Monday, October 17, 2011

On a Construction Hiatus...

We have been in the middle of a number of inside and outside remodeling and construction projects that have taken a lot of time that I previously spent blogging -- life happens!

FIRST: The office/"learning space" --

WE are very happy with our efforts in the new homeschool/office space, which included installing a new ceiling, painting walls, floors and trim, installing carpeting, building office furniture, and some miracles that were wrought with drywall tape, spackle and hope.

 Many parts of the "re-do" were a family effort. Our eldest son helped his mother (who is not a good starter) get the old ceiling prepared and the new ceiling installation started. He is a delightful co-worker (and strong and handsome, too!).

The finish was a little tricky, as there is really nothing square about the room (the house was built in 1896). But my husband says, "Who looks up there in the corner, anyway?"

Along the way, I had to get creative, where gravity and time had caused some gaps to form between ceiling and wall, and wall to wall. These things they don't teach you on HGTV!

As you can see from the photo to the right, we didn't do too bad a job. We'll work on the light fixture at another time -- electricity is one area where I like to leave it to professionals!

Painting is my favorite part of remodeling. I used neutrals so I could use colorful accents and change them as I got tired of the old colors. The rug my husband bought is very soft, and beautiful (you can't see it in any of the photos... sorry).

The floorboards are the original wide boards, hammered in with those squared nails that they used in the Victorian era.

We had new windows installed on the second floor a couple of years ago - each one a unique size and shape. Don't you just love old homes?

Victorian era homes don't have a lot of storage space, simply because folks didn't have a lot of stuff to store, so we are constantly creating new and creative ways to store things. The house came with a lot of furniture that was left from previous tenants. While it was good and solid (not like what you buy now), one needs only so many dressers, so we re-purpose them as storage. I didn't feel like refinishing this time, so I got an idea from an BH&G magazine about creating a skirt for a piece of furniture. I used an old bedsheet, and use the drawers to store our homeschool materials, in bins.

I bought glass-topped office furniture, to make the room bright (it has two windows, north and east-facing, and is one of the sunnier rooms in the house -- something I desperately need in the winter). Here, you see my Bible study aids and my homeschool "tickler" files for the week, plus a timeline that we have to mount, when we get our bulletin board up. Oh, and the coffee. Must have coffee.

The room outside is the laundry room, which will get a redo later this month.

I store resources for homeschool in monthly boxes. The teaching angel was a gift from my mom when I got my first elementary school teaching position, many years ago. The fireman's hat was placed there by my husband, who insisted that every classroom needs a fireman's helmet.

He was my electrician for the installation of the temporary light fixture, and said he'll put in a new one, once I pick it out. He's a keeper.  He and my eldest son also picked out and transported the carpet. They're good Joes.
Because I use a laptop, I have lots of desk space on the L-shaped desk, so my little one and I can each have work space, and work back to back. He gets a lot more independent work done if I am working near him. This way, we are both comfortable. We'll need to get a beanbag or other comfy chair for his reading.

He loves to come in here to work during the day. It's sunny, and quiet, but not so far from the "action" to make him lonely (being close to the laundry room and bathroom keeps him in the loop!).

The wooden shoes were here when we moved in, and hold tools. The "LOL" paperweight is a gift from a former co-worker, and reminds me not to take work or homeschool so seriously that I forget about joy.

I always am on the lookout for a new and better system of organization. This seems to work so far. I need to build my last file bin, so I can get my work files out of the way.

This three bin system is working like a charm to foster independent work habits in our son. One basket has his independent work, which he does, with Papi's help, while I'm at work. The center basket is for finished work. Prior to moving in this room, I would have to hunt all over the house to find his work. Now, I never do.  The third bin is where I put things that I want to work on WITH him -- lessons, projects, games, etc. And the sticky notes are for directions. I never leave anything without a sticky note -- for Papi AND child!

I had a lot more on the shelves, then pared it down, so that there was more open space for trinkets, such as family photos. The urn contains magnetic letters for poetry. I need to get a magnetic dry erase board so we can use them -- they were a big hit with my older children -- we used to laugh at the poems that would appear, and then be re-arranged. We didn't always know who did it!

You can get the magnetic words at any bigger bookstore.

My son loves a morning message. Sometimes I ask him to write back. I usually draw, too -- he likes that!

I also like to leave a question or a "teaser" about what we are going to work on that evening, or something to review what we worked on the day before.

The surface of the re-purposed dressers makes a nice place for displays. We have a globe that needs to come here to live...

I love candles. You can't have them in a classroom, but you can have them in your home. The make it feel cozy. The apple paperweight is a gift from a former student. And the digital photo frame was a Mother's Day gift from my eldest son (the ceiling assistant).

It is important to make your homeschool space comfortable and a place of peace for you and your children. We live in a noisy city, so it's nice to have a quiet spot.

I bought an inexpensive garden stool years ago, and padded it, and covered it with a remnant of imported batik fabric from India, with the help of my mom. Now it serves as a perch for two of my cats, who particularly love to spend time with us in the "learning space." The stool is right beside my chair, so I can pet a kitty while I work. I think they're sleeping in my sock bin right now...

The dog likes to sleep under the desk, because he can look up at me through the glass.
Some additional treasures given to me by students over the years.

I like the book of affirmations. Homeschooling can be challenging, and discouraging, especially because those of us who homeschool have set a high bar for ourselves and our kids. I need to be reminded that I teach my children every day, even when we're not trying to "do school."

I bought a set of matching storage boxes at The Christmas Tree Shoppes years ago. They match the colors in the room (we're doing a lot of "I Beat Breast Cancer- Pink" this year), and make a great place to store stuff for my work contracts, so it is accessible but not out in the open. The pink file box is full of one contract.

My youngest son and I had some disagreements over color scheme, especially when he saw me looking at some hot pink, gauzy curtains the color of the file box in this photo. He said, "Oh, no no no no.... That is TOO girly!" So I bought spring green curtains with big white polka dots, as a compromise. He wasn't thrilled, but he is ok about it now!

When you live with a house full of men, you have to claim SOME girly space!
So back to organization... I thought about closet organizers, but they are expensive, and that would mean I'd have to deal with some really strange closet dimensions (the closets in a house this age are odd sizes). So I bought fabric "shelves" that are for storing clothing, and use those for storing office, work and homeschool supplies. They are much sturdier than you would think they are. I love it because I am prone to clutter, and then I can't think. The little "cubicles" fit my mind, and since the closet is right behind my desk, I can turn in my chair and get anything I need while we are working.

There is space on either side, and underneath, for bigger things, and my big books, which are always tricky to store.

I think we have bought five pairs of child's scissors in the past year. I think the dog ate two of them when he was a puppy. We find glue sticks without caps, pencils without erasers... staplers without staples. I solved that problem by hanging a fabric shoe holder over the back of the closet door. It looks nice if I happen to leave the door open, and holds all those teeny things that you need in an office or homeschool, and that you forget you have if you chuck them in a drawer.

The silver object to the bottom right is my Dynamo label maker -- the envy of my former office. Invaluable for organizing a homeschool or home office!

What did we do without Post-Its? I'll never know...

A very crafty former co-worker made and gave me the apple hanging. The mirror of the dresser adds to the lighting in the room. My husband wants to buy a chair to put in the room so he can hang out here, too. I think we did it!

Next steps:

  • Assemble the last file bin and store work files;
  • Build our gigantic bulletin board (which we are covering with an African quilted batik fabric);
  • Finish storing my school materials in the dressers.
  • Hang the other curtain;
  • Get some wall art up.
  • Get the re-roofing project wrapped up (we're not doing THAT one!).

I wanted to take some time to share our classroom make-over with you all... we'll be back to our regular "programming" later this week!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just Another Fall Day

Just a short note with some weekend updates:

See my web article, Bird Migration: A Study of Robins and Other Thrushes, for a description of our September study on the American Robin and other migrating thrushes that we see in our location.

We wrote it up as a Squidoo article instead of a blog entry, because it was a much larger project than our typical blog posts. Lots of possibilities for both homeschool and the science classroom.

We tried some new recipes this month.  Perhaps they would appeal to your folks in your house, too:
  • Easy Pecan pie (from the back of the Karo syrup jar)
  • A fresh tomato salsa (can't remember where we got the recipe)
  • BBQ chicken - corn tortilla pizzas (from Rachael Ray magazine)
  • Creamy Cholate Tofu Mousse (from Rachael Ray, also) -- delicious!
  • Eggplant and Zucchini parmesan (Rachael Ray)

We are excited about the Lego KidsFest at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, December 2-4, 2011. See the Lego KidsFest website for the dates the event will be in your area (NOTE: the tour begins this week in Raleigh, NC, so don't delay!).

The new office/homeschool "learning space" (as my youngest son calls it) has a new ceiling (finally!). The room is painted (walls and trim), ceiling-ed, and the floor has been shopvacced and washed. Floor painting will begin this evening. We'll keep you posted! We are very excited to have our own space, now.

Walls, trim and ceiling - done!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Make Room for Mushrooms

Fungi are a great fall study.
[Originally published 2011 - posted to Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, September 2012 Edition]

On the news this morning, the weatherman said that we were 4 inches over our monthly average for rainfall, for September, and a whopping 20 inches over for the year, with the rainiest weather, and a chunk of snow, yet to come. No wonder I can't get my towels to dry!

The rain and our warmer than normal temperatures have produced an astonishing assortment of mushrooms, molds and other sorts of fungi and friends, and we've enjoyed greeting the newcomers each morning.

Here is a photocollage of our fall mushroom sitings, as well as some other creatures that are related to mushrooms, and some that aren't related at all! Come along...

Bracket and shelf fungi grow on dead trees.
Bracket (shelf) fungi are woody and tough, and grow on dead branches and tree trunks. Large ones, called artist conks, have a broad underside that darkens when etched with a sharp tool. They have been used as "palettes" by artists, because they dry and can be preserved indefinitely.

Bracket fungi are perennial -- you can observe growth rings in their flesh, especially on the larger ones. Individual specimens from 50-70 years of age have been collected. That's incredible!

Wayne's World has some great information on bracket fungi.

Indian-pipes are true plants.
If you are out on a mushroom hunt, you will probably spot these interesting specimens, called Indian-pipes. Although they look like fungi, they are actually true plants, but ones without any chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to make their own food from sunlight. I have included them in this article, not just because they look like mushrooms, but because they depend on fungi to live.

Indian-pipes grown in woodland areas with a lot of dead and decaying leaves. However, unlike mushrooms and other fungi, Indian-pipes cannot digest the decaying leaves for food. And, as we already established, they cannot make their own food from carbon dioxide and sunlight. So the roots of the Indian-pipes grow on the mycelium (the hairy, underground "roots" of mushrooms) that live in harmony with the roots of some kinds of woodland trees (called mycorrhizal fungi). The fungus gets its food by digesting decaying plant materials, and the Indian-pipes siphon a little off for themselves. Ingenious!

Rare red form of Indian-pipes

We spotted a lot of Indian-pipes, but were thrilled to spot something I had never seen before -- a rare red variant of the Indian-pipes. I am not sure if it is localized, but there was a lot of it in the park where we hiked.

Indian-pipes turn black when they die back, but still look interesting.

Next time you are hiking in the late summer or early fall, look under pines, birches and other forest trees for these interesting, non-green plants.

Check out the great photos of Indian-pipes from Fairfax County Public School's website.

Mushroom that reminded me of shiitakes.

We spotted an interesting kind of fungus growing on the decaying trunk of a dead tree. It was not a bracket fungus, but a button type of mushroom. It reminded me very much of shiitake mushrooms.

Did you know that you can grow your own shiitake mushrooms, right in your back yard?  Shiitakes like to grow on wood, and all they really need is a wood pile and occasional watering. You can find lots of shiitake growing kits (minus the wood!) online, and can read more about how to grow shiitake mushrooms on the Mother Earth News website. This is actually on our list of things to try in our backyard (we have a beautiful saucer magnolia that creates too much shade for growing plants in one part of the yard, but would make a great mushroom shelter!). We'll keep you all posted!

We called this "The Puffball Stomp"
 Puffballs never cease to fascinate me. They come in all sizes, from the quarter-sized ones in the photo to the right, to ones the size of a dinner plate, as in the lead paragraphs of this article. My father-in-law used to collect larger ones when they were immature and still creamy white inside. He would slice them and saute them with butter (NOTE: We recommend hunting for mushrooms at your local supermarket, where it's safer!). When ripe, they develop a small pore on the top side, and discharge their spores by the billions when struck by raindrops, animals, or seven-year-old boys.

The world's largest puffball was spotted in England in 2010. Have a look!

Stinkhorns, the "back to school" mushroom!

We used to live in a house on a 2-acre wooded lot. Our driveway meandered between oaks to the road, where the two oldest boys would wait for the school bus. Every September, we would spot stinkhorns sprouting up alongside the driveway, as we stood waiting for the bus to take the boys to school. So, in my mind, I think of stinkhorns as the "back to school" mushroom. Weird, huh?

Stinkhorns begin their lives as a round ball, that resembles a potato that has been partially buried in the ground. By the next morning, the full stinkhorn has erupted forth from its papery sheath, and, by the next day, it has collapsed in a mushy heap. A far cry from the 50 years the bracket fungus hangs around!

Stinkhorns get their name from the nasty smell they exude, which smells like rotting meat, and which attracts flies and, especially, beetles, which distribute the spores.  Stinkhorns love to grow wherever you place woodchips as mulch.

The beginnings of a crop of stinkhorns.

The Mushroom Expert has some photographs of this incredibly diverse group of fungi. Despite their name (and their odor!), there are some truly beautiful members of this group. Check out the photos of the flies and other carrion eaters that are attracted to these malodorous fall fungi.

The end of the short life of a stinkhorn.

Wildman Steve Brill also has a great page on stinkhorns. Check it out. Believe it or not, people have tried eating these -- there are no known poisonous ones. However, they really do smell like something that you wouldn't want to eat, and they are covered with a slime when they emerge -- so I'm thinking Stop and Shop might be a better option...

Honey mushrooms

Honey mushrooms often are spotted growing in a ring that seems to spring up overnight. These rings of mushrooms have long been called "fairy rings," and are said to be the places where woodland sprites gathered the night before. In actuality, they sprout up in a ring because they grow on the decaying roots of a tree long since dead. They can form quite large rings in some places. There are many kinds of mushrooms that make "fairy rings."

Fairy Ring Folklore and Garden Fairy have more information about the origin of the folklore about fairy rings.

Actinomycetes, a fungus-like organism
There are things that grow in the soil that LOOK like fungi, but are not. When we were exploring for citronella ants last week, we discovered a beautiful specimen of actinomycetes, a fungus relative that grows like the mycelium of fungi, except does not typically produce what we might recognize as a "fruiting body," like a mushroom. Actinomycetes are the organism that is really responsible for decaying most woody plant material (in reality, fungi are not very good at this, but depend on actinomycetes to begin the job for them). These are also the microorganisms that let our noses know that it is going to rain. When the weather is damp, the organism grows rapidly, and produces that characteristic "rainy day" smell.

I just love the website How Stuff Works. Of course, it has an article on "What Causes the Smell After Rain?"  which gives some additional information about the biology of actinomycetes.


Okay, we just have to share this really gross but true biology story with you. My youngest son gets Ranger Rick magazine (a gift from Grandma). Whenever a new edition comes in the mail, he chooses that for his independent reading for homeschool. We were finishing our ant nature study last week, and had taken a bunch of photos of mushrooms for our mushroom study. So imagine our delight to find an article that combined the two. (But wait until you hear HOW)...

It appears that there is a kind of fungus, called Cordyceps, that grows in the tropics, that infects the brains of ants (and other insects). The infected ants become "possessed" by the fungus as it germinates and infects their brains, and they begin wandering, zombie-like, in search of a particular kind of plant, which the fungus needs to produce spores. With its last movement, it chomps down on a leaf of this plant, and becomes unable to move. What happens next is so bizarre, it is like something out of a horror movie.

As the ant sits paralyzed, the fungus produces its fruiting body, which erupts like a spike through the ant's head, spearing it to the leaf. The ant, now incapacitated, eventually dies. The fungus then produces spores, and starts the process all over again.

So virulent is this fungus, that ants who spot an ant "zombie" will quickly carry it far away from the colony, before the fungus can fruit and release its spores.

Isn't that gross?  But what a spooky "truth is stranger than fiction" story for your October science class... Check out this You Tube video to see Cordyceps in action...


On that note, tune in next week for a (hopefully) less gruesome study of the phases of the moon.