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Review: Riding the Rails to Home by Cleo Lampos

When Stephen comes home with a hard-earned loaf of bread, his ill mother keeps him away so he won’t get cholera too. He runs to get his father from the saloon but is greeted with angry mockery and disbelief. Molly, his sister, is taken away to an orphanage, but Stephen continues to live on the streets, finding work and friendship as a newsboy.

With a bleak future in late 1800’s New York City and only a quilt square to remind him of his mother and sister, Stephen heads west on the orphan train. Will he find a home? Are there actually people who will love an orphan or do they just want slaves? From narrow escapes in New York City to adventures in the West, Riding the Rails to Home follows Stephen as he discovers aspects of life that he could never have imagined.

As Pop, the kind owner of the Newsboys Lodging House tells Stephen just before he gets on the train, “Some people don’t get the love that they need from their parents. But you’ve been here long enough to know that God loves you more than you can understand. He has a plan for your life, Stephen. Try to let God guide your footsteps.” And Stephen does.

A former educator, Cleo Lampos realized that the orphan train children of the past have much in common with today’s foster children—often there are abuse, addicted parents, loneliness, bitterness, and a deep distrust. She deals carefully with these themes, not letting them overwhelm young readers. Boys aged 9-12 will find Riding the Rails to Home a fast-paced yet tender story of a young boy who finds a home and learns about forgiveness and love.

I highly recommend this book for children, especially those who, as the dedication says, ‘face challenges that can be overwhelming.” I also encourage parents to read it and be prepared for discussions and questions.

You can find more fiction by Cleo Lampos on her website.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the author.  I am not compensated for providing my honest opinions.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday.

Review: The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

As a person with low energy, limited time, and a wish to do more than I physically can, I am constantly evaluating and prioritizing tasks and opportunities, trying to determine what is the next thing I should be doing. It is a daily, even hourly set of decisions: do I work on homeschooling records or freeze tomatoes, do I walk the dogs or take a rest, do I hang out with the kids or call my parents, and what should I do after homeschooling?

I am sure that you face your own set of decisions.

In fact, life is about making decisions, big ones and little ones. And sometimes they can all seem overwhelming. How should a Christian deal with this?

In The Next Right Thing, bestselling author Emily Freeman gives us her gentle, loving point of view, pointing out that no matter where we are in any decision, we are called just to do the next right thing, in love.

Emily wrote her book for those making big decisions and facing new situations yet her approach helps with the daily ones as well.

Calmly and gently Emily encourages the reader to spend time with God, name the things that are driving us, be humble, face our fears, see how God is working in our lives, ponder whether or not we should quit something, slow down, pay attention, let go of our need for clarity about the future, determine what we need to learn right now, learn carefully from others, be willing to accept the not-quite-perfect, put others first, and not be afraid, because God loves us and is with us.

Her central point seems to be this: the closer we live to Jesus, and the more time we spend with him just to be with him, the more he can, and does, and will speak in our hearts and inform our desires.

This is a tricky thing to say and a million red flags pop up because it can be such a misleading statement if taken out of context. After all, Christians are still sinners and our desires can still be sinful. But, if taken the right way it is, of course, perfectly true. I had a similar response to much of the book—it can easily be misunderstood, but if one comes at it from the point of a believer who loves the Lord and wishes to live for him, it is all perfectly true.

Thus The Next Right Thing is a book with a specific audience: Those who understand their sins and misery, who rejoice in the fact that Jesus saved them, and who are trying to figure out on an individual, personal, day to day basis, how they can show their thankfulness to God. Emily writes to those who have the Holy Spirit working in them, who love the Lord, and who delight in spending time with him.

And, because she writes to forgiven sinners, she emphasizes God’s love and care and our child-like freedom to serve in thankful response, although she doesn’t use those words. She points out ways in which we ourselves, the culture around us, and the devil can interfere with our service to God by filling us with worldly guilt, false shame, and fearful indecisiveness.

Each chapter ends with a prayer and a practical application of material in that chapter. To make the book practical, you really need to grab some paper and a pen and thoughtfully respond to the questions and do the applications. Not everyone will want to do this, but those who do will be rewarded.  On the other hand, you can use the book as a sort of devotional by reading and praying through it.

So, if you are a Christian, have a decision to make, and don’t know where to begin, you might want to pick up The Next Right Thing.

Related book reviews, articles, and books include:

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure: This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. and is available at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday.

4 Reasons our Kids Should Learn Handwriting

In this day of computers and smartphones, should we still teach our kids handwriting? Or can we just type or tap on our devices? This question comes up regularly, and the answer has not changed even though society has.

Handwriting—or at least printing—is absolutely necessary even in modern life. We no longer need to focus on it as much as in the past, but pen and paper communication is still vital to an educated life.

  1. Learning is apparently more effective when notes are taken by hand than by computer. It is not certain why this is so, but it seems valid across the board. Also, some kinds of learning, such as math, cannot be done effectively without using pen and paper.
  2. There are numerous occasions in everyday life when it is simply more effective or handier to use pen and paper than digital devices. Handwritten thank you or sympathy cards mean much more than a text or email. Shopping lists and to do lists are compatible with our devices, but such lists  easily become temptations to check social media and other addictive apps, thus hindering progress to our goals. Brainstorming, by its very nature, benefits from using pen and paper, although there are apparently brainstorming programs.
  3. University exams are largely handwritten in most disciplines. Students’ grades suffer, sometimes significantly, if they cannot write effortlessly, legibly, quickly, and for at least three hours at a time.
  4. The final reason is perhaps more philosophical now, although it could turn out to be the most important one in the long run: Writing and reading are basic skills civilization is built on. Our current digital society has some very fragile links and is, some suggest, actually only one Carrington event away from serious and widespread disruption.

Now, handwriting is not necessarily easy to learn. Often children are taught it long before they have the physical dexterity to succeed, and this can be difficult for them and their teacher. There is nothing wrong with delaying it, as the Moores’ Better Late than Early philosophy would suggest. But, as we have found out in our family, delaying it too long can have repercussions.

In fact, not teaching some form of pen and paper communication at some point just because it is difficult, as was suggested in a recent comment to my old review of Canadian Handwriting, can significantly handicap a person’s ability to learn throughout life. It will also impact, to some extent, his or her everyday life. Of course, it is not vital to have beautiful handwriting—my Oma’s perfect script and my cousin’s calligraphy are exquisite and beyond the reach of most of us—but it is vital to have functional handwriting.

These are important things to consider as you teach your children. My recommendation:

  • We need to teach our children how to write legibly, quickly, and effortlessly. This requires practice and may be boring, but it is important for all of our children. Some children may be ready to do this at age four and some not until age ten, but all should be taught at some age.
  • If a teen is heading off to university, we need to ensure he or she is able to write quickly and for long periods of time as well as type quickly. These skills require time and practice to perfect, but they are essential.

I wish you God’s blessing as you diligently, patiently, and creatively teach your children the skills and knowledge they need.

My reviews of handwriting programs:

Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

What is the single biggest factor shaping our lives today? Some suggest it’s our screens.

Although that is a simplistic answer, it is certainly true for many people. And this, obviously, is not good. First of all, we Christians should be most influenced by the gospel, not screens. Secondly, if we are controlled by screens, we are actually controlled by those who control what’s on our screens—and no one, thinking about it, would want to be controlled by the companies that make money from our use of apps and social media.

On the other hand, almost no one would advocate living without screens.

So what should we do, as society in general and as Christian homeschoolers in particular? First of all we need to recognize that

Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.

In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport aims to show how this can be done.   He claims that it is not enough to just tweak a few settings or apps here and there; instead we need a full-fledged philosophy of technology use. Newport proposes Digital Minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

In order to apply this, you need to determine what is the best way for technology to support your values and not allow it to diminish things that are important to you. In other words, digital minimalism means you should be in charge of your tech; it should not rule either your time or your attention.

To make this practical, Newport recommends a 30 day digital declutter in which you take a break from optional technology and use the time to explore and rediscover meaningful activities. He is convinced that, once you rediscover the joys of tech autonomy as opposed to tech addiction, this month of freedom will motivate you to reduce the power that tech companies have over you.

For it is undoubtedly true that tech companies, which are now some of the largest companies of all, need to capture our attention and time in order to make their money. The more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can get from us, the more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can sell to their advertisers and, from their point of view, that is the bottom line. Yes, they provide some useful services, but the vast majority of the time people spend on them does not involve these useful services. Rather, the time we spend is due to psychological manipulation cleverly designed to keep people’s attention. This is not a conspiracy theory; the tech companies admit it.

So, what does Newport recommend to replace tech time during the 30 day digital declutter? He mentions three general categories—solitude, meaningful relationships, and active leisure—discussing both research and practical implementation.

Solitude: For our personal well-being, including mental health, we need time alone with our thoughts, Newport says. This, of course, can lead to all sorts of objections from those who are not used to being with themselves and who are afraid of their own thoughts. It is noteworthy that the recent jump in youth mental illness parallels the advent of the smartphone; research suggests that this is no coincidence. What’s more, if we are never alone with our thoughts, we also have no time to reflect on our lives, to have meaningful relationships with others, or, I would add, to worship God.

Relationships: We seem to be geared for relationship, and the one-dimensional connection of social media is not adequate to meet this deep-seated need. Newport extols the values of conversation and suggests that online connection be limited to facilitating in person conversation, preferably face to face, but also by phone. Practically, he points out that telling friends and family when you are regularly available for phone calls increases the likelihood that they will feel free to call.

Leisure: A life that is only about solving problems, needs, and difficulties can lead to despair but wise use of leisure time can fill us with joy. Low value tech use has deprived us of satisfying leisure; conversely it is difficult to cut back on tech if there is nothing to fill the void. Newport discusses learning hands on skills, spending time with others, and thoughtfully filling time with activities that are valuable to you. He points out that demanding activities are, in the long run, more satisfying than passive consumption.

Finally, tech companies currently focus their research about attention-holding techniques on mobile devices. Thus a good first step to regaining control of your life is to use social media only on your computer where it will be less addictive.

As Newport points out, the goal of digital minimalism is to apply digital tools to yield big wins in your life instead of to waste time. Its goal is not to reject technology but to reject the usual way of interacting with it. Ultimately, we should use technology instead of being used by it.  This is, of course, similar to the Bible’s viewpoint that we may use anything with thankfulness but should not be enslaved by anything.  Thus Digital Minimalism is helpful for all, Christian or not, who wish to live according to their own values rather than according to tech company’s manipulations.

Throughout his book Newport quotes experts and books, leaving the reader with a list of fascinating resources to explore. He also, as is the fashion in many of these books, explains human psychology and relationships in terms of evolutionary psychology. While researchers in the relevant hard sciences continue to scramble to find scientific evidence for evolution (and to explain away the evidence against it), the softer sciences and evangelical atheists proclaim it as fact. It would be an intriguing exercise to reinterpret Newport’s explanations in terms of man’s function as a creature, now fallen, who was originally designed to be in relationship with God and others.

Fascinating and easy to read, Digital Minimalism would be helpful for anyone who is concerned about the power screens have over us and our children. It is both philosophical and practical.  A similar book, The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch (link to my review), shares many of the same conclusions, applying them to families from a Christian point of view, but it has a different philosophical approach. Because the battle for our attention is so lop-sided, with powerful companies wresting it from ordinary individuals, we really need to arm ourselves with as much information and continued encouragement as possible. Therefore I highly recommend both books to anyone who encounters screens.

Related articles and reviews I have written:

“Reflections on The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch”, a Christian discussion about how use technology wisely in our families.

Review of Captivated:  Finding Freedom in a Media-Captive Culture, a Christian documentary that addresses similar issues.

Glow Kids, Screens, and Education.”  It turns out that screens may cause more educational problems than we suspected.

“Screens and our Kids’ Mental Health, with Tips for Parents.”

Review of Glow Kids:  How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids—and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras.

Review of 52 Ways to Connect with your Smartphone Obsessed Kid by Jonathan McKee. Practical ways to connect or reconnect.

Review of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane.  “Is it possible for children to learn about relationships and responsibilities when the vast majority of their time is spent absorbed in a screen?”

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read, or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from the library and am not compensated for this review.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemakers, Friendship Friday.

Extracurricular Homeschooling Tips from Three Moms

Smoking the bees.

Last week our youngest got her driver’s licence! We are all very excited.

Thinking about this enormous milestone in her life—and in ours—I realized that this is yet another example of vital non-academic learning. There are so many amazing opportunities in life and as homeschoolers we can really take advantage of them.

Recently Betsy, Tricia, and I discussed how we implement extracurricular homeschooling in our families. Each of us included an abundance of practical and inspiring links to our own blogs. It’s worth grabbing a cup of tea and taking a short professional development break to find encouragement and ideas for your homeschooling journey. Enjoy!

Betsy wrote about life-schooling, high school electives such as art, debate, and nature study, and her book Homeschooling High School with College in Mind.

Tricia and her family love drama, music, church ministry, entrepreneurism, and anything technical. Their extracurricular activities follow the philosophy of 10K to Talent: More Than Just a Hobby.

And here is what I wrote:

Here at The Curriculum Choice we usually talk about curriculum, but a huge part of homeschooling involves extracurricular activities. Of course it can be hard to distinguish between activities that are part of the curriculum and those that are not, so a homeschooler’s definition of ‘extracurricular’ may be somewhat nebulous. It can include sports, music, drama, art, nature, and clubs as well as co-ops, volunteer positions, part time jobs, student-directed, activities and more. But how can you make all this work?

When our children were little and each one had four full-time playmates, we did not participate in many formal activities, not even a co-op. Yet we found many ways to “Make the Extras Work in Your Homeschool”; even now, looking back, I am inspired just remembering.

As the children grew, they started volunteering; I just realized that Therapeutic Riding volunteering has been part of our family’s life for over a decade! Our teens developed their own intense interests (beekeeping, NaNoWriMo, Microsoft Answers Forum moderator, photography, horses, dairy cows, judo, cake decorating) and our little ones dabbled in one short project after another, like baking a lemon meringue pie.

If you have teens, it is important to keep track of their extracurricular learning and include it in their records. You can find tips and information in “Documenting Interest-Driven Learning as a High School Course” as well as in “Planning an Unusual High School Credit—A Horsey Example.” If you are having trouble determining grades for extracurricular learning, “High School Marks,” written years ago, may help. Alternatively, you may just wish to list such an activity as an extracurricular activity for the purpose of university admission, which can be very helpful.

Recently I was reminded that extracurricular activities can even take the place of all formal learning if necessary. When one of our teens needed to take a gap semester due to multiple concussions and chronic pain, someone on her medical team calmed my education worries by saying, “Surely, as a homeschooler you know that learning can happen in many ways!”   So, when your teen or child cannot focus, just deal with the issues at hand and let them have the gift of slow time as they heal. They will be able to explore the world in ways that book learning can never duplicate, and all the trouble could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

To be inspired by Betsy and Tricia’s experiences, click on over to the Curriculum Choice’s October feature, “The Extracurricular Homeschool.

I pray that this discussion will help you encourage your children to develop their non-academic talents.

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