Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hope for the Reluctant Writer After All

Confession: I have not worked hard to teach my kids writing composition.


I have not been happy with various curricula. Those of us homeschool parents who think we're pretty knowledgable about something or at least think we can already do it better than the average man on the street, often are not happy with curricula that teach that topic. All we see is flaws with that program or weaknesses in the other, we like a little of that program and some other aspect of the other one. No one course of instruction ever seems good enough. To use a bit of this and a bit of that becomes laborious and some of us wind up creating our own program in the end. (Former math teachers who homeschool are notorious for doing this!)

I also have the opinion that sometimes schools teach a topic too young in a dumbed down way then keep repeating it year after year making it just a wee bit harder, in hopes that before graduation some level of competence will have been met. However if you listen to college professors or facts such as revealed in the documentary Race to Nowhere, you may feel that the writing skills of public school graduates are pathetic. Thus, whatever was done as "the accepted thing" was apparently not so great after all.

So my homeschool plan has been to delay teaching certain skills until my kids are old enough to grasp it quickly and effectively. However when that time came for my older son, we were dealing with his visual processing disorder treatment and he somehow went directly to the 'reluctant writer' category.

So here we are now with him in eighth grade. My son is working on a merit badge doing a class with a merit badge counselor. For the second class (of three) he was sick with fever and just diagnosed with an ear infection and was just starting antibiotics so he missed the meeting. I told him to do all the work that was not yet done before the next/last class. He didn't know what was missed versus what was planned for the last class so he did everything but one writing assignment.

He wanted the badge done and over with so he worked independently after I reminded him the deadline was looming. He went to the last meeting and was directed to do a written piece as one of the last things to do.

The assignment was to research and write about a specific career in meteorology. In all honesty it was a career I'd never even heard of and it was not easy to find the information which had to include details about the education for that job.

It took my son about two hours to research all over the Internet and find the answers then to write it out. The merit badge counselor is a grade 11 and 12 science teacher in a public high school. I don't know what her take on homeschooling is but I know that town is currently going after one family who pulled their kids out of public school in order to begin homeschooling. The school staff in the different schools in that town has a history of going after the families who withdraw their children to begin homeschooling.

I told my son he'd better do a good job on the writing since she's a teacher there and that presently the school is going after a homeschool family. I said what she sees of his work will give her an impression and an opinion of homeschooling and it had better be a good one. He didn't like hearing of what seems like us to be an abuse of power and he didn't like the idea of people having a negative impression of homeschoolers.

He declared he was finished writing, without any writing help from me. To be honest I had low expectations.
I checked his writing and there were no spelling or grammar mistakes. I almost gasped. He had also followed her directions to use one of two fonts of her choosing plus to make the font 12 point and to do one page.

I was impressed with his ability to write. The content was NOT plagarized, I verified that. I was surprised at the writing so looked at the readability score and it rated at grade 11.7 with the Flesch Kinkaid rating that Microsoft Word uses. I couldn't believe it. The kid wrote three years above grade level!

I guess there is hope for my reluctant writer, dyslexia-symptom, dysgraphia symptom kid after all.

The other night at the Scout Troop meeting the counselor came with the papers. Due to a mix-up in communication we found out my son has one more thing to do that he missed out on doing when he was not at the meeting back when he was sick.

The teacher/counselor told our Scoutmasters that she was impressed with my son's initiative to have come to the last meeting with a lot of work already finished rather than showing up empty handed. She also wrote "Well done!" on his paper (just like a teacher does). (Being homeschooled he is not used to that kind of feedback.). Lastly she told the leaders that she was impressed with his writing and instead of giving a 5 minute talk to the Troop about safety in certain storm emergencies, which he missed at that meeting, she would take a written piece from him on that topic instead.

You have no idea how happy and hopeful this makes me!

This underscores also that we are doing the right thing to have increased our son's academics in this grade eight year. He is taking this seriously, that he has to step up his output and get set for high school level studies and to do the things necessary for SAT testing and other tests, and for the type of work he'll be doing in college.

Some of the changes are being more strict on doing math work on a regular basis, doing more writing composition, and increasing the daily reading load . He also has to discuss and analyze and sometimes write about the content that was read.

It's great to feel hopeful instead of being in that rut of feeling worried about how to homeschool high school and how to best prepare for college admissions.

Postscript: He is not doing his homeschool lessons all on his own under his own initiative. I do have to tell him to read that history book and be prepared to write something about a topic he's learned, or to say this is the year we're focusing on American History. While he wants the Boy Scout merit badges he does the assignments from the counselor or from the book some of which requires reading and writing, and answering questions that is similar to reading comprehension type work. He hasn't completely taken the reigns. He does have a college major in mind and is relying on me to tell him what the colleges require for college prep work and standardized testing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Cloud Searchers (Amulet Book 3) Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: The Cloud Searchers (Amulet Book Three)

Author: Kazu Kibuishi
Genre: Graphic Novel, Children, ages 9-12

My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

My Summary Statement: Another Engaging Read, the 3rd Installment of a High Adventure Hero’s Journey Story

I am a homeschooling mother with an interest in graphic books, both fiction and nonfiction, for adult or child readers. I just finished reading this book. My ten and thirteen year old sons also read this book and the whole series, and they wanted me to read it so I could enjoy the story too.

In this third book in the series this hero’s journey quest, a battle of good versus evil continues with just as much action as in the others. In this book Emily learns more about the magic stone that gives her power and more about the enemy they are fighting. This time, as the title and cover art reveal, they are looking for a land some believe is just a myth, which is hidden in the clouds.

This story began on Earth in the first book, and the second and third book takes place entirely in the other world, a mysterious land which looks wild and medieval in its natural state and filled with walking and talking animals and weird monsters, living “stuffed animals” and robots. Their main vehicle in this story is a cross between a zeppelin and a spaceship yet they are attacked by a traditional looking dragon.

This book series has high quality full color illustrations which makes it more visually appealing than some other graphic books for children on the market. The pages are high quality glossy paper.

This book and the series is a high action story that involves lots of fighting, multiple brushes with death, and escapes. It’s well written in that it is a solid hero’s journey story which being done well, draws the reader in immediately, and makes us root for the hero from the start. We want to find out what happens next and we want the good guys to win. The second and third book is clearly a good versus evil story which gets more complicated as the series goes on.

The book ends with a journey finished but opens the way for the next segment of the story, that Emily is being trained to be one of the members of the prestigious and important “Guardian Council”. At the time I’m writing this the fourth book has not yet been released.

I recommend this for tween or young teen who enjoys graphic novels, or for reluctant readers who enjoy reading about fantasy, adventure and the battle of good against evil. I would say this is more of a boy book but with its girl main character and the strong draw of the story that engages the reader, some girls might enjoy it too.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from’s Vine program. For my blog’s full disclosure statement see the link near the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Focusing and Prioritizing is Necessary for Teens

My oldest child is thirteen (and a half) and is in the second half of eighth grade homeschool. The older he gets the more apparent it is to me that it is necessary to focus on academics and prioritize academics, if academics are important to our family, which they are. Academics are important to him as well. His home education at this point is most shaped by his goal to become an engineer moreso than being shaped by my personal opinions about pedagogy and education methods.

We are at yet another turning point where it is necessary to revisit our family's priorities and our goals for our children. This used to be easier to do than it is now. You see, when the children become teens it shifts to a point where the teen is taking more of an active role in their own goals and activities.

I don't think it is healthy for my husband and I to treat our teenaged son as if he was still five years old and dictating that he do this or that. In the teen years we have to get their buy-in on things more than we ever did before. The thing is, if they begin to take that control over their lives, I feel their outcomes and achievements have a much better chance of coming to fruition. If we parents work with our kids to determine goals and then help them design an action plan to achieve them, and we are there as facilitators to help keep them on the right path, I think they have a very good chance of getting what it is they want out of their life.

Something shifted in grade eight, such that my son, from a formerly relaxed homeschool environment, shifted into feeling pressure and stress. Things were more serious now. College seemed not far off or at least the college prep work that for him, must begin in eighth grade was happening right here and now. This was it, the road to college has definately begun! Kids today can't wait until their junior year of high school to start thinking about their future aspirations and college admissions.

The more I talk with kids in grades eight through eleven the more I realize that really the best thing to do is to focus and prioritize. Some kids have priorities other than academics, such as some who seem to live for sports and pick which high school they attend due to the better sports program and others are interested in the arts, who spent a lot of time preparing to act in plays or learning to play a musical instrument.

If there is a lack of focus and no prioritization I think a few things can happen.

1. The teen can feel they are doing too many things but not mastering any, and feel they are not accomplishing much but always scrambling to get the next thing done. They don't ever feel satisfaction at having done something well because two minutes after that thing is over they are worried about the next thing. With a busy schedule they sometimes have no time to reflect on a success before they are stressing over getting to the next appointment or meeting the next deadline.

This can happen if a teen is trying to "do it all" such as be a top athlete, be a top student, and excel at something in the arts. They can be 'stressed out' and suffering from stress induced problems.

I don't feel anything worthwhile can come from never learning to prioritize and focus. Teens should learn to decide what is important to them then to focus their energy toward achieving that goal.

Therefore, if to achieve goal A requires quitting project B and letting goal of its goal B, it's a healthy thing. Instead of doing four projects at half-tilt with mediocre or failed outcomes, isn't it better to do two or even just one thing more thoroughly?

Another question to ask is if they actually enjoying the fun things they are doing? If their passion is playing a sport but while playing the game they are preoccupied with thoughts of their undone homework, how satisfying is that sport for them?

2. A teen who is not invoved in much or is an under-achiever risks another set of problems. They risk feeling a failture at everything and not realizing what their unique talents and gifts are. They may feel either mediocre and average or they may feel incompetent and worthless. When they compare themselves to their peers they seem to notice how many people are achieving more than them, are smarter than them, are getting better grades than them, who made the cut for the A team while they were locked out, or who got the major speaking role in the play instead of a minor role.

They may give up on academics or sports or the arts, and seek affirmation socially and their top priority may be relationships with friends and their social life.

Another sort, a less extroverted teen, may wind up isolated and lonely.

Perhaps they become passive entertainment receipients whose main focus in life is watching TV and listening to music. They may not be really prepared for their future but they know what celebrity is getting a divorce and what musician has been arrested for DUI.

Maybe they have no best friend they can talk to anytime but have seen the latest pics uploaded to everyone in their class's Facebook account since they've spent hours and hours trolling around on FB.

They may seek thrill-giving experiences and may experiment with drugs and alcohol to escape the drudgery of their real life. Perhaps they seek pleasure through casual sex and are promiscuous. Maybe they are irresponsible and accidentially find themselves pregnant, or maybe they want to fast forward to adulthood and think that a becoming pregant is one way to make that happen now instead of later.

They may wind up clinically depressed or suffer from other mental illness diagnoses. Perhaps they turn their dissatisfaction into things like cutting or develop an eating disorder.


Balance has become somewhat of a buzzword but it is important. In order to be very good at some things we cannot be experts at everything. To make time to do one thing well we must let go of trying to to it all. We have read such advice given to adult women and men but the same advice needs to be given to teens and parents of teens.

Setting Goals and Priorities

It is important to set goals and make priorities. Teens should do this, it shouldn't be something that starts when they are out of college and start working in their career.

Most parents know in their own life, they can't do it all and do it all well, so why they expect this from their preteens and teens is something that makes no sense, when you think about it logically.

I wish parents would step back and evaluate what it is their family thinks is important for each of their children. Decisions about how the teen spends their time and energy should be discussed at the family level. Parents can help guide their teens in learning the skills of goal setting and priority setting.


Set Goals.


Seek Balance.

Who would argue that those are things that families raising teenagers should not do?

Ayla's Back!

I'd given up on Jean Auel, thinking she'd abandoned the Earth's Children series. The first book in the series, Clan of the Cave Bear was released 31 years ago. I was introduced to the book in the 1980s by my book-reading grandmother, the gardening, wildcrafting one who lived in Maine.

I got hooked on the series but was impatient for the long gaps in between books. I also felt the last book was a bit too bogged down in botany and nonfiction facts that made the reading boring in parts. I felt too many facts slowed the pace and took attention away from the fiction story itself. While I appreciate accuracy in a historical fiction book I feel that with fiction the story and the characters themselves must remain the primary focus.

I believe I read somewhere years ago that Auel had been chastized for factual inaccuracy in the first book (or two), so after that she began doing more research including traveling around the world seeing archeological sites in person. I think anyone would concur that publishing a six book series in 31 years is more drawn out than most fans would tolerate.  I waited so long for the next book that I recall researching on the Internet to see if the author had passed away, to explain the lack of another book being published. Yet those of us who love the Earth's Children series are just so happy to have another book out we don't really want to complain about the long wait.

I'd given up on Jean Auel, so imagine my surprise today when I found out that The Land of the Painted Caves was released today. It is the sixth book in the series.

Had I known it was coming out I'd have pre-ordered it so it would arrive today. I guess while I wait for it to be delivered from Amazon I can spend my spare moments cleaning and doing other things ahead of time so when the book comes I can allow myself to escape into the book for a couple of days, guilt-free.

Last month while culling books I let go of some old favorites, both fiction and non-fiction. However I kept the thick hardcover books written by Jean Auel and Stephen King, my two favorite fiction authors, unable to part with them. I just might go back and re-read the entire Earth's Children series...

I'm thinking of my grandmother today, as she's missing the opportunity to read The Land of the Painted Caves. She waited and waited for the next book but passed away in 2008 at age 98. If she were alive today I'd have already phoned her to give her the news of the book's publication, something I learned by reading a Facebook status post of an acquaintence. I'll surely be thinking of my Nanny while reading the book.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Notes from Webinar with Rosemary Gladstar Herbs Demystified

I listened to a free webinar hosted by featuring Rosemary Gladstar, a very well known herbalist. Here are some of my notes.

The home herbalist should develop a materia medica, a collection of herbs that they have on hand and know how to use well. Gladstar recommended getting to know 10 or 15 herbs deeply rather than collect a hundred or more various herbs that will rarely be used. The herbs you are learning about should be used in different ways to see how they react when different forms are used and when they are used for different ailments.

Gladstar recommended making your own list of herbs to get to know. Here are the herbs she feels are important to her which are good for beginners and have few safety risks. She discussed these with some detail which I'm not including in this blog post.

1. Dandelion
2. Chamomile
3. Nettle
4. Valerian
5. Cayenne
6. Burdock
7. Peppermint
8. Lemon Balm
9. Milky Oats
10. Goldenseal

Gladstar recommended not just doing book learning but to experience and try the herbs. With that said she personally checks three reliable references to see what the books say then she goes forward. She mentioned these authors as trusted sources (in no special order):

Michael Tierra

Richo Cech

Nancy and Michael Phillips

David Hoffman

Andrew Chevalier

Christopher Hobbs

Gladstar stated that often the remedy is in our kitchen. The herbs she mentioned can be grown by home gardeners or wildcrafted.

Regarding safety, Gladstar put plants into three categories:

1. Adaptogenic, tonic herbs, food herbs. Don't build up in the body. Generally very safe. Example: chamomile

2. Medicinal herbs, can cross over with tonic herbs. Examples: peppermint, chamomile

3. Powerful herbs, used in pharmaceuticals. Strong actions, give marked physiological actions in the body. Examples: goldenseal, tobacco, coffee. Some can be addictive. Most are rich in alkaloid and glycosides. Not meant for long term use, use short term as medicine, not meant to be used daily, because they can be addictive (tobacco, coffee).

By knowing the category of the herb you can realize how cautious you need to be when using the herb.

For many situations, simple problems can often be solved with simple remedies from the kitchen. If that doesn't resolve the problem then expert advice can be sought. recommended Rosemary Gladstar's book herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health which has 175 recipes and is good for beginners and advanced herbalists. I own this book and agree it is accessible for beginners like me but it also has so much information it must be useful for experienced herbalists too.

They also discussed the upcoming International Herb Symposium being held in Massachusetts June 24-26, 2011 which Rosemary Gladstar is involved with. They discussed how herbal conferences rejuvenate herbalists. I know that has been true for me when attending parenting and homeschooling conferences. The advantage of an international conference is the speakers come from around the world so people can learn things from people of those other nations.

My Take-Away

I was happy to listen to this webinar because I respect Gladstar and have learned from reading and using her book. I already own most of the books she mentioned as trusted sources.

I agree that using herbs including the benefits from eating herbs and wild greens as food is a great way to get to know them. I think our culture, at this point in time, does not want to think of foods as having any kind of medicinal ability. One the one hand our culture agrees that foods can clog our arteries or raise our cholesterol to unhealthy levels, or a food can be so devoid of nutrients that it is deemed 'empty calories' or 'junk food', but our culture does not want to accept that eating nettles can provide our bodies with vitamins and minerals or that an herbal tea or decoction can act as a medicine such as a common weed whose tea acts as a diuretic. Our culture thinks medicines are made in factories and flavored and colored with chemicals and bought in little boxes in drug stores. Oddly people accept that a rainforest plant was the base for a super expensive Cancer treatment drug but they won't think about a sore throat being soothed by a lozenge made from tree bark.

My biggest challenge regarding learning about herbs by using them to cure ailments is that I am healthy, as is my family, so we rarely have a chance to need these cures let alone to test and try many of the old fashioned home remedies that are based in herbal medicine.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts on Bending Statistics and Taxes

Recently, a friend blogged about good versus evil in the world, about not being the tempted by the devil. An example was given: she claimed that in 2010 Exxon Mobil, Bank of America and General Electric combined didn’t pay three dollars total in income taxes to the government. Yes I said $3 not $3 million or $3 billion. When I hear statistics that are sound so outrageous my curiosity is piqued. They say statistics don’t lie but people lie and use statistics to try to make their point. By selectively pulling certain statistics a picture different than reality can be painted. When people do that there is a reason: they want to prove some point. When I read that blog post, I didn’t quite know what the point of the original person who said it, or what the point of that friend of mine was. Was the point to demonize those three American corporations and if so, for what reason? Was it being said that business is bad, or that capitalism is bad, or what? I was curious and wanted to look into the matter.

It wasn’t hard to find the data, but I did ask the help of my husband whose career is in finance. I share here some statistics about the taxes paid by Exxon Mobil to governments. One reason I chose that company to investigate was that one of the first things I saw when doing an Internet search for the source of that statement was a CNN article that reported that Exxon Mobil was the largest taxpayer in the country, so how could it be said they paid less than $3.00 to the American government in income taxes? Something didn’t seem to add up. At that point, I stopped researching who said it and went to the source for the statistics.

Let’s look at some statistics as reported per federal law that Exxon Mobil made to the SEC in the 10-K filed on 2/25/11 (a public document) about Exxon Mobil’s 2010 finances. I note that income earned outside of the U.S. has income taxes paid to the country where the income was generated. Need I state that Exxon Mobil drills for oil in countries outside if the U.S. as well as domestically, thus they also pay taxes to other countries.

From page 99:

Income tax paid to the US Government: $1.319 billion

Income tax paid to US States: $340 million

Total paid to US States and federal government: $1.659 billion

Income tax paid to other countries: $19.902 billion

Here are some other taxes (non income tax type taxes) that are collected from customers from sales of their product, that then are paid to the US Government (i.e. excise tax): $36.1 billion plus another $28.5 billion in sales tax. In other words due to the sale of their products, by following US tax laws, the US Government has collected $64.6 billion which helps run our government.

Additionally it should be noted that Exxon Mobil paid $1.188 billion in taxes to the Federal and state governments in the U.S. as severance tax for the production of oil and gas extracted from U.S. land (on land either owned by Exxon Mobil or on government land). They paid $3.112 billion to governments elsewhere in the world as severance to produce oil and gas drilled in those countries. (Reference: page 103)

Does this sound like a company who is not paying a “fair share”? If the US Government suspected a corporate giant like Exxon Mobil was not following tax code and was cheating them, do you not think that they’d go after them to extract even more? I bet they would! They’d be stupid not to!

As to what is done with some of the monies left over after taxes are paid they invest a lot into doing business which helps the American and world economy and produces jobs. Per this same report, they spent $8.5 billion in the United States to find oil and gas. They spent more than $18 billion elsewhere in the world on finding oil and gas. The refining and chemicals arm of their business spent $4 billion worldwide. Exxon Mobil provides jobs and employs 83,600 employees globally. The book value of their assets on their balance sheet is $200 billion globally. They find and produce a resource that many people want and use daily.

I’m not going to take the time to analyze the financials of Bank of America or General Electric, but I’d really like to know how someone came up with the figure that those three corporations paid a total of less than three dollars in income taxes to the American government. Bank of America and GE both had large losses associated with the economic melt-down of the last couple of year. I suspect those losses could be impacting their tax bill.

If you are wondering why Exxon Mobil paid more to other governments in income tax than to the American government it is because they drill in other countries more than they drill here. They follow the laws of those countries and have contractual obligations, such as in Africa they pay 85% of profits made from the sale of oil products which were extracted on their land. Income taxed in other countries is generally not taxed again by the US Government. Perhaps a person thinks because they pay more money to other country’s governments they must be cheating the US Government, when the reality is the majority of their business takes place outside the USA with natural resources from those countries so more taxes are paid to other countries.

When you hear an outrageous figure that seems completely illogical your suspicions should be aroused. I wish people would think a bit rather than just believing something they hear just because it suits their world view. The only people who would believe that a large company like Exxon Mobil pays less than three dollars in income tax to the federal government is a person who wants to believe that the corporation is evil. Perhaps the accuser is combining a large taxpayer like Exxon Mobil with companies who got tax breaks, but the only reason to drag Exxon Mobil down would be what? It is just taking the opportunity to slam an oil company, if the person has something against oil or oil companies?

What would you call a person who is so easily tricked with a figure like that without any reference citations? Would you call them a fool? Do you really want to be a fool manipulated by a lie constructed by a biased source in the media or some press release by a source whose credibility is questionable (due to lacking reference citations)?

So, where did that $3 accusation come from?

Here is a quote I found about the $3 accusation from a press release by US Uncut dated 2/28/11, (an organization I'd never heard of until today) whose message seems to be that American corporations cheat the government out of taxes that are due, and they don’t pay their fair share leaving the American citizen income tax payers to pay instead. They say if the corporations were not able to “cheat the government”, then the government would not have to cut spending. I note that the press release has no references cited to support their financial figure claims, thus I don't consider this to be a credible source of data.

"The $3 in my wallet is more than ExxonMobil, GE and Bank of America paid in taxes last year, combined," said Carl Gibson, founder of US Uncut Mississippi. "There's a direct connection between corporate tax dodging and what's happening to real people’s lives. Because of overseas tax havens and other tax loopholes, US corporations are making profits in America but barely paying taxes here. If we close those loopholes, we wouldn't have to be cutting back on firefighters, library hours and student loans."

US Uncut calls for an end to corporate tax avoidance instead of cuts to valuable public services. Anger is rising as Americans are being forced to endure brutal budget cuts at both the federal and state-level. Recent events in Wisconsin have inspired hard-working Americans to make their voices heard, and this populist message is spreading like wildfire across the country.

"If Bank of America alone paid their taxes, we could 'uncut' $1.7 billion in early childhood education," said Ryan Clayton, a DC-based media analyst, "Big corporations dodge up to $100 billion every year, and if they paid their taxes this year like the rest of us do, we could stop the $100 billion in cuts to college loans too."

How much is enough?

In 2009 the U.S. federal government collected $2.33 trillion in taxes. That works out to about $7800 per person in the U.S. (that is man, woman, and child). The federal government ought to be able to function on that kind of money (and that is not including state and local taxes). All the agitation lately about cuts to programs stems for the fact that despite the hefty tax collection, the government has still managed to spend more, by some accounts nearly double, what they collected.

Note: I do not usually blog about politics and the government. There are far too many blogs who already do that. To me the larger issue here is about thinking and not being pursuaded by others without questioning the source. I have always sought truth. As a parent and a homeschooling parent I seek to raise thinking kids who are not easily duped or pursuaded by others, whether they are salespeople or politicians or political activists.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Make Your Own Animated Films

In case you wonder how people create those animated little films that appear on YouTube here is an article showing all the work that goes into an episode of Llamas with Hats.

This obviously takes hours and hours of work.

My kids love this series as do many of their friends.

Possibly every kid thinks they can do such a project. If yours is one of them I encourage them to try it. You need certain software. Perhaps Anime Studio Debut 7 is less expensive? (See my review of that software here.) There are also free podcasting programs available on the web for the audio portions.

I referened Llamas with Hats yesterday talking about how my kids would do nothing but sit and watch stuff like this all day on YouTube if I let them. There's nothing wrong with some passive screen-time entertainment but it should not take the place of worthwhile academic endeavors. But, creating one's own animated works is a serious creative project that takes time, energy and dedication. Any kid or adult who is curious about starting such a project should read that article and give it a try!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Thoughts On Deadlines and Academic Competitions

When my kids were younger I had many images of what homeschooling would look like in the later years. I bought into all the self-directed education stories of fantastic things being learned just because the child enjoyed it. That has not always panned out in real life. (As I write this it is evening and I can overhear my kids surfing on YouTube watching those stupid cartoons Llamas with Hats. Their schooled friends introduced them to these and they are a topic of conversation and they quote the cartoons and go around whining "Carl", and laugh hyterically about it when they are with their friends. They would watch that type of goofy twaddle all day, every day if I let them.)

This is our third year of participating in the Science Olympiad with a homeschool team. I have been thinking a lot about how to best prepare for the events. A whole variety of things has happened ranging from the kids learning at home with materials I provided, to taking a class taught by a professional teacher paid for by the parents to classes taught by homeschool moms (some with specific subject matter expertise from their former career field). There has been learning in groups under someone else's planning and there has been learning here in my home under my direction.

The bottom line here is that participaton in competitions has provided:

* a learning challenge

* stimulation for my sons to learn about something we might not have ever learned about under my guidance (in other words, left to our own devices)

* a deadline to learn it by, or a deadline to do that hands on building thing by, and

* a goal to strive for.

A couple of times I wondered if what we were doing is teaching to the test but put in other words were we teaching to try to win a competition? Even if we are the fact is that educational endeavors took place and learning has happened. Is that not a great thing?

Some homeschoolers I know put their noses in the air about academic competitions and say they are not interested in them for their children. We compete against schools and they are not interested in doing "school-ish" things or anything that "schools do", they are homeschooling to learn in a different way and they want to be kept completely separate from schools in every way, shape and form. Some of them say they have no interest in competitive events and they look down upon competitive events or anything with testing or ranking and rating kids. I say to each his own, I really don't care what they do with their kids, but I do wonder sometimes if they know they might be missing out on something that is better than they think it is.

My experience has been that great learning can take place with homeschooled kids who prepare for competitive events. Valuable learning can happen in the preparation process even if the students don't win. When the tasks are a stretch academically, it can provide a more rigorous goal than the child might have set for themselves or even more rigorous than the parent may have thought to try. Team events provide a unique experience for kids to learn in groups and to develop a team spirit around something academic. Teams are not just for sports or extra-curricular fun, kids can have fun learning something academic with other kids! Really, they can! Also, those competition deadlines, while stressful sometimes, help us get moving and get the job done, they help prevent procrastination.

Here is my older son the other day, he's in eighth grade, with his tower for Science Olympiad 2011. He stayed up 'til one in the morning the other day working on this, not something I liked, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get the job done.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Stonekeeper’s Curse Amulet Book Two Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: The Stonekeeper’s Curse Amulet: Book Two
Author: Kazu Kibuishi

Genre: Children’s graphic novel, series

My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

Summary Statement: 2nd in Series: High Quality Full Color Illustrated Fast-Paced, High Adventure Fantasy Story

I am a homeschooling mother with an interest in graphic books, both fiction and nonfiction, for adult or child readers. I just finished reading this book. My ten and thirteen year old sons also read this book and they wanted me to read it so I could enjoy the story too.

In this second book in the series, the adventure continues. Emily is a human girl on a hero’s journey aided by her younger brother, which they thought was (just) to save their mother’s life. In this book the younger brother plays an important role in fulfilling their goal.

This second book opens the story up to reveal a more complicated situation than we originally thought existed. Now it’s not just about saving a loved one it’s turning into saving the people in the world who are being dominated by an evil self-appointed ruler.

Will Emily accept the quest that endangers her life in order to save a civilization of people from a world she doesn’t even really know?

Will she risk sacrificing herself for the cause?

This is a fantasy story involving magic powers. It started on Earth in the first book, and this second book takes place entirely in the other world, a mysterious land which looks wild and medieval in its natural state and filled with walking and talking animals and weird monsters, living “stuffed animals” and robots, but which has modern technology such as flying ships and a house that looks like a Transformer robot that walks and has a defense weaponry.

This book series has high quality full color illustrations which makes it more visually appealing than some other graphic books for children on the market. The pages are high quality glossy paper.

This book, just like the first, is a high action story that involves lots of fighting, multiple brushes with death, and escapes. It’s well written in that it is a solid hero’s journey story which being done well, draws the reader in immediately, and makes us root for the hero from the start. We want to find out what happens next and we want the good guys to win. This second book is clearly a good versus evil story.

The book has a tidy ending to one storyline but the larger issue is revealed, so this is not a complete story in one volume; the next series must be read to find out what happens. At the time of this writing there are three books in print in the series, the third being The Cloud Searchers.

Highly recommended for a tween or young teen who enjoys graphic novels, or for reluctant readers who enjoy reading about fantasy, adventure and the battle of good against evil. I would say this is more of a boy book but with its girl main character and the strong sense of being engaged in the story and its ease of reading some girls might enjoy it too.

Disclosure Statement: I borrowed this book from the library. For my blog’s full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amulet Book One The Stonekeeper Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Amulet: Book One The Stonekeeper
Author: Kazu Kibuishi

Genre: Children’s graphic novel, series

My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

Summary Statement: High Quality Full Color Illustrated Fast-Paced, High Adventure Fantasy Story

I am a homeschooling mother with an interest in graphic books, both fiction and nonfiction, for adult or child readers. I just finished reading this book. However my first encounter with it was when it was released three years ago (2008) and my then-ten year old son saw it in the library and borrowed it. He loved the book. Since then two others in the series have been released. In the last month my older son, now 13, re-read or read all three (to find out what happened since he last read the first book) as did my younger son who is ten years old. The Amulet series is a hit with my sons. I also enjoyed the story.
Emily is a human girl on a hero’s journey aided by her younger brother, to save their mother’s life. This is a fantasy story involving magic powers. It starts on Earth but has a gate to another world, a mysterious land which looks wild and medieval in its natural state and filled with walking and talking animals and weird monsters, living “stuffed animals” and robots, but which has modern technology such as flying ships and a house that looks like a Transformer robot that walks and has a defense weaponry.

One of the first things noticed about the book is its high quality full color illustrations which makes it more visually appealing than some other graphic books for children on the market. The pages are high quality glossy paper.

This is a high action story that involves brushes with death, escapes and fighting. It’s well written in that it is a solid hero’s journey story which being done well, draws the reader in immediately, and makes us root for the hero from the start. We want to find out what happens next and we want the good guys to win.

The book ends with a cliff-hanger so this is not a complete story in one volume; the series must be read to find out what happens next.

Highly recommended for a tween or young teen who enjoys graphic novels, or for reluctant readers about fantasy, adventure and the battle of good against evil.

One word of caution for parents, there is an emotional scene at the beginning that some sensitive young readers (possibly drawn to the book since it’s an easy to read graphic format book) may find disturbing but it’s no different than the typical “child’s parent dies by violent sudden death” that is in so many Disney animated children’s movies.

Disclosure Statement: I borrowed this book from the library. For my blog’s full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Carnival of Homeschooling Multiple Weeks Published

My apologies for being behind in publicizing the Carnival of Homeschooling.

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 269 was published at Raising Real Men.

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 270 was published at Notes From a Homeschooling Mom.

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 271 was published at Time 4 Learning.

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 272 was published at Life Nurturing Education.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

I enter these Carnivals and encourage you to as well.

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.


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Sunday, March 20, 2011

We're Maple Sugaring

The first big autodidact project for me and my family of 2011 is maple sugaring. Yes, I have taken my interest in wildcrafting to new levels.

We live in Connecticut. I was raised on Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth's and Log Cabin fake maple syrup. Yep. Sad, huh? When my grandmother was forced to retire from her job at age 70 (before age discrimination was made illegal) she retired back to her homestead in northern Maine. She began buying pure Maine maple syrup from her friend and giving it to our family as gifts. After I got married I had a steady supply gifted to me. I became a food snob about maple syrup. Once you start using pure maple syrup, you never can go back.

When my grandmother passed away we lost our source of free syrup. I am on the last bits of the few gallons she gave me when she was near the end of her life. She knew she was dying, and she was giving us stuff left and right in case it was the last time we'd see her. The last time I saw her she pushed me to take three gallons!

In 2010 I found out that a homeschool mom friend who lives on wooded property about an hour away from me maple sugars and she boosted my confidence. I ran out and bought taps at Agway, feeling full of inspiration. I then bought some books and read websites about maple sugaring which scared me into thinking it's really bad to boil it down indoors and that outdoor cooking should be done. That was not an option as I had no outdoor fire pit, so I was afraid to try it. I also was unable to correctly identify maple trees based on bark alone, and wasn't even sure which of my trees were maples!

But this winter I was inspired when driving past some homes, I saw a couple of maple trees tapped and thought, why not? I already knew it was the right weather for maple sugaring: nights below freezing and days above freezing. When I got home at dusk that night I asked my husband to get his drill and the correct size bit (quickly researched in my book) and out we went to tap two trees. (When the trees leafed out in 2010 I identified two sugar maples close to my house on the edges of our woods so I knew where they were.)

So, using books for instructions I taught myself to maple sugar. This book was my primary resource: Backyard Sugarin' by Mann.

I only tapped two trees that night. After that I scouted every tree on my property by studying the bark and scrounging for leaves on the ground to double-check. I found only one other sugar maple of the correct size, in a not-convenient location and decided that tapping two trees this year is enough. We have two acres of woods here but most are oaks and black birch with some hickory, beech, wild dogwoods, wild black cherry, white and gray birches and some witch hazels.

Sugar Maple leaf found on the ground at the base of a tree in March.

We're enjoying this. My ten year old loves to go gather the sap even though it's heavy to carry.

Here are some photos of the process.

1. Identify maple trees. The bark has vertical lines only and is gray. The ridges are not as deep as oak or black walnut. Check the size, they must be over 10 inches in diameter.

2. Tap trees and hang a food safe bucket. (Check detailed instructions on the size bit to use and the proper process to avoid splitting the tree.)

3. The sap is clear and thin. It looks just like water.  Strain to get any bugs out (it attracts gnats, mosquitoes, ants and moths).  Then put in pot and bring to a boil with lid on.

4. Remove lid and keep on high heat to boil off the water. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.


5. At first the sap is clear and the bubbles are large.

6. As the water evaporates the liquid starts to have a yellow tinge which deepens the more it reduces.

7. Any foam is to be skimmed off (impurities). As you taste it you detect a sweet flavor but at this stage it is still quite watery and does not have the feel of a syrup consistency yet.
8. Right before the sugar content is the correct level to turn it to syrup the bubbles become small. If boiling indoors you may detect a different sound made from the boiling process.

9. The syrup suddenly bubbles up. If the liquid is high enough and the pot small enough it can very suddenly boil over if you are not careful. At this stage when you taste it, it tastes like maple syrup and it has that thick consistency of syrup. It will thicken up even more after being chilled.

10. Turn off heat.

11. If being sold commercially, it is always strained again to get tiny crystals of minerals out that they call sand. If these are left in they  may make the syrup seem grainy, and over time they may form larger crystals like rock candy. I was too lazy to bother with this step.

12. You can see from the photo below that the syrup is thick and when you move the pot it slowly moves across the bottom.


13. The color and flavor intensity and sweetness varies by the time of day the sap is collected and how soon it is made. It also depends on the weather conditions on that day. Here you can see how the color really darkened up.

11. Cool down and store in the refrigerator for immediate use. If it is to be stored long term use hot canning methods to preserve using appropriate containers and the correct process.

I'll be even more careful not to waste pure maple syrup or to take it for granted, now that I know how much sap and effort it takes to make it, as well as how the "crop" depends on the weather conditions. Last year the season lasted only 48 hours. This year the season me has been 12 days (so far).


If you overcook the syrup it is part way to a hard candy stage and can be too thick. It is darker in that form too. I did that just with the first batch.

Commercial syrup is graded by color into various grades. The A grade is most light and delicate. Grade B, my favorite, has a dark brown color and a strong maple taste.

Homemade syrup need not be graded.

My syrup came out light amber coled and delicate tasting. My thirteen year old son said it was the best tasting syrup he's ever had.

Unlike what some other people say I did not find this time intensive. With our propane gas cooktop set at high the boiling down went quickly. Due to the open kitchen we had there was never excessive steam. In fact, our home was very dry due to our home heating system being on and this made the house more humid and made it feel warmer.

In 2011 our family maple sugared for 14 days. The season started a few days before we began.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Thoughts on Academic Rigor

1. You have to actually work to learn something most of the time.

2. Learning is not always easy.

3. Sometimes a LOT of effort goes into learning.

4. There is not always a shortcut to hard work.

5. Learning cannot always be accelerated. Sometimes the road is long and things must be done step by step over months and years.

6. Having a goal is not the same as doing the work it takes to meet that goal.

7. Having a plan is not good enough, you have to actually execute the plan.

8. Sometimes a learner struggles even if they desire the end result.

9. No outside person can do the learning for the learner. You can't put academic achievement onto someone else no matter how much you wish you could.

10. The learner must accept responsibility for their learning. You can't force a person to do the hard work, learning is an internal process that the person has to be at least partially committed to.

11. Learning is not always fun. No matter what someone tells you about something will be fun if you do it this way or that way, it's not always fun for the learner in real life.

12. Sometimes a person learns something by accident or without much effort but I don't know anyone who is like that all the time for everything in life. Every person has strengths and weaknesses.

13. A person for whom learning comes easily  may not reach their goal if they don't try.

14. A person who lacks natural ability but has a strong desire may accomplish more than others due to sheer perseverance and tenacity.

15. It is much easier to give up than to keep trying which is probably why so many wind up being mediocre.

16. Students need access to rigorous academics but the access alone won't guarantee that the learner will actually learn. They have to want the rigor and they must buy in to the process and put in the time and effort. I am willing to be that more American kids have access to rigorous academics than actually take advantage of what they do have.

17. It is easier to blame someone else than to accept responsibility for one's own lack of effort. Some blame the school not being good enough, blame the teacher for not being a 'good teacher'. Some accuse that the academics are too hard and the standards are too high.

18. The Bell Curve doesn't align with what Americans today think it should, they want something that barely has a valley floor then an 89 degree angle shooting straight up with 99% of the students at the top of the peak.

17. People are different and have varying levels of internal motivation.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to Make a Raised Bed Garden

Hey, it's that time of the year!

Here is a post from my archives:

How To Make a $10 Raised Garden Bed Tutorial

This is super easy and it really does work.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Homeschool and Autodidact Learning Snapshot 3/09/11

It was a using books and learning from books kind of day on March 9, 2011.

Latest Blog Comment Spam Tactics

I will no longer publish any blog comments with a hotlink in the body of the comment for two reasons.

1. The latest tactic is to write longer comments that are honestly relevant to the blog post topic which agree with the blogger's opinion, including why. There is usually a believable compliment there, nothing over the top or suspicious. But then the link provided is a commercial business sometimes that sells the product or thing that the blog post was against.

2. The link I clicked today to check out before approving the comment led me to a commercial site on the blog post's comment but then an attempt to automatically download malware or spyware onto my PC began.

Red Flags

1. Some of the blog posts being spammed are years old but are relevant topics.

2. The link is inside the body of the comment rather than showing up as a link via the google account such as linking to go to another personal blog.

Note on Anonymous Comments

I don't accept anonymous comments as they are most often just spam or even llinks to pornographic or child porn sites, and the rest are just cowards who want to write a rude comment and are too scared to link it to some real account they hold with google or using OpenID.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Busy Thinking and Doing

Sorry for my lack of daily posts.

In the summer of 2008 we hosted a Japanese foreign exchange student in our home for a month. He was a great kid and we continue to keep touch by email and snail mail. He lives north of Tokyo in Saitama. Our family has been worried about him since the earthquake and about the possible radiation exposure. We have offered to host him for a visit should his parents wish to get him out of the country. Actually we extended the invitation to his parents and grandparents as well.

We have not heard from him after the invitation was sent. At that time the radiation was 40 times normal in his city and the residents were told to stay indoors.

The train is not running which means he cannot attend school. He was on the train during the first earthquake and was let off where it was trapped and had to walk home alone which took three hours.

The Japanese culture is to be obedient and to comply. They do not think to challenge, question or disbelieve what they are told. They want to believe the words of their leaders that it will all be okay.

Today as I write this one nuclear power plant has been evacuated and it's being left alone to do what it will do, which may be to explode.

I am not quite myself with these matters on my mind, worried about my "Japanese son".


We're ten days away from the Science Olympiad event that my eighth grader participates in. I am busy with my son helping prepare him.

He's chosen what I think is the most difficult topic to compete in: physics optics which is high school level content. It is not just conceptual physics which is sometimes taught in the lower high school years. The problems contain trigonometry math. There is a three part test. If I am understanding the rules correctly there will be ten problems which may use math for one test. The second test is 100 questions. Then there is a timed hands on experiment using one mirror and a laser beam which requires the use of geometry and a protractor to find the answer to position the mirror so when the laser is turned on it will hit the target.

I have been concerned about this from the start as for an eighth grader to jump forward to advanced science and to move a kid who's at the beginning of Algebra I into trig is a challenge.

It also makes me feel incompetent as I have never taken physics in my life. I couldn't tell what he knows and what he doesn't, or what he thinks he knows but he actually is misunderstanding. He was first taught in a group class by a highly experienced high school teacher. To remedy the situation we're in now I hired a different tutor who knows my son to work with him alone to gauge what he knows and what his weak areas are.

We were also working only with the student text, a popular conceptual physics text used in high schools and in some colleges. I felt this was too simplistic in the explanations even of the conceptual physics. I realized to keep looking for more math help in that book was fool-headed as that text was not intended to teach physics heavy in math. I have remedied that situation by borrowing texts from a friend used in her daughter's private school. I now have the teacher manual for our conceptual phyics book on hand (wow it is so helpful!). I have some supplemental books in that text's series too. I also have another physics text that does have the math in it and the teacher manual.

The last thing we're using to help is the second tutor my son met with the other day gave him some writings from an open source physics textbook for high school students written and shared by scientists in South Africa. I love that idea! The writing is different and more clear in some cases.

The Kaplan physics SAT subject test prep book I bought has been of minimal help.

The Science Olympiad test is "open binder" so we can create our own materials or he can create his own materials. My argument with this is that if you don't understand it, having an open book test is not helpful. If you try to teach yourself the material during the test you will fail. Also if info is thought in one's mind to be accurate but really the kid has is jumbled up or incorrect then the test question can be answered wrong.

For the optics event my son has a partner and they can collaborate on the whole thing.

My son also has an easier competition to prepare for but it's a partner event for which we have limited access to the partner for practicing. That event is Write It Do It.

Lastly the other day he accepted the challenge to take on a third hands on event. All by himself he is going to do the towers project, which he's never done before. He doesn't have any adult coaching or mentors or teachers who can help with this. All he has is past experience with the elevated bridge event which he did in the last two Science Olympiad contests.


This week our favorite homeschool co-op has restarted.

I am teaching four classes on three topics. One of them requires developing a lecture and what to teach from a book of content. It takes hours of work and planning to prepare each one hour of class instruction.

One class is a discussion class based on lesson plans from My prep time is spend reading articles and picking which is best, formatting the article and questions then emailing them out.

The last class is based on a curriculum so I don't have prep other than reading it and teaching it to myself first. I have a co-teacher for that class so it helps to know I have someone to lean on. My biggest worry was that the class would be boring (the topic is formal logic). Now my worry is getting the kids to understand it as some are going in the wrong direction and applying informal logic thinking to what is supposed to be formal logic.


So we've been just busy enough with activities here and doing the regular homeschooling and I've been thinking and worried about our Japanese son.

Oh and throw in the job search and the possible move out of state or out of the country.

Oh and also we have major damage to our home from the water from that horrible ice and snowstorm this winter. We are arranging the claim and trying to figure out what construction steps must be taken right now.

We've all been kind of busy here...

...and life and homeschooling continues....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Maddening Math

I'm starting to feel like a journalist in that I hear stories and are told things I want to share with everyone. I can't though as I'll anger some people or reveal things that could jeopardize their careers or get them into trouble!

Yesterday I heard some hair-raising things from a student teacher about high school students in a wealthy Litchfield County school. They can't do math. They can't think. They are unable to do Algebra I in ninth grade. They can't do the math in science due to a low math ability. I'm talking about asking to put the ml of the components of a fluid that totals 10 ml when the list of items submitted by the students goes higher than 10 or even 20 ml.

I blame this "new new math", the Chicago Math.

It's time to revisit this YouTube video "Math an Inconvenient Truth". This video discusses these two curriculums:

1. Everyday Mathematics

My town's public schools use Growing with Mathematics which my parent-friends tell me is the Chicago Math but also tries to cover the "old fashioned math". The parents I spoke to hate the text and the methods and the Lattice Multiplication and guessing games.

If you are a parent, you need to sit down when you have 15 minutes to watch this. Homeschoolers, watch this and ponder how you want your kids doing math.

But before watching, I want to direct you to a quote from the Everyday Mathematics teacher's manual as discussed and shown in this video. I've transcribed it here:

“The authors of Everyday Mathematics do not believe it is worth students’ time and effort to fully develop highly efficient paper and pencil algorithms for all possible whole number, fraction, and decimal division problems. Mastery of the intricacies of such algorithms is a huge endeavor, one that experience tells us is doomed to failure for many students. It is simply counter-productive to invest many hours of precious class time on such algorithms. The mathematical payoff is not worth the cost, particularly because quotients can be found quickly and accurately with a calculator.”  from Everyday Matematics, 11.2.4 - Division Algorighms

Last year when my younger son was asking to try school the dealbreaker for me was I didn't want him exposed to this type of math. To me this is not REAL MATH. This was my number one concern regarding educational pedagogy of our public school. Second was my worry over what they'd do to his love of reading, and cringed at the idea of his only writing composition being to match the CMT formula writing style.

Okay, I've said enough. Settle back and watch this and let me know your thoughts.

To Learn More

Do an Internet search or YouTube search on these keywords to find criticisms or praise for these topics. You form your own opinion.

Chicago Math (style of this math)
Growing with Mathematics (curriculum)
Everyday Mathematics (curriculum)
TURK (curriculum)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Filling Bubbles

Yes, I gave a lesson in test answer bubble filling to my ten year old last week.

I decided to have my sons take the Iowa test in May. They've never taken an official, recorded standardized test before.

My younger son tried to take shortcuts on the bubble filling, doing a sloppy job. I explained if they're not filled in correctly he gets the question marked wrong. He then asked if he could mark two answers per question, and I had to answer, "No, then you get that one wrong too."

I am annoyed to find subjective questions in these test prep books. Some questions are written by older people about things that are not common in children's lives today. Life in America changes. Kids today may not use the same language or experience the same things. What was common in the life of the test-question writer may be something today's kid has never seen before.

Some of the questions for math do stupid things with the numbers that are never use in real life nor are ever done in math schoolwork.

I have found some errors as well. Sometimes there are two right answers and what makes one right and one wrong is a mystery to me!

The test prep process is frustrating. I resent that today's kids are being ranked and rated by such subjective or unclear test questions. I now see how the test results can be inaccurate!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Steak au Poivre Recipe

Both kids were at sleepover's so my husband and I had a Saturday night all to ourselves. My husband cooked a romantic dinner of Steak au Poivre with baked potatoes and Caesar Salad with his homemade dressing. A glass of red wine accompanied this delicious meal.

The recipe for the Steak au Poivre is Alton Brown's as published on the FoodTV website.


If you have Shop Rite grocery stores near you watch their sales flyers. They periodically have Australian grass fed organic filet mignon for $4.99 a pound and the same in rib eye steaks for $2.99 a pound. We buy it in bulk and cut into steaks at home then vacuum pack it with our FoodSaver Gamesaver  and freeze it for future use. When freezing with that method the meat does not get freezer burn.

Photo copyright ChristineMM

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Plastic Cameras (2010) Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity revised and updated 2010 edition

Author: Michelle Bates

Publication: Focal Press, 2010
My Star Rating: 4 stars out of 5 = I Like It
Summary Statement: Book Updated with New Photos Not Revised Much From First Version - Still Feels Art World Snobby to Me

I'd purchased and read the original edition (2006 yellow cover) and now have the revised updated 2010 edition (blue cover). For this review I re-read the 2006 edition, read the 2010 edition, and compared them side by side.

There is not a big difference in the two except for an attempt to make this more accessible and less about professional photographers and a change in some of the gallery photos. The attempt didn't succeed much in my opinion.

In the beginning Bates remarks that the plastic camera (aka toy camera) photography use had risen dramatically after her book published in 2006. Largely based due to the Internet where amateur photographers could share images and easily see images of other people (sites: Lomography, Flickr and professional and amateur photographers blogs). The ability to buy plastic cameras online when we have no local store sources and having eBay for both toy cameras and vintage or antique cameras (like the Diana) has also helped. The momentum created from social networking fuels the creative fire of amateur photographers and professional photographers alike. In the years when the economy was booming and before the recession hit, plastic camera photography exploded largely thanks to social networking on the Internet and the ease of users sharing their own creations with others free and instantly on the web.

The gallery section has been edited to remove some professional photographers and to add some new photographers and some new images.

Still an issue for me is the many references to having one's own darkroom for film development and photo printing, which allows more manipulation to create the photograph. This darkroom manipulation is necessary to overcome some of the problems caused by the cheap camera's construction. I don't have a darkroom and probably never will due to: cost, not having a room for it, having inadequate ventilation and my worry over exposure to hazardous chemicals by inhalation and skin contact. I've been at a Cancer patient's bedside when he passed after years of suffering through treatments to try to cure it which failed, I am not really looking to do a hobby that might put myself in his place.

It is mentioned one can have their film developed at a shop and then scan it to work on it digitally. I have tried this without success. After reading the book the first time I faced one of the last camera shops around who refused to print the photos from my Diana as some were double exposed (which was intentional for artistic creative purposes). After reading the 2010 book I got excited about plastic photography again and took images with a plastic pinhole camera. The staff at a different photo developing shop refused to print them as 'some are blurry'. I inisted (begged) that they print them (they thought I was nuts by the way) and they had trouble as the imperfect alignment of the image on the negative did not allow their automatic printing machine to do the printing. They custom printed them for me (at no extra cost as they were not set up for such procedures) which took about a half our of the staff's time (not a regular practice they do). I give up. (The book does nothing to suggest ways to access film shops that will work with plastic camera photographers.)

Despite the more general title this book focuses on the Holga which may or may not be of interest to you. I already own over a dozen plastic and toy cameras and also antique cameras but not a Holga. After buying so many books, reading the books and stuff on the Internet and buying a variety of cameras I feel I should work with what I have on hand before I run out to buy yet another type. If anyone wants the Holga tips for making mods to your camera it is nice to have them here. But then again you can find those on the web for free if you poke around a bit.

Regarding the photos featured, they mention specific photographic processes that the amateur photographer would not do. There are some fancy things done to these photos such as gold tone something or other, washes, and using silver gelatin prints. This is the type of stuff you see written on the plaques next to photographs at fine art museums. I don't know what part of the image is due to the camera itself versus manipulation done afterward using fancy photography techniques that a hobbyist would have acess to do. Also some of the images are of very special things like featuring third world countries and war zones or a man in the last days of his life, the stuff of travel photographers and fine art photographers. Thus I am unsure if I could ever produce photographs which are "worthy" in content (would my images be too American-life ordinary?) or would my images have “decent” visual appeal. Due to this fact the book still comes off as snobbish in an elitist photography art world way and made me feel like quality plastic photography is out of my reach as an American woman.

As I said in my review of the 2006 book there is not a lot here that can't be found free on the Internet. Yes, this book is well put together with high quality printing and it is lovely to look at. Some online are from amateur photographers who did not greatly manipulate them and are still exciting to see and can be replicated by the hobbyist photographer like me. Thus some of the images on the web are more inspiring to me as the subjects and techniques feel within my reach.

After reading the 2006 book and feeling discouraged I gave up on vintage cameras and toy cameras and went the other way to invest in my first DSLR after years of using digital point and shoot, or film point and shoot, having long since abandoned my film SLR in exchange for a lighter, cheaper, more portable camera. I understand the statement that plastic cameras are portable and fun. What I do now is haul my DSLR with 18-55mm lens around everywhere I go (in my pocketbook) and have fun with that. If it breaks due to rough handling, it’s okay with me.

Despite the claim that plastic camera photography is really cheap I disagree. Yes, compared to a $25K Hassleblad it's cheap but it's not cheap compared to digital DSLR photography that an amateur with a $500 camera owns. I've gotten thousands and thousands of photos with my DSLR and more with my point and shoot digital camera (which is easy to literally shoot from the hip with). Another option for fun digital photography is something I did for my kids. I bought refurbished Nikon CoolPix digital point and shoot cameras (for about $75 online) which have lots of special effects which actually are the same as Lomography cameras like shooting many tiny images in a grid format on one photo or making every photo shot blue or red, black and white or sepia. By shutting off the flash you can play with existing light and "paint with light".

I love the idea of using toy cameras and vintage plastic cameras for artistic purposes but the lack of ability to get the film developed and the images printed is a major problem. Perhaps this hobby is truly limited to those with their own darkrooms and photo processing labs.

If you are a photography book collecting person and want to own books on this topic this book is a must have. I just hope you don't wind up discouraged by the tone in the book. If you can find workable solutions for film development and printing processes I am happy for you. The book and this process just isn't working for me.

I am torn about rating this 4 stars = I Like It versus 3 stars = It's Okay but have leaned to 4 stars because there are not a lot of books on this topic, it is professionally written and has a lovely display of the images which makes them appealing. Although I have some issues with the tone of the book and being left feeling this is not accessible to me as an amateur photographer I don't have the heart to rate it 3 stars as it really is a decent book. It's not Michelle Bates' fault that the industry is changing and it's harder to get film developed now or that the processing is often done by automatic machines. It's not her fault that a process I want to do is still out of my reach. This book will be a better fit for those with access to a darkroom for their own film development and those who are able to manipulate the image in their own labs who do their own printing.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of the 2010 book from's Vine program. I purchased the 2006 edition. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.