Sunday, August 17, 2014

Homeschool Meetings, Talking and Turkeys

turkey profile by Hope Abrams (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s hard being the new girls.

“Hi, I’m Sue. I’m new to this group.”

“You’ve just started homeschooling?”

“No. We’ve been homeschooling for 22 years.”

"So you've just moved to this area?”

“Well, no…"

"So why have you suddenly decided to come along to our meetings?"

"We thought it would be nice to get out and meet some new people.”

I’ve had the above conversation a lot lately. Actually I've had it with every mother I've spoken to at the homeschooling support group we've recently joined.

It's difficult chatting to new people, trying to make new friends. It’s not as if the women aren’t friendly. They are. I guess it just takes time to get to know people, to feel comfortable and for us to work out how the group runs...

The first week we attended a meeting, everyone brought soup to share for lunch. Everyone except us. But the second week we were better prepared. We arrived with a huge pan full of carrot, potato and cheese soup. Unfortunately  it wasn’t soup week. It was cupcake week. We heated our soup anyway and ate it by ourselves. It was delicious.

This week is Book Week but we don’t have to worry about bringing along soup or cupcakes or even books, because we won’t be able to go to the meeting. This Wednesday I shall be in Sydney at the Catholic Digital Media Conference. While all the mothers are listening to their kids give talks about their favourite books, I shall be speaking about blogging. My girls are rather relieved. They screwed up their noses when I mentioned the Book Week activity. They certainly don't want to dress up as their favourite book characters. I’m afraid we get rather alarmed when someone suggests a group activity. I guess we just want to go to homeschool meetings to do a little socialising, have a few conversations. We don't want to be organised into doing things we aren't really interested in. I wonder if that's because we are unschoolers. Or perhaps we're just contrary.

A few of the mothers know we're unschoolers. (I volunteered the information.) But no one has yet discovered my secret online life. They are unaware I’m a blogger. It hasn’t come up in conversation. Thinking about this makes me realise there is probably a hidden side to everyone. If only we ask the right questions, and show enough interest, I’m sure we would find out so many fascinating or unexpected things about the people we chat to.  

So far I haven't found out much about my fellow homeschoolers. I suppose I'll have to try a little harder, get to know people better. There has to come a time when conversation moves on from: “How long have you been homechooling? How many children do you have? Where do you live?” to something more interesting. Those questions can get a bit repetitive. But how will I do it?

I am reminded of an art of conversation course I did years ago. I often think about one sentence in particular: You need to find someone’s turkey. Turkey? Apparently there was this man who was having a hard time maintaining a conversation with a certain woman… until he mentioned turkeys. Once this word was uttered, the woman’s eyes lit up and her tongue came alive. Suddenly she had a lot to share. Turkeys were her passion. (Yes, really!) Once we’ve found someone’s ‘turkey’ conversation is easy.

Joining a conversation isn’t always easy when you’re the new girls. My girls hung back at their first homeschool meeting, waiting for the teenagers to include them. When nothing happened, Charlotte strode across to them and introduced herself. She is rather surprising at times. I used to tell people she is quiet. She’s not. She just doesn’t make much noise if there’s no real reason to do so.

I remember when Charlotte was about 5 years old. We were at a homeschool camp. I was describing her to a woman I’d just met: “My Charlotte is very quiet,” I said, pointing to my daughter who was across the room.

“Oh I know Charlotte! She’s not quiet,” said the woman. "She ate lunch with my family. She’s very chatty.” Is Charlotte naturally chatty? Or did the woman find her turkey? Perhaps I just misjudged my own child.

So what’s my turkey? Writing, blogging, unschooling…You’d better not ask me about any of those. I’ll start talking and talking, and you’ll be stuck with me for hours. Yes, once we are talking about our favourite subject, an unending flow of words appears on our lips. I shall have to be very careful when I’m at the digital media conference. I’ve only got a certain amount of time to tell people about my experience of blogging. I mustn’t get carried away. I must keep an eye on the clock.

“Have you prepared your talk?” asks my husband Andy.

“I’ve made a list of points I want to make,” I reply.

“Have you practised out loud in front of a mirror?”

Practise? “Nah! I know what I‘m going to say.” The words are going to roll off my tongue, no problem at all. I hope.

Two days chatting with people who all have the same turkey. It’s going to be good!

So what's your turkey? What makes your eyes light up and your tongue come alive? Please share!

This week I've posted all kinds of things on my Sue Elvis Writes Facebook page. There's a healthy brownie recipe, photos of our late winter walk through the bush, a link to an Astrid (How to Train Your Dragon) braid tutorial and most exciting, some information about my new children's novel, The Angels of Abbey Creek. It's now available from Lulu. I hope you'll hop over to my page and take a look!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seven Revealing Facts About Myself

My friend Helena at the blog Life Across the River nominated me for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Helena is one of my young friends, a former homeschooler, fantastic musician, artist, writer... a very talented young lady. Oh and she and I are both red heads at the moment. Though I fear mine is fading (I guess it has to happen one day. We all get old.)

I feel very honoured to be nominated for this award. And special. It's always lovely when someone tells you they like your blog, isn't it?

I have to share 7 facts about myself, so here they are:

  • I used to be young and ‘beautiful’ and rather vain and now I’m not. Except for the vain bit.

  • When I was a school child I used to shake like a leaf in a high wind whenever I was asked to give a public speech. One day I decided I would overcome my nervousness. Now I enjoy speaking which just goes to show we can all conquer our fears if we really want to. And it's just as well I no longer fear facing an audience because next week I’m speaking about blogging at the Catholic Digital Media Conference in Sydney. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could meet you there?

  • Readers often get discouraged by bloggers who seem to sail through lives full of blessings. And it’s absolutely true: I am very blessed. But that doesn’t mean I never face challenges and make mistakes. I just don’t always write about them. And that’s all I’m going to reveal about that. At least for today.

  • I am famous for saying, “I’ll never become a Catholic.” But of course I did. The moral of this story is never say such things because sometimes life is very surprising and God can lead us in totally unexpected and wonderful directions, despite our short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness and stubbornness. Did I just reveal 3 of my faults?

  • As a child I had dreams of becoming an author. I wanted to write stories about big families or princesses or both. It has taken me a long time but I have just published my first children’s novel. It’s called The Angels of Abbey Creek. And that's very exciting. At least for me.

  • I have been a homeschooling mother for 22 years which makes me old. And I have been blogging about unschooling for more than 3 years which means I’ve written a lot of posts (326 actually).  Sometimes I wonder if I have anything left to say about this subject.

  • I used to be full of my own opinions. I guess I still am.
  • An additional fact: I hate having my photo taken (because as I mentioned, I'm rather vain). Looking back at our family photos it's not always obvious I exist. But I am here, a real person. After posting all these photos, I've just proven it.

Well that's all my facts. I've just realised I should have posted the 'official' rules. Here they are:
  • Thank and link to the amazing person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
  • Proudly display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

I am not very good with rules. Must have something to do with being an unschooler. This is the best I can do:

Nominations: I enjoy reading many homeschooling blogs. I find the following bloggers extremely supportive, encouraging and friendly. I enjoy sharing ideas and resources with you all!

Lucinda from Navigating by Joy
Hwee from The Tiger Chronicle
Claire from Angelic Scalliwags
Wendy from Zoom Times 
Amy from To Love

If you would like to reveal 7 facts about yourselves, you too can have a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. And if you don't, that's no problem at all.

Thank you Helena for the nomination! 

And one very last fact: I have a poor memory so if I have failed to list any of my favourite blogging friends, please forgive me!

And on my Sue Elvis Writes page this week: Some links to a wonderfully enjoyable video series (free on Youtube!) and an accompanying book, and an article about motivation and teaching maths. And we are anticipating spring. I discovered some buds emerging on trees next to our lake. And talking about spring, are you wondering what will be in fashion this season? Help is at hand: The other day, the girls made a spring fashion shoot video. Why don't you come and have a look? I'd love to see you on my page!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Creating Evernote Reading Notebooks

I take the girls to the library and they return with dozens of books. I hope they’re going to keep the girls happy for a very long time.

But a few days later the girls say, “When can we go to the library again, Mum? We’ve read all our books.”

“You’ve read all of them? Already?”

They nod their heads.

I’m not planning another trip into town for a few days so I say, “How about reading the books I sent to your Kindles… and there’s plenty of books on our shelves... “

So the girls devour some of the books we own while they wait to exchange the ones from the library. They read book after book after book. And all those books give me an idea.

“Wouldn't it be great to keep track of all the books you read?" I say. "Why don’t you start an Evernote reading notebook and record them all?”

The girls want to hear more so I expand my idea: "You could...

  • Copy and paste an image of each book’s cover into a note. 
  • Copy and paste the book blurb from Amazon.
  • Add the book genre.
  • Write a few words about your reaction to the book… what you enjoyed most, what you didn’t like… and was it interesting, exciting, funny…?”
  • Add a favourite quote (if you want).
  • Include a star rating out of five (use a star icon).
  • Include books you'd like to read in the future."

“What about the books we don’t finish?” asks Charlotte.

“You could add DNF (did not finish) and the reason why."

We talk about the benefits of keeping a reading notebook:

  • It would be quick and easy to put together, and more fun than writing book reviews. 
  • It might be interesting to look back at all the books read: a trail of books going back weeks, months and eventually years.
  • Everyone could share each other's notebooks.
  • A notebook might be useful.

“When I’m writing my book blog posts," says Imogen. "I often have trouble remembering all the wonderful books I’ve read."

I know what she means. When I was writing my post Five Favourite Read-Aloud Book Series, I was absolutely sure we’d read many great books together. But naming them? I had to search my memory and ended up asking, “Girls, what books did we enjoy reading together?” It would have been much easier if I’d had a notebook to consult.

So the girls decide to create Evernote reading notebooks. I think I’d enjoy putting one together too. There’s only one problem: I might actually have to finish the books I start. Otherwise my notebook might end up having only entries like this:

DNF: I got distracted by a new book I just had to begin before finishing this one.

Then I remember I have read a few books that I couldn't put down until the very last page, like Ellen Gable's novels:

So what do you think? Would you use Evernote to keep a reading notebook? Would your children?

PS I think you can do something similar on Goodreads:

Goodreads is a free website for book lovers. Imagine it as a large library that you can wander through and see everyone's bookshelves, their reviews, and their ratings. You can also post your own reviews and catalog what you have read, are currently reading, and plan to read in the future. Don’t stop there – join a discussion group, start a book club, contact an author, and even post your own writing.

And that does sound good, but I don't really want to get involved with yet one more online community.

Talking of books, I've recently posted some book links on my Sue Elvis Writes Facebook page (in between the soup recipes!) Come over and have a look!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Five Favourite Read-Aloud Book Series

"What shall we do together today?" I ask my girls.

"Can you read to us, please Mum?" 

So we settle on the sofa side-by-side. Gemma-Rose hands me our current read-aloud book,and I begin.

Over the years we have shared many great books. I always know which ones the girls are really enjoying: When I get to the end of a chapter, they plead: "Can you read us just one more chapter, please Mum?" And I usually do because I'm enjoying the story too.

Today I thought I'd share five of our favourite read-aloud series. We love series. When we get to the end of the first book, there's still more to enjoy!

So here's our list:

  • The Matilda Saga by Jackie French
These three historical fiction books are set in Australia. They were all inspired by famous Australian poems/ songs. (You could enjoy these too. We did!) Even though these books form one continuing story, they can be read independently.

This tale begins in 1894. " Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl's journey towards independence."

It is now 1919. "The Girl from Snowy River combines passion, heartbreak, history and an enduring love and rich understanding of our land. It continues the grand saga that began with A Waltz for Matilda."

The Road to Gundagai is set in 1932, at the time of the Depression. 

  • The Texas Panhandle series by Loula Grace Erdman
This series was recommended to us by an American friend, as being one of her daughter's favourites. Thank you, Karla. It is now one of our favourites too! The books are set in the 1800s in Texas, USA. A homesteading story.

  • The Drover's Road Collection by Joyce West: 
The setting for these stories is a New Zealand sheep station in the 1920s and 1930s.. We loved the humour. We smiled a lot while reading these books. Highly recommended! 

River Road, Sea Island, Drover's Road

  • Eleanor Spence's Australian Bush Books
The Switherby Pilgrims begins in England in 1825. Miss Arabella Braithewaite travels with her 10 orphan charges to Australia to take up a land grant. A pioneering story set in the beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, Australian bush.

The Switherby Pilgrims: a Tale of the Australian Bush

  • The Letzenstein Chronicles by Meriol Trevor
This series begins in 1847, in the small European country of Letzenstein at a time of great political unrest. Full of interesting characters!

I know I haven't given you a full description of each book, but it's easy to find out more by following the book links. 

Do you have any favourite read-aloud book series? If you do, I'd love to hear about them!

What have I been posting on my Sue Elvis Writes Facebook page recently? A link to a maths website, a story about punctuation, a link to some videos about the science of the Summer Olympics, a recipe... Have you ever eaten chocolate oatmeal? I haven't but I'm going to try it! 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Writing Game: No Shortage of Writing Ideas

My daughter Gemma- Rose and I are having some mother-daughter time. We sit at one of the wobbly white tables in the shopping mall and sip our drinks. I have a coffee. She has a chocolate milkshake.

“What have you been enjoying recently?” I ask.

Gemma-Rose sucks on her straw for a moment and then says, “Writing. I love writing.”

“There’s lots to write about, isn’t there?”

“There is?”

“Oh yes! I have lots of writing ideas! And if I ever do get stuck, I have a game I like to play. I think of a word and then see if I can find a story to match. I'll show you."

I look at Gemma-Rose's camel coloured coat. It has big round buttons.  I say, “Buttons! Do you remember my grandmother’s rusty red button tin? I could write a story about that.”

For a moment we sip our drinks in silence, and then I say, “Give me a word!”

Gemma-Rose looks around and then says, “Garbage bin.”

“I have a great story about garbage bins.” I smile. “Do you remember when Duncan didn’t put out the garbage bins on Christmas Eve? The truck came to empty them in the early hours of Christmas morning. We arrived home from Midnight Mass seconds too late… “ (There is a lot more to that story but I won’t tell you everything. I might write that story out properly another day!)

“I have a word for you,” I say. “Nose.”

“That’s easy,” says Gemma-Rose. “I could write about Nora’s huge nose.” Our puppy is always a good subject for a story.


“Did you know Sophie was quite upset when she discovered donuts are deep-fried? All that oil!”

“Perhaps it’s better not to know how things are cooked,” I say, “or what they’re made from.”

“Like chicken nuggets.”

“Things are not always what they appear to be. That would be a good subject for a story.”

Gemma-Rose sucks her milkshake noisily up her straw. “Straw!” I say.

“Advent,” Gemma-Rose replies instantly. “We earn straws to put in the nativity stable during Advent.”

“Actually I’ve written a story about those straws. It’s in my Angels of Abbey Creek book.”

Gemma-Rose and I trade a few more words before I say, “We have millions of stories that we could tell. Everyone does. They are the stories of our lives. All we have to do is decide which ones we want to tell.

“Then when we have a story idea we need to make sure we add some feelings to it. Is it a happy story or a sad one? Perhaps it's a frightening story. Is it a funny one?”

“The garbage story is really funny!” smiles Gemma-Rose. (I wonder if I can find the right words to make people smile when I come to write it.)

“Have you ever noticed how we often learn something from our stories like…”

“... how food can taste good until you know exactly what it’s made from.”

“Or never assume the garbage truck won’t arrive to empty the bins in the early hours of Christmas Day. Sometimes unexpected things happen.”

“Or Christmas wouldn’t be the same without all the traditions.”

"Coming to some conclusion makes a story even better. You can just retell something that happened. Or you can learn something from it.

“Then when your story is written, all you need to do is post it on your blog," I finish.

Gemma-Rose frowns. “And then everyone can ignore it. No one reads my blog stories!” She sighs.

I know how she feels. It’s nice to share our stories with other people. We want to know whether we have successfully put our thoughts into words. Can the reader see the story that exists in our heads? Can they feel what we are feeling?

But even when no one reads our words, it is still worth writing.

“We can enjoy our own stories even if no one else wants to share them.” I lean across the table towards Gemma-Rose and say in a low voice, “Shall I tell you a secret? Sometimes I visit my own blogs and read my own posts!” She grins. “I like to remember all the things I write about. It’s like going back in time and enjoying everything all over again.”

We stand up and gather together our shopping bags. It’s time to go home. As I watch Gemma-Rose push our empty cups into the garbage bin, the word 'coffee' suddenly pops into my head.

I smile. That’s easy! I could write a story about our mother-daughter time and how Gemma-Rose and I played the writing game.

And that's just what I've done!

What was the last page-turning, totally absorbing novel you read? Recently, I asked this question on my Sue Elvis Writes Facebook page. Lots of readers stopped by and soon I had a list of novels I now want to read. So I've been reading instead of writing! If you haven't already done so, you could join me on my Facebook page. I'd love to see you there!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Right Kind of Home Improvement

For 25 years my husband Andy and I, and our growing family, travelled from one rental house to another. We lived in someone else’s house and pulled weeds from someone else’s garden, and lived by someone else’s rules. What we longed for more than anything else was a place of our own.

We didn't think we'd ever be able to afford a house. It’s practically impossible to save money when a family is continually increasing in size. But through the goodness of God, our dream did became reality.

I can remember the day we realised we could walk into a real estate office and say, "We're looking for a home to buy!" We grinned at each other in delight. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it. It was such a wonderful feeling.

We imagined the sales person asking, "So what are you looking for?" We thought we could be content with any home as long as it was ours. Small garden? No problem. It will be OUR garden! Small bedrooms? No problem. As long as we can squeeze the beds in, we’ll be happy. They’ll be OUR bedrooms. 

But surprisingly, we could actually afford more than the basics. Our vision expanded. So did the list of houses we could view. We soon found what we believed was the perfect house for us. It wasn’t huge, but it was certainly not small. And it was going to be all OURS!

We bought that house, moved in and grinned every day for months: no more moving, no more regular inspections, no more landlord’s rules.  I still grin when I look around. This is our home and I love it very much.

So we’ve lived here now for nearly six years, and are we still satisfied with our home? 

Sometimes I think another bedroom would be nice, or a bigger laundry. How about a decking running across the width of the back of the house? French doors could lead from the back bedrooms and also the family room, to this outdoor area. Can you imagine sitting outside, looking over a valley of gum trees, enjoying a glass of wine, or even a meal, while listening to the kookaburras chuckling on the fence? Oh yes, that would be delightful. A sparkling swimming pool down at the bottom of the garden would surely add to our pleasure too.

On Sundays when we drive into town to go to Mass, we pass right by a huge hardware warehouse. The car park is always full. It must be one of the most popular places in our area. Everyone, it seems, is busy improving their homes. It’s big business. Should we also start improving our property? Perhaps we could begin work on that decking.

I think about this for a while. Do we really need that decking and the pool? We’re managing just fine with the four bedrooms we already have. Yes, a bigger home would be nice but I don’t think it's for us. I want to remain grateful for what we already have, which is much more than we used to hope for. I don’t want to lose that I-can’t-believe-this-is-OUR-house feeling. I don’t want to let dissatisfaction creep into our lives. Because where will it end? Do you know what I mean?

Now there is no doubt our home is still in need of improving, even if we can do without that decking. For a start, I am going to make it twice as big by eliminating half its contents. But size isn’t everything. There must be other ways of improving a home. Perhaps we could make it more welcoming, more comfortable, an even better place to live? But how? I don't think the answer is stuff. So what is it? Do you have any ideas?

PS: If you'd like to read the story of how we were given our very own home, it can be found in this book: Big Hearted by Patti Armstrong and Theresa Thomas. 

And you could hop over to Facebook and see what's going on on my Sue Elvis Writes page. (I posted a link to some delicious cakes!)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Deciding to Get Rid of Our STUFF!

By Elizabeth Albert

"Can I talk to you about something, Andy?" I ask. "I've had an idea."

My husband takes a deep breath and waits. Poor man. What crazy scheme am I going to propose this time?
“I've been thinking,” I say. "Perhaps we should become minimalists. We could get rid of all our ‘stuff’.”

Andy lets out his breath. A broad grin appears on his face. “Finally!" he cheers. "For years I’ve been telling you we need to throw stuff out."

Andy is right. I haven't been listening.

Our house is packed tight with things. And our garage? You should see it. Or perhaps you shouldn't. You wouldn't believe how many things we've got crammed in there. There's all those things we only need occasionally, like Christmas decorations and out-of-season clothes. The bikes and tools and lawn mower (and a buried table tennis table) are in there somewhere too. And so are many, many things I suppose we don’t really need.

Every time we ponder the lack of space around here, I say: “We need to get better organised. I must look for some more shelves, or a chest of drawers, or some storage boxes… Perhaps we need a shed.”

Whenever we need something we usually pray to St Joseph. He never fails to intercede for us. Once we needed a new lounge suite. We prayed to St Joseph and one arrived. Does that sound a bit strange? It’s true. He looks after our family perfectly. I could tell you more but it’s all in a story I wrote. It’s called St Joseph’s Sofa

Yes, a shed would solve all our storage problems. Now sheds are rather expensive so we began praying. We've been praying for a long time, maybe two years. And one hasn't yet appeared. Has St Joseph let us down for the first time ever? It has only just occurred to me that we have been praying for something we don’t actually need. There's another better solution to our problem.

“Do we really need that?” Andy asks me. “Can’t we get rid of it?”

“You never know when we might need it,” I reply. “We’d better keep it just in case.”

Just in case? Do you keep things just in case? Do you think that 'one day' you’ll regret throwing something out? I wonder how many things we would really miss if we no longer owned them.

Last year, an out-of-control bushfire burnt on the edge of our village, threatening our home. We had firefighters in our road, and water bombing helicopters flying overhead. It was all rather exciting... and frightening. We were put on stand-by for evacuation. We had to decide what we'd take with us if we had to abandon our house and flee to safety. What would we miss if our home and all its contents burnt to the ground?

We each packed a bag of clothes because that seemed practical, and we added some blankets and food. We gathered together our computers and other devices which hold our electronic information and photos. We had our important papers such as birth certificates. And I packed all the things we associate with our son Thomas, who died as a baby: his photos, locks of hair, clothes… because these are irreplaceable.

But I've been thinking: Perhaps irreplaceable things aren't that important either. Would I really be inconsolable if  I lost Thomas' things? I think I'd survive without them. They're only things, not him. Thomas is an integral part of me. He is in my memory and in my heart. He changed me irreversibly. And he is waiting for me. None of that will change if I lose a lock of his hair, will it? Yes, I could survive without Thomas' stuff. And that means I can certainly survive without many other less important things.

Of course, it would be silly of me to throw out everything. Some things we need to live life. There’s nothing wrong with having things which enhance our lives, which we enjoy using. But we definitely don’t need as much as we have. A lot of it has to GO!

So I'm going to cull our possessions. They're going to be bagged up and boxed up and shipped out. And I'm going to be very careful what new stuff enters our house. I'm going to be asking, "Do we REALLY need this?" before letting something new pass through our front door. 

There's only one problem: Some occasions seem to demand the accumulation of stuff.

It's Andy's birthday today. That means birthday presents. Did a big pile of unneeded gifts walk through the door? Did we just add to the overflowing pile of possessions? Or did we say, "You don't really need anything, Andy, so we decided to give you a hug instead of the usual birthday presents"? (Would we do that?) Birthdays can present a dilemma.

Actually, we bought Andy consumables: stationery for school, and also two pairs of much needed work pants, and a FitBit which he'll wear around his wrist. It won't take up any space at all. But don't tell him. We haven't given him his gifts yet. We'll surprise him at dinner time when he gets home from work.

It's not just stuff that comes through the door that can cause a problem. Have you ever thought about how we clutter our minds and our lives with so many non-physical things?  I’m going to ponder that. Would you like to ponder too? 

Does anyone else need to get rid of some stuff? Are there any things you can't live without? And what do you do when yet another birthday rolls round? Please share!

Of course, you can also find me on Facebook. What have I been posting on my Sue Elvis Writes page recently? Photos of my new book cover! And details about the conference I'll be speaking at, and what else? Perhaps you can visit and find out!