Monday, September 26, 2016

Hang with us!

Do you want to spend a weekend with Steve and myself, learning homesteading and wilderness skills, get fed organic food, and meet some cool people?

Then come join us!

We have some ads coming out October 1st, and the retreat is already filling up, so if you want in on the action, sign up FAST!  Space is limited.

If you want to learn more on our website and see the line-up of classes, click here.

We would love to have you!

PS: The whole weekend is only $199, including organic meals, so it's really, really affordable. We will charge more next year since this is a pilot project, so act now if you want to join us at this great price!

Monday, September 19, 2016

I knew it was coming...

This morning I woke up earlier than usual, roused from sleep by a persistent sound I thought was a mouse that had found its way into our bedroom.  Then I realized the sound came from another source: RAIN.  When I stepped outside later, I heard the distant roaring of creeks and rivers nearby that had been filled up by this hard rain for the first time in months.

Later I built a fire in the wood stove to ward off the chill, and even later, when I took the dog for a walk, I saw new snow on the top of nearby mountains.

It's fall.

I knew this was coming, but nothing quite prepares you for the shift of glorious summer to dark, wet fall, seemingly from one day to the next.

The vegetable garden is starting to look appropriately autumnal: empty.  There's still lots of kale, collards, beets and winter squash, but for the past few weeks, we've harvested the rest of everything else: beans, broccoli, garlic...

And tomatoes!  Tomatoes!  Thanks to our greenhouse, they produced gorgeously, and I've made tons of salsa.  As soon as I make a big bowl of it, it's gone.  Scooped up with corn chips by small and large hands alike.

Also, we've consumed pounds and pounds of Greek salads, thanks to a prolific cucumber year and my homemade goat Feta cheese.  Here is a picture of our dinner one night when it wasn't raining yet: Greek salad, homemade bread, my Cabra Al Vino cheese, beet kvass and beet wine we had made six years ago.

Another prolific food this year: apples and kiwis.  The trees in our orchard are loaded, and I already made tons of applesauce.  We still have one tree with late apples, completely bent under their weight, possibly producing so heavily because we buried our oldest son's placenta under the tree when we first planted it almost 14 years ago.  

Too much information?  Sorry.

Placenta or not, the apples are delicious, and we will press them into cider later on.  Eva and her friends tried their cider pressing skills at the Marblemount community market and loved the process, especially the drinking part at the end.

With the coming rain, we shall spend lots of time indoors, putting food by, preparing great meals, and making stuff like Kombucha mixed with elderberry syrup.

Are you disgusted yet by how healthy we are?  I am.  It's sounds way too PC - elderberry syrup kombucha - but it's pretty darn delicious.  You do know that I teach how to do this in my online fermentation course, right?  You can go at your own pace and start and finish whenever you want, while I virtually hold your hand.

What else  does fall look like on our homestead?

... Goats that are getting ready to be bred, in preparation for next year's milking and baby goat season...

... The garden is getting put to bed, with cover crops and floating row cover to keep birds from eating the seeds, which doesn't work because the deer sneak into the garden at night and get the row cover all messed up.  These deer and birds are in it together, I tell ya.  It's a conspiracy...

... Kids are jumping on the trampoline every chance they get, before it gets bogged down and soggy from rain...

... Soap making in preparation for Christmas season...

What's up in your neck of the woods?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The trip of a lifetime - or another reason to homeschool!

After six months of dreaming and planning, my husband Steve and our two sons travelled to Alaska to fish for nine days.  It involved a plane ride and a seven-hour ferry trip, depositing them on the remote Prince William Sound, where fish are famous for being abundant and very large.

Also, Grizzly bears abound.  

For me, the mother who had to stay back with our six-year old daughter to take care of our homestead, the thought of Grizzlies caused much anxiety, so I forced my guys to get potent bear spray, made them promise me they would sleep INSIDE the rented minivan every night, and call me at the end of each day to assure me of their non-demise.

They had the time of their lives.  No grizzly bear sightings (only tracks), but a moose and her baby, tons of sea otters, millions of birds, and a whale.

They got up very early every morning, were drenched by two whole days of rain and then sunburnt by three days of glorious sunshine, caught 150 pounds of beautiful Silver Salmon, and while fishing bonded with each other as only a father and sons can who fish in Alaska, away from the influence of a worried Mom, annoying little sister and schoolwork.  This is homeschooling at its best: out in nature and learning hands-on about all kinds of things.

These are moose tracks, next to my husband's very LARGE hand. Ergo: this was one big moose.

Since I wasn't present during their adventure (if not bodily, then definitely mentally), I asked the boys to describe their trip through their eyes.

Here is what Luke wrote, eleven years old and obsessed with fishing, and explaining why he wept on his knees at some point:

"It's amazing how your mind and attitude can change everything that happens. On our trip in Alaska I experienced this. We where fishing in a river, literally word-famous for its Coho (Silver Salmon) runs, on the prime time of the run. It was our first day fishing, and we had hiked up to a hole that looked good, and we started fishing. 

Probably in about twenty minutes my brother Kai got a fish on, and the second his pole bent, I could tell this fish was much bigger than the ones in Washington. He fought the fish for maybe five minutes. Then he finally got it close enough to shore for me to scoop it up in the net. When I was holding the beautiful female fish in the net, I knew it must have weighed nine or ten pounds. And for a Silver, thats big! 

Ten minutes later my dad caught a nice male, and it must have been just as big, but it was also very beautiful. Now my brother and my Dad had two big ocean-fresh fish, and I had nothing. I was now getting kind of discouraged, and the more I fished and got no bites, the more I got discouraged. And the more I got discouraged the worse the fishing got for me. Finally it got so late in the day that we hiked back to the car, and that day I didn't catch anything.

Steve, a.k.a. Dad
The next day we woke up really early, so early we were the first ones at the creek. We tried two holes and I caught one, but Kai and Dad each caught their limit of three fish for that day. I was fishing for quite a while after, and I finally got one on, fought it for really long, and Dad had literally touched it with the net, trying to get it, and it was right next to shore and Dad was reaching to get it with the net, and the hook came loose! I looked, stunned, at the water for a second, then fell to my knees and cried. I never caught any other fish that day.

The next day, our last day, I envisioned intensely us all catching our limit. Kai caught a nice Silver at the hole where I had lost that one, and then we hiked up really far. We crossed the creek twice, and got to an amazing hole where we each caught a fish in about the first ten minutes! 

Then Dad caught another one at that same hole. So now Kai and Dad each had two fish, because Kai had caught that one at the lower hole. We then moved up to a even higher hole, where Kai and Dad each caught another, so now they each had limited out, and I had only one. 

Then I realized that this day was turning out to be like the day before, and I started to get frustrated and discouraged, and then I said to myself in my mind, “Lukas, you WILL catch two more fish!” So I turned my mind around, and I started smiling and saying, “Yes, I WILL catch two more fish!” and I got myself happy and exited. 

And I did end up catching those two fish! And I was even more happy, and that day was awesome! So that experience really shows how the power of your mind is one of the most powerful things in your body."

Lukas, looking sufficiently proud, don't you think?

So now it's me (Mom) again.  They brought home lots of fish, some of which I cooked up the day they got back.  It is unbelievably delicious.

My guys are full of stories.  They were happy to hug me and take showers, even let their little sister kiss them, eat apple sauce cake I had made, and even didn't complain when I sat down with them to review their homeschooling plan for the year.  

They're chill, these dudes, because they just came back from the trip of a lifetime.

That thing that Kai is holding? It's bear spray. Yep. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Finding sanity and balance while homeschooling three children on a homestead

Many people ask me what our lives look like homeschooling three children, and how we balance educating our kids at home with managing our businesses, running a farm, teaching people homesteading and wilderness skills, and keeping sane.

The secret: We don't keep sane. And that's okay. We don't strive for perfection, but for a healthy-ish balance between our own needs, our kids' needs, and the needs of our different businesses.

My type A German nature wishes I could tell you that we manage all the above by adhering to a structured schedule and routine – but that couldn't be further from the truth. A disciplined and organized homeschooling life is not in the stars for our family because our lives are unpredictable, spontaneous and seasonal.

We live at the edge of the Pacific Northwest wilderness in the scenic Skagit Valley, where we homestead on five acres. We grow a huge organic vegetable garden, raise goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, bees, fruits, berries, herbs and a crop of three children, Kai (13), Lukas (11) and Eva (6). 

I am a life coach and also teach people how to make artisan cheese, ferment foods, and other homesteading skills. Steve teaches people how to make traditional wooden bows and how to survive in the wilderness, and brings home the bacon by restoring salmon habitat, which involves long days away from home in the spring and fall. 

Summer is slower for him, and in the winter he is with us all the time. Days with Steve at home look very different than days when I hold down the fort alone, and every season of the year has a different flavor for our lives and homeschooling.

Spring is our craziest season, because all of the sudden, Steve is absent after having spent winter with us, and on top of that, baby goats are being born, baby chicks grow in the brooder, the garden has to be prepared, seeds have to be started and planted, fruit trees need to be pruned, and homeschooling falls on my shoulders. All three kids are very involved with doing household chores and helping with the garden and animals.

Summer is filled with a mix of hard work and hard play. The garden always screams for attention, the animals need to be taken care of, and there is no conventional summer break in homeschooling since the kids' academic work suffered in the busy spring when I didn't have time to pay much attention to that, so they do some academic work throughout summer. 

This time is also a blissful time for hiking, backpacking in the mountains, bicycling adventures, swimming at the pond and many local rivers, and parties at our backyard fire pit with friends.

Fall demands lots of harvesting and preserving food our land cranked out, including slaughtering pigs and meat chickens, which the kids are very involved with it. There's nothing that teaches science better than killing and gutting a chicken. 

Another fall chore and homeschooling lesson: The goats need to be bred and be shuttled back and forth in the van for their dates with the buck. Yep, you don't get such an intimate science lesson about procreation in public school!

Winter in our corner of the world is dark and wet - a perfect recipe for cabin fever. Some years the whole family crams into our old RV for a few weeks and escapes to the Southwest, where sun and adventures beckon. 

This is the best kind of homeschooling: learning about geography, history and social studies hands-on by visiting the places we would otherwise just read about.

If you are wondering if we get anything academic done, the answer is, yes – sometimes more, sometimes less. Despite our lack of formal structure, both boys are a grade level ahead in math. 

My oldest son Kai is a voracious reader, burning through several thick books a week, while he is also teaching himself computer programming. 

Lukas, the middle kid, does well in math, although he doesn't like it. He is a talented, creative artist who loves to draw and plays several instruments (mostly self-taught). Both boys are avid hunters, aiming to contribute to the family's freezer. 

Little Eva is learning her letters and engages in imaginative free play all day long, and I'm not pushing her to read at all. All three kids are curious, outgoing, polite and well-liked.

So how do we “do” homeschooling?

I don't believe in cramming facts down children's throats – facts that they don't care about. I think that kids are naturally curious and will learn what they are interested in. However, although I truly wish I could be comfortable with a philosophy called unschooling (where the kids lead and are in charge of their own learning), I am more old-school. 

I was raised in a very disciplined German educational system, learning several languages and high level math at a young age, and I am not comfortable with letting my kids do whatever they want. However, I absolutely object to the education I received in Germany: studying lots of irrelevant things that I wasn't interested in, cramming facts into my brain so I could get an A, and then promptly forgetting everything. What a waste of time!

I am trying to find a middle way: do some traditional, basic teaching, but also let my kids have lots of freedom and free time to pursue whatever they want.
The way this has looked like so far is that many days they do a math lesson (Saxon Math), and then some other curriculum in science, social studies and language arts. Usually, I like them to start at 9 am, so that they are completely done with “school” by noon.

When they were younger, I used to sit with them, actively helping and reading every single book for the curriculum with them. I have to admit I burnt out on this method of teaching and am glad that the boys are now old enough to be self directed. I used “Moving Beyond the Page” curriculum when they were younger, which is very reading-intensive. Right now, they use “Oak Meadow”, which is more self-directed, and they don't need me to “teach” them and read with them.

I don't spend much time preparing lessons. Actually, I don't spend much time pre-planning anything. I know there are people who spend their Sunday evenings organizing everything for the week ahead (and I admire them and am ever so slightly jealous of their enthusiasm) but, frankly, I would rather spend my evenings sitting quietly on the sofa, reading, knitting, or watching a movie.

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but by 7 pm, I am tired of my darling children. I crave quiet, solitude, some time with just me and a chocolate truffle or two. My self care wasn't always a priority, especially when the kids were young, but I have learned that if I don't put the oxygen mask on myself, I can't take care of anyone else. Two years ago, I suffered from adrenal fatigue, which made me tired, irritable, very stressed and unable to sleep, and I learned the hard way that my body needs guilt-free rest and some peace and quiet regularly. 

We mothers tend to over give and neglect our own needs, especially when we homeschool and spend so much time with our kids. So now I make it a point to chill out and not put so many expectations on myself (or on my kids and poor husband), and wouldn't you know it, my adrenals are working fine again, thank you very much.

Sometimes, I fantasize about putting my kids on the school bus in the morning, so I could have all day to concentrate on the farm, teaching my online cheesemaking and fermentation classes, developing more homesteading courses, all without interruption or guilt that I am not educating my kids well enough. 

Then I stop, slap my forehead and remember that the bus ride would take two hours one-way, to a public school that rates very low in the state. I remember that I bristle at the thought of public education, a modern concept invented quite recently in human history. I also remember that I really like being around my kids (except maybe when I am tired in the evenings), and that I love watching them learn – not because I or the system force them to, but because their innate drive makes them want to learn things they are interested in.

I keep reminding myself, and my husband helps me when I forget, by saying “The proof is in the pudding”: Our kids are pretty darn great. As much as I beat myself up about not having it all together, of not doing a good enough job, as much as Steve and I muddle our way between the two extremes of either radically unschooling or public school, we try to find a level of acceptance. There is no one fixed, right path. There will always be uncertainty if we are doing what's “right” for our kids. We want the security and comfort of knowing that we are doing the “right” thing, but wanting this kind of control is an insane desire and illusion. As Brian Kessler says, “The closest to being in control we'll ever be is that moment when we realize we're not.”

Besides scheduling time alone every day, what has helped me find sanity when I lose it is cultivating this acceptance in our middle way of homeschooling, and cultivating trust in the process – trusting my children, trusting that they will learn no matter what or how. Letting go of my expectations of how things should be helps. Chocolate helps. Spending time with other homeschoolers and parents who share my struggle, even if it's just to validate how we are feeling.

I recently signed up for an online workshop put on by two of my favorite bloggers, Heather and Ben. In the workshop, they recorded their conversations about some of the most common topics related to home education. I loved listening to their extensive experience of homeschooling, and the humanity they add to it. One of the biggest values I received when Heather responded to one of my posts on their community website, where I talked about feeling overwhelmed at the moment, like I'm not doing this well enough. She reminded me of something important. 

Here is what she wrote:  “The two things that helped me, and that I said over and over to my daughter, as she was more rigid than I, was to remind us that we were building a life and a family story more than we were "doing school." Home education, however it looks, is family history in the making. Sure, you can be organized and pull out curriculum and do all that, but you also have to LIVE with these people and if they, or you, are maxed out, shifts must be made. In short, for our family, our personal vitality and quality of relationships with each other trumped the number of hours I logged reading aloud.”

I love that. It's such a good perspective.

And if things really feel crazy in my mental sanity department, I do something that never fails: head out to the goat barn and play with goat babies.  

PS: Talking of homeschooling and letting kids follow their own passion... Lukas is starting to make his own movies and filmed this one, plus put it together totally by himself (no help from me at all).  You HAVE to watch it.  It made me cry.