Friday, December 10, 2010

No Posts for a While

My family has been down and out with a yucky stomach bug, so I won't be posting for at least a few more days. Please stay with me readers. I promise I'll be back.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Many, Many Butternuts...

In October I blogged about the 35 butternut squashes we harvested from our scrappy squash and melon patch. Then, Mrs. CM posted an artful photo of one of our butternuts.

Today, I decided I should share one of our favorite squash recipes: Curried Pumpkin Soup. The recipe calls for pumpkin, but most winter squashes can be substituted. I made a delicious triple batch for Thanksgiving using one of our squashes and froze the extra.

Curried Pumpkin Soup
Yield: 6 servings

1 Large onion, chopped or sliced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cups pureed pumpkin* or 1- 16 oz. can pumpkin
3 cups chicken stock (I use veggie stock)
1 potato, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup half and half (I use 1/4 cup light cream and 1/2 cup skim milk)
Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Saute onion in olive oil in 2 qt. sauce pan until tender. Add pumpkin, chicken stock, potato, curry powder and nutmeg. Mix well. Cook over low heat until potato is tender.
  2. Process several times in a blender. (Or use a stick blender like I do). Add cream, Worcestershire sauce , salt and pepper. Simmer until heated through.
  3. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with a sprinkle of ground nutmeg.
This recipe comes from Global Feast Cookbook published by Mystic Seaport Museum Stores.

*Here's the easiest way to get fresh pumpkin or squash puree:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Place the squash in an ovenproof dish and cover it tightly with a lid or aluminum foil.
  3. Bake until tender, about 1 hour for a 1 pound squash. To test for done-ness, slide a sharp knife into the skin. If it slides in easily, it's done.  If the squash feel firm at all, keep cooking. Tip: On a butternut, the wide end cooks faster than the skinny end.
  4. Let it cool. Then slice the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds and any stringy pulp and discard (or put it in the compost). Scoop the lovely orange flesh from the skins and fork mash, if needed before using in the recipe.
There are some natural places for kids to help with this recipe. Most kids can scoop the pulp and place it in a bowl as long as the squash is sufficiently cooled. Now that my daughter is 5, she has graduated to sauteing like her big brother. With close supervision, many kids aged 5 and up can handle this. Prop them up on a stool or chair and give them some safety directions before starting. My 8 year old son is good at measuring ingredients, though my daughter still needs someone to pre-measure for her and then she adds the ingredients. My daughter is also learning how to chop vegetables using a small sharp knife. Start cooking with your kids when they are young and gradually introduce new skills as they are mature enough to handle them.

Cooking with your kids has many benefits such as building math skills (fractions, measuring) and life skills. More importantly, they get to spend time in the kitchen with you and will probably want to eat what they cooked.

In the coming weeks, I'll share more squash recipes with you. (We still have lots of squash to eat!) My sister recently got us making butternut squash oven fries. Stay tuned!

Do you have a favorite squash or pumpkin recipe you'd like to share? How about a recipe involving another fall/winter crop?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fall Fun

Here in the Northeastern United States, the ground is covered with leaves. For many homeowners, they represent the drudgery of raking. Why not make it fun for the whole family? On this day, my son started it all... he went to the garage, got his rake, and started making a pile. Soon my daughter, husband, and Father-in-Law had joined him. I spent this day taking photos, but several days later the kids and I played in the pile.

Look at these faces... you can tell they're having fun!

And check out my husband's perfect dive into the mountain of leaves!

This was a moment filled with joy and laughter. We still haven't gotten around to raking up that pile, even though weeks have passed. We have jumped in it on many different days, though! I think that's more important than getting all of the leaves off our lawn. 

If you live in the city, you probably can't make leaf piles, but you can run through the leaves that collect where the curb meets the road or along the edges of parks. Kick your feet up high. See how far you can make them fly!

Getting outside does not need to be complicated. Just look for little ways to enjoy yourselves. You'll feel closer as a family and be healthier, too. The same goes for teachers...get your students outside as much as you can. 

Have you played in the leaves lately?  Or, if you live in a warm climate, have you perhaps played in the sand? Tell us about your most recent outside play.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Top 10 Ways to Promote Science Inquiry

About a month ago, I promised to post my suggestions for guiding children in their science investigations.

Here are my suggestions, in no particular order:
  1. Join in the fun. There's nothing like modeling the behavior you wish to instill to get kids motivated. This isn't "learning" science from a textbook. This is "doing" science. Get your feet wet or your hands dirty. When I was preparing to go out and draw the caterpillars, my daughter (age 5) couldn't wait to get started. My son (age 8) opted not to participate. That is, until he saw the two of us heading out with our pens, hand-lenses, and colored pencils. "Oh... magnifying glasses!" he said. He quickly changed his mind and joined us. I had to insist he come in when it was dinner time.
  2. Provide basic materials to enhance observations. For small items, this includes magnifying glasses (hand lenses). For birds or far-off objects, binoculars will do the trick. A bug house or butterfly house is also nice, if you have it. Large jars with holes in the lids will also work for most insects. In addition, a decent set of colored pencils and a notebook chosen for the developmental stage of your child is good. For younger kids, this might be a notebook with blank space at the top for drawing with large-ruled lines below. For older kids, this might be all blank pages (like my son chose) or lined pages. (See examples here.) 
  3. Teach kids how to use the tools properly. Practice this before an investigation is to start. Once the novelty of a hand lens wears off, kids are less likely to hold it up to their eyes and make silly faces. (Though that can be fun, too). In a classroom setting, however, it's best to get the silliness out of the way so the more serious work of science can begin. Let them be silly for a few minutes, then indicate when it's time to work.
  4. Maintain your sense of wonder. Listen to your children/students talk. Remember what it was like to be a kid, awestruck by natural phenomena. Listen for possible investigations.
  5. Slow down and pay attention. Instead of rushing from commitment to commitment, take a few minutes to notice your environment. Is the moon out tonight? Are there any flowers still in bloom?
  6. Spend time in nature. This is an extension of above. You can't pay attention to nature without being outside. City dwellers... paying attention to the nighttime sky is a great way to connect with nature's cycles. Or, how about those plants growing up in the cracks of the pavement? Or maybe the birds on a wire above your head. What can you learn by observing them?
  7. Share what you're doing with others. Talk about what you've noticed. People are interested in natural phenomena, even if they forget to stop and notice it themselves. Ask if they've noticed the same things as you. Listen to, and learn from, each other.
  8. Help kids ask questions and seek answers to their questions. This is the beginning of any scientific investigation. When scientists set-up experiments, they are looking for answers to their questions.  
  9. Remember that not every question will lead to an investigation. If that were true, we'd never do anything but investigate (for those of us who have young children, anyway. There's a steady stream of questions from young kids). But, saying, "I wonder..." keep kids thinking in this way even after they pass through the early years. I'd even go so far as to say that it helps keep us grown-ups "young."
  10. Know your limits. Learn to recognize when you can continue an investigation without knowing the outcome and when you need to seek more information. For example, I knew enough about the first caterpillars we were investigating (Swallowtails, by the way! Still no changes.) to move the caterpillars into our butterfly house. Once we found the woolly bear caterpillar, however, I recognized that I did not know enough specifics about woolly bears to move it into the butterfly house. As a naturalist, I do not want to harm any animal I'm observing.  I did some quick research before giving my daughter the go ahead. 
Bonus idea for teachers:
Plan ahead. This is especially important for classroom teachers who have a room of 20 or more kids to organize. Having good lesson plans decreases behavior issues. If you don't know what the kids should be doing, how will they? Along these same lines, have good procedures in place. Model the behaviors you want kids to demonstrate. Practice them right from the beginning of the year. Assign jobs such as Materials Manager, Recorder, etc.

Here are two of my favorite books for those of you who want to learn more. Both books are useful for parents and teachers, though Rachel Carson is especially good for parents and Ellen Doris is especially good for teachers.

(I use this book in the graduate level science methods course I teach called "Science in the Elementary Schools: Teaching with Evidence").

Have any of you tried doing investigations with your children/students since you read my posts about the caterpillars? Will you try one now? How helpful was this information?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Baby Honeybee

Me in full bee gear.
Today I won't offer an activity to do with kids.  Rather, I have some photos I hope will be inspiring.

My father-in-law and I are backyard beekeepers. We got our first hive during the spring of 2009 and they've been humming along ever since. We're certainly not experts. In fact, more often than not, we're unsure of what to do. But those bees just keep doing what they do- raising young, caring for the queen, guarding the hive, and foraging for food. During our last hive inspection we watched an amazing sight- the emergence of a "baby bee" from her cell.

Luckily, I had my camera nearby so I caught it all on film. My cropping isn't perfect (and blogger won't let me line up my photos), but she's in the middle of each photo.

By the last photo, she has blended into the crowd. If I hadn't cropped the photo to put her in the center, you wouldn't have been able to find her. In fact, if I hadn't watched her emerge and made note of her location while taking the photo, I wouldn't have been able to find her, either.

Are any of you backyard beekeepers? Do you know any beekeepers? You might not even realize there's one next door to you. More and more city dwellers are keeping bees in rooftop hives.  Last weekend, I met a beekeeper from the Bronx (as in New York City!) 

Expect to hear more from me about bees in the future!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fall Leaves

Here in Southern New England, now is the perfect time to get outside with your kids and enjoy the blaze of color on the trees. Every time my five-year-old daughter steps outside, she finds another beautiful leaf to share. "Oooh, Mommy, look at this one!" is her most common phrase.

I remember that as I child, all I wanted to do was find a way to preserve those leaves so I could enjoy them in the dark winter months. I tried many methods, including the fairly well-known practice of ironing leaves between two pieces of waxed paper and hanging them in front of a window. This exercise was fun, but the bold colors didn't last long.

A couple of years ago I had a new idea, this time inspired my my kids' same desire to preserve their leaves. 

Leaf Placemats
Here's what you need:
  • an assortment of leaves. Gather a variety of shapes and colors.
  • white glue
  • 11 X 17 paper (We used copy paper weight but any paper will do).
  • access to a color copy center an hour or two after finishing the project
  • clear contact paper or access to a copy center that does laminating
  1. Take a nature hike with your kids. Collect leaves together. (If hiking in public a place, such as an arboretum, be aware that collecting may not be allowed). While you're walking, take advantage of the time together. Talk about which leaves you like and why.  Note the shapes of the leaves. Try to find which trees your leaves came from. 
  2. Be careful of these leaves, though. That's poison ivy!
  3. Bring your leaves home. Before rushing right into the craft, give your kids a chance to explore the leaves a bit. Maybe they'd like to sort them in some way or talk about them with you. 
  4. Glue the leaves onto the 11 X 17 paper. Kids as young as 2 can participate in this with parent support. Ask the children where they want glue and help them apply it. Then they can stick the leaves down. Encourage older kids to make a pleasing design.  Note: the leaves do not need to be securely glued in all places. They just need to last long enough to make a copy.
  5. As soon as the glue is dry, take them to the copy center and make color photocopies. (The cost varies but is around $1.00 per sheet). If you wait, the leaves will start to fade, so the results will not be as good. The quality of photocopies today is terrific. They'll look exactly like your creations.
  6. To preserve the placemats, have the copy center laminate them. This is not a cheap process, so confirm the cost before placing your order. An alternative is to mount them on sturdy paper and cover them with clear contact paper. Public libraries sometimes have laminating machines and may allow you to use them for a fee. (I laminated ours at our public library). These coverings allow you to wipe the placemats clean with a damp cloth (DO NOT submerge them in water). We made ours 3 years ago and they're still in good condition.
Here's and alternative project  inspired by my daughter:

Leaf Rubbings
  • Assortment of leaves
  • Light weight paper such as regular copy paper
  • crayons
  • tape

  1. Arrange the leaves upside down (vein side up) on a piece of paper.
  2. Carefully place another piece of paper on top. Tape it down.
  3. Using the side of a crayon, gently rub across the surface of the paper. The leaves' shapes and veins will be revealed in the rubbing. This process is magical for young children as the leaves "suddenly" appear.
  4. Experiment with different colors. Even though my daughter loves pink, it was not a satisfying color for this project. Her favorite was a deep blue that clearly revealed the veins.
  5. Ask the kids to embellish the rubbings, or not, as they feel inspired.
  6. You can then frame these pieces or laminate them as above.
Relatives love to receive these projects as gifts and they're perfect for the Thanksgiving table.

For my readers from regions where leaves don't turn or who are overseas... try a project like this using flowers and green leaves. You'll need to gently flatten the flowers enough that they can sit on the deck of a copy machine.

Have you tried projects like these? Will you try one now? What other ideas do you have for preserving our beautiful fall leaves (or flowers)?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

White Mind (continuing the conversation from "Coloring Between the Lines")

If you've read my "about" tab, you know that connecting with nature and with people of different cultures and backgrounds is important to me. Nature is all around us if we just pay attention. So is culture. Sure, I can travel overseas to experience another culture, but there are subtle cultural differences all around us. There are differences of culture from one family to the next. That's one reason I was required to live with three different families when I was a Rotary Exchange Student in high school. Living with one family would have given me a view of that family's culture. By living with three different families over the course of a year, I was able to experience the daily routines and rituals of three very different families.

Culture includes the way we portray ourselves to the world and the way the world sees us. The United States is a varied, dynamic, interesting country that benefits from the contributions of people of all races, religions, and creeds. The sheer variety of people who live here and govern via a democracy makes us unique.

Yet, in the children's books published in the US, the majority of children portrayed are white. When children of color are depicted, the stories frequently revolve around a white person and have people of color in the background. Or, the story revolves around race issues, rather than portray a child of color having every day experiences that don't revolve around race. Described another way- stories that give the readers a "slice of life".

I touched on this topic briefly last July but many others have written more eloquently than I on this issue. I encourage you to join the conversation. Or, at least read what others have to say.
Here are some places to start:

Added 10/27: Also see Nikki Grime's blog post from today.

At a minimum, I hope these blogs will make you think. Then, as a parent or teacher, examine the books you choose for your kids or students. Do they reflect the diversity of people around them? Can children of color see themselves positively portrayed within the pages of those books?  (Booksellers, please also see Mitali Perkin's post for tips on selling multicultural books).

For a list of suggested titles, you can also visit Elizabeth Bluemle’s “A World Full of Color” list at LibraryThing.

Have you recently read a great children's book with a protagonist that is not Caucasian? Do you have any titles to suggest to us? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Caterpillar Investigation, Part 4

In three previous posts (here, here, and here), I described our caterpillar investigation. The caterpillars seemed to suddenly appear on the parsley in our vegetable garden. We started by observing them in the garden and eventually placed two caterpillars in a "butterfly house" to hopefully watch their metamorphosis into butterflies.  We are patiently awaiting some changes. One point I neglected to mention on those previous posts is the fact that this butterfly house in exposed to the cold. It's inside our screened porch so it's protected from severe weather but the temperature is basically the same as outside. I did this because the caterpillars were outside eating our parsley. Presumably, those caterpillars are adapted to the seasons and should, therefore, be left to experience the appropriate weather.

Last Wednesday, we added a new specimen to our butterfly house- a woolly bear caterpillar. I almost crushed the fuzzy little creature while walking through our dining room. Luckily, my husband spotted it and stopped me. Of course, I picked it up and showed our kids.

My daughter was the first to suggest we place it in with the other caterpillars. I was happy to support her investigation, as long as I knew we could keep the caterpillar healthy. Unlike the first caterpillars we found, I did not know how to care for a woolly bear. Even though I've seen them for my entire life, I had never seen one eating or researched their life cycle. I did a quick Internet search to be sure of what to do to care for it. I learned they eat clover or grass and would need a stick on which to climb. The kids gathered the needed supplies and we added the woolly bear to to the butterfly house. We need to add "fresh" grass every day until it stops moving around. Then it will winter over and make a cocoon in the spring. My research revealed that this caterpillar must be allowed to experience the cold or it's life cycle will be disrupted. It will make a cocoon too early and emerge as a moth that cannot survive the cold weather. 

We now have two un-identified caterpillars that made crysalids (photo to left)  in the butterfly house. We think they will emerge as butterflies very soon. (Full disclosure... I know what they are but I haven't told my kids or my readers. Does anyone besides Gail want to suggest what kind they are?) We also have the woolly bear that will eventually spin a cocoon and emerge as a moth in the spring. We check them each day to watch for changes and now we add grass or clover as the woolly bear needs more. We also need to add some pieces of bark or maybe leaves for it to hide beneath.

So, our investigations continue. I'll keep you posted when anything changes. In the meantime, I leave you with this idea. Take baby steps in your investigations with children. Know your limitations. Resist the urge to look up information just to get answers. By observing closely, you and your children (or students) can learn things together. Do find out enough, however, so that you can properly care for any organisms you observe.

Have you embarked on an investigation with your children or students lately? What did you do? What did you learn together? If you haven't done an investigation, how might you begin? Try to make time to to begin one soon.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cranberry Harvest

Yesterday we attended the A.D. Makepeace Cranberry Harvest Celebration in Wareham, MA.  A. D. Makepeace is the largest cranberry grower in the world. The festival offers a nice balance between fun activities and learning about the harvest (mostly through fun activities!). It was a pefect fall day to explore the cranberry bogs and learn about the cranberry harvest. For busy families, a festival like this is a great way to get outdoors together- no planning necessary- just show up!

One thing I love about this festival is that it really is all about the cranberries and what is local. And, it is affordable for families. Admission is only $2.00 per person, under 7 free. If you bring non-perishable food items for a local food pantry, admission is free. Once you're inside, there is plenty to do free of charge, including a bog tour. There are also loads of picnic tables in the main festival area, at the bog, and even in the parking lot, so families can pack a lunch (no coolers allowed, though). For those who want to spend some money, there's plenty of food to choose from, a crafter's tent, and various hay rides, moon bounces, and helicopter rides.

Yes, there are vendors, but this is not a highly commercial festival. Makepeace also hosts organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Lions club, and edible South Shore. These groups share news about their good work and, in some cases, raise funds for their organizations.

One of my favorites at the festival is the "bridge" set up at the harvest site. Visitors climb up and over the trucks as they're loaded.
From above, you can see the berries come off the belt  
and land in the back of a tractor trailer.

There were also jugglers, a bluegrass band, and an owl show. Then there's one of my kid' favorites...a GIANT sand pile that inspires kids and adults alike to roll, jump, skid, and slide. There's nothing like some good old fun for the kid in all of us. Best of all, we got to be outdoors.

Obviously, this harvest festival is over for the year, but the harvest continues. If you live in Massachusetts, you can probably find a bog and watch the harvest from the road. My son's school bus has been known to stop for a few minutes when they're ahead of schedule to watch the helicopters load up. We can still hear them working every day.

How about where you live? Is it harvest time now? Have you attended any good fall/harvest celebrations. Are there ones you plan to attend in the next couple of weeks?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Confessions of a Passive Gardener

Check this out. Do you know what it is? Come on... look really closely.

What do you mean you don't know? Can't you tell that's our squash and melon patch? Where are the squashes and melons, you might ask. I know it's pretty hard to find them among the weeds. This is what happens when life gets ahead of you. For me, a summer car accident, two weeks of house guests, and then a vacation prevented me from caring for this patch the way I should have. Did anyone else have a summer like that? Do you feel guilty for neglecting your garden, not planting a garden in the first place, or not "doing" enough nature activities with your child?

Lest you think I am the perfect Gardener/Naturalist/Mom/Teacher, I thought I should share this very clear visual that illustrates I am not. No-one is, so don't put unreasonable expectations on yourself. Do your best and celebrate your accomplishments.

Did you grow even one bit of produce this summer with your children? Did you cook a new recipe together with something you grew? Did your kids learn about plant life cycles by seeing a plant go from seed to flower to fruit? Did you explore the beach, or a pond, or a forest together? Each of these is a valuable lesson for your kids. Celebrate them. Once you celebrate, you can look for ways to improve.

 Here's the funny thing... despite the abundance of weeds, our melon and squash patch produced an abundance of food. We harvested 33 butternut squash (from 3 plants), 6 delicious cantaloupe (the woodchuck ate at least 3!) and three gigantic watermelons (there are two small ones still growing). The bigger message here is that you don't have to be the perfect gardener to grow some food for your family. You also don't have to be the perfect parent or teacher to raise wonderful kids.  In this "disaster" of a patch that we basically just managed to plant and water, wonderful things grew. The same is true for kids and classrooms and flower beds. Do your best. Love them. Nurture them as best you can. Don't beat yourself up for all the activities you didn't do. Celebrate the ones you did enjoy together and then make a plan to do more in the future.

What accomplishments are you celebrating today? Celebrate them publicly by posting them here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Caterpillar Investigation, Part 3

When the kids and I went out to observe the caterpillars on Wednesday afternoon, two were mysteriously absent. Several theories were suggested including, "They left," and "Birds got them." I had another theory. I suspected they were ready to make their chrysalids and had left to find a good spot. I know Painted Ladies eat and eat and eat for a week to ten days or so before beginning their metamorphosis, so I suspected a similar timeline here. I also know that some caterpillars will make a chrysalis right on the host plant they eat but others will move to a nearby location.

Since I am unsure of where these particular caterpillars may choose to transform, I suggested we put a couple in our butterfly house so we could watch them more closely. I would have preferred to keep watching them right were they were, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see the metamorphosis. Upon hearing my suggestion, my daughter ran to tell her brother (who had gone inside for a minute). They both raced back and my daughter said, "Mama, D has a good idea! He thinks we should put some parsley inside so they can eat it." A good idea indeed! In the parsley went with two of the caterpillars. (We left the final one where it was).

On Thursday, one caterpillar had attached to a surface and stopped moving while the other did laps around the house, up and down the screen. By Friday, both caterpillars had attached themselves to the solid part of the butterfly house (as opposed to the netting)- one at the top, one at the bottom. They both seemed to have their "mouth end" and the "other end" attached, so that their bodies looked like a comma.

Then, today, came the big excitement. Both caterpillars are "gone." In their places are two chrysalids. The kids were so excited. My daughter raced to get her grandfather so he could see them.

Now we wait
And we watch.
And we watch
And we wait.
Until something wonderful and magical happens.

What do you think, readers? Will butterflies appear soon? What kind will they be? How long do you think they will remain in the chrysalids?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Caterpillar Investigation, Part 2

Yesterday, I posted about the caterpillars that appeared on our parsley a little over a week ago. I also told you I'd provide updates regarding any changes.

Here's a quick photo update.
Taken the first day we officially observed them- last Wednesday, September 22nd. This was the largest caterpillar at the time.

Taken two days later on, September 24th.
And here' s one taken today, September 27th:
My how they've grown in just 5 days! Nearly doubled in size!

Our primary question is: Will the caterpillars change into butterflies? And, if they do, how long will the process take? My daughter has already connected our observations to The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. In it, a fictional caterpillar eats lots of food (not all of it "real" caterpillar food) and then changes into a beautiful butterfly.

What do you think will happen? What questions do you have?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Teachable Moment- Caterpillar Investigation

Last weekend I noticed some new residents in our vegetable garden when I was harvesting parsley for dinner. My first thought? It's time for an investigation with the kids!

This is the perfect example of what educators call a "teachable moment:" a time when an event prompts learning about a new, unplanned topic. In a classroom, the moment may be spurred by an intriguing question asked by a student or a guest who arrives unexpectedly. For science-oriented teachers like me, it may be when something exciting happens in the classroom aquarium such as a crab attacking a mummichog (Challenge: Does anyone know what a mummichog is? If so, post it in the comments!) Or, in this case, some caterpillars decide to move into our garden.

When teachable moments occur in a classroom, teachers usually have a few moments, at best, to decide whether to veer off topic and delve deeper into the new topic or to continue with the scheduled lesson. Ideally, our days would be filled with teachable moments because they represent times when kids are usually highly motivated by the events at hand. The reality is, however, that digging into every teachable moment could lead to a classroom with no focus or one that doesn't reach the required goals for the year. Teachers are faced with the daunting task of choosing those moments carefully.

(Note to educators: I would choose to explore this particular teachable moment with my elementary students because I know I can address many state mandated science and ELA standards along the way. This represents a place where standards and a teachable moment overlap. A win, win all around!)

 So how do you plan an investigation? It's simple. You watch. You make observations. You ask questions and try to find the answers to your questions.

The kids and I went out to examine the little caterpillars more closely on Wednesday. We chose to draw them and record other important data such as the date, their size, their location on the plants, the number of stripes, etc.   Each of us chose a different focus, but between us we have a fairly complete record of what we saw.

My 4 year old daughter focused on drawing the pattern in the stripes. Her dictated caption reads, "His eyes are tiny. We found him in the garden. We found him on the parsley."
My 8 year old son focused on the stripe pattern, the shape of the caterpillar, and it's legs.

My journal entry included the most data, which makes sense since I'm older and have been doing this longer! I included measurements, locations on the plants, etc. A portion of my entry:
Our plan is to watch them over the next few days or weeks and record the changes we see. We're hoping to see a big change in a week or so. Check back to see what happens! I'll post the changes as we see them. I'll also offer suggestions for guiding children in their science investigations.

Has anyone seen these caterpillars before? Do you know what they are? We've purposely avoided field guides for right now, though we have a pretty good idea what they are. If you know, please share!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nature in Our Nation's Capitol

As I mentioned in a previous post, my family spent time in Washington, DC during the month of August. In between our visits to museums and the National Zoo, we also took time to enjoy a little nature. After a visit to the Museum of Natural History, we stepped out onto the National Mall to have a picnic with our friends. And even though the National Mall is decidedly not a "wild" natural space, humans cannot control one aspect of nature- the wind. It continues to blow as wild as it wants.

Our kids took advantage of this by flying a "pocket kite" purchased at the Air and Space Museum the rainy day before. They learned a few things about nature and physics as they learned to keep a kite aloft and soaked up a few of the sun's rays at the same time.

How do you and your kids experience nature in the city? Do you go to a park or other open space? Have you found other ways to enjoy nature? Please share your ideas.

On another note, if you have questions you'd like answered or topics you'd like me to explore, please post a comment. If you'd rather remain anonymous, send me an email.
michelle(at)michellecusolito(dot)com (Use the usual @ and . symbols in my address. Writing it this way stops spam).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Meetin' the Locals

It's been a busy few weeks here in the Cusolito household, with a 10 day trip to our Nation's Capitol and then the birth of my niece.

Here's a post I started before we left but was only able to finish tonight.

Kids offer a great way to meet new people. I've been especially aware of this fact as I take my kids to swimming lessons each day. The beach is full of families, most of them with young children. Children automatically gravitate to each other on the beach, at the playground, in the park, on the city bus, etc. All parents have to do is take the opportunity to say hello to each other and chat a bit.

So far at the beach we've met several families from our own town that we didn't know and many from the neighboring towns. I met a mom who literally lives around the corner from us. I've also been the "local" person others meet. Just the other day, a dad said hello when his son wandered nearby. Turns out, they're on vacation here from California, so by talking to me, he got to "meet the locals."

As you venture out, look for ways to interact with others- whether you're on vacation or in your own hometown or city. Your life will be richer for it. And so will your kids' lives.
I also encourage you to consider who you tend to interact with and to stretch yourself a bit.  People tend to stick to their own social, ethnic, or racial group. I'm NOT suggesting that you approach someone purely on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or social standing. But pay attention to your internal inclinations and try to break out of them.

If you are Caucasian and a Chinese-American child talks to your child, don't simply smile politely at the other parent or caregiver from a distance. Walk right up. Say hello and introduce yourself. If you meet someone new to the area, share a few local spots a new resident or vacationer might not know. I did this last fall in a coffee shop. I later ran into that person in the very store I had suggested. Our later interactions developed into a new friendship. Last week, my daughter kept watching a couple of girls. They were doing the same- watching and seeming interested but too shy to talk to each other. I said hello to the girls and struck up a conversation with their mom. She seemed new to town so I told her about the Farmer's Market. We ran into each other there later in the day. My daughter was so excited. (I confess, so was I!) When we saw them at the beach another day, my daughter reacted as if they were old friends.

(Obviously, you'll want to talk to your kids about stranger safety. I basically tell mine that talking to unknown adults is OK as long as a known adult is with them. Remember: other than blood relatives, everyone was a stranger to you once.)

Here are some suggested ways to enter into a conversation:
  1. Many people read on the beach, in the park, on the T (or Metro, L, or Tube). Strike up a conversation about the book a person is reading. I asked a woman about the book she was reading (I had just finished it). Days later, we spoke about it again. 
  2. Ask a simple question. For example, "Do you live in town?" or "How old are your kids?"
  3. If your children are already interacting with their kids, focus on the kids. What are their names, ages, grade in school, etc. Eventually you may move into other territory.
  4. Smile and say hello. If your kids are with you, people will often focus on the kids, as above. My husband, son, and I had the most amazing conversation with a husband and wife on a city bus in Florence, Italy. Our son was the "way in." Even though our Italian was severely limited and their English was nearly as limited as our Italian, we connected in a very meaningful way through words, gestures, smiles, and laughs.
Sometimes my interactions with others lead to longer-term relationships. Other times, we exchange a conversation and never see each other again. I recently had a brief exchange with my bagger at the grocery store in Bethesda, MD. The man told my friend and I about his "younger days" growing up in rural Alabama.  We laughed and joked with each other and then my friend and I were on our way with our groceries. I'll never see that man again, but boy was my grocery shopping experience fun!

I know not all people are as outgoing as me, which is why I'm suggesting that parents who venture out with their kids have an opportunity to meet each other. I had a nice exchange with a mom and her kids from Northern England on the train home from Washington, DC. She simply turned to me and asked, "Would your kids like to have a go with the cards?" She broke the ice and then we chatted a bit more. She's another person I'll never see again, but our conversation was a nice addition to our 7 hour train ride.

Have you had any fun interactions with strangers lately? Where did you meet? What was your "way in." Did it lead to a lasting friendship?

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Beach Tail

In honor of summertime here in the northern hemisphere, I thought I'd mention a book I recently discovered- A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams.

Taken from the author's, website

"Gregory and his father are spending a day at the beach. When Greg finds a stick and draws a lion in the sand, they name him Sandy Lion. "Don't go in the water, and don't leave Sandy," Dad says. Greg follows his father's advice. But he still manages to travel down the beach quite a way before he realizes he can no longer see the blue umbrella where Dad has settled on the dolphin towel.

Swish Swoosh! Greg's journey takes him past such landmarks as a jellyfish, a sandcastle, a ghost crab hole and more. How will he find his way back to Dad? Fortunately, he has his stick and Sandy's tail with him the whole way.

This rhythmic text is paired with Floyd Cooper's brilliant illustrations, revealing the trip down the beach entirely from a child's point of view. The art and text show a gentle father-son bond and reassures young readers even as they share Greg's moment of worry."

One detail that I especially love is that this book portrays an African-American father and son spending time together. Their race is not mentioned in the text, rather Floyd Cooper's lovely illustrations reveal this detail. Race is not the focus of the story as is the case in so many books about children of color in which the plot focuses on slavery, racism, the civil rights movement, etc. Those books are important, of course, but they need to be balanced with books like this one that portray a "slice of life" for people of color in which their race does not define the plot of the book.

For more on this topic, please check out  the Publisher's Weekly blogpost by Elizabeth Bluemle titled "The Elephant in the Room." You can also follow The Open Book, (children's book publisher Lee and Low's blog), and Coloring Between the Lines (Author/illustrator Anne Sibley OBrien's Blog).

As I think back on my years as a Grade 4 Teacher, I'm sure the books I read with my class were too heavily focused on social issues and not enough on "slice of life stories." I am much more aware of this issue now that I have kids of my own and I write for children, too. Plus, there are more good examples being published every day. I hope you'll support these books by purchasing them or checking them out of the library. As demand grows, publishers will seek more titles. (Two great publishers to check out are Lee and Low and Shen's Books).

Are you a teacher, parent, or homeschooler? Have you considered this point of view regarding books about children of color? Analyze the books you read with your kids. Are people of different races, ethnicities and religions represented? In those books you've read, is the character's race, ethnicity, or religion the defining characteristic? Can you recommend any good books to us?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Locavore Way

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know how much I support local farmers and gardening. In earlier posts (here and  here), I offered suggestions for planting vegetables with kids (A reader recently told me she planted lettuce in a window box after reading my post. I hadn't thought of that. Great idea!) I also shared stories about our garden successes (here, here and here ). Joining CSA's or visiting farmer's markets has also been discussed on this blog by me and others.

By patronizing farmer's markets, you can meet the people who grow your food, meet your neighbors, and support local agriculture and the economy. By bringing your children to the market, you help them learn that produce does not come with stickers on it or in plastic bags. If you and your children interact with the farmers and other vendors, they can learn about life cycles, farming in general, and economics, to name a few subjects. Many times, the farmers at farmer's markets will welcome you to visit their farms and some encourage volunteer work in exchange for fresh produce. This is "Mucking about and meeting the locals" at its best.

Just this week at the ORR Farmer's Market, I talked to Zack from Lucky Field Organics who encouraged me to try kohlrabi. He suggested several ways to prepare it before sending me on my way with my purchase. I took mine home, peeled it, sliced it thin, and cooked it in a cast iron skillet in a little olive oil. The only seasoning was a little salt and pepper. Even though I need to perfect my cooking technique, my son still loved it! Next week I'll buy another one and use it in an Asian style slaw also featuring a lovely savoy cabbage from our garden. If Zack had not suggested kohlrabi and offered cooking tips, I would not have bought it. This is the kind of service and interaction you can expect from a farmer's market.

For those of you who are new to the idea of being a "locavore" (someone who seeks out and savors locally grown and raised food), I recommend The Locavore Way by Amy Cotler as a great place to learn more about this endeavor. She offers practical tips for getting started, including a point I've made here: start small and add a little bit at a time. If you can attend one farmer's market this year and purchase produce for one great meal, that's terrific. If you belong to a CSA or have a small garden, great. But don't think you need to be like Barbara Kingsolver and become a complete locavore (Her book about a year of eating locally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is a great adult read). As much as I strive to eat locally, the truth is I'm not a "full-time" locavore.  Being a locavore in the Northeast is hard during the winter and spring. And then there are the things I'm not willing to give up such as coffee, or chocolate, or even the occasional mango). I eat more locally than some but not as much as others and that's Ok. Find the amount that's right for you right now and keep looking for ways to support your local farmers, bakers, beekeepers, etc. It's good for your family's health, the planet's health, and the local economy.

Here's a  quick recipe for this time of year.
(If you're fairly skilled in the kitchen, it truly takes 30 minutes from start to finish. If you involve your kids in the cooking, as I suggest, it will take longer!)

Fresh Tomato Sauce over Pasta
An assortment of tomatoes. This week we used cherry tomatoes and a variety of others we purchased at the farmer's market (I used one small box of cherry plus 5 larger tomatoes. Cut cherry tomatoes in half and cut the other tomatoes into bite-sized chunks.)

An onion or two, sliced thin
Chopped garlic (I used 5 cloves, but we LOVE garlic)
fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped (I used roughly a cup, maybe more)
salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil to saute the onions
grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)
your favorite pasta

With fresh ingredients, it's almost impossible to mess this up, so don't worry about exact measurements.
  1. Put the pasta water on to boil.
  2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet. When the oil shimmers, add the onions. Saute them until nearly soft. Then add the garlic.
  3. Cook the garlic for 2-3 minutes, then add the tomatoes.
  4. About this time, put the pasta into the boiling water.
  5. Simmer the tomatoes, onion, and garlic over medium-low heat until the tomatoes are soft (roughly 10-15 minutes), adding half the basil about 5 minutes in and the rest at the end.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste (likely very little, if any will be needed)
  7. Drain the pasta. Serve the pasta with the sauce and a sprinkling of grated cheese, if desired.
Add a nice green salad or maybe a focaccia from your local baker and you've got a delicious meal.

Are you a locavore? If so, what region or country do you live in? Are there times when eating locally is harder for you (such as winters here)? If you're not a locavore, would you consider trying to eat more locally? What roadblocks might you face? How might you work through them?