2017 String Camp

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For the second year in a row, I took the kids to String Camp in Knoxville. The youth symphony has four levels of orchestras during camp time and it is a wonderful time for the kids to grow, learn, and have fun while making friends and enjoying themselves.

Boy and girl at String Camp

My kids on day 2 of camp

This year, they were in two separate orchestras, as opposed to last summer, when they were both in the beginning orchestra. My son has gone to the next level, called Overture, while my daughter is still in the beginning orchestra, called Prelude. She has only studied violin for two years now and will need another year before she could go to the next level.  Continue reading »

Her orchestra learned two songs and my son’s orchestra learned four songs. Here’s a YouTube link to the Overture concert and here’s another link to the Prelude orchestra. At the end, all orchestras came together for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 – a camp tradition.

String Camp is this magical time of the year, when we drive to Knoxville early in the morning, rehearse, do a workshop, then drive back. After lunch, I let them play and do whatever they want, but they still have to practice one hour before dinner.

We listen to the recordings during meals so they get used to the new music faster. It is so strange to know nothing about this music the week before, only to fall in love with it in seven short days.

It is a week of exponential growth for the kids. They also have fun because of the workshops which include some stretches and light physical activity, music theory, and sight reading. Then, there are the snacks. On Friday, they have a pizza lunch and a movie right before the concert. Since we don’t watch a full movie at one time at home, this is a special treat for them. This year, they watched “Happy Feet 2.”

We already look forward to next year’s camp. Until then, we will be preparing to audition for the 2017-2018 youth orchestra season, which starts in September.

SMHEA Homeschool Expo

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Every June, my local homeschool support organization, the Smoky Mountain Home Educators Association, puts on a free mini-convention. There are vendors and local organizations who cater to homeschoolers, like the Knoxville Zoo, the Titanic Museum, and Ripley’s Aquarium. There are seminars, too. I am one of the speakers.

Adriana Zoder, Claiborne and Lana Thornton

With THEA President, Claiborne Thornton, and his wife Lana

This year, I spoke about Preschool and Kindergarten in one seminar. The other one was about different homeschool approaches. Education can be done in a myriad of ways. By the way, you can find the slides of my PowerPoint presentations under the tab called Workshops on this blog. Continue reading »

Every homeschooling family should attend a homeschool convention at least once a year. It is a time to come together with like-minded parents and to connect. No man is an island. I know many of us are fiercely independent. If you are like me, you do not want to get involved with a co-op. I get it. But there is something to be said about renewing your strength as you gather together with other homeschooling parents.

Your vision may get a bit blurry and a convention will help you wipe your homeschooling lens so you can see clearly again. Or you may be so happy with your homeschooling effort, you just burst to share your enthusiasm and help those who are struggling. You don’t have to wait until you are in crisis mode or burned out to attend. Just put it on your calendar ahead of time and make it a priority.


This year’s Expo happened in a Methodist church in Powell.

SMHEA makes an effort to have the event free. You may not be as blessed where you live. Whatever the price of your convention, I promise you it will be worth it. And you don’t have to buy anything in the vendor hall – though their special convention sales may be worth a second thought. Just gather information and look at the books and products they have. I got my questions answered about Saxon math, for instance.

SMHEA Expo Vendor Hall

My husband and children looking around in the vendor hall.

The internet can help a lot with research, but there is nothing like thumbing through a book and talking to a mom who has actually used a certain curriculum. You can fill in the informational gaps that way and make a more intelligent decision.

Rich Melton, Todd Sparrow

Former SMHEA President speaks and current president Todd Sparrow looks on

One neat feature this year was a scavenger hunt for the children. They loved it as they walked around the building, picking up different odds and ends from the list provided. It was also a chance to listen to the previous SMHEA director, Rich Melton, and to THEA president, Claiborne Thornton and his wife. THEA is the Tennessee Home Educators Association and the parent organization of SMHEA, which only covers 18 counties in East Tennessee.

Their stories of how homeschooling became legal in Tennessee in the 80s brought tears to my eyes. We have forgotten how precious this privilege is and how much others sacrificed to pave the way for our freedom to educate our own children. For that alone, the $28 SMHEA annual membership fee is totally worth it, especially as some of the money goes to THEA to help with lobbying.

Planting A Garden

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We try to plant a small garden every year so the children can spend time outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Also, so that they may receive the wonderful benefits of useful manual labor. Apparently, the frontal lobe improves as we use our hands to do something productive, as we manipulate tools and build things or rake, hoe and weed etc. It’s been documented by brain researchers.

Boy and girl planting a garden

The kids planted a garden the other day

Gardening teaches many skills. Children are naturally impatient and growing a garden takes some patience. Caring for something outside of yourself also teaches children responsibility. Having to water even when you don’t feel like it helps children mature and build habits of usefulness, of choosing duty over moods. Continue reading »

As they learn to protect their garden from rabbits and other animals or insects, they see the entitlement mentality at work. “Oh, the humans have planted juicy lettuce! Let’s go eat it!” We have fun putting words into the mouths of animals and insects, but I also show them how it is not fair for people who do not work to claim what does not belong to them. If you do not work, you should not eat, says the Bible.

Last but not least, gardening teaches children about how hard food gets produced in the real world. Farmers are heroes in my book. My mother grew up on a farm and this was in Communist Romania in the 50s and 60s – not much in the way of mechanized tools. She has always told me stories about how difficult it was to hoe an entire row in the vineyard or to harvest corn by hand. I do not take food for granted because of her stories.

My children love working outside in the garden – for now. The day will come when they will be bored by it – about three weeks from now, if not sooner. When that day comes, I will have to remind them of the fruit of their labor, which we will consume in another three weeks after that. They need to work and look forward to their glorious results.

Gardening for me is more about teaching character than about saving money by raising our own crops. We do not plant enough to save money on groceries. We plant just enough to let the kids play in the dirt and get some veggies they can be proud of – that’s about it.

This year, they have their own garden. Besides some random pots, where I grow things like basil, cilantro, and mint for the kitchen, we have a 4’x12′ plot which we have divided in two. The left side belongs to my daughter, because she is left handed. The right side belongs to my son, because he is right handed. They came up with this division themselves.

We went to Lowe’s and picked up some plants – whatever they wanted, plus flowers to help with pollination. Then we planted them and watered them. It was fun and the fun will continue through the summer and fall months.

Asian Trek at Zoo Knoxville

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Zoo Knoxville has a new exhibit called “Asian Trek”. There are two male tigers and one female tiger, plenty of Asian decor, and a family of white-naped cranes (with a baby!). They kids saw the billboards on I-40 several months ago, advertising the tiger exhibit, so they have wanted to go for some time.

My son high fived the tiger at Zoo Knoxville

My son high fived the tiger at Zoo Knoxville

We finally made it there last week. It was better than I expected. They have a pagoda and Chinese lanterns and music as you go through the Asian trek. Continue reading »

There are lots of facts about how few tigers remain the world (400 of them of this one species) and about tigers in general.

Asian Trek at Zoo Knoxville

China or Knoxville?

Through the thick glass, we can look at a tiger up close. If you remember, the tigers used to be in their own enclosure, pretty far away from the public. Now you can practically high five the tiger through the glass. My son did that.

The female tiger was brought in from California three months ago and she is still recovering from the stress of her journey. I think it is cute how much care they receive. All these animal activists who managed to close down the circus are now working on closing down zoos. Their arguments do not make sense. Animals are taken care of so well in American zoos.

Boy and girl look at a tiger in the zoo

Spending quality time with the tiger

Our children love animals and they learn about them at the zoo more than from a book – though I am all for reading about animals. We are vegetarian for several reasons and one of them is the humane side of things. We do not want to eat animals. Zoos provides such wonderful lessons in zoology and even botany as we see what kind of plants would grow in a certain area where a particular species lives, for instance.

Tiger at Knoxville Zoo

Big cat stretching like a little cat

They are building yet another exhibit at Zoo Knoxville, but I am afraid I did not see a lot of patrons walking around. Are zoos dying? Is our zoo dying? We will have to go there more consistently to really draw a definitive conclusion.

Walkway inside the Asian Trek

Walkway inside the Asian Trek

We have had an annual pass for several years now and we renew it faithfully, but this year it almost doubled in price. Yikes! No wonder people don’t want to come to the zoo anymore.

We, annual zoo members, are made to pay for the drop in ticket sales, is my guess. Here’s hoping this is not a downward spiral for our zoo or for zoos in general.

Royal Conservatory Music Development Program

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The Royal Conservatory put together a Music Development Program which is followed by music teachers all over the world. Many famous American music schools are proud to call themselves “founding schools” of this program which began twenty years ago.

Mom and children at Milligan College

The kids and I after their violin assessments at Milligan College in Elizabethton, TN

Our children’s violin teacher recommended that we take the assessments this year, in Level 1 and Level 3 respectively. It is a different curriculum than the Suzuki books and it was fun to step outside of those books and into a different repertoire. Continue reading »

So we had to invest in a new curriculum. The kids got challenged but we made sure that we stayed at a comfortable pace. The toughest part by far was to learn scales and arpeggios.

In all honesty, my children were missing some foundational blocks in their techniques. For the past year, since we started Skype lessons with the wonderful Mary-Beth Brown, they have made tremendous progress.

Please do not think that my children are little prodigies. They play as children do. I have uploaded some of their videos to YouTube and you can hear it for yourself. The thing is, it’s a work in progress. And we started with a bit of a handicap, as their previous teachers allowed them to develop some bad habits. No disrespect, as they worked hard with our kids, but that is just the truth.

As such, our last year has been stressful on the violin. But we persevered. It has truly tested me to the max. The violin is an emotional subject for me, as it was my main instrument growing up and I really want the kids to excel. It turns out, they like it. But somehow they sense my strong feelings about it and practice time gets tricky.

Overall, we have made tremendous progress and I can only attribute it to this new teacher, who has told me which books to read to get my mind in the right place. Also, she has worked with the kids’ skills and their frustrations. There is no replacement for a great teacher.

The assessments happened in Elizabethton, on the campus of Milligan College, about two hours from where we live. It was a fun trip and we celebrated with a nice meal at Cracker Barrel afterwards. We will receive the results within 2-4 weeks.

Summer Vacay

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The other day I received an email from a famous homeschool blogger with a list of “summer boredom busters.” I admire that sentiment, but we are not bored yet. In fact, I think I may have run the troops a little too much this year – too much even for me. I feel the burn or the burnout and I just want to take it easy.

Father, daughter and son at the pool

My husband and the kids at the pool

The kids want to take it easy. I want to take it easy. We have our three daily meals and they help with preparation and cleanup. We do a devotional. We run errands if necessary. I leave my annual checkups for this time of the year and they just tag along with their books. They work on Scratch (computer programming language from MIT) because they love it. Continue reading »

They read. We watch Roland Garros. I guess we call it the French Open in the United States. I grew up in Europe where we called it Roland Garros. We go to the Zoo. In about a month, we will be watching Wimbledon. I promised them “breakfast at Wimbledon” which consists of strawberries and cream.

Pretty soon the libraries around us will start their summer programs. We have three libraries within a 20-mile radius from our house and we cannot possibly attend all the events – I learned that the hard way about three summers ago when I was trying to make every workshop. Not realistic.

Besides, I promised them two weeks of nothing to do. Nothing. Not even piano or violin. We do go to the pool when the sun shines. I blog and submit my columns to the paper as usual. I clean some places I have not touched in a long time. I prepare their music for string camp – they are in two different orchestras and they got quite a bit of music which I must keep separate and listen to myself before I put it in front of them in two weeks.

Somehow the days go by fast. It sounds busy even though we don’t “do” much, but learning still happens. Children never stop learning.

End of the School Year

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It is almost the end of May and this means summer break is here. We do not homeschool year round, although learning never stops. Children are naturally curious and they will learn even if I don’t record it as a school day.

Boy and girl holding homeschool certificates of completion

First grade and third grade certificates

We have some summer camps coming up: art, orchestra, app making, manners, soccer, swimming, archery – all these activities involve learning. I have not yet decided if I should count these days toward their next school year. This past school year, I did. But it almost feels like cheating. Continue reading »

School should not be a dreadful thing, but life is not always pleasant and school is supposed to be a preparation for life. Life’s duties must be done however tiresome they might be. And, sometimes, school work (or learning) can be tiresome and frustrating. That’s part of “real life.”

You know how public school parents chide homeschool parents for not giving their children the “real world?” They are wrong. The real world contains lots of opportunities for being lazy when not under supervision – that happens at home as well as at school; for doing hard things – that happens at home as well as at school; for covering up your mistakes instead of admitting them and learning to make better choices – that happens at home as well as at school. I could go on and on.

Back to my topic: another school year is behind us. I printed out a certificate of completion for each child, filled out their grade and name, the date, my signature, and I snapped the picture above. Each child has a cumulative file at our umbrella school and also one at home. Every year, the certificates end up there, alongside their curriculum list and attendance record.

The kids have grown in every sense of the word. I have grown a few more gray hairs. I don’t want to say that I have grown and developed more patience, for instance, because as soon as I say that something happens and wham! I lose my temper – proof positive that it is time to eat humble pie.

I have relaxed a bit though, I am thankful for that. I am my own worst critic and can be very hard on myself. Going through a few natural disasters has loosened me, I suppose. Here’s to a great summer break! I will keep blogging through the summer about our various activities.

Green and Pink Smoothies

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Lately, I have had a lot of fun making smoothies for us. That blender gets washed every day, I tell you. That’s because it gets used every day. It is such an easy thing to do and yet it took me a bit to get on the bandwagon of this food trend. You don’t need a cookbook either.

Raspberry and cocoa parfait

Raspberry and cocoa parfait (or smoothie)

A couple of years ago, I read a cookbook about kale. All the recipes included kale in some form. It overwhelmed me. I tried a few kale smoothies and other kale recipes, but I did not get inspired.

Well, something happened this year. Not sure what exactly, but one morning I just felt the courage to get the blender out and here’s what I put in it: 1 cup of rice milk, a cup of spinach, and one banana. Continue reading »

I could drink the resulting smoothie, but my children asked for it to be sweeter. Enter the second banana.

Kale Smoothie

Two bananas, some spinach, fiber, and milk

So with 1 cup of rice milk, 1 cup of fresh spinach leaves and 2 bananas I make enough smoothies for the three of us for lunch. There are days when I don’t feel like eating a salad, but I know I need my greens. By the way, I may have poured more than one cup of milk. If it gets too thick for your blender, just put more milk. You cannot hurt it.

Green smoothies (kale, rice milk, bananas)

Green smoothies (kale, rice milk, bananas)

Of course, you can do other combinations. For instance, I put one teaspoon of fiber (husks) in there one day. You could put flax seed etc. This recipe is just an example of how easy it is to drink your spinach (or kale) and not gag. We need our greens, friends!

Now, for the pink smoothies. I found a great recipe on Forks over Knives, which I modified slightly for my own taste. The taste is great and it is almost like a parfait. If you let it sit overnight in your fridge, it will thicken and have the texture of a parfait. Otherwise it will be a smoothie and you can just drink it. One thing is sure though: both are delicious.

Show these recipes to your children and record this as “Culinary Arts” or “Science” in your school records. “Cooking Lab” is another label, of course. In Tennessee, homeschooling legal requirements are not that stringent but I keep records of things we do for my own benefit.

Learning Chess

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Chess is a game I learned from my father. Chess was very common in Romania. Maybe you recall that the two best chess players in the world in the 80s were two Russians. Romania was never one of the Soviet Republics, but we were influenced by Russian culture to some extent, seeing that we had a long border with them.

Chess board with check mate position

My son check mated me for the first time.

And so lots of children learned chess from their parents. It was part of family time – a board game like any other. There were TV shows about it, too. One lady in particular, Elisabeta Polihroniade, appeared on the chess TV show and taught different moves and strategies. We thought she was cool.  Continue reading »

Looking back on it, through the glasses of American culture, I can see how all that was very nerdy and geeky – for an American looking in. For us, it was just a way of life. Grandfathers played chess outside the condo buildings where we lived all the time. Sometimes passers-by would stop to watch the game and the next move.

I was surprised to learn that my husband did not even know how the pieces move in chess. I made it a point to teach my children the game starting two years ago. I played with my son more than with my daughter. He is older and showed more interest in it.

For the first time, last week, he beat me. He check mated me early on in the game and I did not see it coming. I was so surprised, I moved a bishop to protect my king, thinking that it was not check mate yet. In my haste to defend myself, I moved the bishop in the wrong way. My son went, “Ugh, mom, that’s not how the bishop moves…”

We both laughed hysterically. I was so proud of him. That’s what I want to see – that my kids go way beyond where I am in my skills whether it is chess, music, reading, technology or whatever.

If you don’t know yet, chess has surprising health benefits and they mostly have to do with the brain. Should you want to know where to start, you can always start with a book for chess beginners and a Google search for chess clubs nearby, unless you want to play online with others. Being a homeschooling parent, I would think that you might want to play with your children though. Have fun in your chess adventures!

Daily Schedule Update

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As children grow, so do the routines and schedules we have with them. Homeschooling looks very different for everybody, but one of the most frequent questions I hear from moms is, “What is your daily schedule like?”

Boy and girl visit the dentist

A visit to the dentist interrupts the daily schedule.


We have school days Monday-Friday. We take the weekend off. I sneak in letter writing on an odd Sunday afternoon (they both have pen pals), or a home Spelling Bee or some other “school activity” which is fun for them, but I don’t tell them it’s school and I don’t record it as such.

They get a 10-minute break between subjects – they can play or practice their tae kwon do forms and moves or do something else that is physical (no computer). It’s like crop rotation. We have used the brain, now it is time to tax the body a bit.

So here it is, our daily schedule as of 2017:

8:00-8:30 Wake up, make bed, dress up, start a load of laundry if necessary

8:30-9:00 Breakfast (we listen to their orchestra pieces while eating)

9:00-9:30 Devotional (includes Bible memorization)

9:30-10:00 Language Arts

10:00-10:30 Math

10:30-11:00 Piano Practice

11:00-11:30 Violin Practice

11:30-12:00 History/Science (alternate days) Continue reading »

12:30-1:00 French/Romanian (alternate days)

1:00-2:00 Lunch Prep, lunch and cleanup

2:00-3:00 Quiet Time (reading or listening to Adventures in Odyssey or playing alone in own room)

3:00-6:00 Free Time (they get 30 minute of videos if they finish their work, for instance)

6:00 Supper and family time (or make-up time, if something did not get finished)

7:00 Bath and reading

8:00 Bed time

Some late afternoons or evenings we have tae kwon do practice, piano lessons, or ochestra. One morning we actually have Skype violin lessons, so all this schedule gets shifted by 90 minutes.

We do many subjects together, but language arts and math require a separation, as skill subjects. So we alternate: when one needs me for math, the other one is doing a subject where he does not require my presence, like piano practice (I can always hear what they are practicing).

If they have a review lesson in math, for instance, they do not need me. They work on their exercises and then when I check their work we discuss mistakes, if any. It is all very fluid and things can interrupt the daily routine, obviously.

Phone calls, world events, family events, a headache, a bad night’s sleep – all throw off the schedule. It is just good to know what the goal is. We always come back to the routine above. All I can say is, I love how independent they have become. They still need me in the same room with them, or within earshot, but oh how much easier it has become now that they are seven and nine.