Thursday, July 28, 2016

Let's go fishing!

Yesterday was hot. HOT. Dry, thirsty hot. Our county is experiencing a severe drought, even after a bit of rain, and the plants are feeling the burn. The grass in the yard crunches under your feet. So, what to do when the sun is out, the grass is crunchy, and the kids want to play?! Go fishing!

Matt took his trusty fishing rod from Uncle Gregg, Clare grabbed a net for catching butterflies, dragonflies, minnows and crayfish, everyone put on some shoes for water wading, and we were on our way!

There's a quiet place to explore near the base of a local dam, and the kids love it. The boys walked off together to fish, so Clare and I enjoyed some girl time and I let her lead the way! 

Clare would make an excellent tour guide. She thoughtfully warned that the water was cool before I took a step into it, but that it'd feel really nice on a hot day. She was right! She showed me that if she walked like Godzilla through the water (while demonstrating slow deliberate steps) that it created brown clouds in the water that looked like nuclear mushroom clouds. 

She showed me how to kick the muck off my feet, and giggled when it plopped into the water. "That was fun, right mom?" Asking "right mom?" occurs at least 20 times a day, and I love it. She's looking for me to say "right Clare", to let her know she's on to something, she's had a good idea, and it makes her proud. 

There was so much to explore! We discovered these tiny rocks arranged together and decided that it looked like an arrow. Where did it come from? Why was it there? It was a great opportunity to use our imaginations and clues to form a hypothesis and develop a story. Sometimes our stories get a little silly and may involve aliens, mermaids, or frog dance parties. You just never know, and that's part of the fun. This looked like the work of frogs pointing to their dance party, obviously.

The tall grass was full of excitement. Dragonflies ranging in size and shades of greens and blues dashed about and kept Clare busy in her attempts to catch them with her net. The girl has balance! She didn't slip once on those slippery rocks, and I was impressed. 

After tiring of dragonflies we decided to look for crayfish. They're fast! Any movement in the water caused a swirl of brown ick that cloaked the crayfish long enough for them to find shelter under a rock. It was like playing hide-n-seek! You knew they were under a rock, but which one.....

Boy were they fast! But Clare was faster and she caught one!

There were other neat-o things to notice in the water too. We found another heart rock for my friend Joan! Joan would have loved playing in the water with us...

We thought the shadows in the water from this leaf resembled the dots on the tail of a redfish! Uncle Gregg would be proud!

There were fossils. Some had the markings of tiny seashells. How did that happen? We don't live by the ocean. Great conversations can be started from the questions of children. 

Do you see shell imprints?

A few weeks ago we noticed someone had created rock balancing sculptures along the rocky hillside at the top of the dam. We decided to give it a try. How hard could it be? Just stack 'em up, right? It looked easy enough. Well, it's surprisingly a lot harder than it looks. It toppled over several times, but the splashes were refreshing in the heat and we had a lot of fun.

When we needed a rest we sat on a big rock with our feet in the water and looked around. There were seeds floating about that would land in the water and slowly glide along the top. We practiced our aim and tossed rocks at them, using words to described the sound of the splashes, like "kerplunk", "blup", "plop", "bloop", "splish", "swoosh", "splosh", and many many more. Bigger rocks made bigger and deeper sounds. 

Matthew returned to his fishing so Clare and I continued playing with rocks. We worked together to find rocks to form a mermaid in the water. It was like making our very own puzzle! Clare did a great job using tiny rocks to make the scales. We brainstormed ideas for how to make her hands and hair. There were all sorts of things we could have used, but decided to stick with rocks only. We experimented with making faces and decided she looked better without one. Wouldn't it be cool for someone else to find it while they're out exploring? What a cool surprise!

Rocks also make excellent desks and chairs. Clare pretended she was an artist working on signing her name with wet muck from the water. Resourceful! It took a couple of tries. The sun was so hot it dried up her letters before she could get to the "e" at the end of her name! Can you believe that we forgot to take water along with us to drink?! Crazy, right?! A truly terrible plan. So, we decided to stop for a Gatorade treat on the way home and chatted about our favorite parts of the day. There were A BUNCH of favorite parts! Had we remembered to take water, the day would have cost only a bit of gas to get there and a few hours of our time. A day well spent, an investment in our children worth making, and a fun day all around. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

what I'm working on #3: redfish stool

Here it is, as promised! Clare finally has her very own fish step stool!

Being patient at any age isn't easy and it's usually not fun. We like to think that it's something we get a little better at as we age, but we're tested from time to time. My husband has a real talent for choosing the absolute slowest checkout line in stores, all stores. It's tough to be patient. Super tough. There's usually a wait in a doctors office. I totally get it. They've got a lot of people needing their skills to live comfortably, they squeeze people in that truly need to be seen, but sometimes it's hard to wait. When you're finally chosen to leave the waiting room your excitement fades as you realize that you're really just sitting in a smaller private waiting room. It's really tough to be patient. I'm positive you can think of examples to add to the list, you get the idea...

After years of experiences that test patience you do get a little better at it. You take a deep breath and roll with it because freaking out doesn't normally improve the situation. But kids don't have the same experience to draw from. It's really really tough as a kid to wait for something you've been looking forward to, especially when your older brother has his and it's still a novelty. Clare was a trooper. She was encouraging, she offered up ideas, she told me how much she appreciated my progress. Despite my mom fail for not having this done years ago, as I should have, I am immensely proud of my daughter for being the good kid that she is. 

Her stool is pretty unique, which is perfect because so is she! I've mentioned before how fortunate we are to visit our family in beautiful Matlacha, Fl. My brother-in-law is the ultimate uncle. How many kids can say their uncle is the captain of a boat?! Captain Gregg McKee, the ultimate charter fisherman, taught my kids how to fish. One of our favorite to catch is the Florida redfish. Their colors change depending on the season and the lighting and they are stunning. Their rusts, bronzes, and golds are a painters dream. Their fins have gorgeous translucent greens and blues that really stand out against the warm colors of the rest of the fish. Another recognizable feature is the trademark black dot at the end of the fish near the base of the tail. Though I chose to paint only one of these dots for the stool they can appear in multiples. The shape is not a perfect circle, sometimes it is oblong, wobbly, or heart-shaped! Did I also mention that they're delicious? No? Well, they are. Very...

You're either a glitter person or you aren't. Most aren't because it sticks to everything and it literally gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I know this all too well! I never considered myself a glitter person until I started teaching. I don't wear clothing covered in it, I don't typically wear shoes that sparkle, and I don't often use it for art projects with kids, but it sure does add some extra glam, glitz and whimsy to a special project. Set pieces for concerts definitely need glitter. Set pieces for musicals should totally have glitter. Graduation decorations are so much cooler with glitter. Fish art needs glitter. Any anything inspired by Matlacha had better have some whimsy. I'm all about whimsy and have been known to use obscene amounts of glitter in the spirit of it. My husband was horrified by the amount of glitter trailing through our house because of these fish stools for our children. He rolled his eyes, but in the end he agreed it looked pretty cool. Pretty cool indeed...

In addition to fish, my girl loves puppies! She thought Matt's Star Wars stool bottom was pretty cool, but requested that I paint our puppies on the bottom of hers. I chatted with my husband about the task and how to tackle it, and drew inspiration from my youth. My grandparents always had old timey pictures of relatives that never smiled hanging all over the walls and they could tell you anything you wanted to know about them. Some were in old oval frames, the men were in nice suits, the ladies had cameo broaches and lacy collars, and nobody looked like they were having a good time. To use this concept, it needed a cheerful twist. So... I painted the bottom red, Clare's favorite color, and added portraits of our puppies! Boomer (left) is a rescue dog that recently celebrated 1 full year as part of our family. Doesn't he look dapper?! Scooby is 3-years-old and looking fabulous with her new collar and tags. Not pictured here is a border of puppy prints. Clare is delighted with the end result, and I'm happy that she is! 

Friday, July 22, 2016


My children love adventure as much as their parents do. When the kids are squirrely and the weather is nice we often say "let's go exploring", and boy do they get excited! They know that such outings might include looking for cool rocks on the road that runs adjacent to U.S. Route 15 (we have a jar of rocks that we've collected and they can tell you about each and every one of them), fishing at Cowanesque Lake, investigating a local waterfall and practicing our stone skipping, playing at a playground we've never visited before, bug collecting along the dike, or metal detecting at the waters edge. No matter what the adventure, there's always something to see, something to study, something to touch, and it's always fun!

My family knows that I enjoy hiking. Watkins Glen is one of my favorite places to take the kids on a sunny day. There are stone stairs and walkways that are easy for them to climb, tunnels and bridges that are fun to explore, stone walls to prevent them from tumbling, waterfalls to touch and admire, puddles to splash in or step around, and paths through the woods with little creatures to watch. 

Look at all of those stairs.....and it was so hot!

At one point my son told me that he thought hiking the glen must be like hiking the Appalachian Trail. No son, not quite...A little water break helped and we were back at it! I think I can, I think I can.....

Tired of walking? Need to catch your breath? No problem! Step aside so others can pass by and take in the view! It's such a beautiful place! 

We always watch for heart-shaped rocks while exploring anywhere. This tradition started last summer while hiking with my dear friend Joan. While she took us on an adventure through old pastures, woods and streams, she shared that when her kids were little they would look for heart-shaped rocks while they were exploring to gift to her. My children now look for them too. If we can't carry the stone back to gift personally we take a picture of it to send to her just to make her feel special. She's one of the kindest, sweetest, most giving people on the planet and I love to make her smile. So do my kids! That makes me proud.

One of the best parts about exploring is that no one is in a hurry. If you want to check out the butterfly on the leaf, you can do that. If you want to follow the bug on the path to see where he lives, great! Let's go! On this particular adventure we decided to try a path we'd never hiked before. When the path forked we played rock-paper-scissors to decide which direction to go. It's fun to try new things. We walked through the woods, found a shelter similar to those on the Appalachian Trail (much to Matthew's delight), we watched chipmunks chase each other from one tree to another, and we met a nice family that was staying at a nearby campsite and shared ideas for things to do in town. At the end of the path the woods opened up to a swimming area, some beautiful old stone buildings, a picnic area, and a pond! Ponds are magical places to explore!

This pond was a pond that Claude Monet surely would have painted. Sunny spots reflecting the sky, darker areas shaded by trees, and loads of lily pads!

At the end of each day we ask our kids what the best part of their day was. Matthew and Clare liked this little frog best of all. We looked for his family and friends, but they must've been taking an afternoon nap. 

Kids need adventure and fresh air, and grown ups do too! Grab some bottles of water, a camera, put on your hiking shoes and go exploring! Your kids will love it, and you just might too!

Monday, July 18, 2016

home away from home

We spend 3 weeks each summer in sunny Matlacha Fl visiting my husbands family. But our time there isn't all fun in the sun. 

My mother-in-law is part of a women's charitable organization called the Matlacha Hookers. Before you get too excited, they're based in a small fishing village and everything there has a fish/marine life/island theme. Hookers....get it? Yes, well...These ladies work together to collect school supplies for their local Pine Island Elementary School (P.I.E.), are dedicated to several local fund raisers, and offer support to a variety of other community causes. 

The Pine Island Fishing Tournament & Derby is a big hit for the Hookers every year! The event raises money for P.I.E.'s accelerated reading program and other educational tools. Events in Matlacha often involve event promotions on t-shirts, and for that you need a design that people will wear. That's where the McKee family comes into play. The ladies turned to my mother-in-law, Karen McKee, to ask her son and daughter-in-law (me!) to do the design. Shirts advertising and promoting the event have a list of things that need to be included in the design each year, such as "Olde Fishhouse Marina", the title of the event, and the number of hooks appearing on the shirt need to match the year they're on (pictured is the shirt from last year, the "17th", so there are 17 hooks pictured). We designed the shirt as a team last year, and we designed it together again this year. I do the cartooning, Randy does the font and layout, and it's worked out pretty well. We may not live in Matlacha Florida, but as parents who want great things for their kids, educators who give their best to kids, and folks who love the area, we've adopted the community as our home away from home. And who can tell their mother-in-law no?! 

community presence

The summer I was hired as the elementary art teacher in town was a busy one full of excitement, nerves, and preparation. This was my dream job!!! I didn't want to just do the job well, I wanted to be great at it. This was a big deal, and I took it seriously. I still do. I couldn't wait to get started! My husband, another local art teacher, was an invaluable resource, offering several helpful hints and tips that I gratefully applied. I've become much more efficient at hanging large sheets of rolled paper on the walls without making them a wrinkled mess. My tape donuts have greatly improved. I use a lot less duct tape to secure set pieces. It all gets better every year. Anywho... The new job was a topic of conversation at the family reunion that year. After enjoying a hearty meal, and while the kiddos checked out their "auction" treasures, my great uncle Bob (Dibble) sat with me and insisted that we have a little chat. He held and patted my hand and announced that my job brought along with it some great responsibility that didn't end in the classroom. 

He hoped that the arts would be visible in the community, that I would find ways to improve the community, to inspire it, and get others excited about it too. At the time I thought "of course!", why wouldn't I want to do that? But I think about what he said often. To make communities better it requires many, nay, SEVERAL hands. There are A LOT of folks behind the scenes of everything extra and special thing happening that invest hours of their personal time. They want to feel a sense of community, and possess a strong desire to make where their families are a better place.

If you don't like the way things are, brainstorm ways to fix it. I've had a few ideas, and I'm working on more ideas all the time! It's a personal goal to be present in the community, to be visible and accessible, as often as I am able. 

Remember these? They were empty storefronts and our Main Street looked sad. The owner kindly and generously allowed me to hang student work in the windows to add a little cheer to our town. 

Students from the local school and daycare/preschool centers worked together to make colorful displays for the windows. They had a lot of fun and did a beautiful job! It gave students a stronger sense of community. It promoted their programs. They helped make town better. Folks traveling down our Main Street smiled.

This was a temporary solution, but it was a start. If you have ideas for ways to improve your community, offer them up. The worst thing that can happen is that someone will say no or disagree with you. If that happens, brainstorm some more. Ask what projects are happening now. Start the conversation, get ideas flowing and people involved. The mayor is always looking for helping hands! Seek out the volunteers and the good will doers in the community, roll up your sleeves, and dig in! 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Making the entrance GRAND

I LOVE books. I really really love books. Picture books, books to read, cook books, art books...I could look through bookstores and book sales for hours and be completely and utterly content. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt and score awesome finds for my kids and my classroom, often for a deal. My favorite children's book is easily Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. As a child I loved the magic of sailing away to a faraway and exotic world, the bravery of taming large intimidating beings as someone so small and helpless, and the PICTURES. Those creative "things" in all of their terribleness were an odd hodgepodge of animal parts put together to create something nobody else had ever drawn before. Where did people get ideas like that?! My grandmother would watch the narrated story on VHS with me as a college student when I was ill and she was nursing me back to health. It was the best

I love to read. When I was younger I would wait until everyone was asleep before quietly tiptoeing downstairs to sneak in another chapter or 2, or 5, or more, but who's counting? After all, I was busy. School all day, homework when I got home, evening routines, other kid stuff, and BAM, the day was done. There were nights when I'd be so engrossed in the story I was reading that I would simply lose track of time. It was nothing to be up until 2 am reading, and I loved it. I didn't worry or care about being tired the next day because it was totally worth it! There was always an excitement about finding out if the characters I'd grown to love had gotten their happy endings, followed by the deep sad ache of an adventure ended. Unless it was a series, my time with those characters was over. It was time to find another book, and to find new characters to love.

Luckily I lived close enough to the library that I could walk there, which I did quite regularly. My neighbor growing up was a widow and retired school teacher. Mrs. Carpenter had a tall white house, a lawn that she kept perfectly manicured, and she knew all of the answers to questions on Jeopardy. I was absolutely convinced that she could win if she had the opportunity to appear on the show. She took me to the library as a very young girl, young enough that we had to hold hands down the street, and she helped me get my very first library card. I remember getting books about Cabbage Patch Kids and being so proud that I was trusted to take it home. Eventually I checked out Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew. The librarian kept you on your toes. While perusing through books, quietly contemplating what to read next, it wasn't uncommon to hear a shriek loud enough to scare you out of your socks! When you looked at her to see what was wrong she'd just say it was too quiet and go back to the business of returning books to shelves. It was quirky in an endearing way.  

So each year I choose a book as the theme for the doors to my art room to encourage kids to read. To inspire them to read. I consider books I loved learning about while watching Reading Rainbow. That show was AWESOME! I vividly remember some of the stories. I look for those books at sales with my children. Many now stand on the shelves in their bedrooms. I still enjoy looking at them and reading them. They do too. 

I use children's books as the basis for our art folder covers each year, beginning the year by reading stories to kids. Last year sixth graders were talking about the books I've read to them and it warmed my heart to know that they remembered and enjoyed the tradition. The school librarian is always a GREAT person to get to know. She's the one who orders the books, so as a teacher I run to her often with lists of books that promote the arts, books I can use in my lessons, and they're ordered! It's always so exciting when she tells me the new books are in. So turn off the electronics, put on a pair of shoes, and get to the local library. Take a look, it's in a book....and on the art room door! 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

what I'm working on #2: sea trout stool

My niece and nephew are ages 5 and 3. They live in Florida and we see them once a year. Since their father is a charter fisherman they have a fish theme running throughout their home. I've used it as the theme for several gifts. I've painted a chair for each of them. They have several Aunt Ashley painted step stools. Even my mother-in-law has one at her house for when the grandbabies visit. How is it that I've never made any for my own kids?! A mom fail that I have vowed to remedy this summer, and the kids are thrilled. They're old enough to have a voice in the process and we've had a lot of fun with that.

For years we've used the same old worn stools. The kids used them to brush their teeth when they were smaller, but nowadays they're used in the kitchen. It's a lot easier to see what you're putting into a mixer or reach to flip pancakes if you're up a little higher. Now they'll be steppin' up in style!

My kids LOVE Florida, and they love their Uncle Gregg. They caught their first fish with him and look forward to playing in the baitwell of his boat on extra hot fishing days. So, it was no surprise to me that they chose fish for the theme of their step stools. Since I started a stool for Matthew last summer I decided to finish that first. He wanted a spotted sea trout on the top so he could reminisce about the trout he landed in Florida with Gregg this summer. His picture was in the paper and on the cover of a local magazine, the Nautical Mile. It was a BIG deal. A very big deal. 

The folks at the Nautical Mile even had a poster of the cover printed so that we could hang it on our walls at home! How cool is that?!?!

A surprise little love note on the bottoms of the legs, and a fun cool splash of Star Wars. Matt is obsessed with Star Wars. We have every movie, we've seen them all a million times, and he'll tell you without hesitation that episodes I, II, and III are terrible and overdone... He knows more Star Wars trivia than I'll ever know in my lifetime. When he truly loves something, he's all in. I love that. 

Finished it is! May the force be with you...