Orchestra Portraits

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The night of the Gatlinburg wildfires, my children and I were in Knoxville for their last orchestra practice of the year. That was the night we picked up their orchestra portraits and some merchandise we had ordered: a car magnet for me, which says “Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras;” two mascot lamas, and sweatshirts with the orchestra logo and roster.

Girl with violin

With everything going on since the fire, I have barely had time to enjoy these things or to blog about them. A life-changing event like a national disaster sure puts things into perspective. Nevertheless, as things begin to align toward a new normal, we have time and energy to feel the pride of having joined the youth orchestras this year. Continue reading »

I first heard about the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra in 2006, before I became a mom. I met one of the homeschooling families from Sevierville and all their children played the violin in the orchestra. Something came alive inside of me. I made a mental note of it and thought what a great opportunity to experience and learn music this would be for any child.

Boy with violin

A decade later, I am a proud orchestra mom and have a car magnet to show it. I don’t know how you feel about car magnets proclaiming different things like “My son is in the Navy” or “My child is an honor student at Whatever School.”

Personally, I think car magnets encourage others to go for excellence, to attain higher standards, and to perform on TV instead of sitting on the couch watching others perform. I did not purchase my car magnet to brag. I want to inform others about the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras and to inspire parents and children to look into classical music.

Practice Test

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Sometime in January, both my children had to spend 45 minutes in a private school for a practice test, when they were in first grade. I could sit in the back of the room as long as I was completely silent. Many of us parents chose to do so and I know we all learned a lot through the experience.

Cat on a child's jacket

Our cat does not have to test. He just sits pretty on whatever jacket he can find on the floor.

The teacher up front read the test to the students question by question, explained how they are to think through the four answers given, and showed them on the board how to bubble in so that the computer reading the test results could pick it up.  Continue reading »

This is a preparation for the actual test which happens in March. The practice test is optional and so is the actual test, in first grade. But we chose to do it with both our children. We think it is good practice for the coming years.

Here’s the thing about testing: we don’t do much of it at home, because we do not think education means teaching to the test. But we chose to test the children once a year in an official setting so that our minds may be at ease that they are doing well on standardized tests and that they are not lagging behind their peers.

During the day of the actual test in March, parents are not allowed in the room. But for the practice test in January, as above, we have that option.

In Tennessee, homeschoolers must register under an umbrella school and follow the guidelines of that particular place. The umbrella school we chose only starts testing in second grade, with this optional first grade test and a practice test two months prior.

They have noticed that children who first come to do a practice test in January experience more ease and less anxiety in March for the actual test, which makes perfect sense. Tests and competitions are part of life, whether we like it or not. Homeschoolers who avoid tests at all costs may regret it later on, although it is a tough decision if your child experiences extreme test anxiety.

Thankfully, my children are not that way. They have some butterflies before a test, but who doesn’t? I don’t believe in shielding children from responsibilities and tests and competing against themselves or the computer or other children. It’s not the real world. But I do believe in preparing them well for tests.

The First Snow

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For the first time this winter, it snowed. It happened on a Friday night. We woke up on Saturday morning to a foot of snow and the children could not contain their excitement. It was therapeutic for all of us to see Gatlinburg under a white blanket of snow, after the shock of the citywide fire in November. We were snowed in, so we took advantage of a day off and just relaxed.

Snow on trees

We love it when we get snowed in.

And so we rejoice that life goes on and snow comes and covers charred structures, grass, bushes and trees. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but the children’s play in the snow conjures up more than just childhood memories these days.  Continue reading »

Here’s a short video of our children sledding. It was so cold, we only allowed them 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. When I say cold, I mean cold. Is 15F cold for you? It is for me. That would be -9.4C. Brrrr!

The following day, the temperature went down to -4F which translates to -20C. The snow was not melting, the kids were having fun, and I was having flashbacks to my three years spent in Sweden, when -20C happened for weeks at a time. As long as we have power, water, and the pipes don’t freeze, we can handle this. That’s all I am saying.

The incredible thing is, I hear birds. Even in this cold weather, they are out there, singing and doing their thing. By birds, I mean song birds, not crows. Of course there would be crows in winter. But bird songs? It’s lovely.

One foot of snow on the picnic table

One foot of snow, at least

The other day, we saw a buck in our front yard. This was before the snow. He came back the next day and we have not seen him since. It all happened too fast for me to take a picture. Plus, the moment was just pure magic. There’s something about these wild creatures that come so close to our habitat, about 10 feet from the house.

There’s something about the encounter between us and them, not to mention how beautiful deer are to begin with. And those antlers… What does all this have to do with homeschooling? Just that it is winter and if you should happen to have snow, please know that it is OK to do less school and more playing outside if the temperature allows it.

My Word for 2017

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“Onward” is my word for 2017. It came to me in an email from a friend who was inquiring about housing for a friend of hers, who lost her home in the Gatlinburg wildfires. When I told her we had already rented out the condo once we moved back into our home, she thanked me, added a few niceties, and ended the email with “Onward!”

Pioneers in Romania, 1986

Pioneers in Romania, 1986; source: Wikimedia Commons

It totally took me back to my childhood. In Communist Romania, school children were “Pioneers” – a scouting organization of sorts. Our motto was “Onward!” We used to have regular assemblies and the Pioneers’ Leader would say, “Pentru gloria poporului și înflorirea României socialiste, pentru cauza partidului, înainte!” (“For people’s glory and Socialist Romania’s flourishing, for the Party’s cause, onward!”) and we would answer, in a chorus, “Tot înainte!” (“Onward still!”)

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So silly. It sounds both silly and surreal looking back on it, not to mention that it gives me chills to think that I went through such a regime. For this reason, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” has never been one of my favorite hymns.

However, once that friend put it in an email after we went through a national disaster and historic fire, the word changed its meaning. It became a good slogan, a positive slogan, something survivors mutter under their breath, after having thought they would lose their lives together, in the fire. So onward we go.

This new year starts with several challenges for us on the home front, as we still need to do some remodeling at our house after the wildfires. But our routine has been so drastically interrupted, we need to get into a better routine before we get disrupted again by spring break.

We are still waiting for our insurance to settle our claim satisfactorily. The same is going on at my husband’s hotel, Zoder’s Inn and Suites. It’s a long story, one that is still unfolding. Maybe I will tell it when it is over.

Homeschooling is going well. The children are growing and I have learned the yearly routine by now: testing in March means that we focus in January and February (with some breaks for sanity if needed) and then in April and May we are home free or, at least, we are in the home stretch. Spring break will happen after testing, during the last two weeks of March.

Then summer will be upon us, with camps and leisure and library visits. And, hard though it seems, August will roll around before we know it and this time I will have a fourth grader and a second grader. My, my. I am coming up in the world.

Hopefully, through it all, we can continue all the routine of extracurricular activities: orchestra, violin, piano, tae kwon do and soccer. The kids have asked for tennis and swimming but we have no time. Period. I told them something has to give and they don’t know what.

And then it will be Christmas all over again, and a new year, 2018. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s to a studious, prosperous, and happy new year, 2017! Onward, onward still!


Full credit for the picture: By G.B. – Personal files. The copyright holder granted me permission to upload the photograph to Wikimedia Commons and release it under the following Creative Commons License., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5252771

5 Tips for Mothers Going Back to College

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Going to college and graduating with high honors is a challenge every one of us has to face. However, this challenge is often much greater for homeschooling mothers and single parents who want to get back in school after years of inactivity. But, there are some useful tips every mother or parent can follow to make sure that their back to college experience will be a fruitful one. Here are five tips for parents going back to college.


Consider Getting an Online Education

Online courses are sometimes the best option for busy parents. Not only are they affordable, but they allow you to work from anywhere and anytime you wish. Also, online degrees aren’t as useless as many people think. Some online degrees, such as an online degree in counseling are as valuable as any degree obtained from a traditional school. What’s even better is that a certified online master’s in counseling is perfect for any person who wants to improve their parenting skills. Other popular online degrees among single parents include nursing, education and engineering.


Think about Child Care

One of the most difficult issues parents have to deal with is childcare. In these cases, your support system can be of great help. Don’t be afraid to ask friends or family members if they can help with childcare, even for a fee if possible.


Schedule Your Time

Scheduling can be difficult when you have school and children to juggle. It’s very important to block out time for school, work and homework. Also, make sure that you display your schedule where everybody in the house can see it so they can have an idea of what you’re doing at all times. Time management can be tricky, but a good rule of thumb is that you will be need to work 2 to 3 hours outside of class for every hour you spend in class, so make sure you keep that in mind.


Don’t Overwork Yourself

Parents often have to juggle work, family and their studies when they go back to school, which can be a huge challenge. For this reason, it is important that you limit work to fulfill your obligations. Anything more than 16 hours per week would be detrimental to your studies. If you absolutely need to work more than 16 hours to meet your financial needs, consider getting fewer credits.


Don’t Feel Guilty

Don’t feel like you’re neglecting your kids to go to college. The time you will be spending in college is dismal in the lifetime of a child. Make sure that you explain why you’re going back to school. They’ll eventually understand that it’s ultimately for the good of the family and they’ll become your biggest supporters.

Going back to school is never easy, especially for parents. But, if you follow the tips in this article, the experience should be much easier. Remember to consider online courses, plan for things such as childcare and work, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if necessary.

Tuesday Tome Week 52 – The Talent Code

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We had to read The Talent Code during the month of October at the Anna Porter Public Library Group Book. The author, Daniel Coyle, traveled all over the world to talent hotbeds: Russia for tennis, upstate New York for violin and other instruments, Brazil for soccer, Costa Rica for baseball.

The Talent Code

The subtitle says, “Greatness is not born. It is grown. Here’s how.” So the whole book details how a small tennis club in Moscow can produce more Top 20 female tennis players than all the American tennis academies combined in the last decade. And how all these other places can produce the best violinists etc in the world. It turns out, they have similarities, the talent hotbeds.  Continue reading »

The coach or teacher is usually somebody older than 60 years old. Somebody who has seen a lot, who does not have small children to tend to at their own home, somebody with a lot of patience, but also somebody who will not let you off the hook if you make mistakes – somebody who does what Coyle calls “master teaching.”

The Russian kids will not even touch a tennis ball for the first six months or so of training. They only work with their rackets, learning the motion of service and others. That’s right. They swing in the air hundreds of times a day, hours upon hours.

The violin players – that’s a different ball game altogether, but you can recognize the principle of deep practice there, too – the second principle of building greatness and cultivating talent, according to Coyle. These are Suzuki players, and in the beginning they don’t even have an instrument. They listen to the songs they will eventually play over and over again, until every sound has been ingrained in every fiber of their being. Then, they start holding a cardboard violin. After six months, maybe they will graduate to an actual violin and a bow.

The other principle is ignition or intrinsic motivation or passion. A lot of children will not persevere through music lessons or tennis practice unless their parents make them. But then comes the moment – and many children can identify that moment – when something came up on the inside, like a light that got turned on. They started liking their instrument, their sport, their hobby. They started more then liking it. They started loving it. And the more they love it, the more they practice, the better they get, and the more they practice, because they see the results of their hard work.

Brain research has shown how talent is just a very thick layer of myelin, wrapped around the neurons. Practice makes perfect, but practice has to be deep practice – perfect practice builds myelin. For instance, if you can recognize the song a violin player is playing, he is playing it too fast. And there are other things which I will not detail here.

It’s a fascinating book and I loved it, but most people at my book club did not, for various reasons. To each his own. This book inspired me to be even more careful with the habits I am allowing the children to develop in their practice whether it be violin, piano, spelling or math.

Merry Christmas!

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We are home for Christmas, which was our contractor’s goal after the wildfires and the damage at our house. But our house is not completely fixed yet. The wood flooring has to be replaced all over the house due to water damage after a tree fell and punctured the roof in several places, followed by rain that night.

Christmas at Downton Abbey

Christmas at Downton Abbey is a 2-CD collection of traditional Christmas melodies sung by some of the cast members from the iconic TV series and others

We are thankful and counting our blessings though. The children opened presents earlier in the morning and were very excited to receive new things to build and play with. We draw strength from their enthusiasm and childlike excitement.  Continue reading »

We had dinner at home and my husband’s mom came over with her husband. I cooked a simpler meal than at Thanksgiving: vegetarian turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, walnut gravy, salad with Olive Garden dressing, steamed corn, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie. We drank different Martinelli sparkling non-alcoholic ciders. Christmas at Downton Abbey played in the background – my favorite Christmas collection for two years now.

In other words, we had a good Christmas dinner, like many of you, I am sure. I really enjoy being at home, in my kitchen, laying a nice tablecloth on the dining room table, and seeing my family eat. It’s the simple things in life that bring us the most satisfaction.

As far as homeschooling, we started a Christmas break last Wednesday. For the next two weeks, we will only cover Bible, violin and piano. The children have received lots of new toys and books to engage with and I need to decompress after a very busy year. Don’t we all.

Tuesday Tome Week 51 – Joy in the Morning

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We had to read Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse during the month of November at the local group book I attend. I did not enjoy the book, but I read it anyway. I made the most of it, let’s put it this way.

Joy in the Morning

My conscience would prick me if I did not, because when I commit to something, I follow through. Plus I think it is a good challenge to put up with a book until you finish it. It’s like dealing with a relative you don’t like but whom you must see around now and then. It’s good for your character. Continue reading »

In short, the book was too silly for my taste. Sure, I enjoy jokes a lot, but the overall message of the book ranked on a silliness level I do not find appealing.

This is just one of many books, which stand alone, but they feature the same characters: Jeeves and Bernie Wooster. So if you like this one, have at it, there are several more to enjoy in the same vein.

In retrospect, the title of this book came in handy toward the end of the month of November, when my family had to evacuate Gatlinburg due to wildfires. Ironically, a silly book which I dismissed became a source of encouragement and its title a mantra I had to repeat to myself whenever I got discouraged and worried during the process of fixing our home and business.

A few things I did enjoy about the book:

  1. Biblical references – the title itself comes from several verses in the Bible which say something along the line of “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” – a reminder to all of us that temporary crises are just that, temporary, and good times are sure to come; our test will become our testimony.
  2. Wodehouse’s writing style – the sentences were well-written and the self-deprecating humor, British par excellence, gave me a chuckle here and there.
  3. Shakespeare does not teach you anything, but it sounds good – that’s what Wodehouse says and I happen to agree. Glad to hear it from somebody else’s mouth.
  4. Like an Old Testament minor prophet who was having a bilious morning – what a great phrase! Wodehouse got me laughing out loud with this description.
  5. Steeple Bumpleigh is the name of the small village where the action takes place – it sort of reminds me of Downton Abbey.
  6. Lord Worplesdon cracked me up during the twists and turns of the plot, as he got shock after shock. His reaction every time was, “What? What? What? What? What? What? What?” Don’t you feel that way when you homeschool sometimes?
  7. Jeeves, the butler, is an intellectual who knows Latin, Greek, the Bible, Shakespeare and many ways to get out of trouble. Very impressive.

Gingerbread House Decorating

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We spent two weeks and two days in our “life boat,” as my husband calls it – the condo where we had to live after the wildfire from Chimney Tops engulfed our city of Gatlinburg. Even though our home has not been completely renovated after the wind and water damage, we felt it was important to move back in, so that a family who lost their home to the fire could move into our condo.

Boy and girl decorating a gingerbread house

Our children decorating a gingerbread house at the condo.

This evacuation may have been a life-altering event, but we have made many great memories at this condo. One of them was decorating a gingerbread house with the kids. Continue reading »

A couple of years ago we got a kit which had to be assembled first, then decorated. It was – uhm – challenging and not exactly Pinterest worthy. We had fun alright, but frustration, too, as the walls of the house would not stand. That experience cured us from wanting to decorate another gingerbread house for two years.

Boy and girl decorating a gingerbread house

One of the things we brought from home was our daughter’s blue stool.

Last week, we were at Walmart to pick up electrical tape for our violins (that’s another story for another time) and we saw this gingerbread house decorating kit in which the house has already been put together. All we have to do is decorate with the enclosed icing, marzipan, gum balls, and gum drops.

Boy pipes icing onto gingerbread house roof

My son tried to pipe some icicles onto the roof of the gingerbread house. A for effort.

The kids had fun decorating and I let them do most of the work, unless they asked for help. Specifically, they asked me to show them how to pipe the icing on the roof to make it look like icicles. Well, I am no icing diva, but I read the instructions and followed them carefully and we got some icicles.

Gingerbread house decorated by children

The almost final result – they kept adding details even after we declared it finished.

The result is still not Pinterest worthy, but the kids were excited and it gave us a bit of normalcy in this time of evacuations, fires, and high winds. We were displaced, but we found a way to make our temporary home feel more like a home through gingerbread house decorating, among other things. We are thankful.

Tuesday Tome Week 50 – Prayer for the Day

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Prayer for the Day is a devotional published by BBC Radio 4 in several formats. I bought the Kindle version and have been enjoying it for almost a month. It has 365 daily devotionals, so you can plan on having this for the whole year.

Prayer for the Day

Of course, nothing stops you from reading several daily devotionals in one sitting. Sometimes I do that with my devotionals – I run ahead. But if I am reading several things for my “daily bread,” then I just read one page a day from this devotional.

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What is different about this devotional is that it offers prayers and food for thought from different denominations and religions. At first, I dismissed this book as an ecumenical, one-world-religion type of effort. But I decided to give it a try and have not been disappointed. If anything, it has taught me a lot about the messages of peace and neighborly love which all major religions of the world espouse.

Apparently, BBC Radio 4 has been airing these daily devotionals and prayers for several decades. You can listen to them every day on their website, but they will be different from the book. The book was written several years ago and, obviously, it contains different material than what the BBC is putting out day in and day out this year.

So you can get it daily in two different formats – the book and the radio program online – and they will have different materials. Some of the stories are really cute, like the story of this cat in St. Andrews – yes, the town where Prince William and Catherine Middleton met at university. Others are sad and others are inspirational to the point of tears.

I like this devotional so far and thought I would mention it here, though for obvious reasons I chose not to read it in one week. What devotionals have you found helpful?