Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever -- A Great Read Aloud for the Entire Family

     “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.  They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.”  Thus begins The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, one of the funniest books I have ever read. 
     I began reading this short, seven-chapter book aloud to my boys, not knowing what to expect.  By page four, after reading about how the six Herdman children enjoy trying to squish each other in the garage door and about their evil cat, we were practically rolling on the floor laughing:  “There was also a sign in the yard that said, ‘Beware Of The Cat.’  New kids always laughed about that till they got a look at the cat.  It was the meanest looking animal I ever saw.  It had one short leg and a broken tail and one missing eye….”
     The basic story line is that the Herdmans, the worst kids in the history of the world, invade the church one day, hoping for snacks, force their way into the church Christmas pageant, and help everyone see the Christmas story in a whole new light.
     And this is the best part of the book.  The shenanigans are hilarious, but the books causes you to stop and ask yourself, “What if I had never, ever heard the Christmas story before?”  Well, the Herdmans had not heard the story, and when they did,   “You would have thought the Christmas story came right out of the F.B.I. files, they got so involved in it – wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary having her baby in a barn, and called the Wise Men a bunch of dirty spies.”  In the midst of the laughter, we got a glimpse of the magic and wonder of the Christmas story -- a story that, sadly, becomes too predictable after hearing it year after year.
     I love this book.  We laughed, we cried, but in the end, it helped us see that Christmas is about Jesus, “a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a lot of trouble – no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew.”  I think we’ll read this book every year!

Thanks Cathy H. for giving us this book.  You were right!  Our boys did enjoy it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind -- Grammar for 1st and 2nd Graders

     In the "How to Use This Book" section of First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind,  Jessie Wise states, "I believe we underestimate what young children are capable of learning."   Wise's method is to cover grammar rules, definitions, and correct usage through memory work, copying and dictation, narration, and  repetition.  Each lesson is short, about 5-10 minutes per day on average and scripted, making preparation time for the teacher minimal.  There are 100 lessons for first grade and 100 for second grade although I believe a child in 3rd or 4th grade with no grammar knowledge would enjoy these lessons as well, making this book perfect for using in a family with children of multiple ages.  The child answers questions or repeats definitions orally. 
     In the book, she covers the definitions of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, articles, verbs, etc.  She also covers types of sentences, seasons, days of the week, months of the year, story narration, abbreviations, letter writing, synonyms, antonyms, poem memorization, and much more.
     I used this book with both of my boys, and they both learned so much.  My only criticism of the book is it's emphasis on copywork and dictation.  For boys, especially, memorization and answering orally comes much easier than writing.  When writing is difficult in a motor-skills-type-of-way, as for many boys and some girls, then copywork and dictation can become boring, painful, and tedious.  So, we just skipped all that.  Also, towards the end, we did not memorize some of the longer poems.
     About 3 days a week, we sat down and read through the lesson, following the script pretty much as it was written.   My youngest was sad when we finished this book.  You can't get a better endorsement than that.
     If you are looking for something that teaches your young children grammar with little teacher prep, then try First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

     After studying John Bunyan in history, I decided to read The Pilgrim's Progress to my boys, ages 9 and 12. A quick Amazon search revealed more versions than I could count:   Today's English Version, Little Pilgrim's Progress, Pictorial Pilgrim's Progress, Modern English Version, The Pilgrim's Progress in Words of One Syllable....really?
     A good friend of mine suggested and let me borrow The Pilgrim's Progress All-in-One Curriculum by Answers in Genesis.  It was exactly what I was looking for.  This large hardcover illustrated book contains the original version with Scripture annotations in the margins and commentary and definitions to aid in understanding.  Although we did not use them, there are questions and activities for both younger and older children and adults at the end of each chapter.  There is a short history of the reformation and a biography of John Bunyan at the beginning of the book.
     Before reading, I explained the vocabulary words (listed at the end of the chapter) and then read the chapter.  We discussed what was going on as I read, and having the historical background was very helpful in our understanding.  Having grown up reading the King James Version of the Bible, I did not have a very difficult time understanding the original version and "translating" difficult parts for my boys.  However, there is an audiobook edition that is fully dramatized.  This would be great to use if you do not want to struggle through reading it in the original 1678 English or if you just want five hours of audio for a long car trip.
      Of note, this version does not contain the second part of the book that John Bunyan wrote and published in 1684.  The second part chronicles the pilgrimage of his wife, Christiana, and their sons. 
     It took us about two months to complete the entire book, reading 1-2 chapters a day, 3-4 days a week (25 days).  However, my friend and her family studied the book for an entire year doing many of the activities in the book.
     After we finished the book, we watched the DVD Pilgrim's Progress:  Journey to Heaven, a "modern retelling" of Bunyan's book released in 2008.  My boys and I enjoyed the movie, but the book is much richer.  There are parts in the movie that may be quite scary for young children -- Apollyon is a demon if not Satan himself, creepy minions of Satan drag someone off, the Valley of the Shadow of Death is filled with moaning and screaming, etc. Christian and Hopeful get beaten by the Giant Despair, Christian stabs Apollyon, another pilgrim attacks and stabs minions trying to keep him from the Celestial City, and Faithful is martyred for his faith by being burned at the stake.  However, there is very little blood in the movie. 
     I had never read The Pilgrim's Progress before.  What struck me most is that many of the attitudes and beliefs that John Bunyan was arguing against then, still come up today.  For example, Christian, concerned for Ignorance's soul, asks:  "But why, or by what, art thou persuaded that thou has left all for God and heaven?"  Ignorance responds, "My heart tells me so."  Christian retorts, "The wise man says, 'He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.'"  Ignorance replies, "That is spoken of an evil heart; but mine is a good one."  Later, Ignorance grows weary of arguing with Christian and Hopeful and states:  "That is your faith, but not mine, yet mine, I doubt not, is as good as yours..."
     Indeed, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Thank you Clarissa B. for directing us to this curriculum and for allowing us to borrow it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Operation Christmas Child -- Learning to Give

     Yesterday, my boys, a dear friend, and I went through and checked 58 shoe boxes filled with toys, hygiene items, and school supplies.  The boxes, packed with love and prayers by our church's AWANA clubbers, will be shipped all over the world to children who are hurting because of poverty, disease, and war.  After returning home, I realized this is our 11th year to participate in this wonderful program.  So why do we do this year after year?

1.  Spreading the Gospel in a Tangible Way    
     Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan's Purse and headed by Franklin Graham,  "is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world... The organization serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."  I know that my gift will be sent to needy children, but more importantly, they will hear the Gospel.  That is important to me.  
     Izabella, a child recipient who is now an adult, gives a powerful testimony of what these shoe boxes can mean to a child:   "When I received my shoebox, that was the moment I understood that this God that I'd been reading about in the Bible is a truly personal God who cares about each and every one of us."  To see and hear Izabella's story, click here.
     In many cases, children have the opportunity to take a discipleship course after receiving an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. 

2.  Teaching Your Children How Blessed They Are
     Every year, this is a reminder to my children of their many blessings.  I remind them that this gift that we are packing may be the only gift this child receives for Christmas, maybe even this year.   

 3.  Teaching Your Children How to Give
     After realizing how blessed we are, it's time to act -- it's time to give.  Even young children can learn how to give -- and to give sacrificially.  
     When my oldest was 2 and a half, he packed his first shoe box.  We went to Wal-Mart and picked out lots of fun toys-- Hot Wheels, bouncy balls, a small Magna Doodle.  When we arrived home, my toddler decided he did not want to give up those toys.  He readily "gave up" the toothbrush, soap, and washcloth, but the toys were going to stay with him.  This was a wonderful opportunity to talk with him about giving, sacrifice, God's love, blessings, etc.  
     Eventually, he relented but asked if he could ride on an airplane, find the boy, and play with him.  Oh, how I wish he could have!   

4.  Praying for the Lost
     Lastly, packing a shoe box gives us an opportunity to pray specifically for the child who will receive our gift.  We pray that this precious child will hear about God's love and know it's true because someone very, very far away was willing to share that love tangibly.

     So, are you ready to participate, too?  It's not too late.  Shoe box collection goes until November 21, 2011For more information on how to fill a shoe box, see here.    Drop-off locations are located all over the country.  Also, if you pay  online, you will receive a tag to tape onto your box that will let you know via e-mail WHERE your box was sent!  Last year, our boxes went to children in Mexico!   

 "Every shoe box offers an opportunity to share
the Good News of the Savior with a hurting child."  
-- Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan's Purse

Thursday, November 10, 2011

BOOKS! A Reading List for PreK to 3rd Grade Readers

     Once your kids begin reading, sometimes the challenge is finding books for them to read!  Here is a list of the Mullin household's favorites. Although girls will like these books, this list has the Boy Seal of Approval.  In fact, almost all of these books have been read by my oldest, and my youngest is following in his brother's footsteps.  Maybe this list will keep your readers busy for a while!  Most of these we checked out at our local library.
     I have included the title, author, and reading level for most of the books.  Reading levels vary depending on the criteria used to assign the level, so please forgive me if the reading level doesn't match up with something you've seen somewhere else.  Also, most of these books are a series.  Some have 4 books, and some have over 30 in the series.  
     Check back later for a book list for 4th grade to middle school.

  • Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems – early readers, (Pigeon, from Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus is hidden on the inside back cover of each Elephant and Piggie book.) I LOVE these books!  Funny for all ages!
  • 1 Today I Will Fly! (Mar 2007)
  • 2 My Friend is Sad (Mar 2007)
  • 3 There is a Bird on Your Head! (Jul 2007)
  • 4 I Am Invited to a Party! (Jul 2007)
  • 5 I Love My New Toy! (Jun 2008)
  • 6 I Will Surprise My Friend! (Jun 2008)
  • 7 Are You Ready To Play Outside? (Oct 2008)
  • 8 Watch Me Throw The Ball! (Mar 2009)
  • 9 Elephants Cannot Dance! (Jun 2009)
  • 10 Pigs Make Me Sneeze! (Oct 2009)
  • 11 I am Going! (Jan 2010)
  • 12 Can I Play Too? (Jun 2010)
  • 13 We Are In A Book! (Sept 2010)
  • 14 I Broke My Trunk! (Feb 2011)
  • 15 Should I Share My Ice Cream? (June 2011)
  • 16 Happy Pig Day! (Oct 2011)
  • 17 Listen To My Trumpet (Feb 2012)
    • Also by Mo Willems:   Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! — Caldecott Honor 2004, Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too!, The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! ,The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale — Caldecott Honor 2005,  Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity — Caldecott Honor 2008 ,   Knuffle Bunny Free: an Unexpected Diversion
      • Adventures of Otto by David Milgrim – early readers (See Pip Point -- very funny, Ride Otto Ride!, Swing Otto Swing!, See Otto, See Santa Nap)
      •  Minerva Louise by Janet Morgan Stoeke – a quirky, funny chicken,  RL 1.5  (Minerva Louise on Halloween, A Hat for Minerva Louise, Minerva Louise at School, Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve, Minerva Louise at the Fair, Minerva Louise, Minerva Louise and the Colorful Eggs, Minerva Louise and the Red Truck, and A Friend for Minerva Louise)
      •   Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester RL 2  -- (Three Cheers for Tacky, Tacky in Trouble, Tacky and the Emperor, Tackylocks and the Three Bears, Tacky and the Winter Games)
      • Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell RL 1.5-2.7
      • Absolutely Lucy by Ilene Cooper RL 2.0 (Lucy on the Loose, Look at Lucy!, Lucy on the Ball)
      • Henry and Mudge by Cynthia Rylant     RL 2-2.7
      • Mr. Putter and Tabby  by Cynthia Rylant RL 2-3  (Very fun!  Mr. Putter and Tabby Pick the Pears is a favorite!)
      • Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Herman Parish RL 2.0
      • Nate the Great  by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, a pancake-loving detective RL 2.1-2.9
      • Berenstain Bears  by Stan and Jan Berenstain, RL 1.8-3.5
      • Franklin by Paulette Bourgeois RL 2.1-2.9
      • Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel RL 2
      • Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey RL 2-2.6
      • Magic School Bus by Joanna Cole RL 2.5-3.7
      • Jigsaw Jones by James Preller RL 2.0
      • Secret Agent Dingledorf by Bill Myers, Christian author, very funny (a few at the library)
      • The Box Car Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner RL 3 (Darius loved the first one.  The others, not so much.)
      • Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne RL 2.1-2.3, history and science (We stopped at the Merlin Missions.)
      • Horrible Harry by Suzy Kline RL 3
      • Cam Jansen Mysteries by David A. Adler RL 2.6 (only read a few of these)
      • Magic School Bus: A Science Chapter Book by a variety of authors, RL 3
      • Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey RL 3 (My kids love them, but only use if desperate to get your boys to read...full of burping, gas, and boogers).
      • The Cul-De-Sac Kids by Beverly Lewis RL 3.0, Christian author, none at library
      • Three Cousins Detective Club by Elspeth Campbell Murphy, Christian author, character named Titus, 30 in the series, 64 pages each, first chapter books, a few at library
      • Third Grade Detectives by George E. Stanley RL 3.0
      • Andrew Lost by J.C. Greenburg  RL 3.0, great science books, skip Andrew Lost in Time #9 (They get sent back to three minutes after the Big Bang.)
      • A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy  RL 2.8-3.5
      • Katie Kazoo by Nancy Krulik RL 3.4
      • Geronimo Stilton by Geronimo Stilton RL 2.0-4.0, Average about RL 3.5
      • Chet Gecko by Bruce Hale RL 3.7-4.1
      • The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catlin RL 3.0, not a series
      • Author  Shel Silverstein –Books of Poetry:   Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, A Light in the Attic RL 3.5-3.9
      • How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell RL 3.5, not a series
      •  Flat Stanley and Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures by Jeff Brown RL 3.4-4.4 (For ages 7-10, but  vocabulary is a tad tougher with words like anatomical, simultaneous, application, osteal, and vulnerable)
      • The Hardy Boys: Secret Files by Franklin W. Dixon RL 3.7 (Joe and Frank are younger in this series.)
      Do you know of others?  Let me know.  I'm sure I've left out a good book or two!

            Tuesday, November 8, 2011

            Homeschooling in Clear Lake and the Surrounding Area

            ******NOTE:  This post was written in 2011.  I moved from the Clear Lake area in 2015.  IF you would like to make add information about a new co-op or homeschool opportunity, please feel free to do so in the comments. *******    

            Over the past few months, I've received a few e-mails that say something like this:  "My friend (or relative) is planning on homeschooling.  What does she need to do?  What is the name of that group you take classes with?"  Our area is ripe with opportunities for homeschoolers.  I have compiled a list of information that I frequently share with homeschoolers just starting out in the Clear Lake area. 

            Information on homeschooling in Texas:
            See the Texas Homeschool Coalition website.  The "Frequently Asked Questions" webpage includes information on Getting Started, Curriculum, School District, Requirements, Homeschooling Teens, Taxes and Government Benefits, and more.

            Joining Southeast Texas Home School Association will give you a discount in HSLDA.
            SETHSA is a local group.  Free to join.  

            HSLDA and THSC both support homeschoolers and their rights to homeschool.  THSC is Texas specific while HSLDA is nationwide.  Both offer legal help to homeschoolers if needed.  Because we have homeschooled in different states, we are members of the HSLDA.

            Where to take classes (This list is not exhaustive.  In Houston, homeschoolers can take art, science, drama, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, and much more.  Classes are also offered at museums, UHCL, The Space Center, etc.)  My boys take classes through the REACH co-op.

            Selah Academy for the Arts  (offering Word in Season English/History classes, drama, creative writing, etc.  All classes are middle school age and above except for drama).

            Group for field trips, fellowship, and information:
            Gulf Coast Home Scholars is a group you can join for field trips, social opportunities, information, park days, used curriculum sales, etc. 

            Here is a link for a wealth on information on homeschooling in Houston:
            Homeschooling in the Houston-Area

            Thursday, November 3, 2011

            Why Historical Fiction? by Dave and Neta Jackson

                 I am a huge historical fiction fan.  If well done, historical fiction books bring history alive and teach my kids without them even realizing it.  I came across this article by Dave and Neta Jackson, a husband/wife writing team who are on our list of favorites.  I couldn't have answered the question, "Why Historical Fiction?" any better myself, so I am copying it in it's entirety here, with permission from the authors.  Please note at the bottom how you can get copies of all 40 of their historical fiction titles for kids as eBooks.  

            Copyright © 2002 by Dave and Neta Jackson. All rights reserved.  
            Used with permission from the authors.

            Why Historical Fiction?
            By Dave and Neta Jackson

            From time to time, parents ask us why we write the Trailblazer Books as historical fiction rather than nonfiction biographies. It is a good question, and we do not in any way disparage biographies (after all that's where we get our material). But we've done some careful research and thinking in choosing historical fiction for this series, and we're glad to share it with you.

            If a reader is expecting biography, historical fiction can be troubling because the author takes dramatic license and "fills in the blanks." But well-done historical fiction teaches a LOT of history and is true to the essence of the story.

            In the Trailblazer Books, we too are concerned that our readers separate fact from fiction. On page 5 of every book, we give a preview of which characters and events have been added to round out the story.

            But the reasons we chose historical fiction over straight biography as a way to teach/reach this generation of children about great Christian heroes are these:

            (1) We wanted to write books for kids like the ones we enjoyed as kids--action adventure stories ... but with a purpose. We were particularly interested in capturing boys who typically are reluctant readers at this age.

            (2) A whole biography covers too much time in a person's life, and because most of life (even for heroes) is rather mundane, many young readers lose interest. We thought it better to expand a short period of the hero's life that gives a faithful representation of WHO the hero is and his or her PRIMARY life's work.

            (3) But in doing research, we often came up short. E.g. George Mueller founded an orphanage for thousands of orphans--but we could find very few facts about any specific orphans. So we did research on TYPICAL orphans of that day, took some of the real events that actually did happened at Mueller's orphanage, and wove them into a single story in The Bandit of Ashley Downs.

            (4) Children learn more through story than through a list of facts. To capture readers, they need to identify with the main character. That is why we tell all the Trailblazer stories about great Christian heroes through the eyes of a young person. Sometimes that young person is an actual historical person (e.g. The Whitman's nephew Perrin in Attack in the Rye Grass). Sometimes we create a fictional young person that is TYPICAL or REPRESENTATIVE of real characters or situations (e.g. Ned Carter in Chimney Sweep's Ransom). We feel that doing this was a way to convey the truth of John Wesley's ministry to the poverty-stricken miners in northern England.

            (5) Well-done historical fiction can teach a lot about history. In fact, well-done fiction can teach a lot about truth! Jesus told stories--it was one of His favorite teaching tools. He told fictional stories (the parables) to teach timeless truths because he knew that was the best way to capture his listeners attention, something that would help them remember what he was trying to say.

            (6) The average reader of the Trailblazer books is going to know a lot more about church history and the great Christian heroes than most adults (!) because they learned it through a dramatized story that they can remember.

            (7) However, we do urge parents and readers to supplement the Trailblazer Books with appropriate biographies as their children get older. At the end of every book we give a list For Further Reading, though not all biographies have been written for children. We like to think of the Trailblazer books as opening a door of curiosity about these great Christian men and women of the faith that will lead to further study of countries, cultures, historical events, different denominations, and our heritage as Christians.

            We hope your kids enjoy not only the Trailblazer Books, but go on to be avid readers and strong Christians. You'd be surprised how many letters we get from parents who say their kids would never read a book on their own but now have read all 40 Trailblazers and from kids telling us that after reading the Trailblazers, they want to be missionaries.

            Last November we spent a month in China teaching creative writing. At one of the schools, a teacher told us she was there because of the Trailblazers. We've heard that testimony from more than one missionary and thank God that He has allowed us to realize our goals: (1) encourage young readers and (2) inspire them, through the examples of Christian heroes, to serve God.

            All 40 Trailblazer books have been released as eBooks, available for as little as 99¢ per title when the whole series is purchased on CD. Plus, for a limited time, it is possible to receive eight accompanying curriculum guides free when agreeing to tell others about the series. For more information, go to

            Tuesday, November 1, 2011

            The Houston Zoo's Naturally Wild Swap Shop

                 The Houston Zoo's Naturally Wild Swap Shop is a hidden little gem in the Children's Zoo area of the Houston Zoo.  The Swap Shop is a place where children can bring items they have found on the ground, learn about them,  tell about them, and trade them in for other cool nature items such as rocks, fossils, seashells, etc.  Also, the naturalists will listen to your children present nature projects that they have done in school or your homeschool, ask them questions, and award them points to spend.  Besides the zoo membership or zoo entry fee, this program is free, and it is a wonderful way for your child to practice public speaking, to reinforce and review what he or she has learned, and to be rewarded.  You just can't lose.
                 My youngest has taken in projects on chipmunks, backyard birds, the Antarctic, and strange sea creatures.  My oldest took in his Zoology notebook from the class he took at the REACH co-op, lapbooks on invertebrates and deep sea creatures, and reports he wrote on the chocolate chip sea star and the African wolf snail.  My boys have also taken in lichen on a stick (and received extra points for knowing that hummingbirds make their nests out of lichen), cicada shells, etc. (For a list of what you canNOT bring, see the website).
                 As you enter the children's area of the zoo, the Swap Shop is located on your right, across from the splash area. The Swap Shop's hours are 9:00-11:45 and 1:00-3:45, and it is closed on major holidays.  It used to be closed on certain days of the week, but those days are no longer listed on the website.  If you want to call and check to be sure it is open, the zoo's number is 713-533-6500.
                 You are allowed to present 3 projects or objects during a visit.  Some naturalists praise the children until they are glowing and give out points generously, and others are more conservative.  However, I cannot complain.  My children love to present, they love the prizes, and I love the educational benefits.  Besides, it gives you a place to get rid of all that yucky stuff  take those precious collections of snake skins, cicada shells, dead insects, rocks, pine cones, sea shells, and leaves -- and they get rewarded for it!
            Thanks to my wonderful friend, Marla F., for introducing us to the Houston Zoo's Naturally Wild Swap Shop.

            From the website:

            How It Works:

            1. Find a natural item you are interested in or would like to know more about.
            2. Learn all you can about your item.
            3. Bring your item to the Swap Shop and discuss what you learned with our Naturalist.
            4. Earn points for your item and for your knowledge about the item.
            5. Trade your points for something in our collection or save them for later.

            You Can Earn Points For:

            1. Knowledge - What do you know about your item? Have you learned something interesting about your item?
            2. Quality -  Is your item clean? Is it in good condition?
            3. Effort  - What did you do to find your item? How much time did you spend researching and learning about it?