A writer's tale of living and working in the country.

Month: October 2013

A Review of Smart Music

I must admit that I probably would not have purchased this service on my own initially. The fine arts academy that we attend requires us to buy and use Smart Music for our band classes. I hope that my review encourages parents who are considering the service to make the leap, I am so happy that we did.

The Details:
Each student must have a paid account to use the system, and yes, they do give discounts for additional students. The child’s account can be used alone or linked to a school and/or teacher who submits assignments to be completed for grading.

Smart Music tailors the experience based on the child’s instrument and ability. After having Oldest Son learn trumpet in daily classes in the public school system and now watching Middle Son learn with once weekly classes in addition to Smart Music, I must conclude that Smart Music is well worth the money. You may not end up with a Mozart, but the time spent enduring the sounds of dying elephants during those first practices will be greatly lessened.

We have seen marked improvement in both the new tuba player and the experience trumpet player. The music is presented on the screen and each note is highlighted as it is played. Accompaniment is optional and the student can adjust the tempo for difficult pieces. The final assessment is given with the missed notes appearing on the music in red. Assignments are given a percentage grade and the student can then choose to submit the recording or try again and each take is saved for later review.

The Catch:
A word of caution. The recording of the assignment catches everything said near the microphone before, during and after the piece. If the light is red, your conversation can be heard by the teacher. No matter how many times I explained this situation to Middle Son, he left interesting tidbits in his recordings:

Start button turns red.
“Are you ready?”
“Is a smurf’s butt blue?”

After no less than 15 takes and still mutilating the repeat he boldly states…
“Wow, I should have worn my lucky underwear.”

If I had one suggestion about using the program it would be to listen to the recordings before submitting them if you ever want to be able to look the teacher in the eye. *head in hands*

Smart Music

Marking Territory

The weather is cooling in north Texas which means it’s almost pecan season! It also means we only have until Spring to get the orchard set up and for the county tax officer’s impending inspection for the change in our agricultural exemption status.

Let the pecan sapling hunt begin!

Thankfully, the squirrels had a busy year and we are busting at the seams with baby trees.

Andy and I set out with a roll of orange marking tape on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. Two hours later we had tied the tape to 180 trees without walking farther than a two acre plot of ground. We never made it into the brush, everything we tagged was in the open.

“My precious.” *Must say this in a creepy Schmegal voice for the full effect.

Why mark the trees you ask?

Because pecan trees loose their leaves in the winter and I don’t want to welcome the Spring only to discover that we dug up and replanted eighty poison ivy plants.

Talk about embarrassing.

After all, I’m still trying to overcome my gardening disability.

Oh well, at least I have learned to can…other peoples produce.
The promise of pecans has brought much needed hope. Maybe someday I won’t have to visit the farmer’s market in disguise.

See all those ankle-high green specks with orange flecks? Pecan trees!


The catalyst for our research into homeschooling was an unexpected change in lifestyle. After years of overtime at a job an hour away from home, Husband got a telecommuting job. Once everyone in the house adjusted to the change, we realized that the only thing preventing us from hitting the road was the ever-present public school schedule. Six months later, the promise of freedom from a state-mandated calendar led us into the adventures of homeschooling and trailer-schooling.

We rented a trailer in the summer of 2012 for a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. As a family of 5, we fit into a normal hotel room about as well as sardines fit in a can. We opted for the travel trailer to allow for room and the ability to cook our own food instead of spending precious time moving into new hotels and searching for restaurants.

The verdict after ten days in a metal box perched high in the mountains? Victory! We loved the experience and immediately began saving for our own trailer.

Exactly one year and piles of research later, we settled on a Kodiak 276BHSL. 

Time to hit the road!

I’ll admit, owning a travel trailer and spending vacations in RV parks was never something I considered until last year. The world opened up to us as we discovered that we can have a lovely place to sleep and cook as well as amazing trips to enjoy the outdoors. Everyone has space and the trailer stays packed except for clothing and food.

Now when the mood strikes, we load everyone up and take off with backpacks filled with schoolwork. We can school and work from the trailer with a mobile hotspot for those rare moments that the RV parks’ Internet is down. As soon as we are finished with responsibilities, we can explore the area then come back to the trailer for s’mores under the stars.

The maiden voyage with the new trailer took us to Lake Murray, Oklahoma, where we camped in the Elephant Rock campground. We paid $25/per night for a full hook-up spot one secluded row over from a lake-side beach. While I am sure I could have spent some time teaching physical science topics while we floated in the clear lake water, we opted to dry off and take the boys to the nature center that sits atop a bluff overlooking the blue lake water.

The guide spent time with each boy describing the local ecology and wildlife as well as sharing some gross and fascinating facts about working with that wildlife. We later traipsed up ninety-seven stairs to the top of Tucker Tower and soaked in the gorgeous views of the park. The Tower houses a small museum that details the efforts expended to create the park in the 1930s.

Add in some more swimming and a competitive game of dominoes, and you have what every homeschooler aims for…life as school.

A view from the top of Tucker Tower.
Another view from the top of Tucker Tower.

Bunny Bandit

One of my favorite sights is a bunny happily hopping across the pasture. Turns out, this is a joy I share with our Catahoula, Missy.

Though not for the same reason apparently.

When I recently caught sight of Missy sneaking across the front walkway with something in her mouth, I thought she must have found another beloved stick and was waiting for someone to play with her. So I shrugged on my shoes and bounded down the front steps, only to freeze in my tracks when her stick squeaked.

Missy’s head lowered and she watched me warily. I approached slowly until another squeak revealed that she was clutching a bunny, not a stick, in her razor sharp jaws.

My shouts of, “Drop it!” had little effect. I even attempted to pry the helpless animal from her teeth while she ducked and turned with her prize.

I chased her around the front of the house until she was backed into a corner between two porches.
Sensing that I was going to take the toy, she dropped the bunny behind her and turned to face me. Every time I reached to grab behind her, she maneuvered her body to protect the treasure from being swiped by human hands.

After fifteen minutes of begging the dog to give me the bunny, I was able to snatch it up from behind her.

With great care, I placed the bunny in a box and released it on the other side of the fence while forcing Missy to sit at my side. She refused to look at me, which made me certain she had learned her lesson.

*head in hands*

Twenty minutes later, as I swept the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of the dog skulking past the front porch with something filling her cheeks. The look she wore said it all...don’t judge me, beef eater!

Code name: Bunny Bandit

Rebooting Creativity

If homeschooling accomplishes nothing else, it does stretch your brain beyond the believed limits of creativity.
How do you convince a 5th grader that math is fun when he declares it’s ruining his life?
Demonstrate how video games are the result of math.
How do you engage an 8th grader in brotherly bonding?
Announce that the only way to prevent the end of the world is to build a suspension bridge made of popsicle sticks in the next two hours.

 How do you trick a 2nd grader into learning punctuation?
Let him make his own crazy sentences on a white board with each letter in a different color, then read the individual sentences as one paragraph, feigning hyperventilation because he forgot to put in stop signs.
It. Never. Ends.
And… it’s awesome.
Because when you dig deep for inspiration, you inspire others to do the same. Isn’t that what homeschooling is all about?
Admitting when you have no idea how to answer a question, then brainstorming as a group toward discovery. Getting excited about a snippet of information that has eluded you for thirty-some-years, like the fact that a polymer inside the shells of horseshoe crabs is used to make bandages.
If you love learning, so will they.
If you treasure creation, they will too.
If you adore cleaning, it will motivate them to finish chores before playing. Right?  *clears throat*  Let’s move on.
If you are willing to look like a fool chasing an American Oyster Catcher down the beach so you can compare it to the bird identification book, they will laugh with you instead of at you. Maybe.
At least they will learn to laugh, and so will you.

American Oyster Catcher, and yes, I did look like an idiot trying to get a picture.

Phantom Kitty Strikes Again

Things move slowly at the Funny Farm. No matter how fast we work, projects pile up.
Take the pool for example.
We wanted a place to cool off in the blistering Texas heat, so we built an above ground pool. It was well worth the effort. But, there was no place to sit around the pool, so Hubs built a deck around half the pool last year.
Perfect, except, you couldn’t walk all the way around the pool and we were always worried someone would accidentally push their brother over the edge.
This year, Hubs completed the pool deck. However, you had to run down the stairs, walk through the basement garage, hopscotch across the cement pavers then climb up the deck stairs to get to the pool.
Frustrated one night, as the sun was setting, Hubs decided to bust out the railing of the upper deck on the back of the house and build a staircase to our beloved swimming hole.
I have to admit the stairs are wonderful, even though the permanent railings will have to come next year. But for now, we can run straight from the house to the pool and avoid wet feet trailing water all over the pretty wooden floors.

 We always have big plans and I am the first to say that we don’t always think through every possibility before diving headlong into a project.
This became apparent the night the staircase skeleton was installed. We have three glass doors across the back of the house. One of them leads into our master bathroom. After a late movie, I stood in front of my mirror, next to the glass door that leads onto the back porch, brushing my teeth. A loud bang rattled the glass next to me. I jumped almost to the ceiling and sprayed toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror.  I readied my toothbrush to use as a weapon and looked out the door expecting to find a serial killer lurking behind the glass.
I took a deep breath and went to work cleaning the mess. A few seconds later, BANG! I threw on the exterior light and looked out to find…nothing…again.
Until I looked down.
You know how your mind freezes when it finds a person or object in a place it never expected to see them?
I could not figure out how he got onto the back porch.
Then it dawned on me… he climbed the stairs.
Now every night, if the moon is high, you will find the unmistakable outline of cat ears in front of my door waiting to be fed, or better yet, hunting grasshoppers and relieving them of their legs.
Stairs and bug control. A win-win I’d say.

“You built this for me right?”