Monday, December 7, 2015

Keeping Up English At Home - 1st Grade

One of the ongoing discussion in nearly every international parents group that I'm a part of includes the question of 

"How do I keep up my child's English?"

There are many families like our which are raising bilingual/multilingual children in a place where English is a minority language. This means it is not the community or school language. During the baby/toddler/preschool years language is mostly something you hear and repeat, which makes it easy to reach "native level" or "fluent level". However, as the child gets older, the challenge increases exponentially.  In this series of posts I'll share what had worked for us with the hope of inspiring others to give it a go.


First grade is a time of many changes and challenges. New school, new schedule, new responsibilities...  One of the things that helped provide stability for Zilla during the transition was our English homework time. Since he was used to having this time it was something comfortable and expected.

As the year went on we did have less and less time for English study so I had to adjust the plan to fit with the amount of time and energy that Zilla had.

We started the year with a goal of doing 3 things each day - a writing activity, a reading activity and a math activity.

The reading activity focused mainly on phonics.  We found the Bob Book series to be perfect as it is graded readers. Each book is small so I could slip a couple in my purse to read together on the train to/from school.

The motivation for the math activity was twofold. The first was to continue the math Zilla had been doing previously (montessori based with some Kumon mixed in). The second was to give him the English vocabulary needed for math along with the English/American style of math.  In the end we only did math about half the year, until he finished the Star Wars 2nd Grade Math book was completed because he needed more time for the school math and he had a good grasp on the vocabulary.

The area Zilla dislikes the most and incidentally struggles with the most is writing.  Perhaps this is because it requires so much practice? Or because he was studying 3 other writing systems at school? When a child is really not interested it becomes part of the teacher's job to create interest. The thing that caught his attention and held it to the point that he was able to get over the wall that he had been up against was the Star Wars Writing Skills book. After that we could move on to other writing exercises.

There are many great books and activities to choose from. Each child's area of interest will differ as will the area which needs a little more attention. It is ok to slow down, speed up or change courses as needed. We have gone through times where it was fun to work on English together, and times where it was very frustrating. It is all part of the process.

So, if you're headed down the same path and want some more ideas click on over to the store for links to other books and activities we've enjoyed and found useful!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Setting up a Child's Room in Earthquake Country

Q. How do you set up a child's room in a small house in an earthquake prone area?

A. Very carefully! 
Luckily for us many of the items used to make a room safe for little kids are the same items that we need for earthquake preparedness.

This topic comes up from time-to-time. It is something I also wondered about and tried my best to do at our house so I'll share what I've learned.

On 3/11 (large earthquake in Japan) my baby and toddler were napping in my bed, upstairs, when the quake hit. Even though we were far from the epicenter the quake was strong enough to give our area a good shake. I was downstairs when the quake started and upstairs with the kids when it intensified. I don't remember going up the stairs but I must have flown!

Here are some things you can do to prepare a child's room (and any room for that matter) with earthquakes in mind.

1. Have as little furniture in the room as possible.
Many quake related injuries in Japan are from falling items. The homes and apartments here are built pretty well but that won't stop them from shaking.  If you can, don't have dressers, bookshelves and other heavy pieces of furniture in a room used for sleeping.
When placing things on shelves keep in mind the kind of damage they could to if they fall off. We try to have heavy items on bottom shelves and lighter ones on top shelves.

2. Brace the furniture that is in the room
There are poles (braces) that can be used to help stop dressers and bookshelves from tipping over. There are also plastic strips and non-skid pads that can go under pieces of furniture.

3. Consider sleeping on futon.
Since futon is on the floor there is no danger of falling out of bed.

4. Be aware of glass.
Lamps, windows and other items can crack or shatter in a quake.
We chose a lamp made of strong plastic that was pretty durable. It holds up well when the kids accidentally knock it down so I feel confident it won't break if knocked over by a quake.
The ceiling light fixture should also be looked at. While most are fastened with a back-up hook to prevent falling in the case of a quake, I try not to have a glass fixture in the sleeping rooms.  If the place you are living is not your own you may not have any control in this area but I'll address that in the next point.
Check the windows. Sometimes there are already shatter proof window panes in sleeping rooms.  In older places like ours that is not the case. There are plastic sheets which can be used to line windows so if they crack the glass does not shatter all over the room.

5. Arrange the room wisely.
Sometimes there are things you can't change like light fixtures or needing a dresser in the room. When that is the case think about how things might move in a quake.
For example, if a dresser or bookshelf fell over would it hit a space that someone is sleeping in? If a light fixture seems potentially unsafe, don't have someone sleep directly below it.

6. Keep shoes/slippers handy.
If there is a strong quake and things fall it can be dangerous to walk around even inside the home. Having thick soled shoes or slippers near by for both kids and adults can save you from accidentally stepping on something while checking to see if everyone is ok.  Our house slippers are crocs-like clogs.

Here are some simulations of what can happen inside during an earthquake.
Earthquake Test: Bedroom Simulation
Shaking Effects Simulation
Bedroom with anchored furniture

One of the things that we have from the 3/11 quake is a lot of footage of the quake happening. It gives us a chance to look inside real homes to see how things may moved with a strong quake. There is much to be learned here but these can also be difficult to watch, especially for those who have experienced a strong quake.

During a real quake (Warning: may be hard to watch)
News report with real footage  (Warning: may be hard to watch)

Here are links to other pages with more earthquake preparation information:
Tokyo Disaster Preparedness Manual
American Red Cross Earthquake Preparedness
CDC Earthquakes

Check out the store page for some more earthquake preparation items.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Breakfast on the Their Own

One of the great things about the kids getting bigger and becoming more independent is that they can sometimes give us (parents) a bit of a break.
Sunday at our house are crazy with everyone getting ready for church in their own way. The kids usually get ready pretty quickly and then are ready for breakfast when the rest of us aren't ready.  I've been trying various ideas for breakfast foods that they like and easily serve themselves without making a mess. Last night I wiped up these blueberry muffins and they were a real hit!

Blueberry Muffins (original recipe)

Heat oven to 200 C

My variation (measurement based on US cup size)
Dry ingredients - whisk together in bowl
 1 1/2 cups of flour - this time was 1 cup of bread flour, 1/2 cup of almond flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar,
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Wet ingredients - whisk together in large measuring cup
1/3 cup grape oil
1 large egg
 1/3 – 1/2 cup (80 ml – 120 ml) milk (add to oil and egg to fill to 1 cup line)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry. Be careful not to over mix. Just mix it until the dry ingredients are damp.

Add 1 cup of blueberries

Pour into 12 muffin paper liners, bake 20 min.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dresden Philharmonic Children's Choir in Tokyo

#LittleLuther joined us for a special concert of the Dresden Philharmonic Children's Choir at Tokyo Center Lutheran Church earlier this week. It was wonderful to hear them sing in a number of languages and with various styles. Zilla and Mega had fun trying to guess which language each song was in. The kids couldn't choose just one favorite song but I think the Festival Sanctus by John Leavitt was my favorite.

Would you like to have a listen? Check out Der Philharmonische Kinderchor Dresden on youtube or on iTunes.


Tooth Fairy or Throwing Teeth? 5 Fav. Tooth Books

We've had some interesting adventures with loosing teeth. The most recent was Zilla having a tooth come out just as the plane we were on headed down the runway to take off. It was a bit or a surprise and with hankies, tissues and other helpful items stowed in the carry-on baggage we were in a bit of a pinch. Also, where do you put a tooth when you are on a plane for the next 12 hours or so? Also, how does the tooth fairy make a visit on an overnight flight?

Thankfully I had a small bag handy for the tooth and Zilla doesn't believe in the tooth fairy... but he did still ask if he could have some money!

We have a number of tooth themed books that we enjoy from time to time. Here are out 5 favorites!

1. Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World by Selby Beeler
2. The Tooth Book by Dr. Seuss
3. The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist by Stan & Jan Berenstain
4. Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile by Tomie dePaola
5. Maisy, Charley and the Wobbly Tooth By Lucy Cousins

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Novel Ideas

Zilla is 8 years old 
Mega is 5 years old

⭐️ At what age is a child ready to listen to a chapter book?
⭐️ At what age can a child read a chapter book?
⭐️ What are some good chapter books to start with?
⭐️ How can I feed the reading habit without breaking the bank?

Reading to your child is one of the most important things you can do. It is not only good bonding time but also great for a child's development. Thankfully there are many excellent books to help make reading fun!

On this blog some of our favorite books can be found under the labels Books and Great Books (how imaginative, right?). There are Japanese/English Bilingual Books listed as well.

With this post I'm going to start a new section with suggestions for chapter books. Making the first foray into reading chapter books can be a bit daunting but it doesn't have to be. There is no best time or way to introduce them but here are some general ideas.

⭐️ At what age is a child ready to listen to a chapter book?
Anytime is ok. However, I've found the kids to develop more interest in following a long story line from around 3/4 years old.
We took the dive into reading a chapter to two at bedtime each day when Zilla was 5 yrs old and Mega was 2. At first Mega fell asleep most nights before the chapter was over but in time she began to stay awake and ask questions which showed she was trying to follow the story.

⭐️ At what age can a child read a chapter book?
This will depend greatly on the child's reading ability and interest level. There are many great first chapter books series. Some are books written specifically for beginning readers, others are simplified versions of classic novels. Finding a theme / topic that the child is interested in is key.

⭐️ What are some good chapter books to start with?
Mega and Zilla are currently hooked on the Boxcar Children. We just finished book 13 Snowbound Mystery. In between each Boxcar Children book we read a different book so we are able to keep enjoying a variety of books while also following some of our favorite characters as they solve various mysteries.
Other books we're read recently are the Little House on the Praire series, Charlotte's Web, and Swiss Family Robinson. Do you see a movie/book theme going on here? We enjoy watching the movie after reading the book. Comparing the book and movie makes for some interesting discussions!
 On our shelf of books waiting to be read we have Snow Treasure, Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain and Chronicles of Narnia.

⭐️ How can I feed the reading habit without breaking the bank?
It can get expensive quickly if your child gets hooked on reading.  Here are a few affordable options to explore!
 - Local library & Inter-Library Loan - While our local libraries don't have books in English we can get some through the inter library loan system. You never know what books your library may have access to is you don't ask!
 - E-books (iBooks has a Boxcar Children Box set of 1-12 at a great price!) have saved us a lot on both purchasing price and shelf space! Many of the older classics have versions that can be downloaded & read for free.
 - Book swaps - Whether in person or online swapping books is a great way to share the joy of reading! Check out
 - Amazon and other online shops often offer books at reasonable prices. Since we don7t have English books in local stores Amazon has become a vary valuable resource!

Need some more book suggestions? Check out these lists.
50 Books Before 12 
Newbery Medal
Wilder Medal (for Authors/Illustrators)

Tell us you favorite chapter books in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Oregon Trail Ruts

One of the coolest things we saw this summer was ruts along the Oregon Trail.
Like so many of my generation I grew up playing Oregon Trail on the Apple IIGS. It took a story from the history books and made it come alive. For many of us it was the first computer game that pulled at us emotionally. We learned the names of the key locations, struggled with the decision of what supplies to buy and felt crushed when fording the river didn't go well.

During our journey last summer we had a few times we were near the Oregon trail but the one that stands out in our memories is the Oregon Trail Ruts in Wyoming. Being able to walk a bit of the trail, feel the sun beating down, see the open plains... it made it easy to imagine we were in the same place at a different time!

This trip across the plains was also a great time to talk with the kids about various aspects of history and human nature. There were many unknowns, misconceptions and mistakes made. If we can learn from those things we can have a better future. It was also a time of great perseverance, creativity and faith.

Here are some of the books about the pioneer life that we've enjoyed!
The Little House on the Prairie Series

Little Luther had a bit of a decision...
Head west to the great state of Oregon or follow the trail back east to St. Louis, to meet up with some friends.

What has your #LittleLuther been up to?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Knitting Out To Sea

Instead of thing of gender appropriate toys and activities why not provide the opportunity for kids to try everything and watch to see what speaks to their heart?

Little Luther - A Junior Ranger

Little Luther accompanied us to Rocky Mountain National Park last summer where he hiked to Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, drove the Trail Ridge Road and enjoyed seeing all the wonders God created. He also worked with the kids on earning a Junior Ranger badge!

What has your #LittleLuther been up to?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Favorite Fall Treat - Pear Bread

Pear Bread

One of the things we love in the fall is pears but they  tend to rot within days of buying them. Oh, and they cost over a dollar each. Even with the these problems I still can't resist buying them!
In my search for a good use for the pears I have I came across this recipe. Zilla, Mega and I love it! 
Next time you have a few pears sitting around why not give it a shot?
~ Houdini
p.s. thick pieces are better to stop the slices from falling apart.

Pear Bread

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
3 1/2 cups pears - peeled, cored and chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 8x4 inch loaf pans.
In large mixing bowl combine sugar and eggs, beat well. Stir in pears and vanilla. In another bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir dry ingredients into the pear mixture; mix well. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans
Bake in preheated oven for 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of a loaf comes out clean. Allow loaves to cool in pans for 10 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely. (I like it hot but be careful because the pear chunks are scalding hot!)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rocky Mountain National Park

This summer we went on a journey in the U.S. One of the places we enjoyed visiting was Rocky Mountain National Park. The area is spectacular!

Favorite memories are hiking up to Dream Lake & Emerald Lake, seeing moose up close as Lily Lake, and the great views along Ridge Line Road.

While at the park the kids really enjoyed the Junior Ranger program.
Working on the activity books was a great way to help the kids to understand so much. It also helped them to become more aware of flora, fauna and wildlife. Be sure to check out the info on the kid's site if you are headed to RMNP!

We also found some really great books to enjoy while visiting the park like The Mystery in the Rocky Mountains, 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Creativity Reigns

Zilla is 7 years old 
Mega is 5 years old
Lesson: Creativity Reigns!

 For many reasons we have very few electronic toys. The kids get nearly no iPad time and they don't have videos games. They know these things exist but are very happy with boxes, yarn and legos. 

In a recent cleaning spree I came across one of our old laptops that no longer works. Since the kids don't get computer time I thought they may enjoy the old laptop.

Their creativity is stronger than the power cord. Even without the laptop turning they still enjoy "playing" computer games. Listening to them play you'd never know the thing no longer turns on! 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Enjoying the Fireworks

Zilla is 7 years old
Mega is 4 years old 
Lesson: Preparation is key!

Tokyo summers are hot. There is no way around that. However every year millions of people try to to make the most of the summer by getting out to enjoy some of the fireworks shows. We are not fans of big crowds so we usually only go to a less well known show. One thing we've learned is that preparation is key to enjoying a show with kids. 

For a spring show everyone seems more concerned about staying warm than being stylish but for the summer shows it is common to dress up in yukata (cotton summer kimono) or jinbei (summer top/bottom). Mega and Zilla love to dress up for these events but we do ask for them to wear comfortable walking shoes instead of the traditional geta. Be sure to bring a fan for the hot nights and an extra coat or wrap on the cool nights. Something I try to remember, and often forget, is to get glow stick jewelry for the kids to wear. For them it is a toy, for us it is a way to easily spot them in the dark, in a crowd.
Trying to find a place to sit can be tricky, depending on the location of the fireworks. It is good to look at the map before going to figure out what spaces will have seating and how to get there. It traveling by train it can easily be a 30 minute walk from a station to a good seating area. On the way home going to the closest station also can mean being squeezed in on super crowded trains. 
Having a snack or special drink to give the kids an energy boost on the way home helps to temper the past bedtime whininess.

Here is a list of things to bring:
 - blanket or leisure sheet to sit on
 - drinks
 - snacks
 - glow sticks or glowing jewelry
 - small umbrella (even if no rain is predicted there can be unexpected showers)
 - deck of cards (something to do while waiting
 - wear comfortable walking shoes
 - bug repellent and after bite
 - map or guide to the fireworks area
 - camera
 - fan

Things to consider:
Stroller vs. carrier
How will the kids handle being up late?
How hot/cold will it be?
Will there be a place to sit?
How early do you need to go to get a place?
How will you manage the potential long lines for the bathrooms?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Potato Harvest

Mega is 4 years old 
Lesson: Things you grow are yummy!

Both Mega and Zilla have the oppertunity to grow a variety of foods. Some we grow at home, some they grow at school. One of the things that attracted us to Mega's school was their fields and little orchard. We live in an urban area where even container gardening can be tricky due to the lack of space and the weather. We want to kids to have the chance to get dirty, plant something and watch it grow, taste food that is freshly picked. 
This time of year the potatoes are ripe. However, it is also the end of rainy season so getting into the field to harvest them without having a class full of muddy children can be a bit tricky. The harvest day had to be moved a couple of times due to the weather but the kids finally got the chance to dig out their potatoes. 
Each child brought home 6-7 good sized spuds. Mega wanted to eat them right away so Zilla helped her scrub them and I helped cook them. They requested baked potatoes with butter, homemade french fries (baked, not fried) and potato chips (also baked, not fried). 
One thing that I've found interesting is that the kids are more likely to eat something they grow at school even if it is something they don't generally care for. Mega is not a huge fan of potatoes but she declared the school ones to be delicious. Zilla likes fries and chips but this time was the first time he finished a baked potato on his own. In the past the same thing has happened with sweet potato and daikon. Perhaps the work you put into caring for a food makes you want to eat it?

Some of the other foods that they grow at school are corn, cherries, mikan, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. In fact, Zilla has a mini tomato plant to care for over the summer. He and Mega enjoy watering it and checking for a ripe snack each day!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Timer for Timely Completion

Zilla is 7 years old 
Lesson: Timers can help save time 

 Some days Zilla struggles to stay on task. This morning we set a reachable homework goal that he came nowhere close to reaching his mind kept wandering, little disruptions really broke his focus... It just wasn't working. When the lollygagging goes on too long one thing we do is use the timer on the iPad. With a countdown and alarm at the end Zilla is more likely of focus than when he is left to take his time. A page of 20 math equations suddenly gets done in 10 minutes instead of 40+ minutes.

Another thing that helps is working side-by-side. There is something comforting about having another person working near by!

Friday, July 17, 2015

An Acute Bout of Summer Homework

Zilla is 7 years old
Mega is 4 years old

Lesson: Sometimes homework is handled best like an illness. 

It is that time of year again! Summer break!!!
Before you get too excited though count how many pages of homework need to be completed and figure out when you can squeeze it in between trips to the beach, camps and visiting relatives. 

As you may already know, summer vacation in Japan falls during the school year.  For whatever reason elementary schools seem to think kids need to study 30-60 minutes a day or more and assign homework accordingly. This doesn't sound so bad, right?  

Let's do the math. 

Most kids are not in the mood to do homework when they could be relaxing or playing with friends so something simple that should only take a few minutes can easily take double or triple the normal time. Let's estimate the homework takes 1 hour a day.

Spend 2 days at camp. That is +2 hours of homework. 
The day after camp is no longer a 1 hour day but it is now a 3 hour day.

Go to Grandma's for the week and play with your cousins every day. That is +7 hours of homework.
Get home and your week of fun will be followed with a day of 8 hours of homework.

Do you see what I'm getting at?

Here are the rules Mega and Zilla came up with for getting the homework done as painlessly as possible:

1. Don't complain about it. 
Complaining won't make it go away.

2. Tackle the homework right away 
before getting into full-on summer relaxation mode.

3. Treat it like a cold. 
Stay home, keep the place quiet, eat soul food.

4. Set up incentives. 
Make a check list including each bit of homework. Plan rewards like a piece of candy for each section finished, earn an extra chapter in the bedtime story for completing a subject area, an adventure to go on when it is all done.

5. Find the fun. 
Zilla is really good at this part!
Use creativity wherever permissible to make it a bit more interesting.

Mega is still preschool age so her homework is a calendar to fill in. Each day of break gets marked off with a special sticker. There is also a space on each day for a weather sticker, brushed my teeth sticker and an "I pooped" sticker. Why the teachers want a record of the children's pooping over summer break is something I fail to comprehend but it is what it is.
The calendar also has a space to write a sentence or two about what we do each day and a page in the back for summer pics. I don't mind making the calendar as it will go into the Mega's baby box and help her to remember how she spent her summer this year.  We look back at Zilla's from time to time and enjoy reading it.
Her other piece of homework is keeping track of how many flowers bloom on her morning glory plant that she's been growing from a seed. It has yet to bloom so she is anxiously waiting to get started on that!  We still need to find a plant baby sitter for the times we are away during summer who will keep watering and keep track of the flowers for her. 

This year Zilla has a couple workbooks to complete, a pile of worksheets in addition to a daily diary (thankfully it is short like Mega's) and some book reports. He has been very diligent in getting a head start. Some morning he gets up early to work. By the afternoon his interest wanes and it is a struggle to stay focused but he is getting things done! Hopefully the main parts will be completed soon!

Now, I realize that the theory behind the homework is to keep things fresh in the kid's mind. That is all fine and good and does make sense. However, I also believe that kids need a break. It is good for the brains, bodies and souls to take a break from schoolwork. It is this line of thinking that shapes the way we tackle the summer homework. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

After School Snack & Play

When it is a nice day we like to have snack time outside.
This may be the first day we had outdoor snacking since Christmas break.

Zilla worked on jump roping. Mega & Zilla catch, fought over creating a point system for catch, took turns throwing balls into a bucket, biked a bit and practiced gliding on their bikes.

For snack today we had 1/2 an orange, water and some of the Valentine's treats.

We don't always have time to play before homework and some days the weather isn't in our favor. When we do have time & nice weather it is a real treat!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dot Game - Taking turns & Patience

Mega and Zilla have recently been working on playing games together where they take turns. 
Mega and I play the dot game when we go to Starbucks (so I can get some work done!) and today she asked Zilla to play the dot game together after homework & supper. 
Zilla tried to let Mega keep the score close but it is very challenging as he really wants to win! They played up till bedtime and agreed to take a break until breakfast tomorrow. Wonder if he'll be more patient with her in the morning...???

Saturday, January 17, 2015

No Gunny Sack?

Sometimes the kids have something in mind...
Something they really want to try...

But they don't have they may not have the items needed to do what they want to do.

Today they wanted to have a gunny sack race but we don't have gunny sacks... so they used garbage bags instead.