Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Day 3

Continuing where we last left off was a short two-hour drive to the city of St. Louis, Missouri.

We were greeted by this cities very beautiful skyline. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the Gateway Arch, stood big as life right next to us.

       Our afternoon consisted of a visit to the monument itself. We took in the documentary of the making of the arch called “Monument to the Dream”. In retrospect, not so sure the movie was a good idea as it struck fear into our youngest about taking the teeny tiny tram up the 630 feet to the top.

They have a replica tram in the lobby so people can see what it will be like. They don’t recommend it if you are at all claustrophobic. Eventually we all made it to the top. So worth the harrowing tram right, but unnerving, as you actually walk over the very top of the arch, the walking surface is not flat, but curved.

The cost of the movie and tram were reasonable, $17.00 for adults and $7.50 for the kids. Each adult ticket includes a $3.00 National Park entrance fee.


Once back on flat ground, the kids completed a Junior Park Ranger Program. This took us inside the Museum of Westward Expansion which was free to peruse.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson points west towards the Pacific Ocean as you enter the museum, which shows his vision.

The display that really stood out for all of us were the lit cases of American Indian Peace Medals. Part of the JPR Program was to design your own medals. We ended up with Peace Medals with frogs, wolves, dragons and bats on them! That was a fun activity for the kids!


*There is a really cool statue of Lewis and Clark and their dog Seaman along the Mississippi River under the arch, good photo opportunity!

Day 4

We began our last full day of vacation with a visit to the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site. This is probably one of the nicest National Historic sites we have been to. Great museum!


We watched an introductory movie called ‘A Place called White Haven’.

We then took a tour of the Main House where he and his wife Julie Dent spent time. She lived there during the Civil War years when he was gone fighting for the Union. Before moving to the White House when he became our 18th president.

Interesting fact about the original color of the house, it was called Paris Green and it had arsenic in it! Used back in those days to prevent bugs from chewing on the house. Yikes!


The kids completed a Junior Park Ranger Program here and we headed out.

All of the activities at White Haven were free. We (all four of us) really learned a lot about Ulysses S. Grant with this look into his personal life.

The afternoon consisted of a trip to the St. Louis Zoo, recommended by many. It was fantastic!

The weather was nice, the exhibits were great, and it gave us a break from all of that American history!

We did pay an extra $3.00 a person to pet and feed stingrays, but you could spend an entire day at this free zoo and have a blast!


Homeward bound….however,  it would have been a mistake not to stop (it was on the way) in Hannibal, Missouri. For a visit to Mark Twain’s boyhood home. In about an hour and a half we were able to walk through the museum and tour his home and his neighborhood.


In the museum you could watch a Huck Finn movie while sitting on a raft and sound a steamboat whistle!

Upstairs of the museum they have a Norman Rockwell exhibit. I’m not a huge fan, but it was cool to see the original drawings next to the original finished paintings.

It was a good reminder for my husband and me to read all of the quotes around the museum that we had forgotten were Mark Twain’s.

We were pretty tired by this leg of our trip, so if our youngest only remembers he shares a birthday with Samuel Clemens, it was worth the stop.

The cost was $9.00 for adults and $5.00 for the kids.

To wrap it all up, two days of driving and four full days of activities basically for the cost of gas and lodging. Our hotels all had complimentary breakfasts and we ate a picnic lunch most days. One of the best things we own is an plug-in cooler for the van!

Most importantly, of the three American heroes this trip focused on, two of them were mostly self-educated.

Abraham Lincoln with one year of formal schooling and Mark Twain, ‘father of American literature’, only attended elementary school.

Ulysses S. Grant lived on a farm, then attended school,  Presbyterian Academy and then on to West Point.

Homeschoolers might appreciate a few of Mark Twain’s quotes on education.


Until next time……


Read Full Post »

If anyone is looking for a budget-friendly, close to home educational road trip, here you go!

Every year I plan a family vacation for the week following Labor Day. The crowds are gone, hotel rates have dropped, it is a great way to celebrate back to school and the weather is usually perfect. We have traveled to diamond mines, mountain tops and national landmarks. This year our focus was American history. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil Wars first year.

We left bright and early for Springfield, Illinois ‘Home of Lincoln’ on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Arriving at dinnertime allowed us just enough time to check into our hotel and walk to a restaurant for dinner, allowing us to view Springfield’s capitol building lit up at night.

Day 1

We walked to Lincoln’s Home where we toured the only house he ever owned. He lived there with his wife Mary Todd and their children for 17 years. Our kids completed a Junior Park Ranger Program and we spent the morning in and out of the various buildings making up the four block restored Abraham Lincoln neighborhood. If you used your imagination, you could picture him walking these very streets and sitting at his desk in the Lincoln home.

The historic site and activities were free. Our park ranger even gave the kids a ‘Lincoln Medallion’, a shiny new penny. We had the place to ourselves.


After lunch, we headed to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The library was free and contains the world’s largest holding of papers and possessions of Lincoln and his family.

Our admission to the Lincoln Presidential Museum was $6.00 per person with our Minnesota Historical Society membership.

I can’t say enough about this state-of-the-art museum. Amazing. This alone would have been worth the drive.

The Abraham Lincoln Museum engages all ages. There is a theater with a special effects production called Lincoln’s Eyes, it physically allows you to feel the battle sequences of the war and of Lincoln being shot. You can walk through a replica of his boyhood home log cabin and stand next to a theater box where John Wilkes Booth is on the other side of the door with his hand on the doorknob.


Day 2

Began with a moving visit to Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Stepping into the granite monument were his remains lie alongside those of his wife and three of his sons is something to experience. It was emotional and humbling. Upon entering, you are asked to speak in hushed tones and remove hats.

Lincoln’s presence here and all around Springfield was felt by all of us. The monument is beautiful and I was honored to be there.

There was no charge to visit the monument.        


Back in the van, we drove the approximate 20 miles to Lincoln’s New Salem. This is where he lived for six years as a young man, working as the postmaster, a store clerk and a rail-splitter. It is a reconstructed village with costumed characters that depict the people who lived there over 150 years ago.


Free to visitors, but you are welcome to make a donation.

The last thing we did on this day was visit the Old State Capitol. This is where Abraham Lincoln stood in the Hall of Representatives and spoke the words, “A house divided against itself can’t stand…”. It is also where his body lay on May 3 & 4, 1865 where a crowd of 75,000 citizens filed past to pay their last respects. You also get a peek at where Ulysses S. Grant had his desk, underneath the stairs!

The Old State Capitol had wonderful tour guides, original campaign banners, and a rail that Lincoln split with his own two hands.


Free to visitors, but again, you are welcome to make a donation.

In addition to our daily itineraries, just walking around Springfield was a history lesson in itself.

The “HERE I HAVE LIVED” exhibits capture moments that impacted Lincoln’s life. All over Springfield, 40 in all, there are statues and placards where you can collect rubbings of medallions symbolizing each story. Everything from his dentist’s office to his law offices to the Globe where his first son was born. The kids had a lot of fun making the rubbings! Pack colored pencils!


You can also visit his law offices and the church where the Lincolns had a family pew.

Lastly, we read the story of the 1908 Race Riot and visited the commemorative sculpture at Union Park Square. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the energy to walk the path of the riot itself. It is a free self-guided, eight-marker walking tour. The events of this tragic rampage were the catalyst that led to the founding of the NAACP.


For trips like this, I make each kid a folder full of information. Itineraries, points of interest, blank paper. I also print off fun things to do from the web, like scavenger hunts for museums we will be visiting. The internet if full of activities for places if you just Google!

Never have I had such a heartfelt and meaningful history lesson in my life. Hoping my kids remember it forever.

Next stop and next blog entry: onto St. Louis, Missouri to visit the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion and the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site. Stay tuned!

Read Full Post »

Remembering 9/11

The world was silent.  Still.  Not a single plane crisscrossed the brilliant blue sky just above our house in Alexandria, Virginia.   I remember thinking this on that warm afternoon of September 11th, 2001.

I remember watching in horrified disbelief as the first plane crashed into the North Tower.  I was sitting on the living room floor, watching TV, playing blocks with my toddler, trying to keep the baby from knocking over her tower.  And then the second plane came, slicing knife-like through its twin, a glass and metal building erupting into flames.  The towers we’d built on our floor toppled at the chubby hands of a less nefarious source, but the symbolism was there.

News about the Pentagon trickled through more slowly.  News about friends trickled slower still.  We lived five miles from Washington, DC back then, on that September 11th that forever changed the heart of America.  We had friends who worked within the Pentagon’s walls, and friends who worked in the Capitol, who rushed out of office buildings and crossed bridges on foot because no one could reassure us that another attack wasn’t imminent.

Our neighborhood was in full panic mode.  Living close to DC, we had no idea what to expect.  News of Flight 93 filtered through and all I could think was: are there more planes?  Are we next?

I held my kids close that day, just as countless other mothers and fathers did.  My eldest was 2 1/2, my youngest not even one.  They had no concept of what was happening, of how my life — and theirs — would forever be changed.

In the months and years that have passed, I have made certain to never shield them from the events of that day.  We didn’t discuss it then, of course, but the moment a picture book became available, I found it.  Bought it and read it to them and made sure it was part of our regular reading rotation.  Fireboat, by Maira Kalman (2002), explained the events of 9/11 in a way I never could.  Beautifully, sensitively, it tells the story of a few of the countless heroes from that day and the days that followed.  It brings tears to my eyes each and every time I read it.

Like every other American, I don’t want to forget the events of 9/11.  And even though my children aren’t old enough to really remember, I want them to have a sense of how this event has shaped and molded their mother, the other adults in their lives, and their country.

I don’t want my children to be frightened by it.  I don’t want them to have worries and fears about terrorist attacks and flying on airplanes and riding elevators high into skyscrapers.  To this end, my goal has always been to focus on the positives that stemmed from this horrifying attack.  The way America came together.  Strangers helping strangers.  Love and prayer and support pouring in from across the country and around the globe.

On 9/11, our family remembers.  We read books.  We watch the specials. We talk about what happened.  We even cry a little.

But we do more.  We make certain that we take the time to thank the people who, without fail, are always there to serve and protect: our local police officers and firefighters.  A card.  A letter.  A plate of cookies.

And we find some small way to offer our help to a stranger.  Taking in clothing or toy donations.  Bringing supplies to the local food shelf.  Offering a five-dollar bill to a homeless person.  Playing Free Rice for a little while longer than we might normally do.  Just something, some small token that helps us feel more connected to the humanity that exists around us.

Those are the lessons I want my children to learn about 9/11.  There is no talk of Islam.  Of jihad.  Of anger.

What do we talk about? Heroism.  Selflessness.  Generosity.

And, most of all, love.

Read Full Post »

Gifts and Games

Our family spends part of our winter holiday at my husband’s parent’s home. When you add up his parents, 3 brothers, wives, and kids this gets to be a pretty big group.

Buying gifts can be hard both economically and thinking of what to buy. Over the years we have done a few ideas that turned out to be incredibly fun. Both ideas take a little planning so that is why this post is coming so early. Don’t worry there are still over 100 shopping days left!

When the older nieces and nephews were teenagers all they wanted was money. OK, I was a teenage once too. But a card with cash or a gift card seemed to easy. One year we created the family trivia challenge. After all gifts were opened the teenagers were given a 20 question family quiz. They earned a dollar for each correct answer. Questions were things such as “What was grandma’s maiden name” and “When is Uncle Mark’s birthday?” Even family stories were turned into questions such as “How did grandpa break his arm as a kid?” The whole family watched, listened and laughed as the teenagers did their best to earn all 20 dollars. In the spirit of the holiday, we ended with a super easy bonus question to make up for any wrong answers and end up with all the kids getting the 20 dollars. So start thinking of family questions this year instead of what on earth to get a 16 year old girl!

After having huge success with the gift game we decided to include everyone the next year. This time the entire family played for various small prizes. In early fall we sent each person in the family a silly questionnaire. Questions like “What is your favorite color?” and “Do you drink out of the milk jug?” After having each returned, we used this information to make a game. The color question might be “Who is the only person in the family who’s favorite color is purple?” and the milk one might be “Do more people in the family drink out of the milk jug or not?” A strange question like “What brand of toothpaste do you use?” turns into “70% of the family said this use this brand of toothpaste?” One of my favorites was “If you had to be stranded on a deserted island with one member of the family who would it be?” which turned into the question “Who in the family was picked most for island partner?” Instead of Pictionary or Cranium this year, play a game about your own family.

Happy Holidays!

Read Full Post »


Here is one of my favorite things that I don’t think too many people know about.

Soap Nuts!

OK actually they are not technically a nut but they do look like nuts. These “berries” have a substance called saponin in the shells that when soaked in water releases and works like a natural detergent.

Environmental benefits aside, these little gems make having my kids do their own laundry a breeze. Once you put 4-5 half shells in a small fabric pouch (often these come free with your order depending on what company you purchase the soap nuts through, but I have also tied them in an old sock), they can be used for several loads of laundry. I do not need to worry about my kids miss measuring or spilling liquid laundry detergent or even managing to get the scoop of powdered detergent in the right place in our front loader machine. Just put in the clothes and the bag and press start! Yes, some people add the sort step but I am not one of those people.

I replace the soap nuts in the bag when I do a load and the old ones can be put directly in the compost.

Google soap nuts and you will find many companies to choose from but just a few years ago I had to order them from England as I couldn’t find any US companies.

Now if only getting the clothes put away in their closets was this easy . . . .

Read Full Post »

Do you love Minnesota? Especially the mighty Mississippi? Have you ever heard of Blue Wing Minnesota? Probably not since it is a fictional setting in a great book called Horns and Wrinkles written by Joe Helgerson.

Helgerson grew up in southern Minnesota and uses places and ideas from his childhood to create a fantastical story with trolls and fairies and spells. Beautiful illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli bring the lying cricket and boy that grows a horn to life.

Claire is busy. Not only is she trying to find a stone feather to turn her Grandpa back from stone and help her bully cousin get rid of his horn by doing a genuine act of kindness (which she doesn’t think he is capable of) but now she is helping 3 river trolls. The trolls are cursed. “If a river troll doesn’t bring Bodacious Deepthink a shooting star before his firstborn is hatched, he gets turned into a human.” Claire isn’t even sure if she thinks that is much of a curse in the first place.

While at the end of the book it does suggest a drive down highway 61 to a fictional city you will not find, I wouldn’t let that stop you from taking a real drive down highway 61 to cities like Red Wing, Wabasha and Winona. Skip your weekend trip to Duluth and turn south this time. Not only are there beautiful bluffs for hiking, piers into Lake Pepin (the widest part of the Mississippi) and an eagle center but after reading the book you can also keep an eye out for blue wing fairies and river trolls and maybe a store with a door that reads:

Coins, Gems, Runestones,
Riddles & Other Imponderables
Wing Repair on Occasion

Read Full Post »

The forecast calls for some really hot days ahead and if you are looking at escaping into an air conditioned haven, try one of my families favorites – The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).

I have always loved art and when we started homeschooling 6 years ago the MIA was one of the first places I took my kids. At the time my 2 sons were 6 & 7 years old. A lot of people would assume that 6 & 7 year old boys would not enjoy the MIA. But since I had so much enthusiasm for art it was hard for them not to jump on board. We have been to the MIA at least a hundred times since our first trip and each time we find something new to look at and learn from. As my children have grown the MIA has grown with them. At first they loved the swords or the period rooms then gradually that changed to historical pieces. My kids have asked to take our out of town family to the MIA when they visit, so that they can now be the guide and show off all of their favorite pieces in the institute.

Here are some ways to enjoy any art museum –

-attend free lectures and tours

-Use any of the Interactive Learning Stations found throughout the museum

-Look at a piece of art and try to “decode” it before reading anything about it.

-Take a piece apart like a detective at a crime scene.

  • What time period or geographical area is the piece depicting?
  • What was happening in that time period that would have effected the artist?
  • Why did the artist chose to include certain elements in their art? 
  • Are there clues to the time of year or mood?
  • Find contrasting/similar pieces

-As you leave the museum stop at the gift shop. Have your kids pick out a postcard with a piece of art that they would like to know more about for their next visit. They can do some research about “their” piece of art, write about it, use it to inspire them to create their own art.

Find out more information on the MIA –

Tools for teaching the arts – http://www.artsconnected.org/

MIA – http://www.artsmia.org/ (Free daily admission – closed on Mondays)

Also check out and The Walker Art Center & Sculpture Gardens – http://www.walkerart.org/

Over 70 educational activities and units are currently included on this site. The activities are organized by grade and by subject. http://www.walkerart.org/ace/ed_activities/

Also keep in mind that in the winter your family can go sledding in the park next to the MIA. My kids particularly like to do that when they can watch the school buses fill up from field trips as those kids return back to school.


Some good sites for further information – 





Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »