  homemade fig jam (It's so easy to make that Tiger asked why we hadn't done it before.  I forsee more homemade preserves this winter.)

5. tarantula eggs

For accompaniment, we have a good few spiders and centipedes (plastic ones, of course) crawling about the table, with a fair number of tiny spiders crawling along the cobwebs on the wall and on our chairs.  Marvellous.

Tiger did all the decorating, by the way.

Then, it's time to await the grand entrance of the boy wizard, who flew in on his homemade broomstick,

but not before zooming around the room to the music of Mussorsky:

Normally at poetry tea here, we sit around to eat and drink, and take turns to read out a few poems to each other.  This time, we listened to the recitation of The Highwayman a few times instead:

This particular poem has been specially chosen to go with our Halloween Tea for its haunting theme, and atmospheric rendition of a fatal situation.  The poem is a long one and it requires careful listening to appreciate its beauty and rhythm.

As an aside,  some of you have asked me how much effort it takes for me to pull all the various themes together.  Well, the following situation answers the question:

When Tortoise came home from work and saw our Halloween Tea Party arrangement, he was very impressed and commented on how much effort it must have taken to put it all together.  Tiger replied casually, "Oh, it took no effort at all!  We decided this morning that we wanted to have tea, so we went to the supermarket, got a few bits and threw them together.  There's nothing to it."

There you have it, folks.  According to the boy who's with me almost 24/7 and who witnesses how everything gets done around here , apparently it takes little to no effort at all.  Thus, in my son's eyes, I'm indeed a lady of leisure.  Splendid.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 10/21/14
  2. Finishing Strong - Homeschooling the Middle & High School Years #34
  3. Hearts for Home Blog Hop #88
  4. Collage Friday - Cultivating Beauty and Wonder In Your Homeschool
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: Ancient Egypt, Blue Hair, and Plant Dissections

Friday, 17 October 2014

Everything is a Mystery

If I remember correctly, the first mystery series that Tiger read was The Boxcar Children, when he was about six years old.  We started with the first book of the series, and Tiger enjoyed the story so much that we bought him the first set (books #1-4), followed by the second set (books #5-8).  Over the next few years, he has read and reread the children's adventures many times over, and I often wondered how I could bring the story more to life.  Imagine my excitement when, on one of our walks, we chanced upon a disused railway carriage, much like that found in the Boxcar Children!

We went close to the carriage, but didn't explore it because although it looked disused, it didn't look abandoned so we figured it might be in the process of being restored by train enthusiasts so we had better leave it alone.  Nonetheless, it's not everyday that we come up close to a disused train so stumbling upon it was quite an adventure in itself.

That set off Tiger's interest in books about adventures and mysteries, so we moved on to the Enid Blyton series, starting with The Secret Seven, followed by The Mystery Series, The Secret Series, and finally The Famous Five series that Tiger has read over and over again, even today.

With his strong interest in all things mystery-related, he took it upon himself to learn all about being a detective and how to solve mysteries...

while I busied myself searching through library catalogues for mystery stories.  Luckily, it seems that everybody loves a good mystery, so I didn't have to look too hard to find suitable stories for Tiger to read.

As I started paying attention to mystery-themed learning opportunities, I found that they are in abundance!  Almost anything can be turned into a mystery!

Take geography for example.  Tiger has had no problem working through the Great Map Mysteries where map skills were learnt through solving mysteries:

Even music-making can take on a mystery theme, as we discovered at a 'musical mystery' workshop at Wigmore Hall, where the children were first introduced to the idea of musical motifs and combinations of notes before they had to compose their own motifs in their own groups and putting the various motifs together at the end of the day into a combined composition.

The workshop was led by a few professional musicians who were assigned to each group to guide the children in creating their musical themes, in part to ensure that the final product didn't sound too "unmusical".


As we explored more into the realms of mysteries, we found ourselves getting drawn into the darker world of crimes and murders...

A small exhibition about crime fiction at the British Library

It was at The British Library that Tiger got a first real taste of hunting for clues (by following a trail that took us to various palces at the library) and using the information he collected to reduce who the real culprit was.

Encouraged by Tiger's crime-busting, mystery-solving enthusiasm, I started to look for more mystery-related materials for our normal lessons at home.  In our homeschool, theme-based lessons often provide the necessary variation and "sugar coating" required to get some of the fundamentals done.  Maths is one of them.

Tiger tried out the above data handling murder investigation with much keenness.  When given a purpose (the "why") to solving a numeric problem, Tiger is often more motivated to learn the skills required (in this case, data analysis for Year 9) than if I were to ask him to learn a maths concept without him understanding how that concept has any real-world applicability.

While Tiger needed more help with the above, he is currently happily working on his own through a more manageable set of maths mysteries (see below).

I am aware that there are different schools of thought with regards to the necessity of themed studies.   Some theorists love the idea of using themes to connect all the diverse and seemingly disjointed areas of learning, while others oppose the idea on the grounds that having the teacher organise all the learning opportunities into themes will rob children of the initiative to make the connections themselves.

While I don't go out of my way to organise themed studies for Tiger, I don't oppose to the use of themes either, especially when the learning opportunities happen quite naturally and with little effort on my part.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 10/14/14
  2. Finishing Strong Week 33
  3. Hearts for Home Blog Hop #87
  4. Collage Friday: Homeschooling When Dad is Away
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the Frog Guts

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

When There's A Lot of Rain

It has been a very wet two weeks, so looks likely to continue for another week or so.

We have been down with terrible coughs so it has been slow going for the most part, and Tiger's neurological condition has taken a sudden downturn so between figuring out what went wrong to trigger the relapse and getting over our colds, we have managed to get a few things done:

1) Tiger had his birthday party at his grandmother's.

Despite the small-scale nature of the event, it was significant to Tiger in the sense that all the important people he wanted to have at his party (i.e. our extended family in England) were present, and that he is now officially in the double-digit category.  He probably feels rather 'grown-up', being in the double-digit age group, but he has yet to understand that there is a big difference between getting older in years and becoming more mature by way of responsible actions.  He is at the beginning of that journey.

2) A Lego workshop.

Unlike most children we know, Tiger hasn't been overly keen on Lego.  He has been given many different sets of Lego over the years so he is not short of materials to work with, but to my surprise, he hasn't spent hours immersed in it, unlike others boys we know.  Tiger uses his Lego pieces to build his own designs of various structures and aircrafts, but he doesn't like to follow any of the instruction manuals that came with each kit.  I can't decide whether this behaviour is part of his general don't-tell-me-what-to-do approach to life or that it is a show of genuine creativity because some of his own Lego designs are rather good.

As a result of Tiger's tendency to do things his own way, I have not taken him to any of the numerous Lego clubs until this particular structured workshop came up on our radar.  My purpose of taking Tiger to this structured workshop is to give him some exposure to new design and structural ideas that he can take away it to add to his own models at home.

At the 90-minutes workshop, the children were each given a set of pre-arranged Lego pieces and two instruction sheets.  They were to first build a mechanical swing set followed by a mechanised carousel.

The most interesting observation for me wasn't that Tiger could actually follow Lego written instructions to completion without help -- I resolved to stand on the side and only helped when asked, but it turned out that Tiger didn't need any help -- but what he did with his time.

90 minutes is about the right length of time for the children to build both structures at a comfortable, unhurried pace.  All the other children at the workshop dutifully constructed the set of swings, then moved on to the carousel.  Tiger took twenty minutes to build his swings set but instead of moving on to the next task like the other children, he spent the next 45 minutes 'playing' with his swings by altering its design, moving various pieces to different places.  While he was engrossed in his play, I was getting slightly anxious, wondering why my son was not keeping pace with everyone else.  After watching him for a while, I went up to him to remind him that there's another model to be built before the workshop was over.  Tiger just said,"I know!  I know what I'm doing."  What can you say to that?  So I retreated back to my corner of the room and prayed silently to myself that I hadn't made the mistake of driving 30 miles (each way) and paying for the workshop for Tiger to make one model....

Tiger did manage to complete the second structure, the mechanised carousel, in the last 15 minutes of the workshop:


3) Shakespeare in the rain

It bucketed down in the morning of the play.  We were having second thoughts about attending it, unsure of whether the play would be cancelled if the rain persisted.  In the end, we decided to brave the weather, mostly because I didn't want the tickets to go to waste, and I thought we would be alright since we had sheltered seats.

The rain didn't let up.  We were drenched from the waist down from the rain that came sideways as we walked over the Millennium Bridge.  Luckily the weather became better so the people in 'the pit' didn't get wet as the play went on.  I brought extra pairs of socks (but not extra pairs of trousers) so Tiger and I sat rather uncomfortably through the play, but we were glad we made it there because Tiger was soon greatly entertained by the production and had more than a few hearty laughs that afternoon.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Collage Friday - Learning to set boundaries as a Homeschooling Mom
  2. Hip Homeschool Hop - 10/14/14
  3. Finishing Strong Week 33
  4. Hearts for Home Blog Hop #87
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the Frog Guts

Friday, 3 October 2014

Fascinating Fungi

It all started with Tiger finding some fungi (panaeolus foenisecii) on the lawn one day...

We cut some off to observe indoors before making a print with them.

A few days later, more fungi (mostly Parasol Mushroom and Field Mushroom) popped up on the lawn:

Since there were so many fungi popping up around us, we might as well get to know them!

We made a few trips to the woods to to search for fungi.  Boy, were we in a treat!  Fungi was to be found everywhere!

We found fungi growing on tree trunks:

Moving down a little along the tree trunk, we found fungi growing on the exposed roots of certain trees:

Mostly, various fungi could be found on rotten logs or exposed parts of branches that were starting to rot:

Even on rotting logs, there were many different varieties of fungi growing.  Other than the tubed mushrooms (see photos directly above), the most common type of fungi we found on rotting logs were from the bracket fungus family.

We didn't take our field guides with us on our walks but Tiger took many photographs of all the fungi we found so that we could identify them when we got home.

The fungi on the ground were very well camouflaged and we had to look quite hard to pick them out from the piles of fallen leaves.

The most exciting find was the Fly Argaric, the quintessential fairytale toadstool where we almost expected to find a fairy hiding under it.  We also saw a fairy ring made up of fly argaric, which is rather unusual.  The fairy ring was located very deep in the woods where there wasn't much light so the photograph doesn't do the magical atmosphere justice.

After our numerous walks, we collected enough photographs and samples to conduct more close-up investigations of the fungi at home:

We identified all the fungi at hand, looked at them through our hand-lens (I think we'll need a microscope next year) and noted the different types of patterns and gills of each fungus.

Then we covered each fungus under either a glass jar or a bowl (depending on its size) to make a spore print.  Unfortunately, some of the prints did not turn out very clearly.  It was fascinating to see how the Fly Argaric expanded to twice its size to fill the entire bowl.

The fungi were kept covered for a few days to get the spore prints.  By then, they were starting to give off a slight rotting smell.  They were discarded before they became rotten (which wouldn't be a pretty sight) but we became fascinated by the concept of decay for a few days:

Apparently, we were not the only "weirdos" who were enthralled by fungi!  We went along to a fungi workshop conducted by The British Mycological Society, where we learnt various information about fungi, including its life cycle and taxonomy.

At the workshop, Tiger was given some starter culture for the Oyster Mushroom, which he cultivated inside a toilet roll (all of things).  We left the mushroom to grow in a corner of our bathroom and observed it everyday for two weeks, noting changes to its growth.

Watching the oyster mushrooms grow was an amazing experience.  Unlike the picked fungi above with which we tried to get spore prints, these live mushrooms did not smell at all.  Although we were assured that they are completely safe to eat, we didn't eat them in the end because: (1) both boys don't like the taste of mushrooms, and (2) we don't fancy eating anything that was grown in the bathroom, even though our bathrooms are very clean.  Therefore, growing the oyster mushroom remains a scientific adventure.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 9/30/14
  2. Finishing Strong Week 31
  3. Hearts for Home Blog Hop #85
  4. Collage Friday - Homeschool Moms: Sometimes We Need to Ask for Help!
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the One Direction Concert
  6. Country Kids from Combe Mill

Friday, 26 September 2014

A Few Surprises, Literally

The week started with a creative writing workshop at the British Library.

Tiger and I attended the workshop with much interest.  While Tiger was just generally happy to be out and about and seeing other children, I was curious to see how he fared at a writing activity as we have not done very much formal writing in the past.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Tiger being really engaged throughout the workshop and participating eagerly in the various writing games and exercises, even to the extent of reading aloud his draft towards the end of the session.

The next day Tiger went to the first of a series of creative writing classes held in a homeschooled friend's kitchen.  The class is made up of six homeschooled children, ages 9 to 13, and a tutor who guides them through discussions and techniques.  Tiger says he loves this class for its intimate atmosphere where everyone sat around the small dining table and had plenty of opportunities to discuss their ideas and respond to one anothers' writing.  It also helps that the creative writing tutor is the same man who also teaches Tiger drama at another location, so they are already familiar and comfortable with each other's teaching-learning styles.

The class has obviously been a success, as Tiger came home inspired to write three different drafts followed by two different short stories.  I don't think I've ever seen him write so much and for such a long time at one go.

The good start to the week led to more positive things.  The boy who resisted playing the piano and who hadn't done so for two years suddenly sat and played a few tunes one day.  Seizing the moment, I asked Tiger whether he would like to learn to play new pieces, and he said yes!  So I taught him two more pieces whereby I was amazed at his newfound patience to persevere through the difficult sections to practise over and over again until he mastered them.  Compared to his typical response two years ago whenever we came upon a new, unlearned part ("This is too hard!  I've had enough!"), his sudden willingness to keep trying really took me by surprise.  Needless to say, I am over the moon about this.  I continued to feel really pleased when Tiger practised the new pieces on his own, without needing to be prompted, and couldn't wait to show Tortoise in the evening what he has learned.

Tortoise is of course very happy to see Tiger's renewed interest in playing the piano, so the two of them have been spending some time in the evenings doing improvisations at the piano. 

We also did a bit of maths -- looking at patterns and square numbers.

The irony about having such a seemingly 'great' (i.e. productive) week at the start is that it leaves this mother thinking, "Why can't we be so productive every day?"  Success breeds success, doesn't it?  I was all geared up to give Tiger a tonne of work when I stumbled upon this article that made me say to Tiger, "You know what?  The days are getting shorter and the weather is cooling down.  Wouldn't you rather be in your 'fortress' right now while the sun is out?"

Tiger's "anti-wind, anti-rain, structural fortress".

With that, Tiger spent an entire afternoon and a few more hours afterwards playing in the "fortress" that Tortoise helped him put up at the weekend.  My decision to let Tiger play outside in the middle of what seemed like a terrific week almost certainly disqualifies me to be upheld as the epitome of discipline, I am at peace with it because I am keenly aware that Tiger's childhood is quickly passing by.  I don't recall any of the formal lessons I had as a child but I remember the sights and smells of my childhood playtime.  I doubt very much that Tiger will remember any of the superb maths lessons that I give him or the delightful vocabularly pages that he has to fill in, but hopefully he will have fond memories of hours spent under a big blue sheet of tarpulin on a warm, sunny day.

Still, there are ways to combine fun and learning if one looks hard enough.

At Shakespeare's Globe, again!

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 9/23/14
  2. Finishing Strong #30
  3. Collage Friday - Improve Your Homeschool: Know Your Child's Love Language
  4. Weekly Wrap-Up: The one with the hair, the clay pots, and the guitar solo
  5. Home Education Blog Link Up #17
  6. The Homeschool Mother's Journal (9/27/14)

Friday, 19 September 2014

Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane?

Since we did not see enough air vehicles at the military show and Tiger is most interested in the air combat aspect of warfare (see below for the related books he has read so far),

we made up for the gap by going to the air show at the IWM Duxford.

There were many aeroplanes on display and in flight that day, I'd say the distribution between historic planes and modern aircraft is about 70-30.  That is fine by me because both Tiger and I find historic aircrafts to be more relevant to our history study, but Tortoise is much more fascinated by the modern planes.

For example, I appreciate that triplanes and biplanes were flown at the beginning of the air show so that we could see for ourselves what the dogfights in the First World War would have looked like:


We were astonished at the slowness of the planes, but considering that planes were cutting edge technology 100 years ago (as was the Mark IV tank we saw at the military show), we were able to get some perspective on how quickly military technology has been advancing since then.  The following documentary on the dogfights in the First World War uses CGI to recreate the air combat scenes but there's nothing like seeing the WWI planes in action for ourselves.  The next best alternative is to use the dogfight simulator, which Tiger is allowed to play for 10 minutes each time, three times a week.

The highlight of this year's air show is the fly past of the last two airworthy Lancaster Bombers, escorted by two Spitfires.  Many people stood up and applauded at the sight of the planes that represented hope and victory for the British people in WWII.  As a non-British attending a very nationalistic event where feelings of patriotism run high, I pondered upon the thought of how those very same planes would have stirred up a totally different set of emotions in those on the receiving end of the planes' missions.

There were many different types of planes flown on that day, but the most iconic has to be the Spitfires.  Before Tiger's interest in military history took hold, I wouldn't have been able to recognise this plane at all.  Now, thanks to numerous exposure (via books, documentaries, visits) I am able to recognise the Spitfire from the distinctive sound of its Merlin engine.


The finale was a splendid display by the Red Arrows.  Everybody loves the Red Arrows, which is an acrobatic team of the RAF.  Their presence brought a sense of fun and skill to the show, which was a refreshing way to end the day, having spent four sombre hours watching military combat aircrafts displaying their growing capabilities and thinking about who really benefits from the never-ending military campaigns around the world throughout history.


After all this running around, we really ought to buckle down and do some real work by staying at home next week...

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 9/16/14
  2. Finishing Strong #29
  3. History & Geography Meme #135
  4. Home Education Blog Link Up #15
  5. Collage Friday - A Well Rounded Homeschool
  6. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One Where I Officially Have 3 Teens
  7. The Homeschool Mother's Journal (9/20/14)
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