On Christmas Trees and Nutcrackers

Photo credit: Paul Sanford

Photo credit: Paul Sanford

{{Remember, I've gathered my "Best of Advent and Christmas" into this great bundle. It's a gift to give yourself. }}

When I talked with Sarah earlier this week about immersing ourselves in Advent and Christmas reading during these December weeks, I stressed that the books and activities of the season aren't things I heap on to an already full academic plan. Instead, I apply the principles of a Storybook Year and seize the interest and enthusiasm of my children for the thrilling events of this time of year and just make that what we're learning and doing. 

A great example of this in action is this ridiculously intense week of the Nutcracker performances. In the space of two days, there will be 6 performances. For those days, dance will be all we do. But on the days surrounding those days and the days in the afterglow, there's a whole lot to learn away from the stage. (Let me tell you all the things we learned about lace and tulle last week... maybe in another post;-)

This is also the big decorating week around our house. Christmas greens are the best botany lesson of all in December! The week ahead looks downright balmy--perfect for an outdoor adventure.

photo credit: Kristin Foss

photo credit: Kristin Foss

So in our house, this is a good week totravel along a Christmas trail and inhale the sweet smells of evergreen along the way. it's also a very good week to take advantage of the total family immersion in the Nutcracker to look at some art and music and storytelling. Remember, the whole idea behind a Storybook year, particularly during seasons of lots of outside-the-box learning (like dance productions), is to seize the enthusiasm and also the "real world" context for what kids are learning, not to kill yourself doing more and more and more.

So, as the tree goes up and the boughs get trimmed and the halls get decked, we can look a little more closely at the greenery. We can learn about coniferous trees and study the botanical information we can glean from looking carefully at Christmas trees:  Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Noble fir (Abies procera), and Norway spruce (Picea abies). Though we have a big brother away at college who really can't breathe in the presence of a pine tree, my bunch at home and I will visit a Christmas tree farm to gather some boughs and cones in order to carefully draw and compare needles and cones. We won't leave them here in the house when Patrick arrives home, though.

photo credit: Mary Beth Foss

photo credit: Mary Beth Foss

There's a lot to be learned in picture books and a whole lot of science waiting to gently happen as you look carefully at Christmas greens. We've had great success teaching basic botany with books like Pine Trees and Golden Field Guides. This week, we're focusing on conifers.  Want to come along? Simply read the books with your child and then work your way through together, discussing the concepts, narrating, and drawing. Don't be tempted to leave out the "drawing" step--it really does enhance understanding and retention. For further study, botanical nomenclature cards are a good way to apply the Montessori three period lesson to botany study. These cards can also be used for drawing and labeling.

Ideas for Evergreen Reading:

Suggested Books for Read-Alouds and Narrations (These are to be narrated both verbally and artistically.  For the younger children it is often fun to keyboard an oral narration for them and then ask the child to illustrate the printed page.)

Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree

The Legend of the Christmas Tree

photo credit: Paul Sanford (This one's from last year. Don't blink;-)

photo credit: Paul Sanford (This one's from last year. Don't blink;-)

Writing :

You may want to begin to explore The Fairy Tale Christmas  book. There is more than enough material here for December and January. Since this week is Nutcracker week for the Foss family, we'll read the story of The Nutcracker in The Fairy Tale Christmas book. Older children can really explore the complexity of the story in the long version in this great book, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. We can all read this Susan Jeffer's edition and  discuss the notes about the story which the author of Fairy Tale Christmas has made. The older children will write critical papers discussing the story. Everyone will draw and illustrate The Nutcracker. Alternatively, use a story from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books or Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales or Grimm's Fairy Tales. For younger children, mom keyboards as the children tell the story. Older children are encouraged to write or keyboard for themselves. An older child's story is a great place for proofreading and editing practice. Younger children love to see their stories printed. All children should illustrate their stories. Stories written by younger children can be used for reading practice. To illustrate those stories, we'll learn  how to draw a nutcracker

We also thoroughly enjoyed giggling over Talulah's Nutcracker and Angelina's Nutcracker. 

Serendipi-Tea Time
Nutcracker music is likely to be heard at the Foss home during tea time this week. And we'll test out some of these recipes for sweet treats:
Arabian Coffee
Snow cookies

Monday Night Football Geography and Cuisine

One of the benefits that comes with having taken the time to archive lessons in years past is that I don't have to start from scratch when I want to begin with a child's interest and take it somewhere constructive. Below is a post from 2007 together with an update. 




Next week begins Monday Night Football, noted on my calendar for the entire season as "MNF."  Why does a middle-aged mama note Monday Night Football on her calendar? I like to keep track of my husband. He won't be on the couch with a beer and a bowl of chips. He'll be at every Monday Night Football site all season long (with the exception of the double-booked nights--he can't bi-locate so when MNF is at two locations, he's only at one of them;-). As much as we love sports around here and as grateful as we are for this job, this is a very long haul through the fall.

Last year, as my younger children began to figure out the rhythm to Mike's travels, we started moving a Post-it note arrow around on a big wall map so that they could see where he was. But a flat map on the wall doesn't really do much for a child's imagination. They couldn't really picture him where he was working.  Kim introduced me to the idea of geography textboxes  and I found these wonderful picture books, and an idea was born.

Every week, on Monday, we spend the afternoon reading and writing about the state where Monday Night Football is being played. The books are packed with information and illustrations and pictures. There is a short rhyming verse on each page, perfect for the little ones. The older children spend more time with the book, reading the more involved columns on the page for detail.

The year the baby arrived four weeks into football season. I relied heavily on the idea in these free unit studies which are keyed to the books. This year, I think we are going to focus only on the information in the book during our study time. Each child is creating his or her own book. The books vary according to age and interest and I'm giving the children free reign to pull out of the alphabet books what matters most to them and then to express that in their notebooks.

On Monday evenings, we watch ESPN beginning well before the game. In all honesty, this has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with our Daddy's shows. But, the bonus to our devotion is that we see great scenic shots of the places we've just read in the books. All the way up through the pre-game show and the introduction, there are sights and sounds of the state we've studied.

Finally, as he dashes through the airport on his way home, Mike collects a few postcards from each state to add to the book. All the books we will use for Monday Night Football geography (and plenty more) are linked on the sidebar. Maybe you'd like to travel with us this fall!

LOTS more resources here.



Mike is no longer traveling with Monday Night Football. The child whose narration is pictured above is now a a couple months away from graduating college. What follows is from two years ago. I thought the tradition would do a slow fade this year. It hasn't. Nick isn't letting this one go--maybe ever. So, tonight, we are having bratwursts with cheese. Stephen really lobbied for Kansas BBQ, but Nick, faithful keeper of the tradition, won out.

Thoughts from 2013:

 I am ever so grateful that I recorded this study when I did, because I was reminded this morning.

Longtime readers will recognize Paddy as the boy who always had a ball at his feet. In the absence of a ball, he had wadded up newspaper, socks, pillows, whatever he could get those feet on. Paddy is playing soccer at UVa now, but the incessant sound of dribbling is still making me nuts on Monday mornings.

"Nicholas, quit kicking."

"Nicholas, keep your feet still."

Nicholas, please try to finish up that lesson."

"Good golly, child, will you PLEASE stop with the dang ball!"

All before 10:00. 

Mary Beth looked at me and said "Does this feel like Paddy all over again?" 


The big difference is that Paddy was never a huge football fan. He was a huge Daddy fan, but football wasn't a passion. The Monday Night Football hook for him was tracking Dad. Nicholas, on the other hand, is obsessed with all things ESPN, especially football.

"Hey Nick, who plays tonight?"

"Cincinnati and Pittsburgh."

"How about if we study them today? You read these two books and then make two main lesson pages (see Paddy's examples) and we can make football food from Cincinnati and Pittsburgh."

"Wait, you mean we can have Philly Cheesesteaks?!?!"

"NOoooo, research Pittsburgh and Cincinnati food and get back to me."

And so, tonight, we will have cabbage rolls and pierogies for dinner.

Then we'll have Buckeyes for dessert. 

He's already planning menus for the rest of the season.

And later today, he's going to treat himself to T is for Touchdown.

Katie and Karoline are joining in because that's how we roll...
















Could it be a Storybook Year?

Late last summer, as I was gathering my thoughts on curriculum and trying to plan the year, I hit a wall. Actually, I was probably already flat up against the wall, but the time of year compelled me to do what I'd always done, so I pressed on. But I didn't want to plan. And I wasn't enthused about all the things that had previously sparked so much creative energy. It wasn't exactly burnout. It was more like beaten out. I hadn't wanted to share learning ideas for over a year, but by last summer, I didn't even want to write them for myself. It just wasn't fun anymore.

I thought about just sending off for several boxes of pre-planned curriculum. And then I consulted the budget. I looked around my house at all the resources we own. I didn't order anything. Nothing. That became the plan. Use what we have and just get the job done. 

We have an abundance of picture  books. I love picture books. When I was in college, I'd forego the coffee shop in the Student Union Building and head instead to the tiny corner of the adjacent bookstore that was home to the children's books. I saved my latte pennies for a hardbound copy of The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit. Way better. I loved the small room in the Ed School library that was lined with shelves of children's literature. When we were assigned a semester-long project to compile an index card file of children's books, I filled three boxes. Every card was color-coded and annotated and illustrated. I still have those cards. I loved that project.


For over twenty years, I have been inspired by the art and the literature of picture books. I've thrown my whole heart into creating with books, whether it was bulletin boards in a classroom or fullblown unit studies for many ages. Literature-based learning was where I invested most of my creative energy. Some people love their cameras, some their paints, others their yarn or fabric. For me, it was always those beautiful books and the endless possiblities of things we could do with them.


I recalled a conversation with an old friend. Several years ago, we wondered if everything in an elementary curriculum could probably be taught with a good picture book. This year became my year to test the theory. Sort of.

We read widely from the lists in Real Learning (and more), both as read-alouds and read alones. Sustaining attention for long stories is a cornerstone of how we learn in our home.

The Montessori maps come out for geography review a couple times a week. 

Nature notebook

For my fifth-grader, I have a good math text, Rosetta Stone, some art history, nature notebooks, and, at his request, Swimming Creatures of the Fifth Day. All the rest? Picture books.

For my third grader, math, Rosetta Stone, nature notebooks, drawing instruction, and picture books. 

For my little ones, lots of mama time. And picture books.

I take the week's copywork from the picture books. I take the poem to memorize that week from a picture book. Every night, each of the three youngest girls chooses two picture books for me to read before going to sleep.

What unfolded is not a curriculum. It's a "freedom within limits" plan that works for us. I share it here to tell you what we've been up to, not so much as to suggest you adopt it. It's entirely real learning in the heart of our home. I thought about all the categories of books, all the subjects typical programs of studies will cover. Also, I was sure to leave some grids for me to add in books I love and just don't want them to miss.  I gridded all the different categories in a weekly planning sheet. The sheet has changed several times this year as I add and delete as necessary. I've thoughtfully included the things that are important us, the components of a Charlotte Mason curriculum that I hold dear. 


We read the books together or the children read them to themselves. Sometimes, they have books in common on their charts. Sometimes, they have their own particular books. I sit down the weekend before and plan out the week. I key the saints' picture books to the liturgical year. Usually, I'll ask if there is a book they want to read and let them choose within each discipline. Occasionally, I'll gather up the stack myself. It's important for me to gather all the books before the week begins so I don't spend hours looking under couch cushions or behind beds for the books I am certain I just saw.

Sometimes, there is a theme across disciplines. Nicky might read  A Swim Through the Sea, Man Fish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, and mom's choice of Night of the Moonjellies. Katie might ask about Manassas Battlefield Park as we drive by it daily, back and forth to ballet. The following week, I'll write in books like Follow the Drinking GourdHenry's Freedom BoxCivil War ArtistSweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War.

More often, though, this is not about unit studies, but about a wide banquet of varied topics. If a child is super-interested in something, it's simple enough to scuttle the written plan and dig deeply with more on-topic books. Two important things about scuttling the plan:  

  • There must be a plan to scuttle; this isn't freewheeling and hoping that books thrown everywhere will catch someone's attention.
  • If you ditch the plan, it's only to do something better. It's never to do nothing. And we need a written plan for the "something better."

Every day, the children respond in writing to at least one book. They can choose a writing project from a long list of projects or they can propose another. Not every book requires a formal response. Some books, we read, we talk about just a little, and then we close it and put it on the shelf. But every day requires some kind of writing. Every day. They might dictate a simple narration. They might peck out their own narrations. They might take off and create an elaborate screenplay. Whatever they choose, they must write something.


With the time that's left in the day, they can choose from other ways to respond to books and get as creative as they like with any book they've read that day or previously. We're busy. We're productive. We're surrounded by good language and great art. And the creative energy has returned to our educational adventures.

It's all good.


Tell me about your book: 

  • Write and tell a friend about the story. 
  • Make a detailed map of the setting of the book.
  • Is it a circle story? Can you draw it?
  • Did something really catch your attention? Want to research it further?
  • If historical, add it to your Book of Centuries. (we do this with every historical book)
  • Write a letter from the main character to you.
  • Choose a character you’d like to have as a friend.  Write him or her a letter. 
  • Plan & cook something to go with the book
  • Tell why it would (or wouldn’t) make a great movie. 
  • Describe an incident from it as though you were an on-the-scene TV reporter.
  • Create a collage.
  • Make up a rhyming poem about it
  • Illustrate w/drawings or photos
  • Explain its funniest (or saddest or most exciting) incident.
  • Make a new book jacket for the book
  • Do a puppet show.
  • Read the book aloud as radio theatre and record it.
  • Write 3 paragraphs in a diary as if you were your favorite character. 
  • Design and draw costumes for some of the characters.
  • Design quilt squares to go with the book
  • Tell what your home would look like if you were one of the main characters. 
  • Write a biography of one of the characters.
  • Write a human interest story about one of the characters in the book.
  • Write a letter to the editor about an issue in the book.
  • Create magazine ad for the book.
  • Create a television ad for the book
  • Draw it into newspaper cartooning squares.
  • Play charades w/themes from the book
  • Pretend a character had made an important decision differently. Write a new ending.
  • Make a list of facts you learned in the book
  • Write an Amazon review.
  • Plan a field trip inspired by the book
  • Compare versions of the same story.
  • Compare the book to the movie version
  • Make peg dolls to go with the book.
  • Compare it to another book the author/illustrator has written. This might be a comparison of art or of the story.
  • Use its title to write your own story. 
  • Write a letter to the author
  • Pretend you are the author. Write a publisher, pictching your book.

 Picture books make me happy. This blog is for sharing what makes me happy. I can't promise you a book a day. There's no way I'm going to post big plans for every book. I do hope to share a little of our picture book love on a regular basis here. A quick review, a picture or two, some ideas on where the book took us--little snapshots of books we all love. I know that not all my readers are homeschoolers. I'm certain, though, that these books can enrich the lives of all the children we love.

Just Being Audrey








Let’s go back a couple weeks or so, back to when I thought the most stressful thing about the fall would be four birthdays in the same week. We kicked off Birthday Week, the Friday before it really began. All about birthday traditions, we happily said , “Yes!” when my friend Megan suggested that last year’s tea in Leesburg become a tradition. Yes, ma’am we’d love to do it again this year and every year forever!

Tea is always fun. The tea house has an authentic vintage vibe and the ladies are truly British, so it’s the real deal.  They’ve gotten their gluten-free menu down nicely since last year, too.

As an added treat, Megan gave the girls a copy of Just Being Audrey.

Such a perfect book for them!

It’s a nicely illustrated storybook that brings to life a young Audrey Hepburn who wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. We see an age-appropriate glimpse of living in hiding during World War II and then we are treated to the grown up Audrey—first an actress and then an activist speaking for children who could not speak for themselves.

It’s a sweet, sweet book. It reminded me of a book my friend Mindy recommended to me years ago, an Audrey book for grown-ups. Her best friend from home wrote a book called How to Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life. It popped up as an Amazon recommendation once for me and I scrolled through reviews to find Mindy’s name. Since Mindy is pretty much not on the internet, the whole thing startled me. So, I asked her about it at soccer one day and she shared a little insight to the author. If you’re an Audrey Hepburn fan, you’ll love the way Audrey’s philosophy of life is brought to life in the pages. In Mindy's words, 

This is the perfect book to give for birthdays, hostess gifts, Christmas, Mother's day, graduation, or any special event in a woman's life. I sent it home with 15 ladies who attended a baby shower, and it has inspired several Audrey "film-festivals." Her thoughts on how to carry oneself with style, dignity and grace will translate to any generation. "How to be Lovely" should be on every woman's night stand.

So there you go, a little Audrey Hepburn rabbit trail and a perfectly lovely birthday tea.

{{For more about our Storybook Year, please visit here.}}

A is for Apples and Artists

Fridays in our house are dedicated to art and Shakespeare. It's my ahhhh at the end of the week. Our Shakespeare studies are outlined here. Look for that whole page to be re-designed. I had trouble following it last week;-)


In our framework for lessons here in the heart of my home, Along the Alphabet Path, art is definitely an every age endeavor. There is more than enough here for everyone. Using Museum ABC as a spine, we have an introduction to 26 great works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the letter "A" we studied Cezanne's apples.

The Met website does a fabulous job with this particular piece, with a wonderful online lesson. There is an online biography of Cezanne with plenty of information about the artist and his place in the art world. 

There are online games and activities and there are suggestions for "on paper" games and activities.

That would be plenty.

But wait, I have more;-).


Remember Degas and the Little Dancer? We love her. Laurence Anholt has written a whole series of books like that one. These are painstakingly researched books which bring to life the stories of real children who knew the artists. Cezanne's story is one of his son, Paul, and the friendship father and son develop when they are reunited on a painting expedition in the mountains of southern France. 


And, there's an app for that! Well, almost. Anholt's Van Gogh and the Sunflowers book has been developed into an iPad app. It's a truly lovely app, at that:-) I look forward to seeing more of his books broadened this way.

We also really enjoy Mike Venezia's series, Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists. His volume on Cezanne offers plenty of biographical detail so that children can create a notebook page and lovely reproductions that expose them to much more of this artist's work. 

Artist activity book

The Met site suggests a simple hands-on still life activity. Laurence Anholt's Artists Activity Book poses a charcoal challenge in the spirit of Cezanne. Anybody else find that charcoal is most challenging for mothers? Ah, the mess. Let them make a mess. Say it with me. Maybe we'll believe it. There are activities in the Artists Activity Book for each of the books in the artist series. This book is a keeper!

Then, pulling books off my shelf, I found a more detailed still life activity and a lovely biography in Monet and the Impressionists for Kids. In Discovering Great Artists, MaryAnn Kohl offers still more still-life instruction. Clearly, there's a theme here.

Finally, for the child who is just super stuck and can't get anything on paper, there's a coloring sheet in Masterpieces: A Fact-Filled Coloring Book that provides the basic forms and lets kids focus on color. .

For more about our Storybook Year, please visit here.