Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On Making Acorn Bread (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know and a Bunch I Bet You Didn't)

A couple of weeks ago I took a little walk in a local park and couldn't help noticing the tons of huge beautiful acorns littering the ground. Not only were they big and beautiful, but I also realized that they were from a white oak. Our naturalist friend, Bob, has said that white oak acorns are the best for making acorn flour, because they have the least tannins, the dark stuff that turns swampy backwaters brown. Tannins are also bitter and bad for humans (they can actually damage your kidneys if you consume too much of the stuff), even though they don't seem to bother squirrels, mice and pigs in the least. I decided on the spur of the moment to collect a bunch and see if I could make some of my own acorn flour, just like the Native Americans used to do. Before the "white man" came to North America, eastern indian tribes (and others) used acorns as a significant protein source, and it occurred to me that it was just a bit odd how little of the natural abundance of the eastern forests our current society uses these days. Here were hundreds of acorns, just lying around on the ground, and nobody ever does anything with them, except curse at them when they land on their decks and driveways and scream when they step on their sharp caps.

I collected all I could hold, but then realized I probably didn't have enough, so my daughter helped me to collect some more on another trail. Unfortunately, I think that these may have been acorns from a red oak, because, as I found out later, they were very bitter.

When collecting your acorns you have to be very careful, get them when they are brown, and discard any that have ANY sort of hole or crack in them. Usually a hole means rot or a worm. The worm comes from a kind of weevil that feeds on acorns, and who can blame them for also laying their eggs in the acorn as well? Seems like a pretty good strategy to me.

Anyway, the kids and I spent about an hour shelling them. There are a couple of websites out there with some great suggestions about processing acorns. They had suggested that we dry the acorn first (either by air drying or in a warm oven) and then they would be easy to shell. Unfortunately, my impatience got the best of me and we didn't take their advice. Still, in the end, we had a nice bowl of nut meat ready for processing, and the kids had had some fun cracking nuts.

Also suggested, was to grind them into a fine powder before soaking, but I just stuck them into my food processor and managed to get a coarse grind. I then took them and put them into what I had handy, a large french press. 

This was great, except that I then had to soak and drain, soak and drain, several times day for about a week before I could get all the bitter taste out of the nut meat. I even drained and dried it once before realizing they were still bitter and had to put them back in for more soaking. It is possible that if I had used a fine powder grind and a cheesecloth, like some sites suggested, it would have been faster, but what's the fun if you don't make some mistakes to learn from?

This, by the way, is probably the main reason people don't do this much. The soaking is a big PITA. It takes forever. Apparently, the Native Americans would set them in a fast flowing stream to wash away the tannins, but I don't have a stream, and I really don't want to waste too much water. 

Anyway, once you can't taste any bitter on them anymore, you need to set them out to dry. I used a combination of a warm oven and air-drying. After a couple of days, I gave them one more spin in the food processor and stowed them away until I had some time to do some cooking. 

Many people suggest a simple acorn pancake, but I'm a little bit nervous about this. This was a lot of work and I wasn't sure acorn meal straight up would be all that tasty, so I opted for an acorn bread from this website. There are actually several websites out there with recipes using acorn meal or flour. If you do a search for "acorn recipe" several will come up. 

This recipe used equal parts acorn meal and whole wheat flour (not good for my gluten free friends I know), but the result was a tasty, nutty bread I could happily eat again. I actually didn't have quite enough acorn meal for the recipe, but it turned out well anyway.

In short, having (hopefully) learned from my mistakes, I think I would do it again. Maybe for Thanksgiving dinner as a special treat, and as a bonus, I get to feel like a real honest-to-goodness pioneer, able to live off the land. Ok, well, maybe not, but one can dream can't they?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Central Nervous System, the Brain, and Amazing Prosthetics

Last week I covered the "nervous system" with my Human Body class. There is so much to talk about on this topic, I couldn't possibly do it all, so I focused on the brain and Central Nervous System this time. One of the things we did that was pretty fun was make our own "brain caps". I got the template from here, and I think it all came out pretty well. It was a good way to cover the parts of the brain anyway.

We also played a game where the kids pretended to be nerve cells. In the first game they were each their own cell and we simulated passing a nerve impulse across a synapse using a small die. Each person simply handed the die they had in their right hand to the next person after receiving one from the person on their left. The next time we pretended that they were all part of one nerve cell and demonstrated saltatory conduction (hopping of the electrical impulse over each myelin sheath) by having them pass one die on to each other by taking it into their left hand and then slapping it into the next person's left hand. The passing went much faster this way and they could see how the hopping across speeded things up. I got these activities from this site, which also has some other great "brainy" activities.

Incidentally, there is a great online video of nerve cells and their parts here, and a cute comic on the whole topic here.

Finally, I had shown the kids some pictures of some amazing prosthetics that are being developed today. There was an article in National Geographic a couple of years ago that showcased the work and specifically how one woman was getting fitted with an arm that was connected to her nerves and her brain. The pictures and article can be found here. By some sort of crazy coincidence, a TED talk was posted yesterday in which the physiatrist and engineer (Todd Kuiken) developing these amazing devices talked about the technology and brought in the same woman to demonstrate, who's name is Amanda Kitt. If you are interested, the talk can be found here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall, "Pumpkin Patches" and Corn Mazes

Fall is really the very best time of year here in North Carolina. The skies are frequently clear, it's cool and sunny, the bugs go away, and soon the leaves will be falling in a profusion of color that rivals Spring. It's better than Spring, though, because I can open up my windows and not worry about everything being covered in a coating of pollen. Hay-fever free, but not necessarily illness free, the weeks and weekends become filled with outdoor activities and it's hard to make the kids sit and do schoolwork, as they would really rather be outside playing. I'm a woose. I usually give in to this. How can I let them miss this glorious weather? We're homeschooling for heaven sakes!

There are many things I feel obliged to fit in each year, and one of them is the yearly pilgrimage to go get pumpkins at a "pumpkin patch". These "patches" are often really just places to play with some pumpkins thrown in. There is usually a mountain of straw somewhere to climb on, some play structures, a corn maze, and a "hay ride". I could probably do without the "hay ride". Being pulled behind a tractor on a flatbed conveniently stocked with straw-bale seats isn't the coolest thing in my book, though some places do it better than others. Yet the kids always want to do it.

The corn maze can be a lot of fun, and I think my favorite one that we have been to is Ken's Korny Corn Maze in Garner. It's big enough to be interesting and they can cater to groups of various ages and abilities. They even have a night-time haunted maze experience, though I haven't done that one as yet. My kids need to be quite a bit older I think!

Anyway, this year my daughter really wanted to go someplace where she could go into the actual pumpkin field and pick a pumpkin. Because of this, we ended up at Ganyard Hill Farm up in Durham. This place isn't too bad, especially if you have small kids. It's $12.50 to get in (for each person), but you get to do everything and walk out with a pumpkin per person at that price. There is an actual field of cotton to inspect and pick through, educational signs and materials, a cool mountain of hay with a pipe-slide, a "corn crib" (think sandbox full of dried corn kernels), various farm animals to look at, a corn grinder to try, some "corn mazes", a hay ride, and fields of pumpkins to walk through to try and find "just the right one".

My only complaints about this year's experience were that the mazes weren't really mazes, they were just winding pathways through the corn stalks, and the pumpkins on offer were a bit on the small size (though you can go buy big ones for extra in the shop if you like). Also, if you go I would recommend a hat and a bottle of water no matter what the weather. There isn't a lot of shade or shelter and no water fountains.

We've also enjoyed Volmer's Farm. This place is great, but it's a bit of a drive for us. A great listing of places to go in North Carolina can be found here. Happy pumpkin picking!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Maybe since I am a bit of an "Ecogeek"myself, I thought this site was kinda neat. A class my daughter is taking pointed us to this website called "The Wild Classroom". It has some great videos and information on Ecology topics. The videos are fun and interesting and cover some different biomes as well as a couple of topics such as "World's Deadliest Snakes". It's not just videos. There is information on the various biomes, and it looks like there will be stuff about biodiversity, the various forms of life, and current events. It seems like the site is still somewhat under construction, but I hope that these guys continue their work and add more videos and content to it. They have a good thing going here. Still, there is enough there to make it worth your while.

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


According to Google, today is Art Clokey's birthday. He was the creator of "Gumby" and apparently died only last year. I'm only passingly familiar with this show (I'm not quite THAT old!) and my kids were curious about it, so we looked up some videos on YouTube. They are so refreshingly simplistic. I think time has taken these claymation videos and transformed them from something cheesy and dumb into something charming and sweet. I can only imagine the creativity this could inspire in the right kid. Paydough or modeling clay anyone? Anyone up for some stop-motion photography?

Here is a cute sample:
The Little Lost Pony

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"The Human Body" for 8-9 year olds

This year for one of our Co-op's I am teaching “The Human Body” again. I had put together a set of lessons for my daughter and her friends a couple of years ago. It was something I wanted to cover, but I was dissatisfied with the “age appropriate” materials out there. This was a very smart group of so-called 3rd Graders, and the 3rd grade level stuff just seemed really dumb and kinda boring. Also, I don’t believe in running away from big scientific words. I figure you aught to give it to them straight and when they encounter the material again it'll at least be somewhat familiar.

 I took a 5-8 Grade curriculum as my guide and put together a slightly simplified version for them (though retaining much of the language and content) and added fun experiments and activities I had gleaned for the internet. We also ended almost every class with a Bill Nye video. (Gotta love Bill Nye! Here's a quick out-take.)
That first time I did it in my house. This time it is in a borrowed classroom, but my son and 7 other kids are having fun with it. It’s a lot less work for me too, because I’m not creating everything as I go this time. 
So far, we have covered “Cells”, “The Muscular System”, “The Skeletal System”, and the “Cardiovascular System”. Next week we will cover the “Respiratory System”. For our second round of lessons (this will go for 10 weeks total) I think it’ll be the “Central Nervous System”, “Peripheral Nervous System”, having fun with the “Senses”, the “Digestive System”, and the “Excretory System”. That last one always gets a lot of laughs.

Here are some resources that have been great for this age group:

games and other hands-on materials

See inside Your Body lift the flap book
The Human Body: A Visual Guide to Human Anatomy (this is a huge book - as in tall and wide - with awesome pictures in it)

Over the years I have collected several of the Bill Nye videos because I love them so much. Unfortunately, being produced by Disney, they are well guarded and overly expensive to buy. Netflix doesn't have them, but you can rent them from these people. I have also picked them up at about half price from the Homeschool buyers co-op, though they don't appear to have any right now. I think I'm getting my money's worth though. Because they are such a hit, I use them with many of the classes I've taught. 

Of course, you can find videos on almost any topic on YouTube these days.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Local Homeschool Article

I am part of a large secular homeschool group, and it seems like every year our current president gets interviewed at least once.

This article just came out in a local paper. Theresa has done a great job! I think I may have said things a little differently as I am a little less structured in style and philosophy, but here it is.

CHS Interview

Here is last year's interview with our then-president.

2010 Article

What is striking is just how many people are opting out of public schools these days. Our secular group has grown a little bit every year and I must say that I don't get the blank stare SO much anymore when I tell people we homeschool. While this is easier for me, I do wonder what this says for our public schools. Clearly they are failing us in many ways. I've heard stories about bullying, about quiet children getting lost in the cracks, about kids who are bored out of their minds because they know the material but are penalized for it... the list goes on. In our area, and possibly many others, the teachers and the school system seems to be overwhelmed. I have nothing but sympathy for a teacher trying to teach 30 students of broad ability levels while be straightjacketed by numerous Federal and State standards and requirements and lacking the proper resources. Those same teachers, in my opinion, don't get paid nearly enough.

Homeschooling certainly isn't for everyone. It is not easy, but it doesn't have to be hard either. A lot of it has to do with how you view things and how you deal with day-to-day issues. When I went through and thought out my reasons for wanting to homeschool, I decided that I would much rather devote my time to my children than go out and get a job. I consider it my job right now. Stress about "Am I doing enough?" and lack of personal time aside, the benefits continue to outweigh the difficulties. My kids are great friends, they get to explore things we just wouldn't have had time for otherwise, and I think in the end they will be happier, better adjusted people as adults, and will have a pretty good idea about what they want to do with their lives. We will continue to re-evaluate each year, but for now, I'm just incredibly thankful that we still have the right in this country to teach our own children. I am growing and learning along-side them, and that in itself is a tremendous gift.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Free Online Microscope

Just found out about a pretty cool science resource. I can tell you, there were a couple of times last year when this would have come in handy. In particular, I'm thinking of a co-op science class we had where several families had lent their microscopes, but very few of the kids knew how to use them.

This is a pretty cool microscope tutorial and demonstration. My thanks to Betsy Kempter and the Carolina Center for Education Excellence, and the University of Delaware for this.

Online Microscope