The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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Homeschooling: Herbal Marshmallows

Floppy and I have been working through this book, a sort of children’s herbal.


I have mixed feelings about herb books. Part of me loves them, loves the wise-woman magic of making medicines and cosmetics and foods and rituals from plants. One of my failings as a parent is that I don’t do well with Floppy’s little injuries and illnesses. I tend to get irritable with him for having gotten sick or hurt — a blame-the-victim mentality if ever there was one, but to be fair, he usually gets boo boos from doing things like tearing through the house at top speed after having been told 10 times to cut it out. But I think some of the irritability is really just my own frustration with not being able to fix it, not being able to help. I’d like to have a repertoire of wise-woman tricks — even if they are only placebos — at the ready to care for my loves. I love the idea of having a witchy little apothecary of things I’d grown or collected to share in difficult or painful times.

Also, Floppy loves this stuff, in much the same way I did when I was his age. The natural world has magic in it, and making aromatic herbs into mysterious things that you can tell magical stories about is appealing to him as it was to me.

On the other hand, a lot of the medical claims they make in books like these are, you know, pretty much totally unfounded. I get the feeling that most of the adult people who are “into” herbs don’t have a very high standard for scientific rigor of medical claims, you know? And, well, fair enough. Even if you want to be intellectually rigorous about it: There are a lot of legitimate reasons for herbalists to be cynical of science as it is actually practiced, such as the fact that scientific studies of herbal medicine — as with every other kind of medicine — don’t happen unless someone stands to make a lot of money, and are biased in various ways against herbs that cannot be used to make anyone any money. Also, it’s very hard to research herbal medicine and traditional folks beliefs of all kinds, because these things work — if they work — synergistically, embedded into systems that are hard to study. You can’t isolate one active compound from a traditional herbal medicine practice and do a randomized controlled trial on it without feeling like you’re searching for the needle in the haystack. For example: Imagine an herbal compound for blood pressure and cardiac health, let’s say, that works when one part (which part? that’s a whole study right there!) of the whole plant is brewed into a tisane given to you by your herbalist, but does nothing when the compound is isolated from the plant and synthesized into a swallowable pill given to you by your pharmacist. Some plants are perfectly edible, delicious, and nutritious, when consumed by a healthy, non-nutritionally stressed human as part of a balanced diet, and fatally toxic when consumed in quantity by a hungry human. Some medications — not herbs, plain old Western medications — do nothing when the patient doesn’t know s/he’s taken them. This stuff would be terribly difficult to research with enormous resources. But there are very few resources to study herbal medicine traditions, and there never will be.  

So I understand why herbalists are cavalier about science. Nevertheless, using a medication — any medication, even one made out of a plant and brewed up into a mild herbal tea or applied as a wise-woman poultice — that I has nothing more than folk wisdom to recommend it, or even ensure its safety, gives me the creeps. And teaching my son to do this strikes me as unscientific, unthoughtful. So I have mixed feelings!

I’m resolving this in the short-term by sticking to those portions of the book that feature food herbs and somewhat schlocky-sweet magical stories. With which we are having an excellent time!

This week, we made marshmallows using real marshmallow root:

I was SO excited for these marshmallows. I’ve always wanted to make marshmallows with the actual botanical, and the recipe had no gelatin in it, which I also liked, because I dislike the fetid smell gelatin gives homemade marshmallows. But, truthfully, these turned out more like meringues than marshmallows — whipped egg white is the main ingredient — and Floppy thought they were disgusting. I think they might be good floating in hot chocolate — but haven’t tried that yet,

After we stuck the marshmallows in the oven, we read a silly little story about two children exploring a garden where the spirits of herbs grow and beg humans to use them. Floppy thought this story was wonderful, magical and inspiring, and after we read it, he wrote a little plants-and-magic tale of his own. A successful evening all around!


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Homeschooling: Physics for Entertainment

Our homeschool science text right now is delightfully nostalgic. And perhaps woefully outdated. Originally published in pre-Soviet Russia, and then updated throughout the 1930s,  it’s called Physics for Entertainment, and it is wonderful, and freely available. Me teaching the boy physics is a case of the blind leading the blind, and this is no doubt exacerbated by the fact that I’m not sure I would even recognize any scientific advances that have rendered the 100-year-old text no longer accurate, but the experiments are still fun, and I figure the scientific method as applied to experimentation is a learning experience that transcends the content, thankfully. (Amusingly, the experiments are designed to use everyday materials, but everyday materials circa 1913 are not always so everyday in 2013. When the text directed me to obtain a “lamp glass,” for an experiment, for example, first we had to figure out what that meant, and then whether we had one.  In that case, we had one, but the text demanded several, of different shapes and sizes, yet.)

Here we are, doing an experiment to explore the natural (spherical) shape of a liquid: 

If you want to follow along at home, this experiment is on page 81 of the text (and does not require a lamp glass).

We didn’t have quite enough alcohol in our mixture to make a perfect sphere, but we got close enough and enjoyed experimenting with the proportions of alcohol, oil, and water. Sometimes the boy finds Perelman too dry or a little over his head, but he got a big kick out of this series of experiments and was very sad to stop. (Also a big hit: the experiments making homemade cardboard boomerangs on page 57. As someone who was always frustrated with the toy boomerangs you can buy at the store which never work, I was very surprised that we easily made functional little boomerangs out of cardboard that flew and returned just fine, using Perelman’s instructions. And we’re no handiwork geniuses over here, so I am confident you could replicate the trick if you wanted.)

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Homeschooling: Family History

We’ve been beginning our U.S. history study with genealogy, and the history of our family’s migration to America. This isn’t my brilliant idea; we’re using a wonderful old book, Steven Caney’s Kids’ America, and he starts with a genealogy unit. Only problem is, the boy hates it. He’s been struggling through making pedigree charts and family group sheets for months and both of us are sick of it. So finally I decided this was nonsense. We have probably a dozen books of family history. On his father’s father’s side, we have Clans of the Scottish Highlands, which has wonderful pictures of ancient family tartans and crests, and opinionated (probably inaccurate) mythic Scottish history. We also have a booklet his family put together for a 2003 reunion, with detailed family trees (the boy is the latest entry in them, being born in that year). We have a scrapbook of letters the boy’s grandfather wrote during his service (at age 18) in WWII, including letters written after he served as a medic on the beaches of Normandy. We have a detailed family tree for his father’s mother as well, which traces back to a Norwegian ancestor of the 18th century.

On my mother’s side, there isn’t a whole lot, but there is a journal my grandmother kept on a trip she took with her girlfriends to Cuba in 1939. On my father’s side, there is a wealth: We have a little booklet my family put together to celebrate 100 years of our mishpoche in America, with genealogy for each branch of that family. We have a family history of my grandfather’s parents that he and his siblings put together many years ago, which tells truly amazing stories, such as the time my Jewess great-grandmother, traveling alone through Europe and Palestine in the 1930s, spent the night sharing a train bunk with an SS officer. Or the time that same great-grandmother, who could speak 14 languages, wrote a novel, and was the architect of the family home, worked, Rosie the Riveter style, assembling radios in a factory for the war effort. Despite the fact that she was in her 60s at the time.  We have my grandfather’s memoir — more incredible stories about doing research with Paul White and Ancel Keys in Europe on the Mediterranean diet, about serving as a WWII spy and capturing a regiment of German soldiers single-handedly, about raising 6 kids and working and playing unbelievably hard for decades. We have a (very funny) journal my father wrote with his traveling buddies during a 1959 backpacking tour of Europe, when they were all 21. Best of all, we have this:

Dear Poppa is a collection of the letters my father (age 7 at the time) and his siblings (and my grandmother) wrote to my grandfather when he was stationed overseas during WWII. That’s a drawing my dad did on the cover. Family history from a child’s perspective must be rare, so I really treasure this book for my little guy.

The boy really loved the idea of reading family history instead of making family trees, and I gave him his choice of these materials to peruse. Last night we read the relevant entry from the Clans of the Scottish Highlands, and he drew pictures of our family tartan and crest. Tonight he said he wanted to read Dear Poppa, and learn about his grandfather as a boy.

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Walking in…. Winter? A Global Warming Challenge

We live in New Hampshire, in the woods, by the lake. It’s December. Can you picture it?

Did you think of Robert Frost, walking by woods on that snowy evening?

Well, welcome to the 21st century, kids, ’cause there’s no blanket of snow here. The high today is forecast at 46 degrees; I don’t think it fell below freezing overnight. It has been raining steadily for the past 8 hours. It looks like a nice day in April out there. In fact, there have been only two days where there was any white at all on the ground so far this season.

So you can imagine we had to celebrate those two days! We took a recess from homeschooling on the first snow day and went for a long walk in the woods in the dark. It was still beautiful in the morning:

It also snowed this weekend, but with temperatures well above freezing it was gone by daylight. The weather has been weird everywhere I’ve lived for many years now. I remember normal winter weather, but if you’re younger than 27, you don’t even know what weather is supposed to be like. Still, it seems like everyone, everywhere, always is talking about the strangeness of the weather.

I’m tired of just talking.

Here’s my challenge for you: I just donated $8 to I plan to donate that much whenever I notice the weather doing anything weird. If we all did that, the climate change movement would be richer than the climate destruction movement. Maybe we’d still have a chance. So, next time you’re complaining about the weather, pull up your phone and toss in a kvetching tax. Maybe we can bring back winter……

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Homeschooling: Challenging Math

We’ve been working hard on learning division of fractions in our family. We use a  wonderful math textbook my aunt wrote, Mathematics Revealed, which I am tickled to discover will set you back $500 bucks on Amazon.

Betsy has always focused, in her efforts at better math education, on making math relevant to daily life, and the text (I think) was aimed at adults with poor math literacy. It’s been fun to work through as a family. Yesterday, for example, the text had us cutting, say, a 3 inch rectangle into 3/4 inch pieces, then counting how many we got, to illustrate the real-world outcome of 3 ÷ 3/4. The boy got a kick out of the cutting and pasting and counting and readily grasped the concepts and how they translated to equations on the page.

Math with the boy can be challenging, though. He works very fast, and doesn’t like to be watched. But because he works fast he makes mistakes, which he doesn’t like pointed out. The more you do point out these mistakes, in fact, the faster he goes and the more mistakes he makes. We’ve tried to focus on good study skills: sitting right, going slowly, thinking out loud — all of which he hates! But if he doesn’t do these things, he doesn’t work as well at home or at school. Helping him enjoy the work is challenging.

We’ve noticed that it goes better if we do it regularly and with saintly patience — a challenge for the grownups in our household, with our own busyness and distractability! What homeschool subjects give you challenges in your family?

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Homeschooling: Writing

When we do writing on homeschooling days — we did tonight — the boy gets to choose the project.

  • He can choose to write on his own blog, Robin’s Peace Blog.
  • He can choose to do a project out of this marvelous book,  Rip the Page!: Adventures in Creative Writing, that I wanted for the longest time on her recommendation before actually winning a copy from Soulemama.
  • Or, he can choose to work on a story-writing project. Right now, he’s working on two long stories. One, The Power of Secretariat, was inspired by his love of horses. The other, The Spy Project, was inspired by reading, well….of course you can probably guess. Right:

Tonight he worked on the Spy Project, got bored with it (“Mom! I have writer’s block!”), and did Rip the Page, playing with small words he likes (pee, pow, zam all made the list).

Here’s a kid with serious writer’s block, man.

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The boy goes to regular public school, but his school isn’t very good. So we make up the difference at home. Yesterday I was home sick, doctor’s orders and everything, because I see patients and was running a fever, and the two are not compatible. But I wasn’t actually feeling that bad. The boy was home for the beginning of his Thanksgiving break. So between the two of us, we did a lot of homeschooling — maybe two weeks worth in a single day. Here’s what we did:

  • We did two hours worth of math. We practiced multiplication of fractions, and then I taught him division of fractions.
  • We played outside on the beach. He is trying to dig a “pleasure tunnel” which he imagines making so large that he and his best friend can sit inside of it and read. Please don’t tell me such beach digging is dangerous. I already know. The tunnel is not yet so large, and I’m hoping we can cross that bridge if we ever come to it. In the meantime, he dug, and he made me dig. Then he criticized my digging. I am neither fast enough nor skillful enough for my little foreman.
  • He read this book for an hour:

  • My husband taught him to play some guitar. He did a little Suzuki, and then my husband taught him how to do a “blues shuffle” on his little electric guitar. It might be called the “blues” but listening to them work on this while I stirred up a pan of lemon curd for Thanksgiving tarts made me smile so hard my face practically fell off.
  • We closed out the night cuddled up in bed, with me finishing reading him The Tin Woodman of Oz. I love the Oz books — they are exciting and magical, no one ever gets killed, and they are less sexist than anything  anyone’s writing now. You’ve got to like a Victorian fantasy world where the queen of the entire thing is a transgender teenaged girl. (No, I am absolutely not kidding. Her majesty Ozma of Oz is a boy named Tip who discovers as a tween that she is in fact a girl princess of a fairy kingdom. Anyone who tells you that we’ve made social progress hasn’t read any old books.) Robin was pleased to learn that neither the Tin Woodman nor the Tin Soldier had to marry poor Nimmee Amee, whom they had abandoned lovelorn years prior, because she had already happily married somebody else.