Friday, August 31, 2012

Tomato Bounty Leads Directly To Sauce: Food Friday

Feast your eyes on 40lbs of heirloom tomatoes. No, I didn't grow them myself - I get veggies and fruits via the great Field-Goods service who sourced them from the Farm at Miller's Crossing for my saucy project. Small farms, good food, and no schlepping, what's not to love?

Millers Crossing tomatoes
So today's mission is to turn these into sauce for future meals. I was going to pressure can the sauce, but there's still a need to add lemon juice or citric acid - something I hadn't realized. The whole point was to get low-acid tomatoes, so adding acid sort of ruins that!

I decided to put the sauce in glass jars and just freeze them that way. I am not fond of plastic - makes things taste weird, stains permanently, and then there's that whole does-it-have-endocrine-disruptors issue. Luckily, I have a giant upright deep freeze that easily accommodates glass containers on a shelf, so no worries about how to keep them from smashing into each other, or other calamities.

Of course, we'll reserve a good bunch to eat fresh -  my bacon cure from the Makin' Bacon class will be all set by this Sunday (which is also Bacon Fest NY day!), and we have loads of basil and fresh mozzarella too. I love this time of year - even with the ragweed kicking my can!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tech Valley High, Get Ready!

So this year I go from exclusively homeschooling both kids to having my oldest in high school, while my youngest continues at home. My son will be going to Tech Valley High School near Albany, which is about 45 minutes away from home, but his dad works right across the river from school, so they'll be able to commute together in the mornings - saving a good amount of time, as the bus leaves super early comparatively.

He's looking forward to it. The school has had some get-togethers over the spring and summer to get the kids introduced to each other, and to the teachers, and he's always had lots of fun at them. It's also a very small school - the entire freshman class is only 33 kids. It's all project-based learning, with an emphasis on 21st century skills, and I'm excited for him to have the opportunity - only one kid in our district is sent, due to budget limits, and he won the lottery.

What I'm nervous about is how big of an impact this has on our freedom and flexibility as a family. I never had to consider school schedules at all when planning to take trips, or even go out for fun field trips. Then there's that whole Normal People Go To Bed Before 3:00AM thing, where we all will be on a more restrictive sleep/wake schedule to mesh with the school one. This will be more challenging starting in January through June when my husband's job gets into some pretty intense late hours, with him not getting home til midnight or later. When the kids were little, we started just adjusting to the weird schedule and having dinner late with Daddy, now that's going to have to change.

Homework is another concern - he's been given a summer assignment that he's still dawdling to finish. At least I'll have backup from other adults he respects, it does get tiring being the only voice of reason with intermittent help from my husband. He may find that failing sucks worse than just buckling down and doing the work. That will be educational in all kinds of ways. Crossing fingers!

He will adjust. He's actually a very social guy, but super shy at first. Once he warms up, he's very chatty and engaged. The teachers we've met seem to really enjoy teaching, and to appreciate teenagers. There's not that whole "OBEY DAMMIT" message that we got from other schools. I do feel weird, I'm not sure what's expected as a parent - there is a parent's group, but I haven't heard much beyond the day I signed up. I think an online forum, group or email list would be useful, as our school pulls from 30-something different districts, very spread out from each other. We're not likely to run into each other at the market!

My daughter will finally get some individual attention without having her brother picking at her. I'm curious to see how this works out - whether she feels less encumbered and willing to take risks, or whether she'll find she's lonely even though they fight a good amount of the time. We are continuing with our homeschool co-op group, and that meets once per week. She'll also continue her riding lessons til the season ends, but I'm looking at getting a membership at the YMCA up near my son's school for another social and athletic outlet. We'll be up there several times per week picking him up and going to other activities in the area, so I think this might be a nice option.

By this time next week, he'll have had his first day orientation. I feel like I'm at that part of a roller coaster ride where the cars are pulling up to the platform, and we're getting ready to be buckled in.

Garrick robot

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Roku: TV Streaming Made Easy

I just ordered another Roku box and am planning on putting it on our main TV for more easy access to Amazon streaming - it's become a big part of how we watch tv now, replacing iTunes and much of the network shows that we used to record. Our cable system in this area is pretty expensive, but doesn't give a lot of value for the money. It's a small local company, with a monopoly, and because we're rural there's no hope that Verizon will ever offer Fios as an alternative. I pay around $90 per month, for 15 mbps download, and .512 mbps upload speeds for internet service, and with that I get 12 channels of broadcast basic cable TV. That's the upgraded experience…

A few years ago, I set up a living room computer to be a media center for the main television. It now runs Windows 7 and through that we utilize the Media Center application. There are tuner cards installed which allow me to hook up the analog cable service and the HD antenna directly to the machine and it acts as a DVR, with free channel guide, via Media Center.

Through Windows Media Center, there is also access to Netflix streaming, and Hulu. The only thing that doesn't work as painlessly is Amazon. You need the separate Unbox program from them, and then you have to initiate video downloads through Unbox, wait until it's ready to watch, then open Windows Media Center and navigate to Pictures & Videos, find the Unbox file, and finally find your video to watch. UGH. It also doesn't allow streaming, so if you are a Prime member, you don't get to use Windows Media Center's interface to stream free content, you must go to a browser window via the internet connection instead. It's inelegant.

While having the computer in the center of the household is good for computer stuff, I've found that the best solution for streaming television and movies is the Roku box. I have one of the original ones, and it's still going strong - it's hooked up to a tiny television in the kitchen, where we can get music and video whenever we like, without any hassle. I've become spoiled, when I have to watch Amazon in the living room it really irks me how many steps it takes. Roku is just point, click, and you're watching - no muss, no fuss.

There's also an interesting selection of channels, everything from Al Jazeera English to Crunchyroll (anime from Japan). If you decide to try it out, I advise just getting the basic Roku LT Streaming Player - the human eye can't really distinguish much of a difference between 720p and 1080p, and if you already have Angry Birds and other simple games you don't really need the Roku consoles that play them. For $50, you get a sweet setup that's easy to use and gives you tons to explore.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Free Educational Online Media From PBS: Tools Tuesday

Via PBS Learning Media, Vital NY offers a huge library of video and interactive content for educators available anytime online. Best of all, it's free with registration, and open to anyone, including homeschooling families, anywhere.

Content covers subjects from PreK-16, and can enrich the learning experience for students. Programs like Nova, The American Experience, CyberChase, Frontline and Sid the Science Kid, plus many more, are represented. There are lesson plans, video clips and they are organized and searchable by grade, subject, and type of media. All content is aligned to common core standards.

Check it out:

Vital NY

Relevant To Your Interests:

Mnenomics Upgraded from xkcd
Ancient Rome 3D On Google Earth

Monday, August 27, 2012

Disorganized Desk Overhaul: Martha Will Inspire, UFYH Will Motivate

I had this excellent plan to carve out a nice workspace for myself in the nook off the kitchen. Measurements were taken, a design was sketched out, materials sourced, and I managed to get it all together for under $30. My original concept was very much like the Martha Stewart Home Office area I saw at BlogHer12, just in a black/natural wood color palette:

Martha Stewart Home Office BlogHer12

It was great. For a while. Then slowly, I got less and less organized. So, now instead of telling the kids to put something on my desk, I tell them to 'put it on my compost pile'.

ModSchooler Desk Mess

ModSchooler Desk Mess Close Up

This week's challenge to myself is to un-filth my desk, and return it to a functional, and beautiful, space, which I will photograph and post about next week. I may even hit Staples to pick up some cute folders from Martha's collection when I finish as a reward. Wonder if she has file organizers in black with skull motifs…

For organizationally and cleaning-challenged people like myself, I recommend you check out Unf**K Your Habitat (UFYH) for time management and motivational tips. If you don't mind the liberal use of F-bombs that is. If you do, try out FlyLady instead. If Flylady is too many teary testimonials and prayers, then Getting Things Done is another time management system - more targeted to business than home, but still useful for motivation.

h/t to Pirate Jeni for the Unf**K Your Habitat info.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Where Is That Hidden Camera?: Sunday Silliness

Summer is winding down, and my dear son still has not finished the summer project for his new high school. Computer gaming has been the main activity for both kids, and I finally decided to re-activate the old time limits as they both were spending way too much of their day, and night, in front of the glowing screen. Both are going through withdrawal, it's worst for the oldest. Did you know there's nothing to do in the whole house? Neighborhood? Anywhere? I'm a very mean mom.

 Then I saw this:

20090812 thumb


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Science Fact - Reading Attracts Cats, Update on Paulie: Critterday

At my daughter's riding lesson this week one of the barn cats was ostentatiously ignoring me as I sat in the shade nearby. Until I opened a book and became totally immersed in reading it, when I got this surprise:

Cat at Double V Stables helping me read

My cats at home aren't big readers usually, though Claws likes to perch on my shoulder often when I'm on the computer. He generally prefers to spend his time trolling Mo the Rottie by snuggling on his dog bed.

Claws imposing on Mo again

Oh, and Paulie from last week's Critterday post, will be going to his new permanent home this weekend! He met the family at the adoption fair mentioned in the post, along with their female Rottie Greta. Love at first sight, Paulie was smitten. Good work Rottie Empire Rescue, and congratulations to Paulie and Greta's family.

Paulie Rottie Empire Rescue

Friday, August 24, 2012

White Peaches: Food Friday

The last time I'd had white peaches, before this week, was back in the mid-90s in New York, and I'd gotten them from the Union Square Greenmarket. They looked gorgeous on the outside, and I was assured they were delicious. After getting them home and biting into them, I was treated to a disgustingly rotten center that somehow started at the pit, but didn't manifest on the outside. Turns out, every white peach I got that day was exactly the same, so needless to say, I was not sold.

White peaches came up on my radar again this year in a couple of ways. All Over Albany had a piece from a local peach farmer discussing the different varieties, and he waxed eloquent on the sweet nature of the white-fleshed varieties. Then my vegetable and fruit dealer, Field-Goods, included white peaches in this week's delivery, along with an opportunity to buy extras. Since jam was on the menu, I decided to try white peaches again, with the idea of getting enough to sate the appetites of my kids and husband (fruit FIENDS!) and to have enough to do a batch of jam.

White Peach with white peach blackberry ginger pisco jam
It was a great idea, until I tasted one. I cannot believe how blandly, cloyingly sweet white peaches are! Juicy, yes, with gorgeous skin, lovely red and gold colors, and the white interior is okay, but the taste - good grief, this is what people were going nuts over? It was so boring, and insipid - the sweetness may as well have been Splenda. They weren't rotten, so that was a plus from my first experience, but what a disappointment.

My family disagrees with my assessment. They like them, and have eaten about 7 pounds already, leaving me a jam-recipe's worth to use. Luckily, I remembered I had some blackberries that I'd frozen when fresh picked, so I figured they'd at least add some pretty color to what promised to be a very beige outcome otherwise.

I was still worried about a lack of flavor, so while on the mix-it-up kick, I added fresh ginger. Since things were going crazy fast, I doubled down and decided to add some pisco liquor I had left from an earlier drink experiment. A few ounces at the end of cooking to spiked it and added more flavor layer voodoo. Luckily, it all worked.

I used a low-sugar pectin and recipe, and it's a good thing because those peaches are very sweet on their own. Much more sugar would have been nauseating. The ginger added a subtle kick, and the blackberries did their color thing, with a bit of flavor nuance too. The pisco brought out a lot of complexity that was missing, and really pulled the whole mess together. It now is one of my favorite jams.

But I still hate white peaches.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Bloggy Navel-gazing

So I've been making a post per day here, per the NaBloPoMo August event, and I am finding it a challenge to create good content on that schedule. It's the old "quantity or quality" battle, and I feel like I'm hanging on by my fingernails just to get a daily post at this point, never mind a great one. I'm really starting to examine things like why I want to blog, and what I want to talk about. And how often!

The biggest problem I have is that I'm really interested in lots of disparate things. I identify with a lot of very different communities: atheists, multicultural and multiracial families, feminists, dog crazy people, cat crazy people, techies, foodies, homeschoolers and public schoolers, etc.

ModSchooler was started in 2007 as a sort of peacekeeper for ideas and projects as I was homeschooling both of my kids. I didn't have a regular schedule to post, and it shows in the archives. I do think setting up an editorial calendar is a good move, and it's a tool I'm happy to incorporate - but I know it won't be a daily thing on ModSchooler for sure.

Now I'm just working out, in my head, what would be a good schedule. Something to keep me on my toes, but not overtake all other endeavors. 

I'm also finding that I really like blogging about food and cooking. I have a monthly Community Voices guest post thing now with From Scratch Club, but I find there's so much more I have to say, and so much I want to explore and write about. I'm mulling over whether I want to just do a food feature within the ModSchooler framework (per my trial this month, Food Fridays), or dive in and start a dedicated food blog. I do think that inspiration comes more easily on that subject for me, but I wonder if it would last.

Travel is pretty set, writing for Albany Kid Family Travel is wide open, I can post as much there as I like, as the inspiration and opportunities arise. Pretty sweet!  The tricky part is all the things I'm interested in don't have a lot of overlap - the dog people aren't really the 21st century education people, who in turn aren't really the travel people, and so on. I don't know where I fit, with all this going on.

So, for now I'm mulling over either adding tabs to ModSchooler dedicated to topics I love that aren't directly related to education and enrichment, to setting up one or more other blogs. So much to ponder...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Check Out Prattsville NY: MudFest! 8/25 & 26

I live in upstate New York, in Greene County. Last year, we got royally smacked by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, and the worst hit in our area was the tiny town of Prattsville, in the western part of the county. There's a searing blow-by-blow story about what happened that day last year in New York Magazine.

It's a tough read. But worth it, especially in light of what's happening in Prattsville this August 25th & 26th: the first annual MudFest! Mud Fest is meant to celebrate the survival (no fatalities!) strength, and resilience of the town, even as rebuilding continues to be a challenge. No one can accuse them of not having a sense of humor!

MudFest 2012 Prattsville NY - Facebook page

h/t Watershed Post and AllOverAlbany

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gamification Takes Serious Design To Work

Gamification, adding a layer of rewards for certain behaviors which is supposed to stimulate engagement and investment in a process, is becoming a big buzzword in education. Like anything, though, the devil is in the details.

One of my fears has been that once it becomes mainstream marketing jargon, we'll have a harder time figuring out what really works, and what is just bulky filler that might backfire and cause a student to become less intrinsically motivated in the long term.

This article from Mindshift gets into the nitty gritty:

What’s the Difference Between Games and Gamification?
(Via Mindshift.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Basic Biology Tools: Realistic Human Anatomy Models

Headlines lately showing the astounding ignorance of basic human biology by Rep. Todd Akin, an elected congressional representative who serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee reminded me of one of the things I noticed early on in homeschooling, around issues of the human body, and realistic anatomy vs. what you get in many "kids" materials on the subject - human body illustrations and models that edited out any reference, visual or otherwise, to genitalia.

One of my hypotheses (untested, but feel free to!) is that a preponderance of non-anatomically correct toys and human body models contributes to the stunning lack of rigor in other human biology issues. Grownups getting all squicked out by penises and vaginas doesn't inspire kids to ask good questions, and teaches that "those parts" are something to be regarded with fear, and even loathing.  A fear-based climate fosters other stupid thinking.  Bad ideas like "if you don't want it to happen, it won't" is a valid form of birth control come from this kind of aggressive ignorance.

It would be hard to form any sort of rational narrative from a human body anatomy model that has no organs for human reproduction, or even for urination! What is the message here?

Luckily, there are better options, and this Peter/Petra Torso human anatomy model has both male and female genitalia, you can switch things around and really study how it all fits together.

The conflation of politics and sexuality, basic human biology gets into dangerous territory for the dedicated ideologue. With recent internet discussions illuminating certain strains of fundamentalist religious discomfort and rejection of mathematical concepts such as set theory, it's not hard to see where there may be similar issues with exploring the nuts and bolts of human reproduction.

Science has established, without a doubt, that none of the mechanisms for human egg fertilization are dependent on a woman's state of mind, or whether or not they enjoy themselves, or feel guilty, or wish they do or don't get pregnant. If there's a healthy egg, and a healthy sperm can get to it at the right time, it will be fertilized.

Consent or non-consent of the female in the equation cannot magically cause a barrier to, or rejection of, unwanted seminal attention. The basics are pretty darned basic, so having grownups who pretend that there's a way to wish unintended and unwanted away is not helpful. Kind of like how abstinence-only education as a panacea for teen pregnancy issues is not helpful.

 Perhaps Mr. Akin learned his science from this guy:


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Silliness Pic & Posty Goodness from 8/12-8/18

Today's Sunday Silliness is in picture form, it's the guy I'm calling the Rage Pony that we saw at the Altamont Fair this past week. He wanted to eat more than just carrots - GULP!
  Rage Pony Will Eat Your Brains
Last Sunday had Egg Mold silliness, in which the heart shaped mold revealed a saucy side. Monday covered project-based learning using free classroom materials from the James Randi Foundation, and later that week we checked out Dr. Mad Science, a kid doing chemistry demo videos for other kids (and adults!).

I pontificated, but hopefully in an entertaining way, about family travel as a valuable enrichment experience, and applauded the heroic measures taken by a teacher to get a free computer lab set up and running in his classes.

On Friday, it was pickle time - go Food Friday! Saturday went to the dogs for ModSchooler's Critterday feature I spent the day hanging out with some of the crew from Rottie Empire Rescue and a bunch of terrific dogs up for adoption.

Over at Albany Kid Family Travel, a post about food in Philly, with a focus on the Italian Market, went live and made everyone hungry from the pics of the delicious sausage. Well, the omnivores anyway. Also on Albany Kid, the family and I hit the Altamont Fair, wherein we saw many a spooky surprise, like the rage pony above and a car like one straight from a Stephen King novel.

This coming week, I'll be werkin' on daily posts here, and there are some guest posts coming up on Albany Kid, along with a recipe for chocolate gelato that kicks everyone's can on Monday's From Scratch Club.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday Went To The Dogs: Critterday With Rottie Empire Rescue

Welcome to Critterday on ModSchooler! On Saturdays, expect to see some resources for kids having pets, and stories of kids helping animals, and animals helping kids, cute animal pictures. I personally am committed to rescue, particularly of the Rottweiler breed, and will be highlighting some of the volunteer groups I work with too.

Rottie Empire Rescue girls
This week, feast your eyes on some of the beautiful Rotties and Notties (dogs that aren't Rottweilers, but are still super cute) that are in foster care through the auspices of Rottie Empire Rescue, a 501c3 animal rescue group based in Saratoga Springs NY. Rottie Empire doesn't have a shelter, but has a wide network of caring volunteers who foster dogs (and the occasional cat) in their own homes, helping to get them ready for their forever homes.

Earlier this year, Rottie Empire Rescue, and several other New York State rescues participated in a grueling rescue of 76 Rottweilers from a puppy mill near Middletown NY who were in some of the most deplorable conditions ever imaginable. The person who owned these dogs called herself a breeder, and sold her dogs to people for thousands of dollars online. She did not provide even basic medical care, and was breeding without consideration for genetic illnesses. She did not provide even basic food and shelter to any of the dogs - even the pregnant moms. They all lived outside in dilapidated feces-filled kennels, on rocky, muddy ground.

Law enforcement got involved, and after some legal wrangling, allowed the dogs to be removed to rescues that could treat their medical needs and the effects of long-term neglect. Now all the dogs are out of the hellhole permanently.

They are in foster homes with all the different rescues that stepped up to help, including Rottie Empire. Some have had health issues and are being treated at great expense but happily, others are in very good shape, and are up for adoption to excellent homes.

Vinnie is a mellow and mature gentleman we estimate to be 6 years old or so, who doesn't like hooliganism and shenanigans from younger bouncy male dogs, but he loves people and kids especially. He's built like a tank, not too tall but beefy. I love his face.

Rottie Empire Rescue's Vinnie

Vinnie is a teddy bear!

Paulie is another mush, he's a little younger than Vinnie, probably 3 or 4. The "breeder" didn't really spend any time keeping records either. Paulie loves the ladies, and thinks he's a lap dog.

Paulie Handsome Pants

Paulie is a big silly baby

Captain is 5 months old, and was born right around the time of the law enforcement raid and rescue. He's leggy, and super cute. He's a snuggler, and very mellow for a puppy - none of that jumping on you and mouthing with Cap. He does a lovely "sit" and takes treats super gently, he's really a doll.
  Captain visits a fan at Rottie Empire Rescue's adoption day

Captain does an excellent sit for treats.

Mabel is not adoptable yet, at only 5 months old she has some pretty serious orthopedic issues that will require surgery and rehabilitation, but she's also a sweetie. Another love bug, she really enjoys attention and having her picture taken (I have lots of slobber on my camera lens to prove it). That's Mabel in the picture up top, she's on the left and lovely Cookie is on the right.

Mabel fulla love

Mabel coming in for the lick

Cookie is a beauty, but she's had a hard life and it shows. She's still learning to trust people, and is very shy. She did so well today with all the new people, and the new sights and sounds - most of her car rides have ended at a vet visit, so she was pretty nervous at first. Once she hung out and got lots of pats, and met the other dogs, she came out of her shell. Her foster mom does a lot of dog training, and has been doing great work with Cookie.

Rottie Empire Rescue Cookie Strikes a Pose

Cookie Rottie Empire Rescue chilling out.
Also on hand was Rottie Empire's "Nottweiler", Samson. Samson came to New York from Alabama as a puppy last year, and unfortunately ended up in a home with a person who thought leaving a puppy alone outside all the time would magically train him. Luckily, he came back to Rottie Empire, and we found a great foster home where he's been for several weeks now, and he's totally house trained, walks on leash, and doesn't dig up the yard like a crazy man. Samson is super handsome, and he's a playful, social and friendly guy. Great temperament, and he's just a year old now, so past the baby stage, but still young and full of energy.

Samson likes the camera

Rottie Empire Rescue's Samson is a happy guy!

Samson is handsome, and sits very nicely

Check out Rottie Empire Rescue for more info on all the dogs in the program. The website has all the info you need if you're interested in adopting. Volunteers, foster families, and donations are also greatly appreciated, and no amount is too small.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fermented Half-Sour Pickles: Food Friday

I'm late to the fermented food trend, but have been making up for lost time the past couple of weeks. The first experiment, half-sour pickles, was a resounding success - they taste great, no weird spoilage issues, and everyone in the family loves them.

I adapted the recipe from Andrea Chesman's classic, Summer in a Jar: Making Pickles, Jams and More, it was simple and not too salty, and worked perfectly.

The jar used here, an Anchor Hocking 1-Gallon Heritage Hill Jar with Glass Lid is one like I use for the veggie bouillon recipe, it's large, with a lid but it's not air or water tight. I used fresh dill, yellow and brown mustard seeds, garlic and a few ripe jalapeƱo peppers. I used kosher salt for the brine, filtered water, and made sure to cut the blossom ends off the freshly washed cucumbers, and stacked the cukes in the jar, packing them tightly. They were too tall to do two upright layers, so I squished in the last few laterally across the top. The idea is that they all need to be covered totally by the brine, so it was tricky getting them to stay put and not float. This jar has a small shoulder around the top, so that helped keep the top layer in place.

Half Sour pickles, first day in jar to begin fermentation process at room temperature
I set the jar on the counter out of direct sunlight, but not in a darkened area, and left it. After about a day and a half, I saw the first good bubbles, indicating the lactic acid producing bacteria were working. When this happens, just skim the foam, and re-cover, let sit some more.
Signs of fermentation, the lactic acid bacteria are at work, carbon dioxide is bubbline out, pic at 36 hours.

On the third day we tasted one of the top layer pickles. It was good, but not as done as family consensus required. Since the removal of one pickle loosened the top layer enough to allow floating, I flipped the jar top over and had the indent facing down so it would push into the brine and keep the rest of the pickles-to-be covered. Final fermenting time of 4 ½ days was perfect. Just in time for burgers for dinner, which in our house require pickles as a condiment.

Half sour pickles need to be covered in brine, flipping the lid over to push them down worked great.

Half sour pickle, final fermentation time at room temp was four and a half days.
Once they reach the desired sourness at room temp, remove pickles, strain out the spices, boil the brine, let cool, and then pour back over the pickles and store in the fridge. Our brine is somewhat cloudy, but no ill effects, it's just the good bacteria.

I just put up some sliced pickles in vinegar brine via water bath canning, I'll be interested to see how they compare to these in a couple of months. I'm also experimenting with fermenting hot peppers, with the goal of making my own sriracha, but that's one that'll be several months before it's ready.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Teacher Builds Computer Lab For Free Using Open Source Software & Scrap Computers

Free, but for the man-hours put in to getting everything up and running. It's inspiring, but it's also annoying that teachers have to do such heroics on their own. Too bad there's not a better system in place, within the school culture, for making the connections a little less dependent on extraordinary outreach efforts.

How One Teacher Built a Computer Lab for Free
(Via iFixit.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Family Travel As Learning Enrichment - Philadelphia: Wayfaring Wednesdays

Travel is a great way to hook kids into deeper learning, and taking short trips is a budget-friendly way to still get the benefits without bankrupting the family coffers. While I live in the country now, I still miss lots of things about city life, so my preferred travel destinations are always urban. I may need to broaden that, as I realized the other day that my kids have only glimpsed an ocean beach once, when they were preschoolers, from the boardwalk at Coney Island…but for now, we go wild for city visits.

  Philadelphia Museum of Art gargoyles
Over at Albany Kid Family Travel I have a bunch of posts from our trip to Philadelphia earlier this summer. I hadn't visited Philly in a long time, and at one point in my gypsy-like growing up (9 different schools, 7 different states from k-12 years) I lived in suburban Philadelphia and fell in love with city life after many skipped school days to take the commuter trains downtown to hang out. When the opportunity came up to cover the re-opening of the US Mint museum and tour, I jumped on it.

Traveling with the kids has always been pretty danged fun, and some of my best experiences have been when I was the solo adult. They're curious, and fairly amenable to trying new things as long as the basics are covered - adequate sleep, regular mealtimes, access to restroom facilities.  It's fun to show them new things, and to see things through their eyes in ways I hadn't before.

Philadelphia is pretty cool, and we had some culture shock (in a good way) when navigating around the streets. In Philly, the bike riders actually seem to observe basic traffic rules, like stop lights and pedestrian crossings! Car drivers do too! The center city area is very tourist and visitor friendly, plenty of signs to direct you if you get turned around, and we found everyone we encountered to be pleasant and good natured. We found the public transit system easy to navigate, if a bit challenging to figure out the fare system - it's pretty convoluted, with some stations not selling passes, and only accepting exact change for tokens - but the subways and trolleys themselves were clean, comfortable, timely, and very efficient.

There's way more to do with kids in Philadelphia than there is time for, so we went for the offbeat over the traditional. If you have kids over age 7 or so, check out the Eastern State Penitentiary. It was especially popular with my 13 year old, partly due to the creepiness factor of having seen it profiled on the show Ghost Adventures. The history of the place appealed to my 10 year old, who got a huge kick out of Al Capone's specially tricked out cell. There's a haunted house that they do there every year around Halloween season that sounds like a blast. We went shopping at one of my favorite stores from my punk rock teen years, I Goldberg, where my son found a sweet gas mask that has made quite the fashion statement in his social circle back home.

You won't go hungry in Philly - the food scene is great, with lots of traditional fare hand-in-hand with new energy and explorations of uncharted territory. This access to great cuisine, for any taste, is key to keeping beastly spirits soothed, at least in our family! Check out the Italian Market for a real open-air multicultural food shopping experience.

Since travel, however modest or not, is an important part of creating a learning environment, I'll be taking each Wednesday to highlight interesting destinations for family trips. Next week, I'll be talking about some neat stuff to do right in my backyard, the beautiful Hudson Valley and Northern Catskills.

Disclosure: Admission for our visit to Eastern State Penitentiary was provided by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation at, but all opinions in this, and every, post are mine alone.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dr. Mad Science: Kid to Kid Science Demo Videos

21st Century skills development comes in many different iterations - and the internet helps facilitate the evolution and sharing of them. Tools such as social networks allow people who would likely never meet in real life share, teach and collaborate in ways that were unheard of a couple of decades ago.

Technology helps even kids expand their reach, and some of the best examples of this come from kids who have a passion for something, and extend out via the internet to share with everyone.

One of my new favorites is Dr. Mad Science, aka Jordan Hilkowitz, age 10. He has his own YouTube channel where he shares his love of all things scientific with the world, and doesn't let a little thing like being diagnosed as autistic stop him. Did you know you can make a DIY no-heat lava lamp from basic kitchen supplies? Check it out:


Dr. Mad Science's videos demonstrate different chemistry and matter experiments, all done with household chemicals and supplies. Stop by the Dr. Mad Science homepage, where you can find the demos organized under categories like "fire" and "explosions". What's not to love?

Dr. Mad Science!: "An Autistic Boy's Answer: YouTube Science"
(Via Scientific American Blogs.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

James Randi Foundation Classroom Materials : Scientific Method, Critical Thinking ESP Classroom MaterialsThis coming fall I'll be facilitating a class at our homeschool co-op using classroom materials from the James Randi Foundation - JREF - where we will investigate and test for the existence of extrasensory perception. The module, "Do You Have ESP?" is designed to be done in just a few class sessions, and addresses critical thinking, mathematical and scientific analysis skills. The class I am doing is open to all ages, even the younger children will be able to participate in the testing if they want to, and we can delve into the numbers more with the older kids depending upon interest and initiative.

My goal in presenting this class is to spark the kids' imaginations, and to illustrate the tools and processes that go into good science in a fun and engaging way. While the module is good for evaluating paranormal claims, it really shines as an easy-to-utilize way to get kids working on and evaluating the scientific method.

As a project-based learning activity, the kids will be working through all the steps from setting up the conditions, to testing, and then analyzing the results. We'll be dealing with a wide scope of issues, such as how to assure accuracy, when to count tests or discard, and how to keep pre-conceived notions from skewing results. Bonus points if we can demonstrate an actual case that ESP exists, because then we'll apply for the JREF Million Dollar Challenge!

Having the materials all laid out, and using the testing format given, makes it much easier and faster than doing a long study in biology or physics, and much more doable for a layperson such as myself to present and teach. The only materials we'll need are the testing cards, and the space to set up the tests for maximum reliability.

Check out the other classroom materials available on the JREF site, all free for download, along with the other educational resources, including apps, videos and workshops.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Silliness: Egg Molds

So I decided to set up an editorial calendar for ModSchooler, and today is Sunday Silliness. Today's silliness feature: hard boiled egg molds.

I picked up heart and star shaped egg molds a couple of weeks ago from Pearl River in NYC. You can find them locally in Albany (sometimes - stock varies) at the Asian Market on Colvin Avenue (my personal favorite in the area), or the giant Asian Supermarket on Central Avenue. Online, you can also find the ones I use here on, along with other shapes like a bunny and bear or a set with a fishie and a car.

Egg molds for hard boiled eggs bento box

I won a boatload of eggs from Egglands Best at BlogHer12. So, today I tried out the molds with some older eggs I had in the fridge already. Less-fresh eggs work best when hard boiling because the shells don't stick as much to the cooked egg inside when you go to peel them.

With only two molds, just two eggs could be molded at a time. The eggs need to be hot to work well, and you cool them in the molds. As a shortcut, I used a bowl of ice water to speed the cooling, in the hopes that the eggs left in the pan would stay hot enough to mold as I went along, two by two.

The molding process is pretty basic - put the peeled hot egg into the mold, line up the little bump thing on one half of the mold with the hole on the other side, squish the top down, and clip together.

Heart shaped egg mold step one

Egg mold step two - locked and loaded

Once the egg mold is locked and loaded, drop it in the ice water. You want to cool the egg completely so the shape is set. 10 minutes worked just great.
     Cool mold with egg in it in ice water for 10 minutes to set

Heart shaped egg from mold

The star shape was less exact, but still recognizable as a star.

Star-shaped egg mold

I did note that as the other eggs cooled while waiting to be put in the mold, the shapes got less exact. They still were mostly the mold shape, just not as well formed. Given the success of the first attempt, we'll be getting a bunch more molds to be able to do a big batch all at once.

One unfortunate photo angle revealed an unintended association on the heart-shaped egg. Of course, if you're 10 years old, this is HILARIOUS:

Heart shaped or is that a derriere?

Ignoring any potential scatological implications, my 10 year old and I proceeded to mold the rest of the eggs, which we then turned into deviled eggs. No pictures of that, as they were consumed immediately by the kids. Delicious!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Posty Goodness From This Past Week: 8/5-8/11/2012

This week things slowed down for outside activities, as I recovered from BlogHer12, and got into NaBloPoMo - National Blog Post Month - and worked on posting every day for the month of August here on ModSchooler. Without being craptastic. Hopefully that's working! So, the theme of the household was getting back into a groove.

Reyna relaxes while destrying the Egglands Best Egg plushie won at BlogHer12
In the spirit of exploration, I tried out some new tools online, and posted the results. First up was Britely, a nifty web-based tool by which you can create "flip books" with pictures and text. I used Britely to highlight my Sparklecorn 2012 experience. In vivid color, as Sparklecorn should be.

 The next tool was Storify, which is also web-based, and lets you pull together all kinds of links and sites from social media, including tweets and YouTube videos, to tell a coherent story with them. This was a great fit for a post about the Mars Curiosity Rover, since my kids and I had followed the mission on landing day in real time using Twitter, live streaming from NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs, and Facebook.

I finally buckled down and did this year's mandatory standardized testing required by New York State for homeschoolers. None of us enjoyed it, but at least it got done. It seems that no one else in the world really likes them either, and I wonder how useful they are for all the emphasis on them in the school system.

Brain bleach was required to get the nasty residue of fill-in-the-blank testing out of my system, and Twitter delivered via @favillapsych who posted a great article from Psychology Today about creativity, and how to foster it. Free resources for creating a learning environment at home - this week, I wrote about a nice bunch of podcasts covering science, math, current events, history and just general wonderfulness.   On Facebook, I also shared a link for Android users - apps to manage podcasts, from Make Use Of so everyone can join the fun.

Rounding out the week, thanks to Egglands Best, we will not be running out of eggs any time soon. The next ModSchooler egg-speriment will be forthcoming! Along with lots more bad puns.

This coming week will have some new posts going on Albany Kid Family Travel, and From Scratch Club, and I still have lots of material to process from Games in Education as we get closer to starting a new school year.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Major Award: Thank You Egglands Best!

I just got my grand prize package from Egglands Best that I won playing their slot machine game at BlogHer 2012 last week.

  Egglands Best BlogHer12 Grand Prize Pack
Missing from the picture above is the little plush egg figure. Reyna got that one.

Reyna is a toy thief, she loved this Egglands Best plush

Reyna loved the Egglands Best plush a little TOO hard.
She certainly enjoyed herself.

So, along with the reusable shopping bag, spatula, late-great plush shown above and a cool magnet clip thing, I won coupons for 6 months of free eggs - 12 coupons for a dozen eggs each. Who knew playing slots would be so practical?

I'm thinking there will be some egg-sperimenting going on later, I'll post pics.