Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Traditions

This is an exciting year for us! My friends, with whom the children and I usually spend Christmas Eve, have to be away on some emergency family business. At first the girls were disappointed -- especially because they have a 15 foot high tree with a train that runs around it -- but I explained that this was an opportunity for us to develop our own Christmas Eve traditions and they can be whatever we like. Staying up until midnight playing board games and drinking eggnog, eating dinner in our pajamas... anything we want. I also told them we could decide where to put our stockings. This is a new house for us, and there are nail holes in the mantel, but I was thinking of a different idea. I read or heard somewhere about a tradition where the children placed their stockings at the foot of their bed. When they woke up in the morning and opened their eyes, there was a bulgy stocking full of surprises to discover. It kept the kids in their rooms for a bit, before waking Mom & Dad, I'm sure. But also think, how nice it would be to wake up to CHRISTMAS right there in your own bed! When I was a girl we would have to stay upstairs and we could only peek down the steps and catch a glimpse of those tantalizing stockings, waiting for all the adults to be awake and ready to go down with us. So I think we'll do stockings on beds this year.

For the first time, I get to make a special Christmas Eve dinner for the girls and I. (Tomorrow we are having lunch with my family, then the children go to their dad's house for a week and I will be traveling to visit relatives.) How exciting! At first I felt overwhelmed at the idea of coming up with new traditions and a fancy dinner, but here's the plan.

Roast Game Hens with Pineapple Glaze
buttercup squash

For dessert: cheesecake with a mixed berry sauce

For Christmas morning breakfast: cheese blintzes with the remaining berry sauce, oatmeal with sliced almonds, homemade yogurt

The yogurt is in the crockpot now. Leah is happily helping me clean the house. Sweeping, swiffering, spraying and wiping down the sink and counters with Dr. Bronner's, and washing the walls with Murphy's Oil Soap are all jobs that she adores. She just loves to be active! After we spruce up, we will get the stockings out of their storage bin, pack away the wrapping paper and other gift wrap items that have been all over the living room lately, and start making our fancy dinner.

I'm keeping an eye on the weather in preparation for my driving trip.

What to do on those quiet days of vacation? I'm packing knitting projects and thinking about curriculum planning. I have a new idea of making a list of chapter and picture books that could be read in chronological order by time period to help children better have a sense of U.S. (or your own country) and/or World History. This came to me when we were reading Audubon's biography and the author was describing, quite vividly, people's reactions to seeing a steamship for the first time. My students were also stunned that he and his love would hold up giant chalked messages for each other across the valley that separated them. Imagine, a world with no text messages! In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tatemention is made of a kerosene driven fan, the first telephone coming to town, drinking Coca-Cola for the first time, and seeing an automobile. It would be wonderful to come up with a series of read alouds that helped give children an experience of how the world changed -- in order of events -- instead of putting these pieces together haphazardly.

Anyway, that's my idea, and to start it off I would have Lucy Fitch Perkin's The Cave Twins

Forgotten Books, the publisher, has a nice website where you can view a list of their titles and also read many online and download free ebooks in PDF format.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gingerbread Man Knitted Ornaments

Our final gift project is the "Gingerbread Man" knitted project from Knitted Toys: 25 Fresh and Fabulous Designsby Zoe Mellor. You can have a child age first grade or older knit and then felt the flat piece of fabric in the washing machine. It will still turn out to be felt whether its been knitted as garter or stockinette. I used a variegated wool yarn in browns and whites. Make sure the yarn is not too thick (stay away from bulky for this project) because then the felt will be terribly difficult to cut with scissors. We reduced the size of the template so they would be sized more as ornaments. My nephews (I had three girls, my brother had three boys) live in Australia now, so we wanted a gift that wouldn't be too heavy or take up too much space in a suitcase. These little wool felt guys are perfect! My daughters are happily looking through our button collection, choosing the perfect eyes and buttons to go to down the front of their gingerbread man. We are sewing a mouth with pink yarn. For a cute gift wrap idea, put them in a cookie tin!

Two Needle Mitten Pattern

Today I learned a valuable lesson. My 1st and 2nd grade daughters really want to be independent in as many ways as possible (they each proudly made their dog treat recipe almost without help) and today we encountered the gift wrapping portion of the holiday prep season. They've watched me wrap things many times -- I wrapped all the sachets while they punched and wrote their gift taps -- so they expected to be able to easily, but it was much too hard for them. Judging what size the wrapping paper piece needed to be, laying the tape across the divide between the paper instead of just on one side, pulling off and tearing the right amount of tape without it getting tangled, folding and holding the wrapping paper in place with one hand while trying to put the tape on.... It was a disaster. I've never been one for gift bags and tissue paper but we had some left over from gifts that were given to us, so I got them out. Two pieces of tissue paper (one to go around the gift, one to go on top), a gift bag, and a sticker tag. Done! Much better feeling of success and competency. Smiles all 'round.

Yesterday my boyfriend treated the girls to tickets to the Ballet (Septime Weber's Nutcracker), front row orchestra seats at the Warner Theater in D.C. So it was a very special day. I can't believe Christmas is almost here! Today we are doing the final gift making and wrapping and tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

I just finished a pair of mittens for Leah yesterday and now have to make some for Natalie and Becca. I found a pattern that's not too difficult and can be worked on two needles. I used a 4 and 6. The mittens are warm (and cute with stripes) and the pattern fits true to size. Here it is: Bev's 2-Needle Knit Mittens for Kids. Thanks, Bev, for sharing this free pattern!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dog Treats

Today we made the cat toys with finger knitted strings; we even found organic catnip at the pet store near us.

Tomorrow it's time to bake dog treats so I'm online looking up recipes and making a grocery list:

Garlic Cheese Dog Biscuits
These are a standby with us. We've made them over and over. We would only need to buy shredded cheddar and some cloves of garlic.

Olive Oil and Bacon Truffles
We've made these before too. They are fun for kids to shape with their hands. I think we'll go ahead and make both recipes! We would need to buy bacon, beef broth, and olive oil for this.

Pet Cookies
Hmmm... something new. I've already got plenty of wheat germ on hand. For this we would need to buy the strained chicken in baby food jars.

Power Pooch Smoothies
If you're looking for a Christmas doggie treat for your own pooch, not to give as a gift, try these frozen smoothies.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Not Pushing Knitting

I've learned a lot in the years I have tried to teach children to knit, from my Sunday School class, to my current class at the school. I learned that a verse helps A LOT, that having the children write down a copy of the verse to keep in their handwork baskets so they can read it while they do the steps is essential, that you should have a child sit next to you and watch you, then you have them hold the bottom of the needles while you manipulate them, then they do a few stitches on their own. I have learned that having a short row to begin with helps kids feel done faster and they feel more successful, so I usually cast on 8 for a starting swatch. I've learned that you have to explain to children that if they end up with more stitches than 8 after a few rows that they can't just push the extra stitches off and drop them because they will unravel in the body of the knitting. I've learned that my idea of having kids knit flowers after making swatch after swatch and scarf after scarf was not that successful, that what they really want is to make animals. I've learned that while Kids Knitting: Projects for Kids of all Agesis a good book to help learn to knit if you are on a budget and you only have access to the local library, that A First Book of Knitting for Childrenis the real bees knees, because it has those animal patterns and THAT'S WHAT KIDS LIKE. But most of all, I've learned (wait for it) not to push knitting.

All children can easily learn to finger knit with one loop so we start there (after our introductory sewing unit, because I learned from a Handwork book that knots and care of your materials are the real place to begin). I give them plenty of inexpensive 100% cotton yarn from WalMart and let them go to town. We do make knitting needles right away, with acorn cap ends, so that all the classroom pencils aren't used up by holding people's yarn loops when they set down their work and go to something else. I love Red Berry Woolto introduce knitting.

After finger knitting for a while, most children want to know how to make a slipknot, so they can start on a new yarn without waiting for me, so I give that lesson. There are great directions for this in Kids Crochet: Projects for Kids of All Ages

Then a week or so later I announce that I will be giving a lesson on how to finger knit with more that one finger for those who are interested and I let people decide if they want to come or stay at the level they're on. After a few kids start doing the more complicated finger knitting, others want to try it, so I have the children that know how teach the others. I really enjoy watching the children teach each other and it gives the classroom a nice collaborative atmosphere.

I sit down with my own Handwork basket and begin to knit something with two needles, letting the children who want that as their next lesson come to me to express their interest. That's when I give them the verse and show them how. Soon, again, more and more children are asking for the lesson. I give the lesson individually but pair them up with an experienced knitter to be a buddy if they get stuck while knitting. After they do their first swatch, I teach the knitted cast-on so they can get themselves started. Scarf after scarf begin to appear. I give them bulky wool for this.

Then I casually knit the lamb pattern (unassembled) and hold it up one day at Morning Meeting and say, for those who are interested in trying a new knitting challenge, I can teach you how to make a stuffed animal. You will get a special new kind of yarn for this.

I have noticed that by backing off and not trying to have everyone in the room on the same project at the same time, there's more interest in knitting. Kids don't feel like they HAVE to be doing a project with needles. They can take a break from their needles and go back to finger knitting for a while if they want to. My two children who are in my class are at different levels and it's been fun to watch. Natalie wanted a new challenge and so she is doing her first stuffed animal -- the Pig from A First Book of Knitting for Children

Leah wanted something new but not that complicated so she's making the very first beginning knitter hat from Lion Brand Yarn: Just Hats: Favorite Patterns to Knit and Crochet

I love that they are coming to me and asking for something new, not that I am pushing them along. When Natalie found 100 Flowers to Knit & Crochet: A Collection of Beautiful Blooms for Embellishing Garments, Accessories, and Moreon the shelf, she asked me about crochet and so I told her I would get her a crochet hook and we could explore it together (I don't know how to crochet yet). She's in 2nd grade, so this is the Handwork "curriculum" for her, but she feels like she is discovering it on her own.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cat Toy

I am quite enjoying our unexpected Snowy Day at home. I tried out a new hot-cereal-in-the-crockpot recipe, which turned out well. Grease a small capacity crockpot. Add 1 cup of Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain hot cereal, some dried cranberries, 3 cups of water and a bit of vanilla extract. Put slow cooker on low for 2 1/2 hours. Yummy.

We sewed sachets for a bit and then the girls went out into the snow. Leah is convinced that everyone in Kindergarten so wanted it to snow that they all went to bed with their jammies inside out and backwards and created this storm. Natalie is sick, which is lucky because I don't have snowboots in her new size yet. (By the way, if you are reading this on December 16th, Lands End is having a one day sale of $10 off a $50 purchase, perfect for buying those snow boots. The code is SANTA75 and the PIN is 4445.) I ordered her boots... next I have to order some hot chocolate. The best hot chocolate in the world comes in these nifty little tablets that you put in the blender.

Kids are going to have naps, then play outside again. When they get tired of sewing sachets and reading and playing board games in their downtime, I'm going to suggest that we make cat toys for my aunt's cat Quiz. In the past we have wet felted mice and rolled them in catnip but I am going to try the Cat Toy pattern from Last-Minute Fabric Gifts: 30 Hand-Sew, Machine-Sew, and No-Sew Projectsby Cynthia Treen.

We don't have catnip tea bags but we do have loose catnip that we can wrap up in tissue paper, for that enticing crinkly sound, or in cheesecloth bundles. I have some lovely thick hand dyed wool felt from Colors of Nature. I bought it at one of Rahima's conferences in Boulder CO. It's THICK and would be great for a cat. The other quick and inexpensive option would be to felt some wool sweaters from a thrift store in the dryer, then cut your squares out of that.

Uses for Old Christmas Cards

Lots of people have ideas about what to do with the Christmas cards you got last year. I saved ours, and was planning on cutting off the back side and using them as Christmas postcards this year, when I had another idea. Since there's no school today (Snow Day in Southern Maryland) the girls are sewing sachets while they wait for the flakes to begin to fall. As people finish sewing and begin stuffing their sachets with wool and spices, they are ready to wrap. We are using the saved gift wrap pieces from our Wrapped Advent Calendar to wrap the sachets and we are punching gift tags out of last year's holiday cards using the Creative Memories tag punch, the only scrapbooking supply that I've ever bought that I've used. But I love that little punch!

The cards have glitter on them, beautiful images, and they are printed on nice heavy card stock. Perfect for gift tags! We need two tags from the front of each gift card so they'll match in color scheme and design (a set of two goes on each package: to/from and a tag that lists what spices are in the sachet). I was delighting in being thrifty but the kids are having more fun than even I expected, because they LOVE to read the cards and see who they came from. Becca is dancing around the room, enjoying seeing cards from friends who love her! Leah is enjoying choosing the most beautiful designs to cut her tags from. (Natalie is in bed with a cold. So actually I'm glad to be able to stay home from work and take care of her, instead of putting her with a sitter.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Making Christmas Cookies

Gift baskets full of cookies are a fun and easy gift. Here are the 8 kinds of cookies we are making this year:

"Shortbread Hearts" from the Silver Palate Cookbook

"Traditional Sugar Cookies" from the Betty Crocker Cookbook

"Filled Sugar Cookies" from the Betty Crocker Cookbook

"Lemon Sables" from the Cooks Illustrated magazine, Nov/Dec 2008

"Almond Sables" from the Cooks Illustrated magazine, Nov/Dec 2008

"Molasses Cookies" from the Silver Palate Cookbook

"Sweetmeats" from the Silver Palate Cookbook

"Butterballs" from the Silver Palate Cookbook

Shortbread cookies, and similar, such as the French Butter Cookies, are wonderful for elapsed time because they have chilling times as well as baking times.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pointillism Gift Tags

Next week is our final week of school before the Holiday break. I want to spend more time on Van Gogh but I'm worried about trying to fit in it with our other activities. So I think that we will use the video from the "Who is the Artist?" DVD series: Who is The Artist? Post Impressionism -- Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat

I haven't used any videos this school year so far, but I think this one is worthwhile. It is one of a series (including Impressionism, Pop Art, and Fantasy Art)

Each video shows sample paintings from each artist and talks about their painting style, then goes on to show other paintings and asks students if they can figure out who painted it. I would like the children to compare the big sweeping expressive movements of Vincent Van Gogh, with the controlled Pointillism of Georges Seurat. We are wrapping our knitted scarves, sewn felt Gingerbread Man finger puppet ornaments, and watercolor painted stationary sets in plain white paper and I would like some colorful gift tags. My idea is to trace and cut out (or tack punch, for students who struggle with fine motor skills) gift tags in holiday shapes using cookie cutters, and decorate them with pointillist-style dots using Q-tips dipped in different colors of paint. Doing those tedious dots will also help students realize the differences between Van Gogh's style, with its large expressive movements, and other Post-Impressionists.

Introduction to Van Gogh

For this artist I used a different approach to the introduction. We had a 24 piece puzzle of "The Starry Night" by Van Goghat the school, so inspiration struck! I passed around the box of 24 pieces, telling each student to take two and pass the box to their neighbor and place their pieces in front of them.

Because this puzzle has such large pieces, you can see a considerable amount of the painting on each one. I asked students to look at their puzzle pieces and make observations about the artist's painting style. They observed that the artist was not trying to capture detail (more like Degas than Audubon), that he layered colors on top of each other, and that he used a lot of texture. They also observed that he seemed to use large sweeping motions. I then asked what they thought the picture would be when all the pieces were assembled. After discussing this, we put the puzzle together and I gave them some background information about Vincent Van Gogh. I didn't mention his mental illness, I simply said that he was often sick and that he had painted this from the bedroom window of his hospital. I talked about the Expressionist movement and asked them what feelings they sensed from the picture. My students talked about feelings of loneliness and yearning, wanting to be youthful again, and wanting to be with the angels in heaven. It was a fabulous discussion. We followed with activities from Using Art to Create Artby Wendy Libby (Activity 1 & 3).

The puzzle pieces were such a great spur-of-the-moment idea that I'd like to try finding puzzles for some of our other artists!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Play Backdrops

I am here to share the greatest idea EVER for putting on a play in your classroom! It's not my own, we borrowed it from another classroom teacher. Here goes: use inexpensive rolling garment racks for your backdrops. They can be dismantled after the play, take up very little space in storage (just use a large duffel bag for all the components), and then can be reused for the next play. To make the sets, simply drape a twin size flat sheet over the rolling rack and pin the extra fabric around the back with safety pins. The cheapest sheets at WalMart are four bucks apiece. You can also search the thrift stores or ask for donations of old sheets. After pinning the fabric to fit your garment rack, lift the sheets off and lay them on the floor to paint the sets. When the play is done, take out the pins and fold up the sheets to be used again. They take up hardly any space at all; just stick them in a bin!

Our first play done this way was Stone Soup and so now we have five nice pieces of "town" scenery. These can be used for many other play productions -- so versatile.

We are currently putting on the Nutcracker so we are painting five pieces of "house interior" and five pieces of "candy village". One of the house interior pieces, a fireplace, can definitely be used in other plays as well! We also did an nice grandfather clock.

Be creative -- I got five light blue sheets for the candy village and we only had to paint on the houses and trees because there was already a sky! For the house interior, I got two off white sheets and three striped sheets. The striped sheets are the wallpaper. They didn't need to be painted at all! One of the off white sheets was used to paint the fireplace scene. The other holds the grandfather clock.

We just went ahead and used tempera paint so don't think this will be too expensive. You could also sew some details onto your sets if you were feeling extra creative (and had extra time), such as putting sequins on the snowflakes to give them that added sparkle. Lay your sheets out on a tarp in the classroom for painting and then hang them outside for drying. I hung ours over the chain link fence that surrounds the blacktop, and used more safety pins to be sure they stayed in place while they were drying and didn't blow away. Easy easy easy easy and -- my favorite -- inexpensive! Not only that, instead of using rolls of paper to create backdrops each year, I am ecstatic that we only have to paint the Nutcracker sets once and then we will be done.

Sewing Sachets

Today my girls are beginning to make their Christmas presents -- sachets. We have a variety of Christmas fabrics and a large bag of wool stuffing, plus an assortment of spices to go inside (cinnamon sticks, dried lemon and orange peel, whole cloves, etc.) and the girls have divided up the list of people we need to give gifts to and they have begun to work on the people on their list. I'm roasting a chicken over a bed of quince pieces so the house smells lovely and I have an hour which I can devote to helping them. The two oldest have been through the sewing unit in my class so they can pin fabric, thread a needle, and tie a french knot. Boy is it easier to do craft projects now that these girls are older! The youngest needs her fabric pinned, her needle threaded, and her knots tied, and I also put dots along the fabric with a Sharpie so that she has something to follow. It is sweet to see them all sitting in a row on the couch, sewing peacefully.

Elapsed Time

Part of the Baking unit is elapsed time. For this I recommend reading the story Flicka, Ricka, Dicka Bake a Cakeby Maj Lindman. It's perfect.

For follow-up, here are some worksheets on elapsed time.