Wednesday, February 27, 2013

project-based homeschooling

Once the idea of homeschooling got into our minds, we did a lot of reflecting our own learning experiences. I have a three-year Bachelor of Arts in English that took me five years. My husband studied at university for three years before dropping out and eventually, many years later, getting a college diploma. But for both of us, the vast majority of our learning in our professional fields came after our formal education. I really believe I've learned more and had it stick better, in the 12 years since I finished school than I did in the 18 years of school I did.

I have also mostly taught myself photography, and I include seeking mentors as a very important part of the idea of self-teaching. When I think about what, when and how I've learned, I realize that learning only really happens when the subject is meaningful and relevant to me in that moment.

Formal education is often centred around learning information and skills in a particular sequence, like you can't run until you can walk. But I'm not convinced that is the case very often. There were times when I felt like I should learn flash, and I made a few attempts here and there. But nothing stuck until I was unhappy with the available light. That's when I was motivated enough to get past that awful, destabilizing feeling of total suckage and cluelessness that I think is normal when you're doing something you're doing something for the first time.

It just makes sense to us that it could be the same for children, that being allowed to pursue their own interests makes for better learning than a whole bunch of mandatory studies.

I can't remember when I first encountered Project-Based Homeschooling, but I quickly became a big fan. The idea behind project-based homeschooling is that an attentive caregiver helps the kid follow his own interests deeper than he might on his own. But it's a delicate walk, because as soon as you make suggestions, the kid loses that opportunity to figure out on their own the next steps they want to take. So the trick is to mostly observe, document and ask questions. Do I need to point out that this kind of thing is really not my forte? But if you can sit back, the kid will, in the process of following their own interests, develop their skills and learn how to learn much more effectively than they ever could with mandatory, assigned work from someone else.

Truth be told, I haven't actually finished reading the book yet. Nor have I really implemented many of her ideas. But I'm working on it. We developed a Fun Zone, as Eldest quickly named it, which has a small kids' table and chairs, some art supplies and toys and books. It also has a loveseat for cuddles while reading. But it's still not quite what I want it to be. I want more art materials visible and more inspiration. Eldest needs a workspace that Youngest can't reach and destroy his stuff (or choke on wee lego bits), so he tends to build his lego and other stuff behind a closed door.

(While I'm on the topic, does anyone have any tips for dealing with a toddler who keeps climbing onto the dining table? It doesn't seem to matter how many times we tell him no and remove him, he gets right back up with the most devilish grin ever. The kid is persistent.)

Anyways, even with the Fun Zone, we've been struggling a bit. Eldest has been crabby and seemed restless. I was frustrated with how little progress we've made working towards project-based homeschooling. We needed to do something.

Eldest has been nursing an obsession with horses for the last couple of months. He's started taking riding lessons in exchange for me mucking out stalls on Sundays (yay for bartering! My first real barter), so he gets the double learning bonus of helping out as well on Sundays. Every time we go to the library he only wants books on horses and if I get books on other topics, we never get around to reading them. So the topic to support Eldest developing into project work was clear. But how? My own mind was stuck on writing and drawing activities, perhaps categorizing the breeds he's been learning about or something. I knew if I suggested that it would go over like a lead balloon, in addition to not really being in the spirit of project-based homeschooling.

So I decided to ask Eldest. Yesterday morning, I told him that when I'm learning new stuff, I like to make notes in my notebook to help cement my learning. And is there anything he might like to do to develop his learning about horses? He immediately mentioned that he needs a barn for his toy horses. He has a Playmobil vet clinic and truck and horse trailer he got for his birthday, but he really needs a barn. I asked if maybe he could make one, because I know he loves constructing things with cardboard. So we went to the liquor store to get more boxes and he started to work as soon as we got home. He's been working on it off and on ever since. It has a hay loft, stalls and an indoor riding arena. I think for the moment he's finished, and of course it doesn't match up with my own vision of what a cardboard horse barn could be, but I'm pretty happy with the way that all went down.

The author of Project-Based Homeschooling, Lori Pickert, also hosts a blog and a forum to support parents in their efforts towards project-based homeschooling. She also recently started a series of blog posts to help grown-ups pursue their own projects. I recommend it all. And despite the title, it's not just for homeschoolers. I think every parent could benefit from her ideas and insight.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

on pickles and sauerkraut

I started reading about wellness and using food for healing more than a decade ago with the books of Dr. Andrew Weil. Lots of what he said made sense to me, although I wasn't a big fan of all his supplement pushing (especially since he sells supplements with his name on them). And one thing really, really didn't sit right with me. He said you should avoid pickles of all kinds. He said they're devoid of nutrients and I think he said they contain a carcinogen.

I am a big pickle fan. A sandwich just isn't a sandwich without sliced pickles in it. When I was pregnant with youngest, all I wanted to eat for the first several months were turkey sandwiches with cheese and pickles. Of course, this made for lots of jokes, and my coworkers even gave me a jar of Vlasic pickles (which I heartily enjoyed). It converted me from my former Bick's loyalty to Vlasic. Although I have a new brand now, Bubbies.

I've always been of the mind that when a body is reasonably well, it knows what it needs. I usually trust my cravings. Sometimes I crave chocolate or chicken and sometimes I crave salad, or Brussels sprouts or coleslaw. If other animals can successfully choose their own food, then surely we can too. (Of course, having a severely malnourished toddler has somewhat disillusioned me. But I still think it's a sound concept.)

So when Dr. Weil said to avoid pickles, he lost me. Don't get me wrong. I still think there's lots of good advice in his books and they're readable as hell, but I likes me some pickles. And I just really felt that they couldn't be so bad as to recommend eliminating them completely. Surely there had to be something good in pickles. Maybe it just hadn't been discovered yet.

Last fall I finally got my hands on a copy of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. While I do think this book is a great reference book and I do plan to buy it, I did struggle with some of what Sally Fallon says in it. I think that if you're going to challenge conventional ideas on any topic by criticizing the studies that led to those ideas, you need to be very precise in your criticisms and really break it down. You can't just say a study was wrong by trotting out two other studies without going into what differed between all the studies. It may be that I was reading too fast and missed important details; maybe her criticism is actually complete. But I didn't see it. The book remains valuable, however, and I have since found the detailed criticisms I needed online.

Back to pickles. Pickles are traditionally just vegetables mixed with salt and fermented. They didn't used to be made with vinegar the way they are most commonly now. The fermentation not only supplies friendly bacteria to your gut, but is also creates enzymes that make many of the vegetable's nutrients more digestible. Apparently Captain Cook brought 60 barrels of sauerkraut on his trip around the world, and his whole crew avoided scurvy for something like 17 months at sea. Aha! I knew there was a reason pickles are good!

Around the time that I was reading Nourishing Traditions, my friend started experimenting with homemade sauerkraut. I couldn't believe the flavour - so delicious and surprisingly complex. And when he offered me half his crock for a big batch of the stuff, I jumped at the chance. I was way too scared to try it myself so it was great to have my friend pick the recipe and do the measuring. I just contributed a few cabbages and got to watch. And I have been happily munching on sauerkraut ever since. I don't have it every day, but I have it often, and I feel good eating it. Maybe this summer I can try fermenting some beets and dill pickles.

Monday, February 25, 2013

lessons from the land

This weekend I went to a seed starting workshop at Little City Farm. I wasn't sure how much I would get out of it. I mean, how complicated can it be, right? You put some seeds in some dirt and water them. It turns out that it isn't complicated, but hearing from someone with a ton of real experience can save time on those painful learning experiences.

I had some of them in my garden last year, which I didn't report on here. I tried some success planting. In the middle of July I direct seeded cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beets and carrots hoping for a late fall harvest. I really wanted some storage vegetables for the winter. But I didn't get any. Only one cabbage plant germinated and no Brussels sprouts. The beets and carrots germinated fine, but they just didn't seem to grow. Neither did the cabbage. I figured the colder temperatures just slowed everything down.

On Saturday, the instructor said that it was the decreased daylight hours that make everything slow down. Plants will happily just hang out, so there's way less rush to harvest when they're ready in the fall, but growth? Not so much.

I actually planted two different sets of beets a couple weeks apart, and the first set was really stunted. Later, I learned that if you work soil when it's too wet, the structure collapses and it totally compacts. So that's what happened with the first set.

But hearing from the instructor this weekend made me realize just how valuable these learning experiences are. They're disappointing, sure. But the information really sticks.

Having said that, I'm hopeful that after this workshop I'll be able to get some hardy wee seedlings in the ground without any painful learning experiences. I've discovered celeriac through our winter CSA this year and I ADORE it. I cannot get enough. So I'm going to try my hand at growing it but apparently it needs a very long season. So there's no choice but to start it indoors myself. Wish me luck!

Friday, February 22, 2013

baking powder

A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through one of my vintage cookbooks (In Pursuit of Flavour by Edna Lewis), and I noticed a recipe for baking powder. What? You can make that at home?

So I checked out the ingredients, and yes you can. In fact, it's very, very simple. This knowledge came at a perfect time because my store-bought baking powder was nearly gone, and sure enough, one naptime I wanted to bake something and (re)discovered at the last minute that I didn't have enough baking powder. (My favourite banana bread recipe, which I make once or twice a week, uses 3 teaspoons of the stuff.)

Anyways, I followed the recipe for baking powder, replacing corn starch with tapioca starch. I used my kitchen scale to measure out the weights but I think next time I might not do that. I suspect my 4-pound scale just isn't accurate enough to do 1 or 2 ounces, because while I was measuring, I touched the scale and it suddenly sprang up past the mark I was going for. I decided to pretend I hadn't seen that and just poured it all together.

I've used it several times now, and everything I make seems to rise just fine. I couldn't help but wonder if cream of tartar is some nasty toxin so I looked it up. In case you didn't already know, it is not a toxin. It's the powder left in wine barrels, which comes from tartaric acid. It provides the acid that reacts with the basic baking soda.

So here's the recipe:

Baking Powder
2 ounces (1/4 cup) cream of tartar
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) baking soda
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) starch (corn, potato or tapioca would all work)

Ms. Lewis recommends weighing the ingredients and cautions that if you do use measuring cups and spoons, "use a light hand and do not pack them down." She goes on, "Also, it just isn't true that when you use single-acting baking powder you have to mix up the dry and liquid ingredients quickly and bake them right away or else the batter will die. I make spoon bread batter the night before and it rises just fine the next day."

So that's good to know too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

starting seeds

It's possible I went a little overboard buying seeds at the Guelph Organic Conference. It's more than possible I will not have enough garden space or food storage space but whatever. Let's call it optimism.

Last year, the decision to grow food was kind of last-minute and it felt like too much to try starting my own seeds. But this year it feels do-able. So I've signed up for the seed starting workshop at Little City Farm, a place I've been keen to visit for a long time now.

Monday, February 4, 2013

homemade deodorant

Yep. I make my own deodorant and have for quite some time. Around this time last year, I discovered that Youngest gagged on the breast a lot when I was wearing deodorant. So I just stopped wearing it. But when the weather warmed up, well, let's just say I needed to take some action.

I tried some of the 'natural' deodorants from the local health food store but the baby gagged with those. Then I saw something that said coconut oil can be used for deodorant. I tried it but that didn't cut it. So I started googling and eventually came upon a recipe with ingredients I had on hand: 6 parts coconut oil to 1 part baking soda. It was super easy, and it works. It definitely doesn't last 24 hours like commercial deodorants but it's also lacking in nasty chemicals and it does work.

I do find that if I'm a little, shall we say, scented before I put it on, it works best if I wash first. I'm kind of amazed it works. I did find that on the really, really hot summer days, the coconut oil melted in the jar and the baking soda sank to the bottom, so I had to stir it up when the oil solidified again. But other than that, if nothing else came from my 2012 resolution (and lots of things did), the whole year was a win just for discovering this non-toxic and cheap homemade deodorant.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Good Food Revolution

I can't seem to read enough farming memoirs these days. The latest is The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen. I was fascinated by all of this book: the personal story of how Allen grew up working in his parents' vegetable garden and despite his intentions ended up farming, the more politicized story of African-American sharecroppers and their subsequent migration to urban areas, and the story of how he grew his urban farm to provide fresh, nutritious food to people living in a food desert and all the different connections he's made, and the personal stories of some of the individuals who helped him. 

I seriously can't decide what my favourite part of the book was. I think it may be the discussion of race in America's agricultural history, which I haven't read much about. These passages also really spoke to me:

"When you work in agriculture and with young people, it makes you think quite a bit about the future. You have to imagine the world you want to create before there is any evidence you can bring it into being."

"When I think of this hopeful future, I see a world that has regained a proper balance between manual and intellectual work. For decades, we have taught our young people to pursue jobs that use the mind but not the body. We have segregated our exercise to the sterile environment of the gym. We have made people spend entire years at work moving nothing but their steering wheel, their mouse, or a cursor. We no longer teach many manual trades in high schools. We encourage many of our best and our brightest young people to go into think tanks or into law.

"We were not made to sit in cubicles or stare at screens or papers all day. My most intimate and lasting learning experiences have come not through books or computers but through my patient interaction with the land. The work of creating a new food system will offer work that engages both the spirit and the body. It will allow people the satisfaction of seeing and tasting the results of their labor. It will require the cultivation of human relationships that are off the grid, as well as an attitude of respect toward the natural world. This movement -- this 'good food revolution,' as I like to call it -- will demand the best efforts of our hearts, bodies, and minds."

Friday, February 1, 2013

the cook book obsession

I've developed an obsession for collecting vintage cookbooks. Because our diet has been changing to more meat, potato and vegetable type fare at the same time that I'm trying to eat more seasonally and locally, these books have a practical benefit. But I also adore their aesthetics. Back then it was far too expensive to print photos on most cookbooks (now, with digital printing, full-colour printing costs the same as one-colour) so instead they used a lot of charming drawings and etchings. I only recently found a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume II, and I was fascinated to discover that although her husband photographed the recipes quite painstakingly (I remember reading about it in My Life in France), they hired an illustrator to make simpler line drawings from the photographs instead. Now, when I see the cookbooks at Chapters, they all look so gawdy with all those vivid photographs everywhere.


It all started last January when I was looking for materials to make collages with. I found a 1980 hard cover edition of Elizabeth David Classics and the etchings are absolutely adorable. Behold:



But I couldn't bring myself to actually cut up the pages and when I started looking at some of the recipes, I didn't want to anyways. I haven't actually made anything from the book yet, but its time will come, I am sure.

Anyways... I've been trying new things in the kitchen. Yesterday I baked my first ham and made up my glaze with dijon, brown sugar and a bit of ground cinnamon. I also made baked beans for the first time, which had been on my mind for some time, even though I've never actually enjoyed baked beans. Mine turned out delicious. I used about half a raw, pureed beet instead of ketchup and added a bit of extra maple syrup and apple cider vinegar, along with salt and dry mustard. 

Today I tried my hand at a grass-fed pot roast. I guess I was feeling a bit cocky after yesterday's success, and as well, I had an actual, real-life friend visiting so I wasn't able to find a real recipe to follow. Anyways, it was more than edible but still rather tough and over done. A good (if expensive) learning experience. 

Today's great success was Date Oatmeal Cake, which I discovered in More Food That Really Schmecks, a cookbook written by a woman in the town next door. It was published in 1979 as a sequel to her 1968 Food That Really Schmecks. My copy of Food That Really Schmecks actually came from my Grandma Ruth's box of recipes and cookbooks that my mom just gave me last Thanksgiving. I was all excited to start going through her recipes, but I was soon disappointed as I remembered that she was an upper-middle-class housewife in the fifties. So pretty much every recipe has a can of Campbell's mushroom soup or some other modern convenience food, which is currently verboten even if it didn't gross me out.

What I find interesting is that my husband actually had lunch with the author, Edna Staebler, through mutual friends during his early days in Canada. Apparently she was friends with my mother-in-law's then-love interest. In fact, the love interest's previous wife actually contributed a recipe to More Food That Really Schmecks, which my mother-in-law discovered when she was absently paging through the book a couple of weeks ago. Small world, eh?

But back to the Date Oatmeal Cake. It was the first recipe I've seen that I just felt immediately compelled to make. Of course, it helped that I had all the ingredients on hand. But it also just looked so weird, I couldn't imagine it would actually make a cake. But oh did it ever. And it was delicious.

The recipe called for 2 cups of brown sugar, but I just couldn't do it with all the dates. I only used 1 cup and that was absolutely the right call. I cannot imagine it being any sweeter than it was, and next time I think I'll use only half a cup. I'm tempted to try to cut the sugar out completely, but I've heard that sugar really helps retain moisture in baking, so I worry it would come out like congealed oatmeal. I used my own gluten-free flour mix and no gums. (recipe below)

Speaking of successes, right before dinner Eldest said he wanted to celebrate the first day of February. My eye caught on the four jars of peaches I made late last summer, and I thought perhaps it was time to taste them. So we had them with the cake and hoo boy, did it ever make up for the tough pot roast. It was my first time canning anything other than jam, and I seem to recall there was a screaming baby and grumping husband as I painstakingly peeled and sliced the slightly underripe clingstone peaches. But it was so worth it. Next summer I need to do more, and I'm pretty sure this time Eldest and my husband will be jumping in to help. I used the recipe for Peaches in Vanilla Syrup from Canning for a New Generation, which I had from the library, but which now I really, really must buy it to have forever. I found the recipe reproduced here.

Date Oatmeal Cake

Pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 cups rolled oats, mix well, cool slightly, then blend in:
3/4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups finely chopped dates
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (I didn't have any so left them out)

Sift together:
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves (I left this out because I'm not a big fan but I wonder about cardamom)

Pour the oatmeal mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well (Oops! I put the flour into the oatmeal mixture. Oh well). Bake in an 8-inch square greased pan at 350F for 45 minutes or until done.

From all the blogs I read, it seems that a recipe is not complete without beautiful photos of the making with lots of soft focus and no clutter. Well, my house just doesn't roll that way. In truth, we need an intervention. But until that happens, this is what my kitchen looks like. The unwashed bowl from last night's chicken stock straining, the silly dentist advertisement that says "We have laughing gas!" as its main message, bulk dry goods in paper bags that I don't have jars into which to put them, the vinegar and water spray bottle, the choking hazards, and all the other things that I can't figure out where to put because our house is so open concept and the toddler gets into EVERYTHING. But look at that pyrex bowl! I just found a set of four of them in pristine condition. 

I'm thinking of starting a series of photo posts called This Fucking Moment where it's all clutter and chaos. Surely there must be someone else out there for whom those pretty, clean photos of homemade goodness are pure fantasy? Someone else who will take comfort that we of the domestic incompetence are not alone?