Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Daily Grammar: A Comprehensive Grammar Website

I am the King of Rome, and above grammar.
-- Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor from 1433 until 1437

I happened upon a thorough and well-done grammar website I wanted to share with you. Daily Grammar, which describes itself as "a great teaching tool for both public and home-schooled children, ESL students, and anyone needing to refresh English grammar skills," offers 440 free lessons and 88 associated quizzes. Click on the Archives button at the top of the page to access the lessons.

The Archives are very simple to use. Lessons are arranged in two ways: by number, e.g., "Lessons 71-75 -- Prepositions," and by subject, which functions like an index. Just click on the hyperlink of the lesson(s) you need. Each lesson comprises a blessedly brief (but not too succinct) explanation with examples and then five sentences or items in which the student identifies the part(s) of speech or part(s) of a sentence or supplies information as instructed.

Another most helpful feature is a Glossary defining grammar terms. Each definition also includes hyperlinks to that term's associated lessons.

Daily Grammar offers a workbook and ebook available for sale; however, I have found the free lessons to be more than sufficient for our grammar needs at this level.

Grammar, which knows how to control even kings.
-- Moliere

Take that, Sigismund!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A "Study, Pray, and Serve" Advent Garland

In Sunday school this past weekend, Tiny Girl made what I call an "advent garland." It's now draped across the fireplace mantel in our family room.

It's made of plastic wrap, curling ribbon, ornament-shaped cards with notes printed on them, and Hershey's Kisses.

The notes on each paper ornament include Bible verses to look up and read aloud; good deeds to do, such as "Contribute a toy to a toy drive for children who don't have toys"; specific prayers to say; and many opportunities for family discussions. After completion of the day's "task," the children can enjoy a Kiss.

I found instructions for making a similar garland here at Vanilla Joy; in her version, Kelsey tucks Scripture readings in with the candy, and she only uses one piece of candy per bundle. Tiny Girl's garland attaches the paper ornaments with the curling ribbon when tying off the Kisses bundles, and includes two candy pieces: one for her and the other for Miss Priss.

You might be inclined to have each child in your family make his or her own advent garland, perhaps with different Scripture readings (or individual verses of a reading), good deeds, service opportunities at home and/or in the community, prayers, and topics for family discussion pertinent to the season.

What I love about this advent garland is that it actively engages children in both study and service, making the countdown to Christmas more meaningful.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Closing the Book and Saying Goodbye

We finished Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution, an AO biography for Year 4, the day before Thanksgiving, and it was like saying goodbye to a friend. The last few paragraphs I read through tears. Even Tiny Girl, who did not like this book at the beginning, was sad to see her go.

I wish I could have known Abigail. I am sure her industry would have shamed me, but oh, to witness her quiet strength, to learn from her uncommon wisdom, and to share, even in the smallest fashion, her experiences would be astonishing.

And what a time to be alive! It was certainly a time of grave uncertainty and horror, not merely due to the events leading up to a revolution, but also due to the immense difficulties of the every day, the spider's web-fragility of life. Abigail and her contemporaries suffered losses and trials many of us avoid today due to our improved health care knowledge and resources.

The lack of education for girls greatly irritated the young Abigail, and as an adult, she deeply believed in women's primary role as wives, mothers, nurturers, and healers. But she also believed that husbands and wives were equal partners in life. The precarious position of women in society prompted her to write to her husband:

... and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.

Along with the confusion, anxiety, and fear of war came to chance to create something new. Abigail, through John, was greatly involved in these events. John sent her "a feast of letters" detailing events in Philadelphia, and Abigail followed military operations on her own map. Joh relied on her to run their farm, but he also relied on her good sense and wisdom, which she sent in numerous letters of her own.

Reading this most wonderful book allowed my children and me to live vicariously though Abigail. We were concerned when she faced difficulties, like her many and long separations from John, her "dearest friend." We were sad when she grieved her losses. We appreciated her wit, so evident in her letters to others. We, too, wondered at the outcome of events. We watched the birth of the United States. Together, we learned much.

As for me, I've so often longed for a quiet life, but Abigail had something to say to me about that wish. On her way to join John in Europe, Abigail's ship endured a dead calm, which left the ship motionless. She wrote: "a Calm is not desireable in any situation in life. . . . Every object is most Beautiful in motion, a ship under sail trees gently agitated with the wind & a fine woman danceing (sic). . . man was made for action" (p. 124). And so am I.

What a lovely, blessed life to celebrate!

P.S. If you're interested in reading more of Abigail's letters to John and others, please see,'s page on John and Abigail Adams, which features links to digital bookshelves.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Heart Full of Thanks

A heart full of thanks is one of the greatest blessings.

We are packing up to make the trip to my cousin's house for our extended family Thanksgiving. My mother is the ninth of ten children, so there is always a large gathering -- typically around 70 people -- and that's not all of us, either!

Children run in and out, a few of the younger males congregate around the TV to watch football, the more senior members gather in the sunroom to chat, and someone usually plays a few tunes on the piano while others sing. It's really great fun. It's also my favorite day of the year.

And the food! With everyone bringing a dish or two, our buffet line is bounteous. Turkey, of course, along with ham, casseroles, salads, other side dishes, and homemade yeast rolls. My sweet aunt who always made her famous dressing passed away this summer; I wonder if someone else will attempt her recipe. I hope so. In keeping up traditions, we pass on the important things to our next generation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Chocolate Thanksgiving Dessert

Every Thanksgiving, my extended family gathers at my cousin's house for a big potluck hoopla. (More on this later.) Since it's about an hour and a half from my house, I can't bring anything that needs to stay hot, so I tend to select a dessert, salad, or appetizer. This year I'm bringing a dessert for the dessert buffet table, and my offering is Anne Byrn's "Darn Good Chocolate Cake," a Bundt cake featured in her cookbook, Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor (page 116-117).

Darn Good Chocolate Cake, by Anne Byrn (with notes from me)
1 pkg (18.25 ounces) devil's food or dark chocolate fudge cake mix (I chose Duncan Hines devil's food because all Duncan Hines cake mixes were BOGO)
1 pkg (3.9 ounces) chocolate instant pudding mix (Be careful here! Jell-O brand was the only instant that measured correctly)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup water*
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used canola)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used Hershey's Special Dark chips)

* You know I tinker with recipes. Instead of using plain water, I heated 1/2 cup of water in my microwave til hot and then stirred in one heaping teaspoon of instant coffee. I let it cool before proceeding with the recipe.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray with nonstick spray and then flour a 12-cup Bundt pan, shaking out excess flour, and set aside. (I used Pam for Baking, which includes flour.) Place in a large mixing bowl cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, water, oil, and eggs.

Blend with electric mixer on low for 1 minute. Stop machine and scrape down sides of bowl. Blend for 2-3 minutes more on medium, stopping to scrape down sides again if needed. Batter will be thick. Fold in chocolate chips, distributing them well throughout the batter.

Velvety smooth goodness!

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth out with rubber spatula.

Place pan in oven. Bake til it springs back when touched lightly, about 58 to 62 minutes. Remove pan from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a long, sharp knife around edge of cake and invert it onto a rack to cool completely.

At this point, you could dust with confectioners sugar, but I did as Byrn suggests. I gilded the lily with her "Martha's Chocolate Icing," because, with chocolate, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Martha's Chocolate Icing
1 cup granulated sugar
5 T butter
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Heat sugar, butter, and milk in a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir til mixture comes to a boil. Continue stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips, stirring until chocolate has melted and mixture is smooth. Pour icing over cake and let it flow over the sides.

I opted to use a ladle to pour the icing, and I found it set up quickly, hence the uneven appearance. I tried to smooth it out with a spatula, but that made things worse, so I let well enough alone. There was a bit of icing left over, which I quickly scarfed down. That stuff is wonderful!

The cake is now resting in my cake saver, awaiting the moment tomorrow when it will be revealed in all its glory.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going On Right Now...

Oh, my word. Have we been busy! This past weekend was the horse show season finale for one of our state's largest equestrian association, and Tiny Girl qualified. We were at the equestrian park most of Thursday AND Friday, from 6:30 AM til 2:00 PM Saturday, and from 10 AM til 3:30 PM on Sunday. My folks spent Friday and Saturday nights with us to watch her compete. On Saturday, she won three eight-place ribbons out of 18 other riders, so we were happy for her. But during Sunday's derby, her pony, Tappy, ran out on one of the 10 jumps (she ran around the jump), so they didn't make the cut. It was a shame because the rest of the course was beautiful. Ah, well.

Last night was the Christmas piano recital. Miss Priss, bless her heart, had to sit out this year; her cast for the broken right wrist keeps her from playing.

Today, we made sandwiches for a homeless shelter downtown. Several of our church members are going there on Thanksgiving Day to serve the men, and we're also providing bag lunches for the next day. The girls and I made four loaves of sandwiches and also provided packs of cookies. And this evening, tonight's my night to cook supper for a neighborhood family whose son was just released from the hospital following surgery.

Since our school week was cut short last week, we are catching up on some readings and working on multiplication tables this week. And of course we're gearing up for our family Thanksgiving. More on that tomorrow!

What's going on at your house right now?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adventures in Frugality: Potato Soup

This has been a super-busy week for us; more on this later. However, one night I threw together a really nice potato soup that began with a recipe and then I changed most of it. Typical. Here's exactly what I did. Feel free to alter at your pleasure.

Potato Soup
Eight cups water
Six heaping tsp Better than Bouillon chicken (a real measuring tsp, not flatware)
5 red potatoes, peeled and chopped
onion powder to taste
cut-up ham (I had some leftover and I just used that; I didn't even measure it)
1 cup half-and-half
2 1/2 generous handsful of shredded Cheddar

Bring water and bouillon to boil and add potatoes. Cook til tender. Reduce heat to low. Scoop out at least half of the potatoes with some liquid and carefully blend in a blender til smooth. Pour back into soup pot. Add ham, half-and-half, and Cheddar. Stir til cheese is melted and soup is heated through. Serve.

If you happened to have any on hand, sour cream and/or chives would be a nice touch. I pureed half the potatoes because I didn't have any (and never do, actually) dried potato flakes, which so many potato soup recipes use as a thickener.

The girls and I loved this; Himself enjoyed it, but pronounced it "very soupy." He prefers his potato soup thicker and chunkier. If you do, too, simply reduce the water (and bouillon) and skip the pureeing.

Ah, soup. One of the best delights of chilly weather, to my way of thinking.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fine Autumn Fare: Busy Lady's Cassoulet

I mentioned in my latest post about book club that I planned to serve a fake cassoulet. It was well received! I started out with a recipe I found online, and then I altered it quite a bit, as I am wont to do. Here's the recipe, which I made up as I went along.

Busy Lady's Cassoulet
This is best made one to two days ahead for flavors to blend.

3 slices of thick bacon, coarsely chopped
2 lbs fully cooked smoked sausages, cut into rounds and casings removed (I used 1/3 Andouille and 2/3 kielbasa. Use all kielbasa for less heat.)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 tsp jarred chopped garlic
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
1 T fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup red wine
3 15-oz cans Grest Northern beans, drained
2 14 1/2-oz cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups chicken broth (I used 1 cup water mixed with 1 tsp Better than Bouillon chicken base AND one cup homemade chicken broth I had saved in the freezer)
3 T tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 to 2 cups chopped cooked chicken

Panko bread crumbs
2 T butter
Big handful shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook bacon in a heavy large ovenproof pot (I used a cast iron Dutch oven) until brown and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a bowl. add sausages to drippings in pot and saute until brown. transfer to bowl with bacon. Add onions and garlic to pot and cook until beginning to soften. Stir in rosemary, thyme, and red wine. Simmer a minute, then stir in beans, tomatoes with juices, chicken broth, tomato paste, allspice, and cooked chicken. Return meats to pot and bring to a boil. Cover pot and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, cool one hour, and refrigerate covered til next day or so.

When I was ready to continue the next day, I transferred the cassoulet to a rustic pottery baking dish I have because I wanted everyone to have some breadcrumb topping; the Dutch oven is deep.

To continue: bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, adding more broth of dry. Meanwhile, melt butter and mix into panko breadcrumbs with a fork. Then mix in parmesan. Sprinkle over cassoulet. Increase oven temp to 400 degrees and bake uncovered til topping is golden.

This makes a delightful fall or winter meal and is much easier than traditional cassoulet. Crusty French bread is a natural accompaniment, as is a nice red wine. I served Bogle Cabernet Sauvignon.

Make plans to try it on a particularly chilly evening!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Weekly Happenings: When Things Go Wrong

Another busy week. This one included a few planned and a few un-looked-for events that intervened into our already packed schedule.

In my life this week:
  • On Monday, we were back at the orthodontist's to make new molds for Tiny Girl's replacement retainer. Did I tell you last week that the dogs managed to get the case off the kitchen table, open it, and then chew it up? Well, they did.
  • On Tuesday, Georgette was spayed and has thus been sporting the so-called Cone of Shame (from the movie Up) all week. Today we noticed her incision was seeping and reddish, so off to the vet we went. The verdict: a bit of infection and some pulling. We need to do a better job keeping her still and quiet. A five-and-a-half-month-old puppy.
  • Also on Tuesday, I had to put my van in the shop for leaking oil and I attended the women's Thank Offering service at my church. Thankfully, my dear friend, Carol, was able to taxi me around.
  • Last night I hosted book club. It was lovely and fun, as usual. It also took some shopping, preparation, and cleaning time, which I enjoyed (okay, maybe not the cleaning, but I enjoyed the result).
  • Also last night, about an hour before the book club ladies were due to appear, Miss Priss came home from a friend's house with a hurt forearm and wrist. She was in a lot of pain, but Himself (who was out to dinner with friends) and I decided to wait and see what the morning held. The verdict: this afternoon's x-ray revealed a broken wrist. Now she's sporting a purple cast.
  • Tonight we are going out to dinner with two fraternity brothers of Himself, one of whom lives here and is bringing his family, and the other who is in town from New England.
  • Tomorrow is Miss Priss's twelfth birthday party, which my parents are hosting at their home in the country. This afternoon, I made her cake (cookies and cream cake) while she was at the doctor's. Now some alterations to our plans are necessary to account for the broken wrist.
In our home school this week:
Of course, not everything was harriedly atypical. We still managed to pull off a decent week of educational pursuits. The girls are really enjoying several of our readings, i.e., King Arthur, Gods and Heroes, Abigail Adams: Wintess to a Revolution, and "Poplicola," from Plutarch's Lives. In our biography of Isaac Newton, which the girls find interesting, we began reading about his gravitational studies. Just for fun, we also watched the Schoolhouse Rock episode, "Victim of Gravity."

In this week's chapter of This Country of Ours, we read about the United States under its first president and new constitution. We've already read about these topics in George Washington's World and Abigail Adams. However, the girls noted that each author presents information a bit differently and adds or omits details. They decided they like reading different authors' takes on the same topics as it gives them a broader and deeper understanding.

I saw this in action when we watched another episode of the PBS production, Liberty! AS I've mentioned before, this is an excellent series, but, due to its nature, some information is omitted. While we watch, the girls ask us to pause the DVD so we can talk about things. Or one or the other will simply say aloud, "They left out part of that." I'm realizing how little I learned of my own country's history when I was in school.

In math, Tiny Girl worked on multi-digit multiplication as a review. Miss Priss continued with her Math Mammoth lessons. I am still pleased with this curriculum for her. She's gaining some new math confidence that was lacking before, and it makes this mama's heart happy to see it.

I'm cooking...
For supper one night this week, I made some fabulous broccoli-cheese soup, which I served in homemade bread bowls. I whipped up a fake cassoulet for book club, which everyone seemed to enjoy. I'll post recipes this weekend.

Here's a quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I read in a British home decor magazine, of all things:

The real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.
Sometimes things just go wrong, and we do our best to roll with it. That's what we did this week and what we're still trying to do.

I'm linking up with:

Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

The Homeschool Mother's Journal

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Club Tonight! And We're Eating Cake

I've been part of my book club for many years, and it's one of the things in my life that really makes me happy. I'm grateful to Himself for encouraging me to join, indeed even asking one of the members (they worked at the same office) if there were room in the club for me.

I know some book clubs are more social than literary; ours is a mix of both. We have a great time together at our monthly meetings, but we also discuss the books we're read. Whoever hosts the meeting picks the book and wines and dine everyone, too.

I chose Eat Cake, by Jeanne Ray, for our November book. I've read it before, and the storyline pops into my mind from time to time. It's meatier than a beach read, but not as heavy as some we've read. Frankly, it's delightful. I'm looking forward to discussing it this evening.

For supper, I'm serving a (fake) cassoulet with crusty bread and fried green tomatoes alongside a nice red wine. The weather is cooperating with my chosen menu: it's windy and chilly outside this evening. Dessert will be ginger-pear cupcakes with creamy lemon frosting. I considered a fancy cake in keeping with our book, but I just wasn't up to it mentally or culinarily. (I'm quite certain the latter is not a word, but it suits perfectly what I wanted to convey.)

I'll leave you with this quotation from the book:

Cakes have gotten a bad rap. People equate virtue with turning down dessert. There is always one person at the table who holds up her hand when I serve the cake. No, really, I couldn't, she says, and then gives her flat stomach a conspiratorial little pat. Everyone who is pressing a fork into that first tender layer looks at the person who declined the plate, and they all think, That person is better than I am. That person has discipline. But that isn't a person with discipline, that is a person who has completely lost touch with joy. A slice of cake never made anybody fat. You don't eat the whole cake. You don't eat cake every day of your life. you take the cake when it is offered because the cake is delicious... a cake is a party, a birthday, a wedding. A cake is what's served on the happiest days of your life.
So I will bite into my cake this evening with relish!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Weekly Happenings: Gathering Treasures

When I think back on this past week, I think of a week of gathering treasures. One of my memories is of the girls, dogs, and me snuggled in the family room one evening, reading our books while the rain poured and the wind howled outside. All was quite and cozy. I love times like that.

Earlier, I wrote a post about one of our favorite treats: pumpkin muffins. I included a link to Tricia of Hodgepodge's recipe for chocolate-chocolate chip-pumpkin muffins. Yum!

I'm reading a most delicious biography about Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear; I wrote a review of it here. Ambleside Online suggests possibly reading a biography of Potter for Year 5, but does not recommend a particular title. I'm in the process of reviewing several, some for adults and others for children. When I finish my research, I'll write a post about my findings.

We finished up our Year 4 readings of This Country of Ours, and we've almost completed Abigail Adams: Wintess to a Revolution. The latter will be like saying good-bye to an old friend when we close the cover for the last time. The girls and I have learned so much about this particular era of history. I quickly realized that my prior knowledge was quite sketchy, and I've been impressed with AO's history selections. I'm also immensely cheered by the depth and breadth of my girls' understanding of this period, both in America and abroad.

Miss Priss's drama troupe learned their play and parts this past week. The musical is Wonderland, a jazzed up version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Miss Priss was chosen for four smaller parts. She is elated!

I'm going to leave you with a well-known quote of Beatrix Potter:

"Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality."

Happy weekend!

I'm linking up with:
The Homeschool Mother's JournalWeird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

Thursday, November 3, 2011

She Is Too Fond of Books: Review of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

"Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality."
-- Beatrix Potter

 I am reading a most wonderful book, and I wanted to share it with you. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear, is an in-depth biography for older teens and adults -- one might say tome -- of that most gifted naturalist, author, illustrator, and countrywoman. For me, the name Beatrix Potter brings to mind delightful children's stories of anthropomorphized animals accompanied by equally delightful watercolor illustrations. That alone was enough to interest me in her life. I'm only one-third of the way into the book, and her complexities continue to astound me.

Possessed of an inquisitive nature, an indomitable spirit, and a keen interest in natural history, Potter delved into many areas of intellectual inquiry, a samplng of which includes geology, archaeology, and mycology. Her research into mushrooms and lichens actually broke new ground, a fact not recognized in her lifetime, as she herself tried to break into the increasingly specialized arenas of the professional scientists, who were often skeptical of the amateur.

Fettered as she was with the familial obligations and social pressures of most Victorian ladies of her class, Potter declined to languish within stifling the confines of the era. But her strong desire to be useful in life was often at odds with her parents' -- particularly her mother's -- expectations. Miraculously, Potter was able to balance her position as dutiful and respectful daughter with her own personal interests most of the time.

Immensely readable and engaging, Lear's biography is peppered with wel-chosen excerpts from Potter's journal, faithfully kept for many years, and her correspondence, enabling me to "hear" Potter through her own words. Although shy and somewhat reserved, Potter was no shrinking violet and stood her ground firmly when she felt she must. She also had an acerbic wit, which I find amusing.

And then there is her artwork. The book contains several photo and art pages, but not nearly enough, in my opinion. Lear does an admirable job of describing many of Potter's sketches and painings, but such descriptions merely whet my appetite to see them myself.

According to the Beatrix Potter page on the Visit Cumbria website, although Potter is "a household name around the world, her personal life and her other significant achievements remain largely unknown." Moreover, some of what we had thought we knew about Potter's life has recently been revealed as erroneous. Lear's book brings to light and life the Beatrix Potter we thought we knew.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

For Love of Pumpkin Muffins

Confession: I love pumpkin. I do not love pumpkin pie. And a mouthful of plain pumpkin puree is not so tasty, either. Trust me, I tried it.

But pumpkin muffins... Heaven on a plate.

We recently tried Tricia at Hodgepodge's chocolate-chocolate chip-pumpkin muffins, which only have three ingredients. Rich and darkly fudgy (I used a dark chocolate cake mix), Miss Priss and I found these to be scrumptious. Eureka! Baked in a mini muffin tin, they'd make a wonderful addition to a dessert or cookie buffet.

Since she's not a chocoholic, Tiny Girl prefers our more familiar variation on the theme, which is like pumpkin spice. Predictably, I like these, too.

Here's our recipe, from my good friend, Julie:

Pumpkin Muffins
1 box yellow cake mix
15 oz can pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
3 eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda

Mix all, spoon into greased muffin tin, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Makes about 18 muffins.

Since we don't eat all 18 muffins at a time, I freeze the leftovers in freezer bags to have on hand. Muffins are marvelous to have on hand, don't you think?