Friday, March 18, 2016


We’ve been in Greece for just over 6 months now, and we’ve developed a routine. Unfortunately, as I realized yesterday, our current routine does not include time for me to write and post on this blog—which would be why I haven’t blogged for half the time we’ve been here! It’s time for a change in that part of the routine, at least.

Here is how our days typically go: Jeff gets up and starts getting ready. Once he’s at a certain point in his routine, he wakes me up and I start getting ready too. Then Alexa wakes up. Jeff and Alexa share a little time most mornings, getting Alexa started on her morning chores. By the time I’m out of the bathroom and headed downstairs, Jeff has left for work and Alexa is playing. She continues to play while I empty the dishwasher, start the laundry, and get breakfast for both of us.

After breakfast, it’s time for school. We do 2 pages of math, then a lesson from Logic of English. I read aloud a Bible story, a page or two from a poetry book, our history reading, and a literature selection. Sometimes I also read a math story, a science book, or a health book. Sometimes Alexa reads to me from her reader. Sometimes school is done at that point. Sometimes we do another lesson in one or more of our weekly (or less-than-weekly, as the case may be) subjects: art, music, science, geography, and health. We try to go for a walk after school most days, though we’ll frequently do it in between subjects instead of after.

After school—or sometimes, after I read but before our less-than-daily lesson—it’s lunchtime. After lunch, Alexa goes to her room to “rest” (in reality, play) for two hours. I can’t compromise on that time; I need it too much for my own sanity. We call it Alexa’s rest time, but it’s really Mama’s quiet time. I use that time to read my Bible, do housework, get dinner started … whatever I need to get done that I have not yet gotten done that day. I’m hoping to start using some of that time to blog again. When Lexa comes back out of her room, usually between 3 and 4pm, we finish any remaining school subjects—today she’s been begging for an art lesson, so we’ll do that—and then she plays, on her own if I still have my own work to do, or with me if I don’t have something else I need to do.

This play time continues until Jeff gets home from work. Dinner usually is ready when he gets home, so we eat, then he gets Lexa ready for bed while I clean up the kitchen. Usually she’s in bed sometime between 8 and 9pm. Depending on what time it is, Jeff and I may have an hour or so together before I need to start getting ready for bed myself.

There are some variations to the routine. Sometimes Alexa plays with one of the neighbor kids instead of me in the evening, or we walk to a neighborhood park where she can play with other kids. Every two weeks, Alexa and I meet up with some other ladies and their kids for a field trip to a museum or archaeological site. Once a week, we leave home right after we finish English so we can walk to our local laiki (farmers market) to buy fresh vegetables and fruit. We often walk down to the kiosk near our house to buy milk and yogurt. We occasionally walk all the way to the supermarket for more substantial groceries, but more often either Jeff or I will go on the weekends, because it’s an uphill walk home from the supermarket and there’s no parking to speak of there. If there’s not much to buy, Jeff often volunteers to walk there; if there’s a bit more, he’ll drive me there and then drive around the block while I shop. Every month or so, we drive to the butcher and stock our freezer full of meat so we don’t have to go every week.

Our lives have settled into a predictable routine. We live in Greece, but our lives aren’t so very different from what they would be in the United States. There are more places for good field trips here, but there’s no homeschool co-op. We most likely wouldn’t have a farmers market within walking distance in the U.S., but we could drive to one, or buy produce in the supermarket that would be comparable to what we can get at the laiki here. The supermarket where we’d buy our groceries in America would have a parking lot, so I’d drive there during the week rather than having Jeff drive me or go without me. But for the most part, our lives here are very similar to what our lives would be in America.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt as inspired to blog lately—usually I blog about the things that are different, the things I need to process or figure out, the things I think people in the United States would find interesting. I’m not quite sure how to blog about regular life, when that regular life doesn’t feel as exotic to me as it did back when we lived in Egypt or Cambodia. But I do need to write, for my own sanity, for my own memory, for my own outlet.

So that’s my goal now—to write more often. How often will that be? I’m not sure. Once a week? Once every two weeks? Once a month? Whatever it is, I’m going to try at a bare minimum to make it more often than I’ve been doing … so maybe I’ll see you in two and a half months!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Magic of Christmas

It’s our first Christmas in a new home.

Unlike the last two years, we decided not to buy a real tree. I just wasn’t up for cleaning the fallen pine needles this year. So we bought a big, full, beautiful fake tree—and despite feeling like I ought to like real ones more, I just can’t help it … I love my big, full, beautiful, fake tree so much more than I did the small, sometimes sparse, pretty, real ones that we’ve had the last two years. It’s big enough to hold all our ornaments AND have room for more! It makes me very happy, especially knowing that we don’t have to hope for an equally good one next year; it’s already ours.

This is the first time in our married lives—my first time since I lived with my parents—that we’ve had an actual fireplace and a real mantel. For the last two years, we hung our stockings from shelves we’d put up in our dining room. Before that, they were draped from the top of the china cabinet. I like the fireplace much more.

My husband even found a use for the random strand of multicolored garland that I’m not sure we’ve ever used for anything …

And he found a similar use for a strand of green garland.

Our Nativity set from Cambodia first was guarded by Leonidas …

then witnessed by various incarnations of Dr. Who and his enemies, as well as a little plastic sheep masquerading as part of the original set.

We spent a couple of hours one afternoon making paper snowflakes, which we hung on twine in our windows and across the pass through between the kitchen and dining room.

Jeff made a special one in honor of his abiding love for Star Wars.

We spent more than a couple of hours one afternoon making our first ever gingerbread house. We bought a kit for the gingerbread pieces, but I made the royal icing myself, and Jeff bought Twizzlers, M&Ms, and gummies for decoration.

We’ve watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch That Stole Christmas, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. We were reminded of the real meaning of Christmas in the Veggie Tales show The Toy That Saved Christmas.

We’ve read a book about the real Saint Nicholas, and another about Christmas traditions around the world. We read The Polar Express, Lucy’s Christmas, and a customized version of The Night Before Christmas.

We’ve added magnetic pieces to our Nativity-themed Advent calendar and discussed the birth of Jesus.

Lexa made Christmas cards for our neighbors, which will be delivered today with the cookies we made and the traditional good luck charms Jeff bought.

Our plans for tomorrow include gifts in the morning and a potluck Christmas dinner with my husband’s coworkers in the afternoon and evening. I’m prepared with ham, crescent rolls (God bless the Naval Exchange!), baked macaroni and cheese, and a couple of different pies—all ready to just go in the oven tomorrow, no further work required. And of course, we can’t forget the gluhwein, which just needs to be heated in the slow cooker.

On the one hand, I have felt so busy, and so tired, and so stressed, that it doesn’t much feel like Christmas.

On the other hand, this feels more like Christmas than any of the last few years.

The rooms in which I spend most of my time look like Christmas, full of simple, beautiful decorations.

Rather than deciding that Christmas activities are too much effort this year, or deciding to do them but not committing enough to tell anyone, I took the simple step of planning Christmas activities for each day (sometimes as simple as a book to read or movie to watch) and putting a slip of paper in the Advent calendar for Alexa to find. No matter how tired or unmotivated I am, I know I can’t back out of the activity when she expects one each day. You better believe I’ll be prepared for it rather than face her disappointment—no “I’m sorry, sweetie, but we don’t have the materials to do that today” this year.

Christmas didn’t sneak up on me this year, as it usually does.

I think this is what Christmas feels like as a grown-up. There is no more just having the magic happen—that’s what Christmas feels like for kids. The adults are the ones who make the magic happen. It’s still magical, but it’s magic with an effort. That may be the real reason it hasn’t felt like Christmas so much the last few years … I kept expecting it to just happen, without the work, the way it did when I was a child. That isn’t the way it is anymore. It’s my turn to make the magic happen for my daughter.

In the process, I made the magic happen for myself.

May you and yours have a wonderful, magical, Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Our Year in Ornaments: 2015

It’s that time again! That time between Thanksgiving and Christmas (or between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, sometimes), when I write about the annual Ornie Competition in which we participate. For those new to the blog: Years ago, Jeff’s stepfather began a tradition with his family. Each person picked or made an ornament to represent his or her year. On Thanksgiving Day, all the ornaments were presented, and a winner was chosen. The tradition has continued for decades, since Jeff’s stepsiblings were children. We began participating in 2006, the year we married. This year was no different: Jeff, Alexa, and I each picked an ornament to represent our years, and we presented them to the family via video chat on Thanksgiving Day.

So what were the themes of our years? And what ornaments best represented those themes?

Alexa's 2015 Ornament: The Glove Balloon

Alexa’s social development took off this year. She’s always been shy and anxious, with no apparent desire to spend time with other children. Even when she did want to play with other kids, she wanted more to stay safely by my side. That’s how she was at the beginning of this year: she stayed with me rather than going off to play with other kids, even other kids with whom she’d interacted regularly for almost two years, even other kids that she called her friends.

Then out of nowhere, she changed. Suddenly she could not get enough playing with other kids. She didn’t need me to be there with her anymore. She happily stayed in Sunday school classes with complete strangers while we were in the States over the summer. She barely said goodbye to us before she was off and engaged in whatever activity was ongoing. She cried, not when we left her, but when we returned to take her with us. The one thing she wanted from our new home in Greece: the opportunity to play with other kids. No parents required or wanted, just kids.

And through it all, her obsession with all things Disney remained.

Of course the perfect ornament for her was from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse—how could her perfect ornament not be Disney? This year’s version was the glove balloon, floating off with a basket full of friends. It represents Alexa’s newfound desire to go off with friends, her interest in adventures, her need for similarly aged friends. It represents that our little girl is ready to fly off with her friends and leave us behind, at least as much as a 5-year-old can be.

Jeff's 2015 Ornament: The TARDIS

Jeff’s ornament also is from a TV series, though not one owned by Disney. Over the past few years, he and I have become a bit obsessed with the BBC show Dr. Who. Although it’s growing in popularity in the States, many Americans aren’t familiar with it yet, so here’s the basic rundown: The Doctor is a Time Lord, a master of time and space. He travels wherever—and whenever—he wants to go in his TARDIS, which appears in the form of a blue police box. (It’s actually bigger on the inside, though.) The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, but it’s very bad for him to be alone. Because of his abilities and his intellect, he tends to divorce himself from normal emotional experiences, which can result in rather psychopathic tendencies. In order to keep himself grounded, to remind himself of what real life is all about, he tends to travel with a companion, a human woman whose innocent delight and adventurous spirit reminds him to take joy in life, to be more human himself than he otherwise would be.

Jeff does not travel through time, and his travels through space are much more limited than The Doctor’s. However, like The Doctor, he travels from place to place doing work that is important enough that it sometimes threatens to consume him. He said that his ornament this year is in recognition that, like The Doctor, he needs companions to remind him of why he does what he does and to inspire him to enjoy his life rather than allow his work to consume him. He has found his companions in Lexa and me.

His ornament this year is a replica of the TARDIS.

Deborah's 2015 Ornament: Inside Out

 For my own ornament, I’ll tell the story much like I planned to tell it during the competition. (It didn’t come out exactly like this, because things never do when speaking without notes!)

I am a member of three online communities. One is a diverse homeschool community, where most members are homeschoolers, and most members live in their home countries—for most of them, it’s the United States. The other two communities are expat groups—one mostly Christian missionaries, the other Foreign Service personnel and their families. I first heard about the Disney movie Inside Out from these three online groups.

At first, I heard only wonderful things about the movie. Members of both expat groups raved about how amazing the movie was. It captures the experience of moving, it provides a vocabulary for discussing the emotional realities of expat life with our kids, it explores the purpose of those troubling emotions like sadness. It’s a must-see movie, a deeply emotional experience that had moms crying in the theater and kids making connections between their experiences and their emotions like never before. And in addition to all that relevance, it’s a fun movie too!

Then someone on the homeschool group mentioned the movie. The reaction was almost completely uniform: Disney missed the mark on this one. This movie is boring. They tried to make it relevant instead of fun, and made it neither. Don’t even waste your time on this movie.

Of course I was eager to see the movie myself, to see which camp I would fall in. I finally had the opportunity this summer, while we were on our Disney cruise. And I was blown away. I am not ashamed to admit that I sat in the Walt Disney Theatre, aboard the Disney Dream, with tears running down my face as I watched a young girl go through the emotional upheaval of a cross-country move. The analogies weren’t perfect, but I recognized my experiences in this movie—and just as importantly, I felt like my experiences were recognized by the movie.

I’m not certain if I would have loved this movie as much as I do if it had been released last year, or next year. All of the emotions associated with a move are close to the surface for me right now; they have been all year. The sadness of saying goodbye. The optimism that the next place will be good, too. The difficulty of holding on to that optimism when faced with difficulty after difficulty, both expected and unexpected. The desire to give up and run back to where you were … and the recognition that where you were doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the way it did when you were there. And eventually, the contentment that comes when you’ve made the new place your home. (I’m not there yet, but I’ve done this enough to know I’ll get there.)

Inside Out is definitely the theme of my year. But more than that, it’s the theme of my last 7 years. It’s the theme of my life as a global nomad.

Previous Posts About The Ornie Competition:


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Homeschool Update: Kindergarten Curriculum

I never did finish the series I started last winter about our kindergarten curriculum choices—and what I did finish … well, some of our choices changed over the summer. Consider this post your quick(-ish) and dirty summary of what we’re actually using for Alexa’s kindergarten year, and how we’re doing with it so far.

English: Logic of English

For us to be just starting kindergarten, we have tried way too many phonics programs. In preK, we used Sonlight’s kindergarten language arts curriculum, which incorporates Get Ready/Get Set/Go for the Code, but neither of us liked it at all; Alexa already knew too much, and we found it boring. We started The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, and I liked it ok … except for the fact that Alexa quickly came to despise it and cried every time I brought out the book. We used Reading Eggs, which Alexa enjoyed overall, but she had some problems with it because it’s a web-based teaching game, and the controls often were quirky.

This spring, I came across several reviews of Logic of English (LOE). I loved what I saw of it online, and once we saw it at the convention, Jeff agreed. We bought the set of Foundations A and B, to be followed later by Foundations C and D before moving on to Essentials (assuming we stick with LOE once we’re past basic phonics and ready for grammar). The Foundations course is for students aged 4-7, who haven’t learned to read or write yet. It starts before what I always had assumed was the beginning—teaching students to listen for and produce different types of sounds (voiced and unvoiced sounds, for example) before moving on to phonograms, and teaching students to write different handwriting strokes before moving on to writing letters. It’s a very structured and logical approach that appeals to me, and Alexa is doing very well with it. Almost 7 weeks in, she’s reading, writing, and spelling CVC words composed of the letters we’ve studied. She’s confident in her ability to learn to read, which is a vast improvement for her, and her handwriting is improving. She hasn’t even noticed that we didn’t continue with Handwriting Without Tears, which I half expected to buy in addition to LOE because she loved it so much last year. I have no complaints at all about LOE Foundations; it’s the perfect fit for Alexa right now as she learns to read, write, and spell.

Math: Math-U-See

I know, I know, I wrote a whole blog post last spring about the math curriculum we’d chosen, and it wasn’t Math-U-See (MUS). We do still plan to switch to Singapore in first grade, but we decided that MUS is a better fit for kindergarten. As I was reading on some homeschooling forums last spring, I discovered that many parents were disappointed with Singapore’s kindergarten math programs, despite their love of Singapore for grades 1 and above. Several of them reported that MUS Primer level is stronger than Singapore’s kindergarten options at teaching fundamental math concepts such as place value and useful math topics such as telling time. Jeff and I agreed to look at both MUS and Singapore in person at the homeschool convention and make our decision there. I think it took us about 5 minutes to realize that MUS, while not the program we want to use long-term, is exactly what we need for kindergarten.

Again, it was a good choice. Alexa enjoys math—even on those days when she protests getting started, she almost always enjoys it. It started out as review, counting from 0 to 9, then moved into place value. Alexa seems to have a good grasp now of, not just how to count, but of what numbers actually mean: she understands that “10” is actually a set of 10 units; “13” is one 10 and 3 units; “156” is one 100 (which is a set of ten 10s), five 10s, and 6 units. A nice side effect of the focus on place value and how the word “sixty” can be thought of as a shortened form of “six-tens” is that her confusion on some numbers has disappeared—she no longer asks what comes after 59, because she knows that after five 10s and 9 units comes six 10s, which is sixty.

Social Studies: Tapestry of Grace, Evan-Moor Beginning Geography, and Stuff I Add In

Our state of residence lists “Social Studies” as a required subject for homeschool, and it’s a subject that is commonly taught to kindergarteners, so that’s how I listed it here. However, we don’t do your typical social studies. We do history, geography, and Christian studies.

For history, we’re using Tapestry of Grace (TOG), supplemented with The Story of the World. TOG is a unit study that incorporates history, literature, geography, and Bible/worldview, with elements of writing and fine arts. It takes us through history mostly-chronologically (it separates it out by geographical location a bit more than chronological purists do), using the 4-year cycle promoted in classical education. The beauty of this curriculum is that you reuse it every 4 years; it includes assignments for 4 different age/learning levels, so you buy the curriculum once but use grade-appropriate books each time to teach to a different level of understanding. There are 4 years’ worth of curriculum to buy, and after that, you just need the books. We’re studying ancient history now in kindergarten but will revisit it in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades (unless we take a year off to study something else, since we’re starting a year earlier than usual, in K instead of 1st).

This time through the cycle, we’re more interested in the stories of history than in exactly when or why things happened. We hit on the things that are most likely to interest a child: pyramids, mummies, the Great Wall of China. We’re just starting a unit on ancient America. After that, we’ll probably take a brief break from history while we wait for more books to arrive (Amazon is experiencing shipping delays to DPO boxes right now) and do a unit study on Christmas traditions around the world. Then we’ll spend several weeks on ancient Greece before finishing up with ancient Rome in the spring. We’re enjoying TOG. I’m not using it to its fullest this year, but I’m definitely using it as a roadmap and a source of recommended books. We’re supplementing with The Story of the World and its activity guide, as well as the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, but TOG is definitely our primary history curriculum.

For geography, TOG is more of a supplement. Our primary curriculum is Evan-Moor Beginning Geography, a workbook for students in grades K-2. It starts with the very basics: What is a map? Then we learned about compass roses, and now we’re learning about map symbols and keys. We’ll eventually move on to landforms and other traditional geography subjects, but I decided that basic map skills are foundational. We do own a lovely globe, and Alexa loves to look at it and see where we’ve lived, where our extended family lives, and where our history studies took place, but her appreciation of it is increasing as she learns about maps. Alexa enjoys geography, both the workbook and the globe. If things continue as they have been, I expect that we’ll use TOG’s geography assignments next year, after we’ve laid the foundation with Beginning Geography.

One aspect of geography that classical educators often focus on in kindergarten is cultural geography—the study of the world’s cultures, rather than its physical geography. We aren’t doing a lot of that this year. However, we are incorporating a worldview/Biblical/Christian studies element into our homeschool. TOG is a primary curriculum for this, as it presents world history in the context of the Bible. (I reverse the emphasis a bit, presenting the Bible in the context of world history instead, but it’s a subtle difference.) I also will be supplementing with stories of Christianity around the world. For example, this December, we will be studying how Christmas is celebrated in various countries. We’ll study the historical Saint Nicholas, as well as the various traditions that grew up around him. As we approach dates that were important in the lives of famous historical Christians, we’ll read about some of them as well. We may also do some brief studies of Christian holidays that are celebrated in the Orthodox tradition but not necessarily in our Protestant tradition.

Literature: A Monster of My Own Making (Pulled from Several Booklists)

TOG includes literature assignments that correspond with the historical time and location we’re studying. However, lots of them are too advanced for Alexa, and some of them simply aren’t as engaging as I prefer. At this age, I want Alexa to learn to love books, not simply to read a story set in ancient Egypt because we’re studying ancient Egypt. Sometimes we read the TOG-suggested books. Sometimes we read a book about a similar topic, but that I think Alexa will enjoy more. Sometimes I choose a book from Sonlight’s kindergarten package instead. Sometimes I choose some completely unrelated piece of literature, often mentioned on a blog or homeschool forum, simply because I think she’ll like it. Sometimes we read poetry instead of stories. She usually enjoys our literature selections, though her favorites so far are some that I pulled from the Sonlight list: James Herriott’s Treasury for Children and The Story About Ping.

Science: Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, with Supplementation

For science, our primary curriculum is Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU). This curriculum requires every bit as much preparation as I feared when I wrote about it last year, but it’s worth it. It presents advanced scientific topics in a way that is accessible even to 5-year-olds, with guided discussions, demonstrations, and recommended book lists. However, I must admit that I find myself skipping science more often than almost any other subject because it does require so much preparation on my part. Not to worry, though, we still do plenty of science, even when we skip BFSU: Alexa is a little animal-lover, and we have several beginning Usborne books about different animals. We’ve been reading these books a lot, especially since we received a fresh infusion a few days ago. We started with just Dogs and Cats, but now we’re up to Tigers, Horses and Ponies, Wolves, Bears, and a few other titles I don’t recall. She can’t get enough of those books. I’m determined to get to BFSU more regularly, though. It’s a great curriculum that will give her a solid foundation, as soon as I get around to doing it. I’m sure we’ll continue to read about animals every day, too, though.

Health: Horizons

For health, we’re mostly using the curriculum published by Horizons. It requires a little modification, as it’s written for a classroom setting, but so far, we’re doing well with it. We don’t love it, and we don’t hate it. We just do it, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes matter-of-factly, and usually without protest. We’re also supplementing a little with age-appropriate books on manners, personal safety, and sex ed.

 Fine Arts: ARTistic Pursuits and Calvert’s Discoveries in Music

Art and music are two subjects that Alexa would do gladly, any day, any time, multiple times a day. We’re using the preschool level of ARTistic Pursuits, since she hadn’t done much in the way of art and since there are only three books labeled for K-3 (so we’d need to fill in a year if we started Book 1 in K). Alexa seems to enjoy these lessons. We look at a picture and discuss it, then do a related project. We’ve only done three lessons so far, but no worries, there are only 20-some lessons. We can skip a few weeks and still finish the book by the end of a 36-week school year. Even though we’ve done only three formal art lessons, though, Alexa has done an art project every week—she made a serpent-headed throwing spear one week in history, and she drew pictures of biological/natural-nonliving/manmade things one week in science, and she drew pictures of emotions one week in health, and … you get the idea.

Alexa gets most excited, though, about her music lessons. The set from Calvert came with a DVD (each lesson is about 10 minutes), an instructor’s manual with ideas for enrichment and deeper study, and three musical instruments: a lap harp, a triangle, and a flutophone. I think it was playing the instruments that got Alexa hooked on this subject. I allow her to choose one instrument to play after each lesson. Even without the incentive of playing an instrument, though, she loves the DVD lessons. I don’t do many of the enrichment activities, as I think the video introduction is enough in kindergarten, but I should be able to use this curriculum again over the next few years, doing a little more each time, possibly buying some CDs recommended in the teacher’s guide. By the time she outgrows Discoveries in Music, she’ll be old enough for the other wonderful music resources that are available. Based on her love of this curriculum and some comments she made after learning about “the String Family,” we considered looking into violin lessons for her. However, she made it clear that she thought playing the violin would be easy (“you just get a stick and rub it across the strings”), and she wasn’t willing to put in actual work to learn to play well, so I think we’re going to wait a while longer and see if she’s still interested.

P.E.: Family Time Fitness and Lots of Walks

Physical education is the most neglected subject in our homeschool, much to my chagrin. I know it’s important, but we just don’t get to it that often. We bought a subscription to Family Time Fitness, which offers downloadable lessons at a variety of levels. We’re downloading them, but we’re not doing them as often as we should. We do, however, walk down to the kiosk or to the post office a couple of times a week … that’s nowhere near enough. We’ll do better.

There you have it, our kindergarten homeschool. Overall, it’s going very well. I need to be more consistent in doing science and physical education, but I’m happy with our progress in all the other subjects. Alexa is progressing nicely with her core subjects (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic). She’s developing an interest in history and literature. She truly loves art and music. I may not do BFSU consistently yet, but she remembers what I do teach her, and she can recite those animal books after only a couple of readings. So far, so good … I’m excited to see what the rest of the academic year holds for us.