Friday, March 9, 2018

Ignoring what the empty chair says...

Sometimes we are so unkind and think such terrible things about ourselves that we allow the conversation to spill over to the piles of inanimate objects in our lives. We create entire monologues where we imagine that they speak about us and for us and it is soul killing. In the past couple of weeks, I watched as women who are articulate and intelligent and capable worry that the objects in their lives are speaking for them and saying truly awful things.

They believe that someone will judge them based on what their jean size says about them, or what their brand of shoes says, or what their well-worn sofas say. In the end, they don't believe that they can speak for themselves with the way that they carry themselves, or the way that they love deeply, or the way that they keep showing up every day. Showing up is a big deal, guys. It is a huge deal to keep showing up.

I hate to think that these women think that they are unworthy of being loved and respected and how often they just want to slink away because they think that the things speak louder than they do. I don't know who listens to those things but they are probably not worth worrying about if they spend that much time listening to things that don't actually speak.

For the record, I don't care what size jeans you wear. I don't care if you wear cheap shoes. I don't care if your couch looks like it was dropped off a cliff and scraped up and dumped into your living room. I have eleven children and I cannot even tell you what my children have done to my sofas over the years. Oh, actually I can.

My youngest daughters jumped on the sofa until the front legs came off and then kept jumping until the front edge collapsed days before the oldest boy was coming home for Christmas. I ran to Walmart and bought the cheapest little metal futon designed for skinny college kids who probably aren't home much. It ended up lasting a year but only when it was carried along with electric fence wire and duck tape and I am totally serious. We were sitting on a cage of electric fence wire because we are classy like that.

This is my sofa. Was. It has since been replaced but we are still us and I am still me. We are basically animals. I am the mother of children who jump on sofas until they are practically ground into dust. I will still invite you over and make you tea and coffee and visit and I won't worry about what your possessions say. I don't listen to things, I listen to you. I just want you guys to know that.

So, if you are the kind of person who cares more about people than things, come sit by me. We are going to get along just fine. If you care more about things, well, enjoy your things. I hope they are good company. If you get lonely, come sit with us. You are always welcome.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review of Anastasis:The Harrowing of Hell

Like I have said before, one of my favorite things about being a writer is being a reader. This book was on my list to buy for my children before the author even approached me about a review. When he asked if I was interested in a review copy, I jumped at the chance. For the record, I was not paid for this review and my only compensation is the book itself and the sweet card from the author's wife and the thoughts expressed in my review are mine alone.

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you will see that we gave a framed illustration of this artist to our daughter for her name's day. You can see a photo of this further down in this post. I chose not to lead with that photo since ultimately, this post is about this book and I want to keep you focused on this.

This graphic novel is written at a level easily approached by children from about ten years old. The illustrations are not icon-based if you have wondered about that, but a lighter not quite cartoony but approachable sort of drawing. It is full color throughout and beautifully laid out with a flow that keeps the story moving. If you are a subscriber to New Martyr Magazine or following any of the social media accounts of Creative Orthodox, you might be familiar with Michael and his art style. I am admittedly a fan. His goal is to use his gift for art to bring Truth to children and he does it beautifully.

This particular book deals with the very real matter of the Harrowing of Hell and the setting begins before the Resurrection of Christ. Some parents have mentioned they think it might be inappropriate for children but I want to reassure you that it is very delicately done. Michael's art is well balanced and while he does portray Death and Satan with his demons, he is careful to not dwell on those images.  They represent only two out of forty-seven pages.Those particular pages involve little detail and rely on their starkness to express the gravity of the moment. There is a seriousness and a gravity without being graphic in any sense. This does not mean that Michael minimizes the very real presence of the Evil One but rather he wants to remind children of what it is that we have been saved from without frightening them. That might lead you to wonder why he then chose to focus on this topic at all.

It is because we would do a disservice to our children to pretend that the Darkness is not real.  Evil is a presence in our lives and our children are at times acutely aware of it. We need to show them that while there is Darkness, the Light will always be greater. Evil has already been conquered for us. As the mother of eleven children, I want them to always know that when they feel small and afraid and overwhelmed by the real effects of very real evil in the world, that they have already been rescued. All of my children over ten have read this to themselves and my children ten and under have read it with or been read to by an older child or myself. Not even my four year old was frightened and while she is a pretty sturdy child, she is still four. Some of the reason I think that she was able to absorb the book and not be disturbed was the presentation of the images. They are full of meaning but not graphically frightening.

The colors chosen for the scenes of Hades are muted and darker and earthy which make for a beautiful contrast to the Risen Christ and the bright, almost glowing pages. The visual flow of the book supports the moving storyline. The book is not an exact retelling of the Bible but a story account for younger children. The book opens with the entrance of the Prophet Simeon with Isaiah as a guide for him and the reader through the story. It is not unlike Dante or Lewis in the Great Divorce. Several figures of the Bible, all with their distinct personalities interact and present a situation in which they cooperatively try to understand what God's will is and when the Savior will come. There is a good balance of more simple language and more complicated but with some terms explained, such as what is the Bosom of Abraham.

This is an excellent teaching tool and one I will use often with my children. One of the things that I tell my children over and over again until they are probably sick of it, is that Christ trampled down Death by Death. Death is and was a reality that we face but the Death that we will know, after the Ressurection, is a pale imitation of what came before. I want my children to know exactly what it means to say this. It is not a platitude when we comfort someone with these words when they have lost someone they loved, it is real and is powerful and I want my children to know the weight of the words. I want them to know what it means to say it. When my children see Satan, who just a few pages prior was powerful and ominous, crushed by chains and stripped of power, they will remember what this means. Satan has a very limited reach. When they see Christ reaching down into the tombs and dragging weeping Adam and Eve out and raising them up, they will remember what this means. This is the image I come back to again and again because it feels so real to me. I cannot climb up to Jesus. I cannot meet him in the cloud. The best I can do it reach out my arms and allow Him to pull me to Himself.

In the end, this is what it all comes down to, this final scene. We are not saved by any means of our own but simply by allowing Christ to come to us and drag us from the tombs. Fleeing the Evil One, resisting temptation, finding strength in loss, all comes down to that. All we need to do is stretch our arms toward Christ and know that He will reach down and pull us to safety because He has done it before.

My daughter Sophia's name's day gift from us.
These are big thoughts for children to wrestle with, they are big thoughts for me to wrestle with at times, and images often help with framing the discussion. This is why we have icons. This is why a graphic novel is an excellent way of teaching these truths, these events. You can not avoid teaching these uncomfortable things with your children, the existence of Satan, of Hades, of Evil, but discussing these things can be complicated and difficult to find a framework for and this book can establish that framework. I wish I had this book back during Great Lent so we could remind our children of what it means when we sing that Christ has trampled down death by death. For that matter, I wish we would have had it when my father died of cancer after a terrifyingly fast battle. I wish we had it when my father-in-law had died of a sudden massive heart attack. I did not have it then but I do I have it now and we will regularly read it so that my children will not forget that death is destroyed, the curse annulled, and Adam and Eve set free.

Interested in getting your children (or even yourself a copy)? Check out Michael's Amazon Author's page HERE. It retails for $15 here in the states. I have no idea what it sells for in Canada but I am pretty sure it can be bought there since that is where he lives.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Managing household chores while homeschooling...

The farmhouse where I homeschool my brood.
Homeschooling is a serious commitment of time and resources and finding ways of sneaking in all the other work can be a challenge. If you want some quick tips for managing the school part, check out this post HERE. I have ten of eleven children still at home and a small family farm and this means that we have a lot of schoolwork and a lot of chores to get done on a daily basis. It is important to realize that there are some competing values here and will be some sacrifices. There are only so many hours in a day and you will need to remember that homeschooling will consume several hours a day and this is okay. 

Remembering that it is really a job can help you remember that what you are doing all day is worth doing. That said, you will need to still have clothes to wear, dishes to eat off, and food to put in those dishes. There is a happy medium to be found.

I used to have another blog that was specifically food based but one of my most popular posts ever was about house cleaning. Over 67,000 unique readers read that specific post which tells me it spoke to a need people have. I edited it, added to it, and am including that information here. I live in a different house than I did when I originally wrote the post so if it doesn’t sound like my current home, there is a reason for that.

I should tell you that I have a master school schedule with some chores listed, such as how we divide the lunch duties between the high school kids who are supposed to decide what they will cook the day before and make sure we have the ingredients. While they are not perfect at it, they are learning the important skills of meal planning and making sure that they have what they need before they start. I help with fasting days since those are honestly more challenging.

Laundry is one of those concerns that overwhelms people. We have an unusual amount of laundry. If I fall behind, digging out is all but impossible. I have eight children who are able to at least start laundry or switch the laundry though only six are able to reach the controls on the dryer and need help. I switch between the older eight and the youngest two have to help sort. If we are playing catch up, four or five kids a day have the responsibility of starting a load of laundry and switching it, remembering to hang the clothes that must hang and being sure to hang their father’s dress shirt for the office. If we are not behind, then it is only two or three a day. After school, I fold all the laundry at once and put in piles according to the owner. If kids will help, I will allow them a movie. If they stop being helpful, I turn it off. The kids have to put away all the laundry immediately.

All the socks are pooled into a giant hamper and rarely sorted. I used to do that but, seriously, in winter we go through one or two dozen pairs of socks a day. We have hundreds of socks. Let that sink in: hundreds. I finally gave up matching socks on the advice of a friend with twelve kids (some are in college). When they need to match, we match them, but most of the time they are never seen so it saves some peace. 

We have set chore times. We have a set of chores that need to be done in the morning and we work through those before school, the laundry is the only exception. Each child is responsible for his assigned load, and it must be done or they lose privileges and gain chores. We used to take a longer lunch break but with staggered online classes and so many students, we have moved chores to afterschool. There is also afternoon milking and there are evening chores at that time. During school hours, my house gets very messy but we all chip in after we are done. There is a lot of truth in the old saying, “Many hands make light work.”

As for knowing what to do and when to do it, divide your house into sections. If you are an internet junkie, you might like to follow Flylady's schedule but it can feel overwhelming if you are trying to dig out. Do not allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear, avoid complicated methods that cause panic. Your mental health is worth more than that. To help you plan your zones, here is how I did mine back in the day. You should have four zones because there are about four weeks to the month. Make a list of the chores from each zone and whether they are daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal.
  • Zone 1: Dining room and school room
  • Zone 2: Entry and Kitchen
  • Zone 3: Living room and downstairs bathroom
  • Zone 4: Upstairs hallway and bath, bedrooms

What should go on a list of chores for a zone? My zone one chores include:

  • Sweep
  • Wash table
  • Shake runner
  • Tidy bookshelves
  • Weekly
  • Vacuum
  • Dust
  • Tidy shelves
  • Clean out key basket (a catch-all for mail, keys, and phone chargers)

  • Wash baseboards
  • Dust light over dining room table

Seasonal (this is my freaky start to the school year or holiday time deep, deep clean the kids dread)
  • Wash curtains
  • Wash windows
  • Wash picture frame glass

You should also create a list of 5-minute chores (things that need to get done but can be completed in less than five minutes), a list of "hot spots" or places where your family tends to pile stuff, and the things that should get done daily. I offer rewards to kids who will clean my many hot spots.

5-Min Chores
  • Sorting mail
  • Emptying the kitchen compost
  • Taking out the garbage (each kid gets a bathroom or the kitchen and it all goes at once)
  • Cleaning the key basket out
  • Hot Spot Examples (just pick them up once a day)
  • Hubby's dresser cleared and tidied (we both dump things here so it is not just his mess)
  • The dresser in the dining room cleared and tidied
  • The farm cupboard surface tidied
  • Cull the magazine basket

Daily Chores

This is a complicated list, trying to decide what you should do on a daily basis can be difficult. I divide mine by the time of day:

Waking Chores: grooming, bed making (each little kid has an older kid who is assigned to help her), I unload the dishwasher and put away hand washed dishes and make the coffee first thing in the morning

Meal Chores: Cook meal, wash dishes (and dry and put away), load dishwasher, wash table, sweep only if really messy (but always after supper), make sure the little kids have faces washed (the littles had an assigned helper), tidy entry

After School Chores: Tidy the school room, tidy the living room (where the little girls play during school hours), and make sure the entry is clear. I stand at the front door and tidy what I can see from there, this makes my house seem cleaner than it is and means that I am not embarrassed to open the front door.

Making these lists can seem overwhelming and I want to assure you that it won't be bad. If you are worried about the time it will take to make these lists, sit down with a cup of coffee or tea or even wine and take out eight sheets of paper. Give yourself just thirty minutes. Label each with one category from the list below:
  • Zone One
  • Zone Two
  • Zone Three
  • Zone Four
  • Daily Chores
  • Hot Spots
  • 5 Min Chores
  • People available to do chores (this is anyone over four)

Then take your zone lists and fold into thirds vertically and label each section as follows:
  • Daily (put anything from each zone's daily list onto this one catch-all list)
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Seasonal

Give yourself no more than three minutes to list the things that you think should be included on each list. Don't worry if you have forgotten something, this is a plan in progress!  Just start filling out your sheets. Try it for a day and see how it goes, you can always come back and add or move something. If you decide that something is put on the monthly list that you really want doing seasonally, move it. The idea is to find what your particular needs are and find a way to meet them. I know that my chores change on the season. Mopping the floor happens a lot in the winter since we consistently have snow that covers the ground for five to seven months out of the year, with no breaks. Nothing is carved in stone and can be changed whenever you need it to be changed.

The reason the lists work is that you know what needs to be done and can assign the work or jump in every day. If you cannot handle any more than just completing the daily list, start there. There is a temptation to just try to do everything all at once and it can lead to feelings of depression and being overwhelmed. Your goal should be to just start doing the daily chores and go from there.

I have one more post to come in the series and it will be a blow by blow account of my day homeschooling my nine school-aged kids with a preschooler in tow.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Just how do you homeschool?

We are all caterpillars just crawling around
and eating leaves and sometimes changing.
Of all the questions that I have been asked over the years, the most common is this one. I think it is because often people really know well what the brick and mortar school looks like because it is the one that most of us know so well. There are a few systems at play but generally they all function in the same kind of way. Homeschooling is an entirely new game and it is hard to really figure out what each family is doing because each family does it differently and sometimes one family does it differently at different times.

The needs, challenges, resources, and strengths that we come into homeschooling with will change over time as we and our children change. Because there are lots of ways to go about this, about as many as there are homeschooling families, I want to give some more general guidance about homeschooling and household management based on what has worked well for my family. Later in this series, I will go more into how my family is currently schooling. This first post will deal with some specific tools in my kit that I use in order to keep track of the chaos on school days and my general approach to school. The second will talk about how I manage the other household affairs which is a real issue (find that post HERE). The third will deal specifically with how I school with my children’s specific program. All about us. Hopefully, it won't bore you.

Today is all about having a homeschool toolkit. I have a few systems that I have always consistently deployed to keep my head above water and before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to talk about these.

1. School toys for the preschool gang. Always, always, always have some school toys that may only be used during school hours. We use train tracks, blocks, wooden puzzles, lace tracing cards, random playing cards, and even a cheap (like SUPER cheap) digital camera. These things can only come out during school hours only. I have two bins and they get switched out and they cannot have both out at the same time.

2. Baby jail and prison guard. I have used anything I could get my hands on the keep the active babies out of death’s grasp including walls built of furniture, wide laundry buckets, playpens, whatever. You need a safe place for baby to play when they want to explore a bit. I always kept a special basket of baby toys which only could only be used in desperate situations like a kid crying over math or my need to use the bathroom. We also have used a kitchen timer and cycled kids through a half hour of guard duty at a time. It keeps the younger set entertained with fresh new games all day and gives the older kids a chance for a break.

3. Just right books. Every kid needs a book that is easy enough to read that they don’t need help. Little ones can have an “I Spy” book. The point is to keep something on hand that will keep them occupied while they wait for you. If they get to a point where they cannot do any more work, but you aren’t available, have them do some penmanship and then open their just right book.

4. Post-It notes. I use loads of them. Tons. Each kid needs a stack of his own. When they get to a problem they can’t solve, a question that they have, they can write it down and move on. They give me the note and I get back to them when I can. When I need them to work on something or check it, I put a note on the cover of that book. When it is done, they give me the note for me to double check. Post-It notes glue all the little loose pieces of my life together. They sure as heck better not go out of business.

5. Get ready the night before. At-schoolers do things like pick out clothes the night before and pack lunches and school bags. In the case of homeschoolers and at-schoolers, knowing that no one has underwear is easier to deal with the night before than in the morning, so do it the night before. Have a breakfast plan so you aren’t panicked in the morning. Cereal is fine. In fact, cereal is freaking great if you are protecting your mental health by just making that plan. If you have a space dedicated to do school, do a quick pass through that area and remove the laundry baskets, coats, shoes, and whatever will slow you down in the morning. You are shipshape and ready for action, Captain.

6. Have a school plan for the kids done ahead of time. My favorite time to do this in the afternoon when we are wrapping up for the day. In fact, I have a scheduled time for it. Some people like to do it when their kids are in bed and they can do it uninterrupted. Both plans are good. The trick is that you need to do it before the kids are yelling at each other, the dog is barking out the window, and everyone needs to just get started. Take a comp notebook, write a list of their subjects and make a quick note about what to do. They can check it off when they are done and you don’t have to constantly be available to answer, “What next, Mom?”

7. Set boundaries. For ages, we had an outgoing answering machine message that said, “Hi, this is the Naasko Family. We are unavailable during school hours. Leave a message and we will call at lunch or at the end of the day.” I even made a sign for my door when we lived in a busy suburban neighborhood (it was on the back door since that was where the kids went to knock). If you are bad about the temptation that the cell phone might be, put it in a drawer for later. If the TV is the big draw, put the remotes in the same drawer. If your kids become distracted, you might need to lock out some sites on the computers. Don’t worry, it is not forever. Basically, you can set a timed lockout so that you can focus on the immediate task by using this Google extension called Stay Focusd. We use it on our computers and it works well. I have had to use it when I was procrastinating on book writing so it works for moms, too. 

8. Schedule two tidy ups a day. We do a quick run through the whole house and everybody has to be onboard, once in the morning and once in the evening. Set a timer for twenty minutes and make it a race. Make a list and they can be done when it’s done. Do like I do and make stay up television and device availability dependent on it. You can do it a lot of ways but do it.

9. Start each kid with their strongest subject every day. Make sure that you do not put off the hardest until the end of the day. I usually try to put it second, if possible. Start with a success and move onto something harder and switch back and forth as much as possible.

10. Give and get a hug. If you have a kiddo who is prone to meltdown over poor subjects, be available at that time. Be ready for it. Give the other kids a break at this time. If you feel like you are just firefighting and not getting anywhere with this kid and subject, stop beating yourself up right now and take a deep breath. Then reach over and hug that kid who is just falling apart. Rome was not built in a day so don’t think Trig mastery will happen overnight. Keep building, keep hugging, and keep on keeping on. Then find someone to give you a hug, you need it, too. Call me and I will send you a virtual hug.

Tomorrow I will have a post on how I incorporate laundry and other housework into our day. I will also talk about the different ways in which this has changed depending on the number of children I had at the time and their ages. You will still need to do dishes and cook meals and wash clothes while schooling kids, so this is ultimately important.

The third post will talk about my family specifically and be more of a slice of life. You will find out all about how we use St Raphael Online. I have children signing into their one-hour lessons staggered all day. We use Khan Academy for math and Rosetta Stone for language and all of these are computer based. We use a mix of computer-based learning and text-based for science. I have a limited amount of internet connectivity at a time and a limited number of devices so I have to careful to assign kids to their work based on this. As for spelling, grammar and composition, and poetry, these are the subjects that they do with me. To help me manage schooling nine children with one preschooler running around, I group the kids according to ability. I have four levels of spelling and two for grammar and slot to run through all the kids’ poems they are memorizing.

Looking for that household chores post? Find it HERE.

Friday, October 13, 2017

It is all about the message...

Writing is a funny thing. Most of us don't get paid for doing it. Those of us who do get paid, mostly don't make a lot of money. There are like a dozen people out there making big bucks and the rest of us in the writing and publishing industry just keep on keeping on despite the fact that the checks that come really aren't that big.

This summer, I was joking with another author at a conference when someone asked about money, "You can make hundreds of dollars. Hundreds."

Why even do it at all? It is all about the message. It is because we want to take the ideas out of our heads and share them with you because, deep down, we believe in the message. We wouldn't do this for any other reason. I think that is why is so important to support other authors and small publishers.

We bought the lovely, gentle little book Every Time I Do My Cross which was written by Presvy Angela Alatzakis. I don't know actually know her or her husband, who is a Greek Orthodox priest. What I do know is that they have sunk their hearts and souls into founding a small little indy publishing company to sell charming books that bring children closer to God. They did not start this business to become rich or famous or powerful. They did it because they believe in the message. I happen to believe in their message as well. We have purchased a few things from them, like the book, and a cute coffee cup that you can sometimes find me sipping from while I am writing on my projects.

They have a goal of producing another book, a lovely little book which focuses on a child and how it is that each child comes into the church. It is called The Story of You and it looks like it is going to be just as sweet and delicate as their first book. Presvy's art is clean, uncomplicated, and very gentle. My own life is loud and messy and I find her book such a respite. I am really looking forward to this next book. The thing is, this book needs some funding and Father Thomas and Presvy Angela just aren't rich in the monetary sense. Really the only way this is going to happen is if they have financial backing.

There are precious few days left in their campaign and they are not funded yet. Think ahead for a minute. If this is a book that you would be happy to see in a bookstore or to order off Amazon, why not think of funding this project as a pre-order. You can receive an autographed first edition as part of their gift to thank you. That's what I did. Maybe you are short on cash right now but hope to have this book available in the future. Donate a couple of dollars and share their link. If only every single person who had ever liked their Facebook page gave a dollar, they would be funded. A little goes a long way when a lot of people give just a little.

If you believe in the message, just like I do, then be part of translating that message to others. Buy a book or a cup or shirt from The Orthodox Children's Press. Contribute to their Kickstarter program by clicking HERE. It is a good message, guys. Very good.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Teaching poetry to children...

Poetry is my favorite subject to teach. It is a salve for my soul when the day is rushed and busy and all I want to do is sit quietly with some tea and no voices, big or little, chiming at me. I find myself both alert and at peace and ready to jump into the lessons. I love to teach rhythm, rhyme, meter, and the different styles of poetry. I have a four-inch binder with years of poems memorized by all eleven of my children, a section of my own, and finally a section of samples. In my sample section are lovely examples of different styles and even a compare and contrast portion where I use trite poems paired with high caliber ones of the same theme and topic. I think it is important to read the poor quality ones and then compare them with the best to be found in the English language in order to teach children what true quality is.

I think that memorizing poetry is lost art and skill and I refuse to let my children grow up without being able to do so. I have often found myself speaking to other parents about just how to go about this and it is probably because the available advice out there is just awful. It usually revolves around copying something again and again. This is ridiculous. Our spoken language is primary, it precedes the written word, and it is not how ancient peoples remembered their sagas and histories. The most effective way is really the most basic and happens incrementally and easily. Let me explain.

Starting Memorization

I start when my children are about two years old. It is nothing formal, just organic and natural. We start by reciting little poems based on the things that they see and hear and do in their ordinary lives. The very first poem I have taught all of my children is now recited by them all every time they see the moon.

I see the moon,
And the moon sees me.
God bless the moon,
And God bless me!

Finding small opportunities for similar things helps children develop the skill of making associations and memorizing text. These small poems pave the way for very long ones later. By the time my kids are in their early teens, they memorize poems with hundreds of lines, as many as three or four hundred.

Teaching Memorization

I copy or print out a public domain version of a poem to mark up. Next to the poem, I can make notes about the poem, the time period, or pronunciation things that might be important to know. The first day, we simply read the poem through completely and then we talk about the generalities of the poem such as how it makes us feel or what kinds of images it evokes. Then we go line by line and explain idioms, phrases, and meaning. Then we memorize the name of both the poet and the poem. I put a small check next to each. Every day we will review what we learned the day before and then learn a new section. If a line is very long (as happens is Wordsworth and Tennyson), then I draw a slash mark in the middle and we learn half at a time. We start memorization in full the next day.

I read the line to them and then ask them to repeat it, we do this five times in a row. For older children or teens who can and should memorize two or more lines at a time, we add in the second line. I will read the first line, ask them to repeat it fives times in a row. Then I read the second, and ask them to repeat this one, also five times. After this I read the first, they repeat it, then I read the second, and they repeat this. We do this a few times until they can do both lines together. In the end, they need to be able to recite all the new text by themselves with no prompts. Once we have learned the new lines, I check off the lines and they recite the name of the poem, the poet, and all the text they know up to that point. If during the recitation, you notice that there is a word that is they might be tripping over, underline it in pencil and perhaps drop a hint when they come to it. When they know it, erase the line.

When the child has memorized the entire poem, we have them recite it for everyone at dinner. Some poems have special rewards attached to them, like "The Cow" by Robert Lewis Stevenson. When my children have learned this, they can help me make an apple tart with puff pastry and we serve it with freshly whipped cream. An important part of this is to use real whipped cream that we whip since I want to tie in the importance of the role that dairy cows play in our lives. Here on the farm, we even separate the cream ourselves but that is admittedly something very few families would be able to do.

That said, if you are in the neighborhood and your child can recite that poem for me, I will let them separate cream and help them make their own apple tart!


Once a poem is memorized, they need to recite it every day. We start out each lesson by reciting all the poems they have learned. I will say the name of the poem and they will repeat it, tell me the name of the poet, and then they will recite the poem. Then we memorize the current poem's new lines. While this might sound overwhelming, this really only takes 5-6 minutes per child. The older children have far fewer poems though they are longer and the youngest children learn such short ones that it takes only a minute or two to recite what they know. If you are spending longer than that, you are trying to memorize too much or a too complicated text.

Once a child knows five poems, I start a rotation with each of the four oldest poems said each on one day each week for review and only the most recently memorized poem is still said daily. Then we work on the new poem. This becomes more common with little children who can easily memorize ten or so poems from Robert Louis Stevenson a year. I don't want to cover more than ten poems a year so if a child is learning them that quickly, say more than one a month, we will start to look for longer poems.


When my children are in middle school, they begin to memorize ballads such as "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which my oldest daughter memorized completely when she was twelve. In this case, it is best to treat each section as a poem on its own. I would have the child recite the sections as if they were separate poems. Then each morning they recite a previous section as well as the one immediately learned, then learn the new lines within the context of the current section. In this case, have the child recite the poem in its entirety weekly. It might be best for them to not learn new lines on this day. My daughter's poem listed above is nineteen stanzas, each nine lines long, for a total of one hundred and seventy one lines learned in just ten months. My second oldest son memorized "Lepanto" by G.K. Chesterton, and he told me that by the end he knew it so well, he felt as if he was sitting back and listening to it each time he recited it. There is a lot of pride in memorizing this long of a text. It is well worth making the effort.

On a practical note, now my children can memorize all kinds of text immediately. Phone numbers, WiFi passkeys, addresses, and all kinds of information just click into place since their minds are used to assimilating information.

Two Caveats

I mean this word literally, there are two limitations.

Poetry Journals

Don't. If your child likes to journal and wants to create a poetry journal with copies of their poems, perhaps coupled with art or personal reflections, they will do it without you asking. If you force it, you will find many children begin to dread poetry. In the most ancient expressions of poetry, they were recited, not written out and doodled on. Keep this part alive and allow a child who has other creative interests explore them if they desire.

Selecting Poems

Allow your children to choose their own poems with limited guidance. They might need to be encouraged to try something longer or shorter but generally let them find something that interests them. That said, give them excellent choices and do not permit them to use popular song lyrics, trite or silly greeting card style poetry or humor pieces. These things have their place and it is not at the feast table that is poetry recitation. One of the things that are most important is to teach children what is the highest standard for human expression. We might sometimes laugh over a silly little poem, particularly one written for children, but our children need to see this as a childish expression and not fully actualized.

I will be putting together a downloadable form for keeping track of each child's poetry work and I will show photos of our actual poetry book. Until then, start looking for some good poetry to share with your children. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Lost sheep...

Freshly shorn sheep coming back to the farm.
I was at the Ancient Faith conference this summer and in all the amazing talks and opportunities to connect with others in the biz (doesn’t  that make me sound cool?), I had the chance to think about some ways in which living on a small farm changes the way I look at the Bible. One of the speakers talked about making things relevant to people, something that they could understand. He said that thinking about the lost sheep doesn’t make sense to people, that really they could more easily understand a comparison to losing a child in the airport. Your other three kids might be right by your side but you would be in a dead panic until you found the fourth. He then asked the crowd, “Who here has sheep anyway?”

I have sheep.

We have sheep out here in the woods where we also have coyotes, wolves, and bears who could easily prey on our soft and foolish sheep. Sheep, to be completely honest, are incredibly stupid. They are just hopeless. Nothing makes more real the scriptures that refer to the followers of Christ as sheep as owning sheep and struggling with them. We are just as lost and just as likely to be reckless as our sheep. I am most definitely a sheep.

Veronica and Cristina peeking in at the sheep after shearing.
Their vulnerability and devotion are as beautiful as their collective madness is frustrating. When we have an electric storm, something not nearly as common as it was Colorado, they panic and run away to hide under trees and they refuse to go into the barn like the other animals do. If we see a storm coming, we have to be proactive and actually put them in the barn and shut the door to prevent them leaving again. When frightened, they run, and often they run from safety. If we miss the beginning of the storm, we go out into the fields and trees and halter them and drag them to the barn because they will not come for love or grain. There is nothing so stressful as wrangling a terrified animal in wind and rain and lightning and unlike Jesus, I cannot calm the storm. All I can do is push through to lead them to safety and retreat back to the house if it is safe and wait out the storm in the barn if it isn’t.

Recently, we had a sudden and unexpected storm blow in immediately after milking and the cows were safely in the barn, chewing their cud. The sheep had panicked and broke through an electric fence and were running madly in the farm yard. I didn’t have time to grab my boots and so I ran out in my flip-flops and took my oldest daughter and two of the boys, sending one to the barn for the halters. We ran out in the lightning and pouring rain and immediately my glasses were covered and my feet were sliding around in my almost-shoes. I made the conscious decision that even if my feet were trampled or I was knocked down, that I had to keep diving for sheep until I had them. It had to be done. I did slip and fall face down into a utility wagon and I was sore and horrible bruised the next day but I just jumped back up and kept running. When I had a sheep in his halter, I kept a tight rein so that he would be right by my side, and I lead him to the barn as he repeatedly stepped on my bare feet with his sharp hooves. Once they were in, we were able to go back into the house. All of us were exhausted and soaked and bruised but no one complained. One of the boys started a little pot of espresso as we sat on the wooden benches, the water dripping off us. It is a matter of course when you have animals.
Jack holds a small piece of wool before processing.

This spring, the sheep had gotten out and went into the poultry shed and managed to get into a bag of feed that had not been properly stored. One of the sheep is particularly stupid and he had put his head into the bag and gotten it stuck when he lifted his head and poured the grain out. He panicked and ran madly in the farm yard bumping into the vehicles and tractor and trees and he brayed miserably. I ran out with the children to save him. Once I had caught him, my daughter pulled the sack off his head. He breathed deeply and happily rubbed his sweaty head on her outstretched hand. Then he looked down, saw the grain sack, and we had to play the game all over again.

Sheep run circles around Eli in early winter.
We always care for them. We run out to gather them up when the coyotes start howling and they stand in the pasture calming eating the grass. We check on them throughout the day and do so with urgency when we can’t see them from the windows of the farmhouse. We don’t have a winter hydrant and so we hand carry water out to them all winter long, about a hundred gallons twice a day using a sled over the snow. We cut down noxious weeds to prevent them getting ill. When they are sick or injured or not getting along, we halter them in front of the house in the close apple orchard and keep vigil. On some level, they know how deeply they are cared for and often come when we call, or rather when their person calls. They know the shepherd's voice. In the winter, when fences are pretty much useless because of the depth of the snow and they freely ranged the farm, they would come up to the porch and in look in the kitchen window at the children, looking for their person.

We are sheep and our foolishness and the frequency at which we return to the same sins, over and over again, can make us feel weak and foolish and even sheepish. We run from safety and often ignore the sounds of the coyotes calling in the outer fields. We are most definitely sheep who blindly cling to the other sheep in the field rather than run towards the barn. We are also the sort of sheep who know the Shepherd’s voice and when we chose to ignore it, it is at our own peril. I want to be the sort who hears His voice and runs towards Him knowing how He is running towards me. He doesn’t abandon us, He flies into the fields and ignores all His own suffering.

Maybe that is why it is so easy to love those sheep and love them hard. It is because we are sheep ourselves.