In Search of a Queen Ant

IMG_3709Last fall my son developed an interest in starting his own colony of ants.

I began thinking ant farm. He began correcting me.

Starting your own colony is an entirely different ball game than scooping up ants and watching them create tunnels throughout gel or sand. This venture required a queen.

Okay. I began looking for places to order a queen for an ant farm.

Oh, no. He informs me you can’t order queen ants because it is illegal to sell them across state lines. You know, the whole invasive species thing.

Okay, how exactly do you get a queen?

You wait for them to swarm and then collect one.

Great! When will that happen?


Okay. It’s fall, so I shelve this idea thinking he will loose interest.

Along comes Christmas and when he gives me his wish list he has clearly written on it: Formicarium. Camponotus Hybrid Nest from Ants Canada. I have no idea what this is. He tells me it is for his ant colony he is going to start in the spring.



Oh, that. I’d already forgotten about that. When his grandmother asks for ideas for gifts, I pitch her this one. She raises an eyebrow but decided to get it if he’d be excited. When it came, it was tiny. My mother and I looked at each other an thought we were going to be sorry about this, I mean, he didn’t even have any way to use it until spring. But he was thrilled when he saw it. He made a space for it in his room and it sat there for months.

Just when I thought he had forgotten about ants, the weather warmed and he began mentioning them again. He started carrying a test tube and stopper around in case he found any queen ants. I asked him how to find them.

They swarm in the spring when it’s warm enough and it’s rained enough. It’s most likely in May, but you never know. A colony only swarms once every couple of years for a few hours. Oh, and you can’t grab a queen as she leaves the nest, you have to wait until she has her nuptial flight so she can mate. Once she’s done that, she’ll drop to the ground and find a place to set up her nest. That’s when you can get her: the small window of time after she falls from the sky and lands on the ground and before she finds a hole to set up her colony.


Oh, man. This kid had been planning for this for months! What if he didn’t find one? Surely there had to be a way to up our odds of finding one. Surely there had to be someone who knew a trick or two about this. Some alert system I could register for?


So, last Saturday, as we unloaded groceries from the car,  I hear my daughter ask Zach if the bug that landed on her was a queen ant.



Carpenter ants

It flew off immediately, but that didn’t deter my son. He bolted around the house and discovered a swarming colony of carpenter ants! Coming from the casing of my window. Talk about mixed feelings.

He took an ant from the swarm, knowing that she had not mated yet, but he could use her as a control queen. We then walked around the house and surrounding neighborhood looking for queens. We ended up catching two who look like great candidates.

So why catch the unmated queen? Because she still has eggs and they will still hatch. The difference is her ants will be males and will not set up a colony. Only fertile queens lay females that can begin a colony. Who knew? (well, I guess he did)



Set-up for a queen

He set the queens up in a test tube with water on one end blocked by a cotton ball, then the  queen ant, then another cotton ball. He labeled the test tubes and placed them in a drawer so they will settle down and lay eggs. He can’t check on them much or the queen may eat her eggs. That would be extremely disappointing. This step will last for a few more weeks until they are ready to move into the formicarium. At that point he will set up a terrarium for feeding and he will finally be able to interact with his colony. I can honestly say he is a more patient being than I am.

He has recently contacted a local entomologist, Dr. Steve Murphree from Belmont University who has been wonderfully encouraging to him. He recommended the book Journey to the Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. He’s really enjoying it.

People like my son don’t always get the recognition they deserve for their patience and persistence. They often stand in the shadows of others who are quicker thinkers or stronger competitors. Their victories are built slowly and methodically, but what they can accomplish is amazing! Our world doesn’t always give them the full recognition they deserve.







Why we homeschool high school

girl-277719_960_720High School. It was a huge decision, and one I will have to revisit twice more, but I am solidly behind the one we made for my oldest to continue to homeschool. The amount of families who decide to put their kids back into school is shocking to me, but I get it. Taking on the final leg of the homeschool journey can feel overwhelming.

My daughter and I talked options last year: public school, private school, or homeschool. We looked into price, curriculum, and environment. We talked about social events, activities, and sports. She made her choice to homeschool with no reservations. Here are her reasons and why I support her.


She is currently studying Japanese and no schools in the area had as good of an option as the class she is currently taking. Technically, she could continue the same class, but she thought that if she was going to spend all day in a school, they should provide the classes she wants. She also wants to take several advanced sciences each year instead of dividing the subjects into one per year. Her father went to great schools in Panama and Costa Rica and this is how they did it. His science education was better than anyone else I knew upon entering college.

My thoughts: I completely agree with her. The academics we have set for her are strong and I would hate to see her flooded with busy work or bored with subjects she has already studied. I will find a class or tutor for any area I can not teach. 

The Social Scene

She’s really not into the typical high school social scenes. Football games and prom don’t really justify four years of school to her. She’s decided that if she gets asked to prom by a friend, she can go, but she isn’t too interested in going to a formal dance. She’s also not excited about being surrounded all day by kids she doesn’t know, or frankly may not want to know. As far as friends go, she has quite a few really good ones, probably more close and genuine friends than I had at her age.

My thoughts: Here I hold some reservations. I remember the glamor of prom and the solidarity of school spirit as a great part of my experience. Or was it? When I really think about the actual events, they never lived up to the hype. Football games were dull and full of teenage boy-girl drama. Prom was fun, but not even close to some dream evening. I think she may have a better grasp on this than I do. 


She’s really, really busy and she likes being in charge of her own time. She doesn’t want to give up some of her favorite activities because school takes a huge chunk of her day.

My thoughts: She isn’t always great at time management, but she is learning. The schedule she keeps is similar to one of a college student, so I think by the time she is off and on her own, she’ll be able to adjust nicely.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear back about what some of you think about homeschooling through high school. If you blog about homeschooling in high school or know of any great resources, please tell me about them in the comments section so I can check them out. Thanks for stopping by!






Nashville Cherry Blossom Festival


When I took my oldest to the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival in Nashville this weekend, I didn’t spend as much time with her as I thought I would. We were there for less than five minutes before she ran into a friend from JSL (Japanese Second Language). I quickly felt like a fifth wheel, so I told her to keep her phone close and I walked off.

Wow. It was so natural and easy I almost missed it.

My daughter just ditched me for her friends for the first time.

I am so proud! Take that all you homeschool doubters who believe homeschooled children will grow up to be socially awkward teens who have no friends!

IMG_3655And it didn’t stop there. It wasn’t long before I ran into some of the Nashville Kendo Club members. I asked them where and when they needed to meet up for the demonstration they had scheduled so I could find Gillian to make sure she got there on time. They told me not to worry. They had already seen Gillian and she was getting ready in the changing rooms. She would be out in a minute.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

She was already getting ready. On her own. Without being told.

Soon she was back out and texting me that a friend and his mother had arrived who wanted to see her kendo group in action. It meant so much to her that her friend would come and see what she is so passionate about (I wrote about that here). I met up with them and we joined the crowd to watch. When she went backstage, she ran into yet another friend. She was completely surprised and delighted to run into one of her best friends from church who was there with her own dojo. Small world!


The kendo group was great, of course.

IMG_3653Afterwards, we had lunch with her friend and his mom before we headed out and milled around the booths. The food choices seemed endless. We chose a bento box, but I regret missing out on the noodle bowls. There was so much to see; everything from manga to origami, bonsai trees to kimonos. We listened to the music from the stage and soaked up the culture before heading home from one of the best afternoons I’ve had in a very long time.

Homeschool families are always hearing other people’s fears about their children being socially awkward. I would argue that children growing up in forced social situations where all the kids are all one age, would find themselves at a greater disadvantage than those who move in and out of many diverse groups in their real communities. At least, that’s what has been working for us so far.


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Music Lessons


Once a week I pack up my kids and their instruments to drive an hour for music lessons.

Even though we live in Music City, we head out of the city to a small town near where I grew up. Springfield Guitar is a quirky little independently owned store on the town square where the owner can often be found at his workbench breathing new life into old instruments. When we parade in each week, the people who work there often stop us to ask how my dad’s doing after his surgery, or how the homeschooling’s going. I went to school with some of their kids and I often ask about them and their families as well.

The teachers there are top rate musicians who really have a love of teaching. We sometimes go through spells where we have to miss a few lessons while they are on tour or playing gigs around town, but I never mind. This is Nashville and I consider myself lucky to have musicians of this caliber teaching my kids to play.

Music lessons for us are a part of life, and I knew even before I had children I wanted them to learn to play an instrument. There is a magic to playing music that soothes my soul. I’ve never played music professionally, nor would I ever want to, but guitars and singing are the setting of most every family function I can remember. Playing music feels like home, and I wanted that for my kids too. So, when it comes to my kids and their lessons, there is little to no goal setting. I don’t tell them what type of songs to learn or even how long to practice. They know I expect them to pick up their instruments most every day and they often do. This consistent presence of music in their lives has become so deeply rooted they take it for granted, and I do too sometimes.  But when I hear a violin playing Bach coming from the back bedroom, or “Let It Go” being  strummed on the guitar, or a new drum fill being worked out, I always find myself smiling.


Math Class Fun

IMG_3560We are currently working on plotting points on a coordinate plane in a math class I teach to middle school aged homeschoolers at WEB. I waded into this subject expecting many to have a been-there-done-that attitude, but surprisingly, most all needed a refresher on this. To make it more fun, I created a coordinate graph mystery picture and took them outside to try to draw it in the parking lot. They did fairly well. The resulting picture wasn’t exactly what I had on my paper, but toward the end of class they were beginning to catch on. You can see the WEB turned out clearly but the flowers underneath were a little weak.

This coming week, I issued a challenge for the class. Everyone is to create their own mystery picture and I will judge the best three to be drawn in the parking lot, weather permitting. These kids really love a competition. Here are the parameters:

1. Each coordinate plane should go from -10 to 10 on both the x-axis and y-axis. This will result in a square 20 X 20.

2. Draw out a picture  using at least 20 coordinate pairs with straight lines connecting them. My picture had about 100, so 20 should be easy to do.

3. Each point on the picture is labeled by its x coordinate first and then the y grouped in parenthesis and separated by a comma:  (x,y)

4. Create a column of coordinate pairs for all the points on a continuous line. When you reach the end of the line and need to take your pencil up, Write STOP.

5. Here is an example of one so you can see how it was done: Fox’s Face on Math Crush

6. I will choose three for us to do outside, weather permitting.

7. In order for your picture to be chosen, the coordinates need to be correct!.

8. We will divide into teams to see which team can do the best job at reproducing the picture they are given.

This is something anyone can do with their child this spring. There are many mystery pictures available online to pick from or you can create your own like I did. Have fun! Let me know how it goes!

Science Fair


Third place in chemistry.

“What is our goal for this year?”

I’m getting nervous, so I ask this question to settle my own excitement as much as to remind the kids not to let the spirit of competition ruin their experience.

“To just enter and see what it is all about.”

“I would say we met that goal. Anything else that happens today is a bonus!”

I am so proud of these kids from my homeschool chemistry class. We didn’t stumble upon the Middle Tennessee Science and Engineering Fair (MTSEF) until it was almost too late to do anything about it. Almost.

I scope out the competition and feel confident that in spite of the rush to get everything done, their projects are at least as good as the majority of the other entries. However, there are always those few that stand out.

I notice my group collecting around a professionally printed poster with Vanderbilt University’s logo prominently displayed in the corner. The project is on cancer research and the list of scientists at the top tells me this student was working as an assistant in their research labs.

My students look intimidated.

“Look at this one, mom. Ours are nothing like this.” She can’t help herself. She is competitive to the core.

“Ah, this is a poster for a research project they are doing at Vanderbilt. I’m sure it is the same one the professors use when they present their research at poster sessions. But it still needs to have everything yours does. Where is the abstract?” A requirement for the fair.

“Is that it? It isn’t clear.” She looks critically at the poster.

“And how many people worked on this project?”

“A lot.” Seeing the string of names across the top.

“What do you think the professors had the high schoolers doing in their lab? Do you think they designed their own experiments? Or wrote this information themselves? Probably not. They were assistants. They probably did lots of little things like run samples and wash a lot of glassware. I hope they can answer all the questions the judges ask.”

They look a little relieved.

“Still,” I add, to be fair, “it is a great experience these kids have had to work in a top notch laboratory. I’m sure they learned a lot. But any of you here could do this type of work too.”

I left them standing by their posters ready for the judges and went outside to talk with the other exiled parents and grandparents as we waited. These are the types of things I really wanted for my kids when we began homeschooling seven years ago. It is so much work to get everything done and turned in on time, but the reassurance that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers and compete makes it worth it.

I jotted down notes for next year: Have their papers out for the judges to see. Larger sample sizes. Provide a section on the science used to prove the kids understand it. Add more graphics and data analysis. I wondered if they would even want to do this again. It had been a lot of work and they might feel dispirited after being questioned by judges. They finally came out, looking exhausted but upbeat. It looks like the science fair adventure was a success.

We didn’t do badly! Of the three projects we entered this year, two placed first in their categories and one placed third. The kids learned a lot and came back with lots of ideas on how to improve their projects for next year. Yes, I think we definitely met our goals!


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Version 2

Jumping cross-rails on Cowboy

It took me about one month to realize there is nothing, and I mean nothing, easy about horseback riding. My daughter had been begging for riding lessons for two years before I relented. In my mind riding was a fun sport that gave people a good excuse to be around horses at best; an expensive, elitist hobby at worst. I put off letting her have lessons for years thinking it was just a phase that lots of little girls went through. When I finally relented, I had a real eye-opening experience.

Things I have learned about riding:

  • Horses are not big dogs. Okay, that should be obvious, but I had only been around horses a handful of times in my life. I was more than a little afraid of them and rightly so, they can kick, bite and step on your feet. But the gentle, patient lesson horses at CRA Equestrian won me over quickly.
  • Riding gear is sports equipment. Yes, it is expensive, but so are leotards and dance costumes, football cleats and golf clubs, bikes and running gear. When I look at it this way, and the fact that I don’t have buy gear often, it helps justify the cost.
  • Riding is a workout. I never realized that riders aren’t holding on with their hands. Those reigns are used for steering only. At the other end of the reigns is a bit in the horse’s mouth that the rider needs to be gentle with. There is no emergency handle. You keep your balance, or you fall off! Everything is in the legs and core body. You know that up-and-down posting trot that they make look so easy? It’s like doing squats. No wonder riders have awesome legs!
  • It takes a lot of focus. There is so much to remember when on a horse. There are things they have to remember about their form: Look straight ahead! check your diagonal! Heels down! Thumbs up! Shoulders Back! There are things they have to remember about the horse: Keep the horse centered to the jump! Ride out straight to the rail! Pick up the correct lead in cantering! And there are things you need to remember about tacking the horse: Picking hooves and curry combs.  How to wash the horse down on warm days and how to put its blanket on on cool ones. The bridle, the girth, the martingale!
  • It is expensive, but there are ways to manage thisFor now, my child rides the lesson horses once a week. We also enter the in-house shows that are small and affordable. If she continues in this sport, we will cross the other more expensive bridges later such as away shows and leasing a horse. There are students that work at the barn to help with expenses once they are old enough. I’ve told my daughter that we will talk about increasing our commitment when she can work.

What I have left to learn about riding can fill a library full of books! Even though I was reluctant to try this, I am glad we did. Just when I start to think that I have done so much in life, this homeschooling and parenting journey opens my eyes to new and wonderful things.

How to homeschool an easy child

heart-598373_1280When it comes to outside activities, one of the reasons I want my kids to try different things is so they can discover who they are. How can someone know if they have a passion for music if they never touch an instrument?  But this philosophy isn’t really working for my son. The more activities or events I try to introduce to him, the more he just looks at me as if I just don’t understand him. When I think about the things he is currently involved in, they have all been his ideas, not mine.  I’ve never met a child who was so sure of what he likes and dislikes, who he is and isn’t, and about where he will end up in life. He sees new activities as tedious and a waste of time. While I sit back and try to figure him out, he plods on self-aware and confident.  I’ve had to learn the hard way to follow his lead and trust that he will find his own way. I believe life never stops giving you learning opportunities and in this case, I need to learn to let go and realize that my ways aren’t the only ways.

So what can a homeschooling mother do for a child who already knows what he wants? Support him. When he doesn’t want to join a specific class or group, I don’t insist. When he wants to set up his own ant colony, or raise a bearded dragon, I let him. As long as he is happy, healthy, and learning to be independent, I need to just let him be. It’s hard to trust a twelve-year-old boy to know what he wants from life, but he’s doing a great job so far. Even though I’m much more comfortable leading a child into the world than following a child who walks confidently into his own life, sometimes doing nothing is the hardest and best thing to do.

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Finding a Passion: Kendo


ken·do ˈkendō/ noun
  1. a Japanese form of fencing with two-handed bamboo swords, originally developed as a safe form of sword training for samurai.

My fifteen year old daughter has a passion for kendo. Kendo is the Japanese martial art of sword fighting. She began studying kendo six years ago when we decided to homeschool. One of her closest friends and academic rivals took kendo and we parents thought it might be a great way for them to stay in touch. The first time we visited these armor clad, stick swinging, screaming kenshi, I thought there would be no way in hell my daughter would would go for it. But I was wrong. She loved it!

For the first few years she was mainly excited about seeing her friend. It wasn’t until she was twelve that she made the decision to keep studying kendo for herself. Until that point she had progressed through the ranks steadily and easily. My daughter has a natural poise that was praised by the instructors. But at twelve she and her friend tested for the rank of 1 kyu (brown belt). Her friend passed but she didn’t and rightly so. She wasn’t taking the test seriously and only went through the motions. The judges didn’t pass her and she was heart broken. To her, it was as if they didn’t like her.

As for me, I saw it coming that day. I stood at the side lines suspecting the worst. I braced myself for how to respond. I didn’t tell her she did fine. I didn’t tell her it was okay. I told her that she can work harder and try again next time. She wasn’t so sure it was worth it. She was embarrassed.

We went home and she became ‘sick’ on kendo days. I told her to be honest with herself and to take a break if she needed one, but I wasn’t going to lie for her or make excuses to the senseis for her. She needed to tell them she was going to take the summer off to decide if she wanted to continue. She did. It was hard, but she talked to the instructors and told them she needed some time off. They knew. Then something amazing happened. The senseis, one by one told her stories of how they had failed and continued. How she was so good and shouldn’t ever give kendo up completely. They asked her to come back once a month to make sure she didn’t leave for good. She left that day feeling loved and supported in a way I alone could never make her feel. These were adults who had known her for years and genuinely wanted her to stay. She thought about everything they said that week and by the next class, she had decided for herself that she really loved kendo not because she had friends there, but because she really loved the sport and the group she worked with.

Since then, Gillian has advanced steadily. When she was fourteen she was finally old enough to test for shodan, a first degree black belt. She passed this test and went on to pass her nidan, a second degree black belt at 15. These are the highest ranks they allow for kids of this age. Last month she placed third in the women’s division at a regional tournament where she was one of the youngest in the division and had to beat women of higher ranking. Her attitude toward the sport is amazing. When she wins a match, she is gracious, and when she loses a match, she sees it as a chance to improve.

This passion for kendo has motivated her to study Japanese too. She tried on her own for a few years but really began to make progress when she enrolled in a Japanese Second Language (JSL) class at a Saturday Japanese school. She goes for hours every Saturday where she has met other motivated teens who share her passion for learning.

Every parent hopes their kids will find a passion and nurture it. We place them in group after group and pay for lessons after lessons looking for something to spark their interest. We do it because we want them to have every opportunity to be happy and successful.  I’m lucky that Gillian has found something she loves, but it didn’t have to turn out this way. If she had walked away from kendo at the age of twelve, I’d have been fine with it. She would have gone on with life and not been any the worse for having tried it. I don’t think children need to be pushed into events in order to make them well rounded or to look interesting on college applications. I think extra curricular activities should be something they do because they love it.


IMG_1778Last year I stumbled upon a new adventure in my homeschooling odyssey. I was asked to come and work at a homeschooling tutorial teaching chemistry to middle schoolers. I was thrilled by the opportunity even though I worried that my scattered ways might not translate well to teaching others.

WEB is tutorial set in East Nashville for middle school aged homeschoolers. It is academically rigorous and is meant to act as a bridge between homeschooling and high school for those who wish to reenter formal education. While it is held at a Methodist Church and is friendly to religion, the science curriculum is secular. This was extremely important to me. I had decided that I would never sign another “Statement of Faith” again. For me, faith is too personal to completely match up to anyone else and too important to sign anything less than what I am. It was precisely this that had prevented me from looking into teaching at other local tutorials.

While I was buzzing with excitement, my children were presented with the somewhat unwelcome challenge of entering their first tutorial program.

My oldest daughter was in eighth grade and excited about meeting new kids and challenges, but worried about adding too much to our schedule and not having time for her real school work.

My son was in sixth grade and absolutely adamant about not wanting to take classes where he had to write for other teachers. The ideas of tests and being forced to speak in front of others terrified him. We compromised by only enrolling him in an earth science class and not the literature class as I had hoped.

My youngest was too young to be enrolled but was welcome to sit in the science classes and  listen. It’s a good thing she is the type of child who sits still well and loves to learn.

The year progressed and we each confronted our fears and concerns. I worked hard to stay organized and on schedule. My older daughter did let her other school work slide sometimes, but no more seriously than before. My son overcame his test anxiety and even consented to being enrolled in the literature class this year. My youngest made new friends as well as learned to do some of her work independently while I taught.  Yet the most important thing we all learned was that I love to teach and need to do this for myself as well as them.