March 25, 2013

Getting Organized for Spring

This is a Sponsored post written by me on behalf of Rubbermaid® All AccessTM Organizers for SocialSpark. All opinions are 100% mine.

Every year when the seasons change, I make my "I'm-going-to-be-even-more-organized-this-time" vows.  As I put away the last season's clothes and accessories and bring out the new stuff,  I keep trying to refine my system and try a few new things.  With Spring (hopefully) right around the corner, I'll be doing the big winter to spring switch in these next few weeks.   Gone will be the snow boots, scarves, and out will come the spring jackets, outdoor toys and sports equipment.

My current system utilizes tons of those plastic storage bins.  I pack up all the stuff we're going to put away till next year, label the bin and put it up in the attic.  Then I take down the bins I'd stored away last year and pull out all the spring and summer items we'll be needing.  Overall, it's been pretty effective but there's always room for improvement.

This year, I'm going to be adding a new variation to some of my storage bins.  Check out these new Rubbermaid® All AccessTM storage containers .


So smart, don't you think?  It's a plastic storage container just like the ones I've been using, but it has a clear drop down door on the side for easy access to the contents.  There's a variety of colors and sizes, so I plan to pick up a few of them so we're even more organized and efficient.  I'm thinking I'll get a couple to store all of our boots, gloves, hats and other winter accessories in.  I'll still be able to put them up in the attic for the spring and summer months, but next fall I can just take down the whole container and put it right on the shelf in our hall closet.  We'll be able to just pull open the drop down door and get the things we need ~ it totally eliminates the whole step of emptying out the bin and putting it in another container for easy access.

I'm thinking these would be perfect for the kids' sports' stuff too.  Right now, I really don't have a good storage solution for their soccer balls, shin guards, basketballs, baseball gloves, cleats and all the other athletic paraphernalia.  If I get a few more of these containers, I can stack them in the closet in my son's room during the sports' season, and move the whole bin up to the attic if we need more space during the off-season.

You can find these clever new storage containers at Walmart stores throughout the county ( and in my newly organized closets in the next few weeks! )

Visit Sponsor's Site

March 15, 2013

Make-Your-Own Mini Pies (for Pi Day or any day)

Yesterday was Pi Day ~ an unofficial "holiday" celebrating the mathematical expression of pi ( the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter and approximately equal to 3.14)  Get it?  March 14th is 3.14.  Now my kids aren't so far along in their math studies that they've actually worked with pi, but they eagerly accepted any excuse for a fun little dessert.

Check out these fun, individual-sized pies...

I made it super easy for us and just got some premade pie crusts and three different kinds of fillings ~ apple, blueberry, and cherry.

Making the pies was really simple and the kids liked choosing their fillings and adding some little designs to the tops of their pies.

It's really pretty self-explanatory, but this is how we made our mini pies...

1.  Preheat oven to 425*.  I also used some parchment paper to cover my cookie sheets.
2.  Using a small bowl or cup, cut circles out of your premade pie crust.  (Ours were about 5" or so).
3.  Spoon some filling into the center of your crust circle.
4.  Make an egg wash by putting just an egg white into a bowl and whisking it slightly.  Then brush the wash around the edges of your circle. (It'll help to act as a "glue" to seal the top and bottom crusts). Put on the top circle of dough and gently push together the edges to seal.  Then use a fork to help further seal the edges.
5.  Using the extra scraps of crust, cut little shapes or letters out of the dough (we had initials, footballs, cherries and more).  Brush some of the egg wash over the whole top of your pie, put on your shapes, then brush a little more egg wash on.
6.  Bake until the pies are golden brown.  Our pies took about 12-13 minutes.
7.  Allow to cool a bit and serve with ice cream!


I was a little more literal in my interpretation and made my pie with the pi symbol!

As I mentioned, my kids haven't had to actually calculate the area of a circle or do any other problems with pi, but they are familiar with the term from one of their favorite movies ~ Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian.  We love watching it before we head down to DC to visit the Smithsonian Museums.  In the movie, Ben Stiller's character has to crack a code and gets the answer from the Einstein bobble-heads in the gift shop at the Air and Space Museum.

As we were eating our pies last night, my kids kept shaking their heads as they tried to say all the numbers from the movie (3.14159265)  Here's a little clip.

Sharing our fun desserts at:

March 11, 2013

Fort McHenry (Baltimore, MD)

Yesterday was a beautiful early Spring day here in Baltimore so I took my girls to spend an afternoon at Fort McHenry.  If you're ever in Baltimore, Fort McHenry is just a short drive from the Inner Harbor, Maryland Science Center, and American Visionary Art Museum.  It's the perfect place to learn a little history and get out a little bit of extra energy outdoors.

Check out our visit...

Baltimore with kids, places to go in Baltimore, NPS Junior Ranger Program

As a little history refresher, Fort McHenry is best known for its role in successfully defending the city of Baltimore during the War of 1812.   It was the morning after the British attack in September 1814, when Francis Scott Key saw the U.S. flag being raised above the fort, that the Star Spangled Banner was written.

My girls enjoyed our afternoon...

places to go in Baltimore, Baltimore with kids

  Fort McHenry is part of the National Park Service and has its own Junior Ranger Program.  If you're ever at the fort, or any of the other NPS sites that have this program, definitely let your kids participate.   (check their website for a list of participating sites) 

The girls got a list of questions about the fort and the War of 1812.  All the answers could be found in the Visitor Center and on the grounds.  It was almost like a scavenger hunt for them,  as they ran from exhibit to exhibit reading signs to find information.  (Pretty fun way to sneak in lots of learning, don't you think?)

After all the questions were answered, they took their completed papers back to the ranger station to be checked.  The ranger determined that everything looked good and they were sworn in as Junior Park Rangers.  They got certificates and fun little badges.

As I mentioned, Fort McHenry is just a short drive from Baltimore's Inner Harbor and it's just off of I-95.  There's also a water taxi service that can take you from the Inner Harbor to the the Fort (which is a fun boat ride for the kids).  I'd definitely recommend it as part of your Baltimore visit and it's would be a good side trip from a visit to Washington DC.  Kids can learn some history and just run around on the grounds ~ there's a great path all along the water around the fort.  It's a great spot for a picnic lunch as you watch the boats go in and out of the Harbor.

March 4, 2013

Pencil Dispenser (from an acrylic straw dispenser)

A few weeks ago, my sister told me she saw a cute idea to use a straw dispenser to hold sharpened pencils.  I thought it was such a cute and clever way to always have sharpened pencils on hand and ready for use, but I was bummed that I'm no longer a full-time teacher with a classroom of my own.  Then I realized we still go through a ton of pencils here during homework time and I'm always scrambling to find sharpened pencils when the kids have to restock their pencil cases before they go off to school in the mornings.  I decided I was going to go ahead and get our own pencil dispenser for our house.

Check it out...

Pencil Dispenser from an acrylic straw dispenser ~ so smart!!

It's funny how exciting it can be to get a new electric pencil sharpener and a cool dispenser.  No matter what time of year it is or how old you are, fresh school supplies can give you a fresh outlook!

There was really nothing to this "project".  I simply ordered an acrylic straw dispenser from Amazon,(Amazon affiliate link)  the kids sharpened a bunch of the pencils we had around the house, and we filled up the dispenser.

To get a sharpened pencil, you just turn the knob on the side and a fresh new pencil rolls right out.

pencil dispenser, pencil holder, homeschool,  classroom ideas

I thought about adding a little label or stickers to the dispenser to jazz it up, but for now we like it just plain.  (The kids love watching to see which pencil falls out) It sits right on top of the little cabinet where the kids put their school papers and we keep extra school supplies.  

I think I may get more for each of the kids' teachers.  I missed out on the chance to give them for back-to-school or Christmas gifts, but I think they'd be appreciated at any time of year.  

Sharing this cute and clever idea at:

March 1, 2013

10 Great Books (perfect for a book club)

When I was working on my last post about books for middle elementary kids, I was thinking about all the great books that I've read myself.  I think one of the reasons my kids love to read so much is because I love to read.    Granted, I don't have nearly as much free time for pleasure-reading as I did before kids, but I still love to read whenever I get the chance. 

Figuring that some of you might also enjoy reading as much as I do, I thought I'd compile a short list of some of my favorites.  Some I've read as part of a book club, others just on my own.  The topics and styles are fairly varied, but each of these books have been memorable and the stories and characters have stayed with me long after I put the book down.  

Here's my list...  
(I've included a brief description from Amazon as well as a sentence or two of my own)

book club suggestions, great books, book club ideas

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

     "After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.
      Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them."
I just read this book last month and loved it.  Throughout the story, you see how even when people have the best of intentions, their actions can deeply affect those around them.

Room by Emma Donaghue

    "To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
     Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
     Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another."
Wow, what a book this was!  I read it in my book club and it brought up so many interesting discussions.  It would have been a horrifying tale if told from the mother's perspective, but told though a child's eyes you see the horrors in a whole different way

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  "Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
      Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. "

This was such a fascinating non-fiction read.  Cells taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge were developed and used for decades.  Vaccines and tons of scientific research were done with these HeLa cells and their value was in the billions of dollars.  Meanwhile, her children and grandchildren were living years later in relative poverty, with no health insurance and no clear understanding of exactly how their mother's cells were still alive.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

   "Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
     Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining townRex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
      What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms."

I really enjoyed this memoir.  I love reading about the strength some people have to overcome adversity and that trait was so evident in this book.  I also enjoyed reading Walls' story about her hard-working and resilient grandmother in Half Broke Horses

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

"Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.
Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode."

I always find myself drawn to historical fiction and this was such a moving story.  It's one of those books that just haunts you, long after you put it down.

 Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

     "On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
      The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
      Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion.  His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will."

Another non-fiction book and one that very well might be my favorite book ever.  It's definitely the one I recommend the most to anyone ~ male or female.   Zamperini is just one fascinating man with a strength that very few people are capable of.  Whenever I feel myself getting overwhelmed by life, I think of his story and my obstacles seem much more manageable.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

 "Based on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a masterful debut by an exciting new novelist. Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War. A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the courageous achievements of a little known but truly inspirational American heroine."

I mentioned before that I really like historical fiction and I definitely enjoyed this book.  It was such a neat perspective on slavery and the Civil War and I love that it was based on a little-known real person.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

     "I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.
      So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.
     In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright.
      Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Horan’s Mamah is a woman seeking to find her own place, her own creative calling in the world. Mamah’s is an unforgettable journey marked by choices that reshape her notions of love and responsibility, leading inexorably ultimately lead to this novel’s stunning conclusion.

Okay, I know this is yet another historical fiction novel on my list, but it was such a great story.  After reading it, I found myself googling all sorts of facts from the book, seeing the buildings and reading about the real-life people it was based on.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

All children should believe they are special. But the students of Hailsham, an elite school in the English countryside, are so special that visitors shun them, and only by rumor and the occasional fleeting remark by a teacher do they discover their unconventional origins and strange destiny. Kazuo Ishiguro's sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, is a masterpiece of indirection. Like the students of Hailsham, readers are "told but not told" what is going on and should be allowed to discover the secrets of Hailsham and the truth about these children on their own. Offsetting the bizarreness of these revelations is the placid, measured voice of the narrator, Kathy H., a 31-year-old Hailsham alumna who, at the close of the 1990s, is consciously ending one phase of her life and beginning another. She is in a reflective mood, and recounts not only her childhood memories, but her quest in adulthood to find out more about Hailsham and the idealistic women who ran it. Although often poignant, Kathy's matter-of-fact narration blunts the sharper emotional effects you might expect in a novel that deals with illness, self-sacrifice, and the severe restriction of personal freedoms. As in Ishiguro's best-known work, The Remains of the Day, only after closing the book do you absorb the magnitude of what his characters endure.

I read this book a few years ago for another book club.  I really liked it, others in the group did not.   It's science fiction that's just slightly beyond what might be possible with advances in bioengineering.

 Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice is a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old woman's sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease, written by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph. D in neuroscience from Harvard University.
     Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. In turns heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying, Still Alice captures in remarkable detail what's it's like to literally lose your mind...

 Another book club book that I really enjoyed.  Like Room that I talked about before, this book is an example of how the point of view of a story can really impact the tale.  Because it's told from the perspective of an Alzheimer's patient, we really get an idea of what it feels like to slowly lose your awareness of your life and surroundings.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, did you like them?   Have any other great books to recommend?  I'm always looking for new reads.

Disclosure:  This post contains Amazon links and I am an Amazon associate. 

Books, Authors and Series for Middle Elementary Boys (or Girls)

Since today is "Read Across America Day", my son and I thought we'd share a few of his favorite books and series.  He just turned 9, is in 3rd grade, and he's a pretty strong reader.

Before this past year, my son was primarily interested in non-fiction books.  He'd read every night, just like his sisters, but his tastes leaned heavily towards books like The Guinness Book of World Records and Top Ten Lists of Everything Football.    While I loved that he was reading (and learning lots of interesting facts), I was eager for him to expand into some fictional books as well.  When he finally found a series he liked, he was hooked and has been enthusiastically reading a great mix of fiction and nonfiction ever since. 

(NOTE:  While the books on this list are ones that have appealed to my son, my 10-year old daughter has read and enjoyed many of them as well)

 Here are the books we recommend ...
(Amazon links are included with each photo and title so you can read additional info about each title) 

book series for boys, books for 9 year old boys, book ideas for boys

So, what was that first series that he found and he loved?  The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket!  

book series for boys

I think it was the back cover's description that peaked his curiosity.   When you tell a boy that something is going to be terrible and sad and disastrous, they can't help but to want to find out more.

My son LOVED the series.  I'd picked up the first book for him at Goodwill (where I often bought books that I hoped would appeal to him).  After he read that first one, he quickly wanted to buy or borrow the rest of the thirteen books in the series.  I loved how interested he was in the series and the great vocabulary he was picking up as he read.  There is also a movie version that my two oldest really enjoyed after they read the book.  (my youngest found it a little too scary).

The next book is not part of a series, but it had a similar "dark" theme that my son really loved.  

Holes by Louis Sachar won the Newbery Medal in 1999 and is a really neat story with lots of twists, turns, coincidences and connections between generations.  It takes place primarily in a work camp for boys, but it has lots of great messages about perseverance and friendships.   The book also has a really well-done movie version that our whole family enjoyed watching for movie night one weekend.  (The screenplay was written by the author so it sticks really close to the book's plot and the cast was great ~ Jon Voigt, Sigourney Weaver, Shia Labeouf)  I love when there are good movie versions of the books my kids have read ~ it gives lots of great opportunities to compare and contrast, and it can help more reluctant readers get through a book if they know they have the treat of a movie afterwards.

This next author is my son's absolute favorite.  

My son even chose Dan Gutman and some of his many books as the topic for a recent author study project he had to do at school.  Gutman has written nearly 100 books for kids and Kevin is trying his best to read them all!

His favorite collection by Gutman is the Baseball Card Adventures.  The books combine everything my son loves ~ sports, history, mystery and adventure.  Ordinary baseball cards are magically able to transport the main character back in time where he can interact with some really famous and interesting players such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and others.

I love when an author writes several books with the same topic or theme.  Once a child reads one, there are several similar books which are also likely to be enjoyed.  Dan Gutman has done this with several of his books, not just the baseball card series.

My son enjoyed Back in Time with Thomas Edison and then was able to read another book with Benjamin Franklin.  He loved both the Kid who Ran for President and the Kid who Became President.  All three books in the Genius Files series were a hit as well as The Million Dollar Kick and the other million dollar books.  Slightly easier reads, but still fun, are the whole series of My Weird School books.

As I mentioned, Dan Gutman has written nearly 100 books so I'm not going to list them all, but every one that my son has read, he's loved.  His author page on Amazon lists all his books and he even has his own website with some fun games and background facts.

When my son did his author study project at school a few weeks ago, he "met" some other authors through his classmates' reports.  One of those authors was Andrew Clements. 

He had read Frindle several months ago and really enjoyed it.  After rediscovering Andrew Clements, my son has been reading and liking several of his other books too.  A few favorites...  Lunch Money, Lost and Found and The Report Card

One last book that my son really liked was I Funny, by James Patterson.

book ideas for boys, book ideas for 9 year olds

James Patterson's mystery novels with Alex Cross are some of my favorites as an adult, so it's cool to see my son really enjoying this author as well. (even though the subject matter is completely different)

I hope this post has given you and your boys (or girls) some good suggestions for some fun and interesting books.  There are so many children's books out there and each child has their own tastes and interests.  I hope some of the books and authors we've shared might help spark and encourage a love of reading in your child.

DISCLOSURE:  I am an Amazon affiliate and I will earn a small percentage if you choose to purchase any of these books from the links in this post.  However, we get the vast majority of our books out from the public library and I think that can be a great way to determine if your child likes an author or series first ( you can always buy the books later! )
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...