Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Find: DIY Liturgical Year Calendar Bulletin Board

It's hard to believe it is already the last day of 2011!  I'm thinking "calendars" today, and checking to see if everyone in the family has a calendar for 2012.  While surfing, I ran across a wonderful DIY liturgical calendar on Sanctus Simplicitis.  It helps families know saint feast days, which mystery of the rosary should be prayed on each day, and much more.  Best of all, the files for the calendar can be downloaded for free!  (Click here to see the calendar and get the downloadable files.)  Thank you, Sanctus Simplicitis, for this wonderful New Year's gift!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

After Christmas Deals

I've been doing a bit of after-Christmas shopping with a couple of gift cards I received.  Some of the deals are really great, so I thought I would pass them on to others!

If you are looking for deals on pretty religious statues, check out the Catholic Supply of St. Louis website.  I was able to pick up these beautiful statues for half off!  (Statues are usually so expensive, especially nice ones.)

Holy Family statue, regularly $59.95, now $29.97
Although it won't be here in time this year, I plan to use it this beautiful statue each year on our dinner table for the Feast of the Holy Family.  I love the way Baby Jesus is nestled in Mary's arms!

Here's another one I found:

Flight Into Egypt statue, regularly $49.95, now $24.97

 Both of these are created by Joseph's Studio.  I have their La Posada statue, so these will be a nice complement to that. I love the muted colors and the facial details are very nice.

Catholic Supply has a number of other statues on sale, too, including complete Nativity sets, if you are looking to pick up a nice set.  Their Heaven's Majesty statues (which include not only statues of the Holy Family, but also of  Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Grace, St. Therese, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, plus more.)

Or, if you have always wanted to do the "straw in the manger" activity with your family, they have a couple of Baby Jesus in wood cribs for sale.

The 5.75" removable Baby Jesus with straw was $12.95, now $3.95.  The 7.75" Baby Jesus was $19.95, now $6.95.

Their order form is a bit of a pain to use, since you must cut and copy then paste item numbers into the order form (you can't just click on an item to add it to your cart.)  I usually open two windows--one with the order form and one with the page with the item I want to order, then cut and paste.  But it's worth it to me, since it's not often you can find beautiful statues on sale!

These links are not affiliate links and I'm not receiving any compensation if you purchase something. I just wanted to pass on some exciting deals that I found!

Friday, December 23, 2011

This Christmas: Pray for Bethlehem

But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
least among the clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
Whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.

Every year as we near Christmas, I spend some time looking at Youtube videos about Bethlehem and its holy sites.  And every year, I feel sadness and helplessness when I read about the diminishing Christian population in this sacred town.  Phoebe Greenwood, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper out of Britain, has written an article about the situation. She quotes Father Ibrahim Shomali, pastor of Annunciation Church in Beit Jala (a hillside town adjacent to Bethlehem)

"If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed. He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists."

You can read the whole article here

This article suggests that the problem is caused by the Israelis.  I've read other articles that say the problem is caused by the Palestinian leaders. Others say radical Muslims.   I don't know; it is a very complicated situation where everyone feels that this relatively small piece of land should be theirs.

This year, for some reason, Isaiah 11:6-9 popped into my mind while reading the article:

6* Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.f
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.g
8The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
9They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

And I pictured Edward Hick's painting Peaceable Kingdom: 

This year, when you are at Mass on Christmas Eve, will you join me in prayer, asking Our Lord to bring peace to the "little" town of Bethlehem?  

The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land sponsors a wide variety of projects and programs to help Christians living in Bethlehem.  Some of their projects include a Child Sponsorship Program, a job placement program, affordable housing options, a university scholarship program, a vocational school program and social service programs for the elderly living in the area.  You can find out more about the organization here. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Simple O Antiphons Project

This year, I really want to spend a bit more time praying (and teaching my kids to pray) the O Antiphons.   My goal is to help them recognize the Latin words and their English equivalents, in addition to better understand each of the prayers.

I planned to make a paper  O Antiphons house like the one suggested by Catholic Culture, or even better yet, the wooden house created by Alice, Elizabeth, Suzanne, Ruth, Kelly,  Kimberly, and Jessica.   But between teaching catechism at two churches and chauffeuring kids to basketball, soccer and dance practices, I found little time to craft.  I figured that if I was going to make the house, I wanted to take the time to make it beautifully.  So it didn't happen.  Perhaps next year.

Yet I still wanted to do something, so I came up with this quick magnet board display:

I found a  purple magnet board and wooden magnetic letters at Michael's craft store.  The picture and symbols below the picture are from Jennifer Gregory Miller's O Antiphon Prayer Companion.  It's a wonderful booklet filled with prayers, an explanation of the symbols associated with each Antiphon, and even some suggestions for corresponding food or meals that could be served on each day.

I put two electronic taper candles on each side of the display and lit them.  They will remain lit for the whole week.

Each day the kids will change the wooden letters and symbols. Here is our display for today (O Adonai):

We will also listen to O Antiphons chant on the Fisheaters website.

It's okay to be less than perfect

Here it is, the last Sunday in Advent.  Are you feeling tinges of guilt over all the projects and things you didn't get done during the season? Or is your list still rather long, hoping you can finish the baking, Christmas shopping, card writing, Christmas crafting and gift wrapping before next Saturday, Christmas Eve?

I know my list is too long, and I will need to rewrite it so it's more realistic and do-able.  Also, I really need to focus on what's important--attending Mass each day, getting to confession, spending more time reading the Bible and meditating over the wonderful gift God gave to us in Jesus. 

Check out Tsh Oxenreider's article: Plan Your Peaceful Christmas: Embrace Imperfection for inspiration on just letting go and being in the moment with Christ!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Favorite Free Find: Free Christmas Music Downloads

Did you know that Amazon is currently offering "25 Days of Free Holiday Music"?  Each day, they upload a new holiday song from a variety of popular Christmas albums.  You can download the MP3 file for free, to put on your smartphone or MP3 player. Some of the current free songs include Greensleeves by Mannheim Steamroller, Ave Maria by Celtic Women, O Holy Night by Leigh Nash and Adeste Fideles by Bing Crosby.

You can get the free downloads here

I think I'll surprise my husband by adding some holiday tunes to his Nano, which he listens to every day on the train as he commutes to work!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent Glass Block Decoration

I admit it--I'm on a mission to decorate my home for Advent this year!  Usually, my only Advent decorations are our purple table cloth, a rather plain ring that serves as our Advent wreath, our Nativity set and a few statues or figurines depicting St. Nicholas and St. Lucia.  I've felt the need to add more liturgical purple to our home.

So, after I made the Immaculate Conception glass block decoration described here,
I wondered how I could use the second glass block and the purple and pink mini lights to create a decoration for Advent.  So I went back to the internet, searching for some sort of Advent picture--perhaps an Advent candle? Maybe symbols from the Jesse tree?  No, nothing seemed quite right, until I found a silhouette image depicting Joseph and Mary's trip to Bethlehem.  The phrase "waiting in joyful hope" immediately popped into my head.  I copied the image into my desktop publishing program and played a bit with the text until I came up with an image that seemed to represent Advent to me.  I then printed two copies of the image and attached it to the glass block using Mod Podge, like I did for the Immaculate Conception glass block project. (You can see a quick photo tutorial here.)

After the Mod Podge dried, I threaded a string of purple lights and a string of pink lights through the pre-drilled opening in the glass block.  Since each string has its own "on" button, I'll turn on the purple lights on the first, second and fourth weeks of Advent, then turn on the pink lights for the third week of Advent.
Here are a couple of photos of the finished product. Unfortunately, my camera can't really capture the true purple color. But it will give you an idea of what the decoration looks like:

The "Waiting in Joyful Hope" image I created on my computer

Illuminated by the pink mini lights (unfortunately, the purple lights were too dark to photograph, although not too dark to illuminate the image.)

It really was a quick project; waiting for the Mod Podge to dry was the most time consuming part!

I still have one more set of pink and purple mini lights left.  Now I'm waiting for some heavenly inspiration on how to use them, perhaps incorporating the O Antiphons!

I'm participating in Skip to My Lou's "Made by You Mondays" blog hop.  There are tons of wonderful ideas over there; check it out if you have a moment:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Simple Craft Project for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

On one of my trips to Hobby Lobby, I picked up two of those narrow glass blocks that have become so popular for holiday decorations.  I planned to use them with some battery operated mini lights I had obtained at an after-Christmas clearance at Target.  (I was able to pick up a package of blue lights, and two packages each of pink and purple lights.)  I knew I wanted to make some sort of inspirational/Catholic decoration with them, but didn't know what.   I was secretly hoping our Lord would inspire me with some ideas, and He recently did!

I don't have any nice statues, prints or decorations for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I knew my daughter and I would be doing some special things to celebrate this year, so I was searching the internet for a nice picture/painting of the Immaculate Conception. I stumbled upon a   beautiful stained glass image of the Blessed Mother and immediately thought of my glass block and blue mini lights.

So I copied the image to my desktop publishing software, sized it to fit the glass block, printed two copies of it, and then decoupaged the copies to the two flat sides of the block with Mod Podge. Here are a few photos of the work in progress:

I brushed Mod Podge on to the glass block.

I placed the image over the Mod Podge, carefully using my fingers to remove any air bubbles.

After the Mod Podge dried on the back of the image,  I sealed the front of it with two coats of Mod Podge. It looks cloudy when wet, but Mod Podge dries clear.  I then repeated the process for the other side of the block so the image appears on both sides.

I threaded the blue mini lights through the pre-cut opening in the glass block, then turned on the lights.  Here is the result:

My camera couldn't quite capture the proper shade of blue that peeks through the image; its not quite as stark as this image.  It is so pretty!  Even my husband (who isn't too crazy about religious art) said it was beautiful.

I've seen these same blue mini lights at Target this year, so if you are interested in making a craft like this, check out the Christmas light section at the after-holiday sales.

I also made a similar decoration for Advent.  Will post about it tomorrow!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent Meditation with Children: Isaiah 9:1 (plus a craft idea and template!)

Public domain photo courtesy of
I love sharing the meditation on Isaiah 9:2 (or Isaiah 9:1 in some Bibles) with the children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. It is the passage that says "The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light."   This passage and its meditation have enthralled me since I first heard it in my Level I CGS training nine years ago.  I decided to share it with my catechism class this last week.  I'm never sure how the class will react, since they are so used to "workbook/textbook" religion and seem to do best when we are physically moving around.  We haven't done a meditation yet and I wasn't sure how they would react.  However, their rapt attention and responses showed me that this passage speaks deeply to all children!

Thought I would share some bits and pieces about the meditation, in case you would like to try it with your children or your catechism class.  This isn't quite the same presentation as I would give in the atrium because the classroom setup isn't as conducive to that presentation.  For example, I'm not allowed to light candles in our classroom, so I need to tailor the presentation a bit because of that.

For the meditation you will need a Bible, a painting of the prophet Isaiah and a handmade prayer card (8" x 14" or larger is good) that also says the verse (see my example below).  If you are doing this at home, you will also need a candle, snuffer, matches and place to put spent matches.

With my catechism class, I began the meditation by telling the kids we were going to do some "deep thinking and pondering" today.  I don't usually do this in the atrium since the kids (except the newest, youngest ones) are used to doing meditations.

We discuss darkness--what does the word "darkness" mean?  What does it mean to be "dark"?  We might turn off the lights and ask if it is dark.  (In our room, it wasn't because there was some light streaming in from the windows.)  I ask them to cover their eyes with their hands.  Is that dark, or do they see some light peeking in?  I ask them to close their eyes and then cover their eyes.  Is that dark, or do they still see some light?

I ask them to imagine darkness with no light at all.  How does that feel?  Scary?

We then discuss "light" -- what it means and what it is.  When I think the children have a good grasp of the concept of light, we compare "darkness" and "light" and I ask them how each situation makes them feel. 

I then pick up the picture of the prophet Isaiah while telling them that today we are going to read a Bible verse about darkness and light.  I explain to them that it was written by a man named Isaiah, who was a prophet. I show them the picture of Isaiah and we talk briefly about prophets and prophesies.

At this point in the atrium, I would light the candle and pick up my Bible.  I would then slowly read the passage once:

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." 

I then sit quietly for a few moments to give it a chance to sink in.  I then tell them I also have a prayer card that has this Bible passage, and show them this prayer card:

I re-read it slowly and we discuss darkness and light again.  I follow the children's lead, asking questions based on their answers. For example, in Wednesday's catechism class they thought the "great light" might be the sun, or perhaps a bright star like the star of Bethlehem.  I sprinkle their responses with comments like "I wonder?"  Or I might say "what else could the prophet be saying?"   I never really mention Jesus but do emphasize that Isaiah's prophesies were inspired by God.

It was truly amazing to watch the Holy Spirit work in the kids.  All the sudden, one girl's face lit up with understanding and she said "THE LIGHT IS JESUS!!"  And a boy's face lit up as he said "AND THE PEOPLE ARE US!!!!"

I will usually then suggest what a wonderful gift that God gave us when he gave us this light Jesus so we never have to walk in the darkness again.

At this point, one of the kids asked if we could sing the song "Christ is Light."  Again, the Holy Spirit at work, since this is a song I just taught them a few weeks ago.  After we sang it, I taught them another song, "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light."  But any song about Christ as the light of the world would be appropriate.

To finish reinforce the lesson, we did a very simple craft.  I gave the kids an electronic pillar candle (purchased for $1 at Dollar Tree) and a picture of Isaiah along with the Bible verse.  The kids removed the label on the pillar candle, trimmed down the verse to fit their candle, then taped it to their candle. After everyone was finished, they turned on their candles and we turned off the lights.  The effect of the light shining through the picture of Isaiah and the Bible passage was beautiful, and the room was filled with excited kids saying "cool!"  "awesome!"  (Much to my delight!)  We then sang our two "Light" songs again by candlelight.

Here are some photos of our electronic pillar candles with the Bible passage and Isaiah's picture on them:


If you would like to make this craft, you can upload the candle paper for free from here. 

If you try this with your kids, please share your results in the comments section.  I would love to hear about it!

Note:  If you have any problems with this upload, please send a note to me at caswrite at yahoo dot com.  When looking at the image created by Google docs, I can't tell if the original size was retained, or if Google docs reduced the size of the candle paper.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Free Printable: Advent to Epiphany Planner

Advent is such an exciting time, and there's always so much I want to do, see, read and make with my family. I usually go a bit crazy trying to fit it all in, or at least fit in the most important things.  I often see so many great ideas on the Internet, yet forget to do them!  This year I decided to create an "Advent to Epiphany Planner" to help me remember the special feast days.

The planner includes a block of several lines for each day from the first Sunday of Advent to the Sunday in which the U.S. church celebrates Epiphany.  Actually, I included a planner for the Feast Day of the Baptism of the Lord, because my family likes to celebrate that, too.  This year, it is celebrated on January 9 in the U.S.

Dates are included in each block; common feast days are listed, too.  Under the date is a section called "Theme."  Sometimes I like to incorporate some special themes during our homeschooling day. For example, on "Poinsettia Theme Day" we would read Tomie DePaola's "Legend of the Poinsettia," make poinsettia cookies, do a poinsettia craft, etc.

I also included spaces on each day to jot down:

- Special meals/snacks I would like to serve (like an all-white meal on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception),

- Activities we can do together as a family (like make a craft, look at the Christmas light display at a nearby park, or see the Nutcracker ballet)

- Read-Aloud Books (our favorite holiday books)

- Holiday DVD or video (we have a great collection of classic and newer holiday DVDs and videos, both religious and secular.  This will help me set aside time to watch them.)

I thought others might like to use this resource, so I uploaded a copy on Google docs, which you can download and print out to use with your family.   You can get it here.

If you use it, let me know what you think!

I linked this page to several link parties filled with terrific Advent ideas!  Please check them out:

1) The "Make Yourself Monday" link party at For Love of Cupcakes.   Click here for more great holiday ideas! 

2) A Ten O'Clock Scholar's Keeping Advent link party.  Click here for some inspiring posts about Advent!

3) Catholic Family's  Advent Festival of Links, which you can reach here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nativity Carnival: Keeping Advent Link party

Kerry, at Ten O'Clock Scholar, is hosting a link party to share ideas on how to keep the Advent season.

Check out the ideas here

Question: do you homeschool in December?

I've been thinking about whether we should put formal schooling on the shelf for December, and perhaps just focus on making Advent holy and memorable.  For those of you that homeschool, what do you do in December? If you take the month off, do you have any ideas for incorporating reading and math into your everyday holiday chores?  Please share in the comments section; would love some advice!

Favorite Find: Advent Music

A couple of years ago, a local radio station began a tradition of playing Christmas music 24 hours a day, starting around November 10 until Christmas Day.  I love Christmas music, but this didn't feel right to me. November 10 was too early for the exuberant, joyful tunes of Christmas.  I yearned for quieter music that would help me ponder the wonderful gift that God gave us.

So began my search for "Advent music."  It wasn't an easy one!  Sadly, there isn't a lot of music for Advent, except perhaps for some beautiful Gregorian chants. 

However, I discovered two CDs which have become family favorites:

Like Winter Waiting: The Advent Story by John Foley, S.J.
Produced by OCP Publications, this is a musical story about key Biblical events surrounding the birth of Christ. Different actors play the roles of Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the Angel Gabriel and other characters. It gives listeners a peek into the feelings and emotions that these various characters may have felt while experiencing the amazing changes that were occurring in their lives.

Tracks include a welcome/introduction from the Angel Gabriel, Zechariah and Simon talking about the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, Joseph pondering the angel's message about Mary's pregnancy, Joseph and Mary's trip to Bethlehem via donkey, the birth of Christ and the visit by the shepherds to the stable.  My children's favorite song on the CD is "Unless You Lead Me On," a joyful song by the donkey about the need to have God in its life.  You can hear samples of the songs here.

We Shall Prepare: An Advent Cantata for Young People by Mark Friedman and Janet Vogt
Also produced by OCP Publications, this CD is almost like an audio "Jesse Tree."  It includes songs about Noah, Moses, King David and Jonah, then moves on to songs about Mary, Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. There are many wonderful upbeat songs on this CD!  Our favorites include "Get On the Boat," about Noah; "Moses, Set Them Free," about God's call to Moses to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt. 

For those who teach in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium, several songs would be very appropriate for Advent lessons, including "Wonderful Counselor," which corresponds to the meditation of  Isaiah 9:5 and helps children understand the various titles given to Jesus; and "Little Bethlehem," which corresponds to the Biblical geography lesson about Bethlehem and the meditation of Micah 5:1.

You can hear samples of this CD here. 

Do you have any favorite Advent music?  I would love to hear about it! 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Favorite Find: Wooden Church Playset

A couple of months ago I was looking for some simple, portable materials that I could use in the catechism class I'm teaching at our parish.   I ran across this Wooden Church Playset from Beulah Enterprises.

For $22.50, you get a nine piece set of wooden pieces including a priest, church backdrop, baptismal font, altar, lectern and a family of four figures (father, mother and two children).  You can also get a muslin bag to store it all in for $2.

My daughter has been fascinated with the playset, setting up up to look like our church and then re-enacting the Mass or baptisms with the priest and other figures.  She also took out some of our other wooden blocks and created her own small church--complete with pews and a choir section with "organ" and piano.  She has asked me to look for a small statue of Mary so she can set up a rosary praying area like the one in our church.

The Beulah Enterprise website suggests that older kids might enjoy making vestments so I'll be giving her some purple felt soon so she can decorate her little church for Advent.  I can also picture a tiny advent wreath make from a bit of faux greenery and four birthday candles.

I might give her some clay and suggest she make a paten and chalice.

There is so much play potential with this simple little wooden set.  It would make a great gift for Christmas.

Disclaimer:  I am not affiliated with Beulah Enterprises in any way and will not receive any compensation for this review.  Just sharing another one of my "favorite finds!" 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A great resource for tracking homeschool lesson plans

While we're on the subject of homeschooling, I wanted to mention a free resource that I've been using this year to help me track our lesson plans, completion dates, etc.  It's called Homeschool Skedtrack.

In the past, I wrote our daily and weekly lesson plans on a tracking sheet that I created in my computer.  The problem with the paper method is that it is rather inflexible.  For example, if my daughter didn't complete a phonics lesson on Tuesday, I had to rewrite the phonics lesson plan for the rest of the week to ensure that the missed lesson was completed.

Homeschool Skedtrack is an online lesson planner that has more flexibility than a paper planner. If we don't get to a certain subject in any day, that day's lesson will be moved to the next day or whenever we are scheduled to cover that subject again.  For example, if we cover Map Skills on Tuesday and Wednesday, but we don't do Tuesday's scheduled lesson, that lesson will automatically move to Wednesday and be on our schedule the next day.  No more erasing and re-doing lesson plans! 

Homeschool Skedtrack is easy to use once you understand how to plan lessons in sequences (rather than planning by days).  You determine how many days you will do school in a given year (which can start at any time during the year), in addition to dates you will be off for holidays, vacations, field trips, etc. 

I took my Seton and Kolbe lesson plans and wrote them sequentially in Homeschool Skedtrack.  This can be a rather overwhelming chore!  So I started by writing just a week's lesson plans.  This also gave me the opportunity to see if the program would work for us.  I'm now writing about three weeks' worth of lesson plans into Homeschool Skedtrack, which isn't too overwhelming (I can sometimes complete it while my daughter is doing her independent school work). Eventually, I hope to put a quarter's worth of work in the program.

After the plans are inputted into the program, you simply go to the "Today" tab under the Schedule and see your child's list of assignments for the day.  As your child completes each assignment, he can check them off in the online planner. At the end of the day you can approve all finished work.  Unfinished work will be rolled over to the next scheduled day for that lesson.

Here's a screen shot of the "Today" page:

Best of all, the program is free!  It is supported by user donations and a few ads on the left and right columns of the page. 

I've used the program since August and have been very happy with it. If you're looking for an online homeschool scheduler and tracker, you can check it out here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Homeschool Curriculum Review, part 2

Note: this is the second in a two part article reviewing the homeschooling material I'm using this year.  For part one, click here.

We cover basic subjects (like reading, spelling, phonics and math) everyday.  We also mix in several other subjects at least once or twice a week.

I find that my daughter can only do school for about 3.5 hours (which includes short snack and exercise breaks) before she really can't handle any other school work.  We usually finish by lunch time.  Sometimes, if we haven't finished all our subjects, I try to extend past lunch but she really isn't focused in the afternoon and gets easily frustrated. So for now, we're ending at lunch time (about 11:30 or noon).  I hope to gradually extend into the afternoon, at least to do some fun hands-on projects.

We're using Seton's English 2, which covers subjects such as using the dictionary, ABC order, writing different types of sentences (like commanding and asking sentences), punctuation and more.  I originally started the year by doing English five days per year, as suggested in the Seton lesson plan.  But since she's been so enthusiastic about learning phonics, I decided to cut back on English for right now so we can reinforce phonics.  So we do English once or twice a week.  I like the fact that Seton's book includes poems and stories about saints, although some of them are rather challenging for my daughter.  Hoping this will get easier as she progresses in phonics.

We generally do handwriting two times a week.  I'm using Seton's Handwriting 2 course, but we skipped most of the printing practice in the front of the book and went to cursive writing.  I did this for two reasons: 1) my daughter already prints very nicely (one of the areas she excels in!); 2) since last summer, she's been trying to copy words written in cursive and has been asking to learn how to write cursive.  I don't have a strong opinion either way on this handwriting program.  It's a basic "copy the letter formation" program that seems to get the job done.

I used Handwriting Without Tears to teach her manuscript writing, and she really liked all the songs and manipulatives in that program, so I would recommend that program to kids who aren't interested in doing a lot of copywork in a workbook.

Map Skills 
I love teaching geography! When my son was in preschool and kindergarten, we spent a lot of time reading books about other countries and doing a variety of activities to learn about geography.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to do that yet with my daughter.  So I was delighted when I saw that Kolbe's second grade lesson plan includes Continental Press' Map Skills C.  The workbook includes lessons on understanding map keys, compass directions, distinguishing between different types of maps (e.g., political and physical maps) and more.

It recommends memorizing the state and capital city names, which are slowly doing with a couple of coloring books I picked up from Target's Dollar Spot and our local Dollar Tree store.

I'll also supplement this by reading several picture books about the states, including Marjorie Priceman's How to Make a Cherry Pie and See the U.SA. and Jackson and Bud's Bumpy Ride: America's First Cross-Country Automobile Trip by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff.

Last year we did a lapbook based on Priceman's How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World.  We may also do that for Cherry Pie, using some of the free printables found on the Homeschool Share website.

We're using Apologia's  Exploring Creation with Astronomy by Jeannie Fulbright.  I also purchased the Astronomy Notebooking Journal rather than using a 3-ring binder or blank spiral notebook.

The 176-page textbook helps elementary students define astronomy, learn about the planets, explore stars and galaxies and discover space travel.  We are doing it as a read-aloud, although stronger readers could probably read the text themselves with a little help from an adult.  The lessons include hands-on activities and experiments, too, like making a solar system with balloons and creating a pinhole viewing box with a cardboard box and aluminum foil.

I like the way Fulbright brings God into the subject of astronomy. For example, she includes chapters like "Why Did God Create the Universe?" and refers to the chapter of Genesis in the Bible. 

The notebook is very helpful, too.  It's a great place for a student to jot down notes or drawings.  For reluctant writers, there are plenty of creative frames and graphics to encourage a child to pick up a pencil and draw or write. There are also copywork pages where a student can print or cursive write a Bible verse.  My daughter enjoys the vocabulary crossword puzzles.  Each chapter includes a "What Do You Remember" page filled with review questions.

We are slowly working our way through this book.  Perhaps a bit too slowly for my liking!  It is mainly because we don't get to science until after lunch, and then my daughter has a hard time focusing on it. I may put the book aside and do it as a unit study in January/February.  If I do that, I'll build all of our subjects around the book.  For example, our spelling words would be astronomy terms or planet names, our copywork would be taken from the journal, our read-aloud would be the textbook and other picture books on the planets, our math work would include using planet shaped manipulatives, etc.  I'm still toying with this idea since we seem to do science best when we integrate it into all of our subjects.

Throughout the summer, I was researching a history program that would integrate Catholic church history with world history. I was intrigued when I read about Connecting with History on Cathy Duffy's Review website, so I ordered the Volume I of the program.  I like the fact that the program is implemented over four years, spanning history from creation to modern times.  I also like the fact that it can be adapted to various ages. In Volume I, we're studying creation through 63 B.C. and learning about the Israelites, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. It also fits nicely with what my son is learning at his Catholic school this year, and ties in with the salvation history lessons I teach as part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program.

The syllabus is full of ideas on how to implement the program, additional projects, etc.  I like the fact that we also utilize a variety of multimedia resources, including CDs of Old Testament stories, paper dolls of historical figures, etc. The only downfall is that I really was looking for a program that would lay out the readings, projects, etc. on a day-by-day basis.  This program is really for those who want to do the scheduling themselves. In the past, I've preferred programs that allow me to set the learning agenda, but this year I don't have the time to do it.  So unfortunately, the program hasn't been used as much as I would like.  I may make it a theme unit and work exclusively on it for several months this winter, using their suggestions for copywork, vocabulary, etc.   It is a great program, but one has to plan some time to work out the schedule.

Faith and Religion
We go to Mass on Fridays and do an hour of adoration on Tuesdays.  I also plan to periodically doing short studies on the saints, but decided not to do an actual religion textbook every day since so much of Seton and Kolbe's materials incorporate our Catholic faith.  However, since I am teaching catechism, my daughter attends class with me every Wednesday after. The parish uses RCL Benziger's Blest Are We program.   Truthfully, I'm not much of a "workbook/textbook" person, especially when it comes to teaching children about our faith.  So  I'm following it rather loosely, instead trying to emphasize some of the basics of our faith while incorporating alot of the hands on materials from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program.

I'll be sharing some of the things we are doing on this blog throughout the year.  Many can be used either at home, with a homeschool co-op, or in a catechism class.

So, that's our curriculum this year, subject to many adaptations as we go along!

I'm also trying to make Friday a "fun day" to work on Girl Scout Try-Its, art appreciation, drawing, music appreciation.  So far, I haven't been very good at this, as we usually attend Mass on Friday mornings (with my son's school) and then I try to do a few errands (like grocery shopping) which I have been putting off all week.  Also, if she's had a rough day during the week and we haven't finished everything, I try to add it in on Friday.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Our homeschool curriculum this year: a review

Last year I homeschooled my daughter with a mixture of books and curriculum.  Because she was struggling with first grade work and refused to read, I decided to backtrack a bit, taking the emphasis off workbooks and focusing instead on reading a variety of interesting books out loud to her.  I hoped it would eventually encourage her to try reading again. For read-alouds I used Five in A Row as my main resource, reading  most of the books in Volume I and following their suggestions for math, science, copywork and other subjects.  We also made a variety of lapbooks using free materials found in Homeschool Share, EnchantedLearning, Danielle's Place, DLTK-Kids and many other sources. Finally, we played a variety of games to memorize sight words and learn phonics.

I think this casual approach worked because by last spring, she started trying to read again. Granted, she was not reading at the level of a second grader, but she was reading!    I decided that this year we would switch to a homeschool curriculum that offered lesson plans, but could not decide between Seton's program or Kolbe's program.  Here's what I finally decided upon, along with a brief review of my opinion of the materials and lesson plans.  Hopefully this will help others who are trying to decide what program(s) to use with their second grader.

Today I'll cover our core subjects, which we do at least four days a week.  

Morning Prayer
We start every day with prayer.  Last year I created a variety of prayer rings to help her learn prayers like the Morning Offering, Act of Contrition, and several different litanies.  This year, I decided to use LTP's Children's Daily Prayer as our main resource.  Each day, it offers suggestions for an opening prayer, a psalm, the day's Gospel reading, silent reflection and closing prayer.  The prayers use simple words so my daughter can read many of the sections.  We take turns reading the various sections. 

What a difference a year makes! Last year she fussed and whined when we did phonics, so I discontinued using a workbook. Instead, we played a variety of file folder games to reinforce letter sounds. This year I went back to using a workbook, and am  I'm amazed that phonics is now her favorite subject! We're following the Kolbe second grade lesson plan and working our way through the Pearson Phonics Book B. The lesson plan calls for one to two pages each day in the workbook, but she wants to do more, so some days she does as many as five pages!

We are also Using Kolbe's second grade lesson plan for spelling.  Each week she gets 12 new words to review and study from Monday to Thursday. A final written test is given on Fridays.  It was a bit too challenging for her; the first two weeks she did poorly on the final exam, spelling only one or two words out of 12 correctly.  So now we study each list for two weeks. I give her six words each week. If a word is  easy and she masters it quickly, I replace it with another word in Kolbe's list for that week. At the end of two weeks we take a final written exam with all 12 words. This has worked much better and she doesn't become overwhelmed by six new words like she did when she saw 12 new words.

We are using Seton's second grade lesson plan and the These Are Our Neighbors reader. We both love it! Its charming illustrations and gentle moral message reminds me of the reader I used when I was learning to read. In fact, I think it was an older version of this book that motivated me to read!
I was a reluctant reader until my grandmother, who was a Catholic grade school teacher, showed me the Faith and Freedom reader she used in her classroom. I loved the stories in it!  She lent it to me and told me that if I could read it all by the next time she saw me, she would give me the book to keep.  Three months later, I was reading the entire book by myself.  I still cherish the first book I ever read!
The book centers around two grade school siblings--Joan and Mark--and their family.  She loves reading about their daily life and their adventures.  She feels sad when they have to move because their dad lost his job, and she laughs at the nice surprise they do for a homebound neighbor. 
The reading specialist at the school told me that These Are Our Neighbors was too difficult for my daughter and she should be using beginning readers that emphasized phonics and sight words. But my daughter didn't like those type of books because the stories were basically nonsensical rhymes ("Cat likes to sit on his red mat next to Rat"). She asked me if we could go back to reading These Are Our Neighbors. I read the whole six page story to her first. She then reads three of the pages back to me. It takes us two days to read each story but she doesn't get frustrated or overwhelmed and continues to stay motivated.  She wants to finish the story so she can find out what happens in the next story. Eventually I will increase the number of pages she reads to me each day until she can read a full story.
We used Right Start Math last year.  She loved all the manipulatives, but the lessons were so long that she grew bored and frustrated. I read many positive reviews about Math U See, so we switched to it this year.  
This curriculum is built around DVD lessons and specially designed blocks.  I started with the Primary level, which is really too easy for my daughter, but I find it's always better to start with a lower level for her. It tends to build her confidence:  "this is easy!  I can do this!"  She then wants to move onto harder things. We will be moving onto the Alpha level later this week, after we finish reviewing the DVD lessons. 

Read Alouds
I try to read at least 30 minutes each day to her.  I use a mixture of different books depending on her interests, classics I would like her to hear, and other subjects we are studying.  
We started the year by reading King of the Golden City   I used the study edition of the book, which has helpful discussion questions at the end of every chapter.  Although the book can be a bit deep at times, my daughter understood the basic idea and would ask questions about Dilecta and her choices throughout our day.  I think this is a book that could be  revisited every year; as the child grows older its meaning and symbolism will grow, too.  I will be encouraging my sixth grader to read it, too!
We are currently working on Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls.   The stories are interesting, but some of the verbiage is a bit dated. However, I love the morals that are built into each story.  It's another book that I'll be encouraging my sixth grader to read!
We began learning about U.S. geography last week, so I also started reading Children of the U.S.A.  


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The challenges of teaching catechism in a secular world

For the past eight years I've been blessed to be a catechist at a church that offers the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program. If you aren't familiar with the program, it is quite different from the "workbook/textbook" religion method that is commonly used by parishes today.

In a nutshell, CGS is a religious formation program that builds upon the special relationship that children naturally have with God. It starts with a specially prepared environment (called an "atrium") using materials handcrafted especially for children. This includes puzzles and pin maps of the Holy Land, a model of the city of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, miniature Mass sacramentals, dioramas of some of the parables and stories told in the Bible, and a variety of other beautiful material. CGS engages their senses and touches their heart to help them grow closer to God. It is a deep, meaningful approach to catechesis that affects not only the children, but also the catechists. I know it has been a transforming experience for my kids and I!

I've been trying to get the program into my home parish for years without success.  This year, I decided to teach regular CCD at our parish, hoping that I could incorporate some of the CGS materials and methods into my sessions.  Perhaps this will open a window so the Holy Spirit can come in and the "powers that be" can see that religious education doesn't need to be from a workbook.

My goal is to make the sessions less like a classroom, and more like a time where the kids can think deeply and explore their relationship with God. 

I knew it would be a rough road.  Sadly, many of the kids live in secular homes where God has been put on a dusty back shelf behind sports, dance, music and many other activities. I knew that Mass was not a regular part of their lives, although many probably attend on major holidays like Christmas and Easter.

I'm not expecting overnight miracles. I will take it very slowly, giving them some basic presentations on tangible topics that appeal to most kids--like Biblical geography--before we started working on the more esoteric and harder to understand subjects that fill their workbooks.  (The workbook this year is designed around the topic of the Four Marks of the Catholic Church.  A worthy topic, but perhaps not for third graders who may not yet know/understand/love the fundamentals of their faith!)  My emphasis is on building a love and understanding for their Catholic faith. 

I sympathize with the kids.  They are in school all day and then rush over to catechism class, where they are also expected to sit still and listen to a catechist lecture for 1.5 hours.  

I've decided to divide up the class time like this:  After announcements, we sit in a circle and I give a 15-25 minute CGS presentation. I might teach them a new song or prayer, too, during this time. Then they have 15-25 minutes of free time to do work related to the presentation topic. (I'll talk more about this in a future blog posting.) We then have prayer corner (with the kids organizing the prayer time and selecting the readings).  If there's time, they go outside and play on the playground. We head back to the room and say a final prayer before their parents pick them up.

It's difficult creating an atrium environment, since my class is held in the parish school's third grade classroom.  We don't have shelves for the hands-on materials and don't have a dedicated prayer corner.  Ideally, I would have the kids take their chairs and sit in a circle around me (rather than sitting in desks), but their are many desks in the room and not alot of space to move just  the chairs. So I've been trying to figure out ways to work around those challenges. I obtained permission to use the chapel for our prayer corner time, since the classroom, with its bright fluorescent lights and desks, just wasn't conducive to quiet, meditative prayer.  It also gives the kids a chance to move their bodies a bit, if only just while walking from the classroom to the chapel!

However, I've found the biggest challenge isn't the classroom environment. It isn't the children, who can be antsy but have been very attentive during presentations thus far.  It isn't the religious education office, which tries to be helpful but is required to take up a lot of class time with fire drills, diocese required child protection classes and other sessions that seem to take away from the prayerful atmosphere I'm trying to create. 

No, unfortunately, the biggest challenge is the parents.

Last week, we had a fire drill, which messed up my planned schedule and meant that we were five minutes late in returning to the classroom from the chapel. Several parents complained. "My son has football practice right after this!"  "My daughter has dance class in 10 minutes, and we have to drive across town!"   I understand; I usually have commitments after class too.  Or at the very least, I need to get home and start supper since it is already 6 p.m.

I also have several kids who need to leave early from every class because of sports and other commitments.  When you only have 1.5 hours for a class, this can be challenging.  Some of the kids stay only one hour; other kids leave 15-20 minutes before the class ends. Unfortunately, it is disruptive and distractive to have kids getting up and leaving the chapel during prayer corner, which is when all the kids should be involved in their prayers and intentions.

I wonder if parents realize this?  Most of them give their children only one time per week to learn more about their faith.  What kind of message are they sending, when they take their kids out early to attend sports practices and other activities? 

So I keep praying, asking God to touch the children's hearts so they don't want to leave early.  Maybe they can reach their parents by saying "I don't want to go until class is over!"  I know that isn't unusual in an CGS atrium environment (many of our kids don't want to leave even after 2 hours!)  But this isn't an atrium environment so I will need the special assistance of the Holy Spirit...

If you teach a catechism class, what challenges do you face?  If you have overcome some difficulties, what did you do?  I would love some advice, especially on creating a prayerful environment in a classroom situation.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Time to get back to school (and this blog!)

I can't believe it's been so long since my last blog entry! Between swim team, soccer, music camp and all the other activities of summer,  I didn't have much time to post in July and August. Then September rolled around and we went full swing into school, dance class, birthdays, soccer, drama club and so much more!  But it's time to get back to it and I have 'lots to share!

Decisions and big changes
In late August we made a big change. We decided to transfer our sixth grade son from the small Catholic school he has attended since kindergarten to a larger Catholic school.  It was one of the hardest decisions we have ever made!  Have any of you ever made to make a tough decision to leave a school you really liked?

We like the school and love our parish, but I think the fit wasn't right, although we tried to deny that for at least the last two years. I spent many hours praying for guidance! Our son wasn't happy; he wanted to go to a larger school (for a variety of reasons).

The school couldn't really help our daughter, either. She had attended first grade there, but quit working mid-year because she was so overwhelmed. The school suggested we hold her back a year, but this didn't feel right to us. Although she's behind in academics like reading and math, she excels in anything that is physical. For example, her handwriting and drawing are probably at 4th grade level, she is a strong soccer player who was invited to play on a travel soccer team this year, and she won an 8th place ribbon at a regional conference for her breast stroke this summer (after only swimming that stroke for about 3 months).  But getting her to do reading and math is another story.

So I was hoping that a year or two of individualized attention at home would help her catch up with her peers.

Although my goal was to get her back into the small Catholic school with her brother, over the summer I realized that she would probably never fit into that environment. She needs multi-level learning opportunities, where she can work more quickly on the areas she's good at, yet slow down on the pace on the areas where she struggles.

Although I don't mind homeschooling her, I know that she is one of those kids who will work harder and perform better for others. When she's with me, her main focus is to battle for control over her life.  Her past experience (in the orphanage and before that) taught her that she can't trust adults and therefore must take care of herself.  I understand that it may take a long time before she can really give up control and trust me.

As a result, our school days drag on as she battles with me over who is in charge. It's not even a matter of "choosing my battles" and letting her "win" the little things. Doing that only makes matters worse!  It usually results in a major temper tantrum because she feels like I've let her down, since I let her make a decision. 

Anyway, we started looking for another school for my son and discovered that one of the Catholic schools in the area could also meet my daughter's needs.  It is a bigger school and has a full time special education teacher, plus several reading and math aides, plus teaching assistants in every kindergarten through fourth grade classroom.

It felt like a load was lifted from my shoulders!  Maybe there were some solutions to my schooling problems!

Fast forward to today: my son has been in the school a little over a month and loves it. My daughter has been tested by the school's special education teacher and we are working toward enrolling her in the school.  Unfortunately, she is still very behind, but the testing made us realize that we needed to look further into her overly high level of energy and her inability to focus. Our pediatrician tested her for ADHD and we learned that she is far more active and far less able to focus than a typical nine year old. So we have decided to try medication. I've resisted medication for so long, saying we could work with her behavior and would just take things slower. But over the last month I realized that behavior therapy would not work and unless we try the medication, she may just keep falling farther and farther behind.  So she will begin taking Strattera soon, and I'll keep praying that things improve and she can focus better. She's a smart little girl, but so easily distracted!

I would love to hear from any of you who have children with attention deficit issues.  Do you use any medication?  What other things have you done to help the child learn?  You can email me at caswrite at if you prefer not to put your advice in the comments section.

Please keep us in your prayers as we try to figure out the best way for her to learn.

In the meantime, I'll continue to homeschool her.  Will be writing another post about the curriculum we're using this year and how it is working so far.

I also volunteered to teach her CCD class at our parish.  They usually rely on workbooks, but I'll be incorporating alot of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) materials into our sessions.  So over the next few months I'll share ideas on how to make "workbook religion" more relevant and real to kids.

Now it's time to pick some tomatoes and enjoy the beauty of fall!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pay It Forward: Two Great Blogs by Priests

The whole Father Corapi issue makes my heart weep. I listened to Corapi for years on Relevant Radio. His talks gave me a greater understanding of our beautiful Catholic faith.  So I weep now, especially as I read the comments by his supporters and his dissenters on many blogs and websites. So much anger, so many accusations, so much hurt.  I can imagine the devil gleefully cheering over the fact that he has again managed to scatter and confuse Jesus' flock.

I say, let's move on and not debate it any longer. Let Corapi and SOLT work it out. Our focus needs to turn back to Jesus. Let's spend time in prayer asking for heavenly intercession on this difficult and confusing matter.  If we aren't happy with the outcome right now, let's not turn from our Church, but instead pray, and then seek out some of the other faithful priests who can guide us. And let us guard against putting them on a pedestal or turning them into a celebrity. Instead, let's pray for them, too, so they may faithfully do their job of shepherding God's flock.


Holly, who blogs at A Life-Size Catholic, recently invited me to participate in her "Pay It Forward Meme."  I thought the best way to do this right now -- especially in light of the Corapi situation -- it to share a link to blogs by two of my favorite priests.  I understand that both of these priests have appeared on EWTN, but I since we don't have cable TV, I haven't had the chance to see them there. However, their radio sermons and blog posts are very inspiring!

Father Robert Barron's Word on Fire blog
Father Barron is a theologian and professor at The University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois.  I've listened to him on Relevant Radio since they began broadcasting his sermons in 1999.  When his sermons come on the radio, I stop what I'm doing and take 15 minutes to listen. Really listen. Because each sermon is filled with many little gems about our faith.  I always walk away feeling refreshed and happy.  On days when I'm feeling a bit down, his sermons give me a positive new way to look at the problems of the world and remind me that God can overcome all obstacles. I hope some day to catch one of his sermons in person!  You can listen to his radio sermons here.

I discovered Father Longenecker's blog a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of the Corapi turmoil.  I think this blog appeals to me because Father Longenecker doesn't mince words. He tells it like it is. It's so refreshing!  In a world full of doublespeak and perfectly crafted speeches,  it isn't always easy to hear the truth. I think we desperately need priests who aren't afraid to speak the truth, even if they have to be blunt about it sometimes.

An example from my own life:
I once attended a parish where people would often arrive late for Mass, sometimes 15 minutes or more. One day at the end of the Mass, the priest gently reminded everyone about the importance of being in the pews before Mass begins. He talked about how disruptive it can be when people drift in after the processional. He kindly stated that he knew that some might have extenuating circumstances occasionally, but we should all try harder to be on time as much as possible.  Not a big demand, is it? Nothing in his tone was accusatory or angry; it was a helpful, gentle prodding. I was guilty of being late quite often; trying to make it to 7:30 a.m. Mass with a 3-year-old can be a challenge at times!  I didn't take offense but told myself that I must develop a smoother morning routine so we could be at Mass on time.

However, there must have been a lot of angry phone calls to the rectory that week, because the following Sunday the priest apologized profusely for upsetting some of the parishioners.  At the time, I remember thinking it was so sad that the priest could not make this simple request without taking a lot of heat for it.

Perhaps that's why I appreciate Father Longenecker's blog.  I might feel uncomfortable sometimes, but I bet I'll grow from the experience and learn something new about myself and God.  As a result, I'll also feel closer to God. And isn't that the job of a priest--to help us grow closer to our Heavenly Father?

Father Longenecker's blog is here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

First Friday Link up at Catholic Icing

Lacy's "First Friday" linkup is now up at her Catholic Icing blog.  I love this linkup; it's a great way to see some of the liturgically inspired projects that everyone has been working on for the past month.   As of today, there are links to:

- a printable priest paper doll (complete with colored chasuables)  provided by Nicole

- a free David and Goliath printable shared by Alicia

- a free July saints day printable game provided by Monica (a great way to recycle those metal tops from juice cans)

- a Holy Family story bag by Meadow

- Jesus Loves Me t-shirt by Lacy much more!  Check out all the links here:

First Friday Link Up

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hands on Activity for Feast of the Sacred Heart

I've been brainstorming a hands-on way to teach my daughter about the Sacred Heart devotion. Although we could just read Father Lovasik's excellent book "The Promises of the Sacred Heart," I wanted to do a bit more.  So I dug around in my craft cabinet and found these items:

Small plastic heart boxes (purchased last February from my Dollar Tree), pink and red construction paper, and glue glitter pens in red, pink and gold, black permanent marker (not shown).

I decided to use the little boxes as a way to teach my daughter about the 12 promises.  I cut out little paper hearts that would fit inside the boxes.

Using Father Lovasik's book as a guide, I wrote a promise on each of the paper hearts.

Then I tucked each one inside a plastic heart box.

I took the cover of each box and wrote a corresponding number on it with a gold glitter glue pen.

I now have 12 boxes, each with one of the promises of the Sacred Heart.

How we will use the plastic hearts:
I will have my daughter select the heart with the "1" on it and open it. Inside, she will read the brief passage about the applicable promise (a great way to encourage her to read).  I will then turn to the matching page in the Father Lovasik book and read his meditation/prayer.  We can discuss each one, if she wishes, or just spend some time in silent prayer after the meditation.

We will be using these over the next few days in preparation for the Feast of the Sacred Heart (Sunday, July 1).  Can't wait to start!

Now you have a reason to buy those adorable plastic heart boxes at the Dollar Tree next February!