Too Hick To Be Square

Bean Boy/Girl is the Hansen Harvest Hero

The Clan is currently knee deep in fall harvest.

At the moment we’re in the apples and tomatoes part of the year, so we have about fifteen bushels of apples in the garage and a tomato “forest” out in the garden loaded with rapidly ripening tomatoes. This means that making applesauce and blanching tomatoes are practically daily activities for us at the moment and will probably continue to be regular features of our day for another week or so.

However, only a few weeks ago we had a completely different category of food crossing our counter. Back then it was sweet corn and green beans.And before that? Peaches, cherries, and other fruits for jams.

In fact, I know our fall harvest schedule so well by now that I can predict that after the apples and tomatoes are done, we’ll be moving directly on to beets, carrots, and Brussels sprouts.

And once that’s over, probably venison and squash.

But then, maybe, we’ll be done for the year.

Except for any orange marmalade or incidental chicken hindquarters we decide to make and can throughout the winter and spring.

I guess you could say that the canning never completely stops at our house. However, we’re usually only cranking jars through 28/7 (because a mere 24 hours has never been enough) during the late summer, fall, and into early winter. Unfortunately, it just so happens that we’re right smack dab in the middle of canning season at the moment, so sometimes that feels like the only thing we’re doing.

It’s during this time of year that teamwork becomes absolutely essential for the Clan. Without every available pair of hands helping out, there is no way in the world we would ever got so much canning (over 1,000 quarts!) done every year without losing our minds.

Even with teamwork, it sometimes comes pretty close.

One of the key principles of Clan teamwork is that everyone helps—regardless of age, Mom can always find something for you to do. Even the littlest kids would be assigned some small, simple task to keep them involved. Sometimes we would end up needing to “create” a task for them just do give them something to do, but this usually wasn’t a hardship for us because as siblings we have this mysterious desire to make sure everyone else is also working if we have to work.

Of course, now that the youngest is all of 7 years old, there aren’t many of our regular canning and harvest jobs that she can’t fully participate in, so there’s really no need to add extra steps to give her something to do. But back when we had two or three toddlers who needed to be included in whatever we were doing, we sometimes had to add extra steps to give them a way to help out.

Which is why, for many years, we’ve had a bean-picking superhero: Bean Boy.

Pretty sure the Bean Boy looks something like this.

Or Bean Girl. The role of Hansen Harvest Hero is pretty fluid and can be adapted to whichever sibling or siblings happen to be in need to a toddler-sized job at the time.The Bean Boy/Girl, for those of you who have never picked green beans with the Clan, is what we call the youngest kid or kids in the family, the ones not quite coordinated or experienced enough to actually pick the green beans while we’re in the garden. Instead, we have them collect beans from pickers and carry them to the central bowl or box we’re picking into. This is a good job for toddlers with short attention spans, because literally the only thing they have to do is come when someone hollers for a Bean Boy and collect handfuls of beans in the “shirt pocket” (which is what we call it when you hold out your shirt and carry things in it).Of course, they still get sidetracked and distracted, but the rest of us are pretty good at hollering when that happens, so we make it work out.Is having a Bean Boy/Girl an extra step in our bean-picking routine? Probably.

Does it keep the littles actively participating in what we’re doing? Absolutely!

Do they get sick and tired of hearing “I need a Bean Boy/Girl”? Very much so! But as far as teamwork goes, you can’t beat having a Bean Boy or Bean Girl on the team.

I just don’t know what we’ll do when the youngest is fully capable of picking beans herself and we finally have to carry our own beans. That’s never happened to me before and I really don’t think I’m prepared for it yet.

Posted in gardening Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Big families make family photos difficult

There are many things the Clan does well.

We home school. We garden. We can and freeze and otherwise preserve a significant portion of the food we eat. We go camping, train in martial arts, keep bees, and any number of other things.

To a non-Clan member, these things might seem like incredible accomplishments—and I would agree that some of them are. However, the secret to our success as a fully-functioning large family lies primarily in organization and teamwork, not any parental superpowers.

But although we’re able to manage many everyday things on a large scale, there are others that we’ve never been very good at.

Family photos are one of those things.

There are several reasons why the Clan is bad at getting family pictures taken on a regular basis. The first probably has something to do with Mom’s attention span. Or maybe it’s just our general attitude toward many common family “traditions.” As you’ve probably already guessed, we’re not very good at traditional, especially when it also involves remembering things.

But Mom’s memory or our collective apathy regarding family photos aren’t the real reasons we can often have years between pictures. The truth is probably more closely linked to the very real difficulty of just getting all fifteen of us in one place at one time for long enough to take a family picture.

Corralling just five or six people, as a normal family would have to do, is challenging enough. Multiply that effort by three and you’ll understand why this is something we really don’t do well. It’s surprising how many of us can be in and out of the house over the course of the average day.

Sure, we all do our school at the same house, but half of us older kids have jobs or are the go-to crew for neighbors who want someone to do odd jobs for them. Then there’s martial arts, dentist appointments for 13 (because we’ve somehow never decided to do all those on the same day), shopping trips, yard work, and 35 million other things.

On top of that, as I and my other older siblings have become more and more independent in our work, school, and other activities, it has become increasingly difficult (if not nigh on impossible!) to get us all in one place with the rest of the family. Sometimes holidays are the only ones that work.

And just imagine what it’ll be like once more of us have moved out of the house—either to college or off on our own. We may end up having to plan years in advance for our next complete family photo!

Our last big family photo. This was taken about 3 years ago.

But there’s more to our struggle with family photos than the obvious difficulty of getting us all together in one place. There’s also the physical challenge of finding out how to arrange, pose, and otherwise squeeze that many bodies into a space small enough to capture in a reasonable sized photo.

If you’re one of those people who thought you were never going to use advanced math and geometry in real life, think again. There’s no better time to put those skills into practice than in posing your family for a group picture. Trust me: I know.The challenge of fitting all our faces in one photograph (that doesn’t require the camera to be 500 feet away!) has led us to get our pictures taken in some very irregular places. When we were little, Mom would do overhead shots of all of us lying on the floor with our heads together.

This rapidly stopped working when the circle of heads became too big for Mom to get high enough up on a chair to take a picture.

Other places we’ve gotten our picture taken include on the couch, on the stairs, on the swingset in the playground, or perched in a tree in the front yard.

We even tried standing on a bridge over the headwaters of the Mississippi.

But the most out-there family picture we’ve taken (so far) is the one where we somehow crammed all of us kids in the dash of a friend’s RV that was parked in our driveway. Mom and Dad stood out in front, and Grandma took a really nice picture of our faces smashed against the big front windshield.

Whenever anyone asks me for a brief description of my family, I always try to refer them to this photo.

As you can probably tell from our past family pictures, none of the Clan is particularly picky about how the end result turns out. As long as our faces are all in it and we all look like sentient beings, we’re happy. We’ve learned not to be very particular about what we look like when we get our picture taken, because if we all insisted on looking perfect in our family pictures, we could be smashed against the windshield for days.

It’s hard enough just getting all of us together and posed in front of a camera. It’s too much to ask that no one be blinking or looking off to the side or have their fingers in their mouth or be caught between a yawn, a crooked smile, or some other expression.

The Clan also has a very short tolerance for getting our picture taken. It doesn’t take long before everyone’s smiles are crooked and the little kids start looking like they’re being tortured. Whoever ends up taking our family pictures (usually our grandma) has a very narrow window in which to take pictures as rapidly as possible. Mom will later sort through that selection of forty or so almost identical pictures and try to pick out the one that looks best.

Notice that I said best. Not perfect. Not normal. And definitely not traditional.

Posted in family Tagged with: , , , ,

At Woodlawn Academy, Mom rules the roost—in 13 classrooms!

When I tell people “Oh, yeah, there are 13 kids in my family and my mom home schools us all,” I tend to get one of two reactions.

Immediately proceeding those reactions, of course, is the part where my audience goes through the whole “Oh my goodness, you have HOW many siblings?” routine.

But after the initial shock factor has worn off, many peoples’ first reaction to hearing that my mom has home schooled each and every one of us our entire lives is to assume that we do all our school online. This, as I’ve come to discover, is a fairly common home schooling technique, but that’s not how things work here at Woodlawn Academy. Yes, many of our subjects (especially in high school) involve using a computer or have a computer-based component.

Everyone from Nah on up listens to math lectures on the computer every day.

But although the computer is incorporated into our daily school routine, the vast majority of our school still happens with pen and paper and lots of writing things down by hand.

Sometimes there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth involved in writing things down, but it happens anyway.

Once people realize that this is the way our particular version of home school functions, their question then becomes “How does your mom manage to teach that many grade levels at the same time?”

And that’s a very good question.

Because, realistically, Mom is managing 13 different classrooms all at the same time. And they aren’t even the same grades! She’s got everything from kindergarten to 12th grade—and for a long time she was doing the equivalent of running a daycare on the side because there were 3 or 4 who weren’t in school yet. You might argue that since there’s only one student per classroom, it would be easier to accomplish all this. But if you think about it, Mom still has to keep track of where everyone is, monitor their progress through subjects, and field questions from all sides. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish.

As always, however, there are many ways Mom manages to be present as a teacher in multiple “classrooms”, or at least supervises multiple grade levels simultaneously.

The first is by limiting the geographical location in which we do our school. We don’t all have a special corner of the house that is set aside to be our “classroom.” We don’t have desks. David and I (as college students) do have a nook tucked out of the main noise and traffic area so we can do our homework in relative peace, but for the kindergarten through high school period, school happens at the kitchen table or possibly sprawled on the floor in the living room (home school perks!).

High school on the couch is hard to beat.

Doing my 1/2 hour reading (yes, that’s a school subject!) in my natural environment.

This means Mom doesn’t have to go anywhere to be physically present in all our different “classrooms.” She can be sitting with Fro solving multiplication problems and also be listening with half an ear to Fuzz practicing piano—all while still being easy to find in case Tubby, Cob, and Pete have a question about science or if M is having an issue with pre-Calculus (which she usually is).

Beyond the obvious benefit of being accessible to answer questions, having us all do our school in the same room or general area also makes it easier for Mom to maintain a general state of order. The dining room and the upper story of the house aren’t necessarily clean and organized while we’re doing school (or at any time of day for that matter) but Mom can keep things disciplined. After all, if something comes up, she’s right there.

An argument over science? She’s on it.

Contention over who was first in line to use the computer? The arguers will certainly keep it down after they get “The Look” from Mom.

A squabble about someone making an obnoxious noise in the public school space? Mom is present at the scene to break it up – or prescribe earmuffs and possibly duct tape if cooperative attitudes aren’t working out.

Duct tape “handcuffs”, which can be attached at the wrist or the knee, are a good way to keep two uncooperative people stuck in each other’s presence until they learn to get along

Of course, there are always days when Mom isn’t present during our normal school hours. These are more common now than they were several years ago because as the average age of Clan members has steadily increased, more of us have taken on side jobs outside the house or gotten involved in other activities. The number of times Mom is out of the house for a significant portion of the day has dramatically increased in the past ten years. So if you’re wondering how Mom makes school happen when she’s not home, you have a legitimate question.

Again, it ties back to the pen and paper basis of our home school structure. If it were all on computers, I think it would be harder for Mom to keep track of where all of us were in each of our different subjects. Sure, the program would be able to tell us what our grades were on assignments, but that doesn’t necessarily tell her what we’re struggling with if there’s a problem.

By going with a paper route, Mom can do a much closer job of monitoring where we are and how we’re doing. She does all the corrections for everyone, so if we’re struggling, she knows when and where that’s happening and can help us specifically target trouble areas with review or extra practice.

And by the way, Dad also does a lot of the correcting, so it’s not just Mom who wields a red pen around here. In fact, Dad is usually our go-to for complicated math problems or help with Spanish or grammar. We have “Mom questions” and “Dad questions” just like everyone else. It’s just that, in addition to being asked if we can watch a movie or play video games, Dad also gets asked how to say “The wall is green” in Spanish.My final point about Mom’s classroom management technique boils down to one simple tool: daily planners.These handy little calendar/notebooks are Mom’s secret weapon for classroom management. They’re the first document we turn in at the start of the day and the last thing to be corrected before we’re done. Mom fills out the page for the current day with a checklist of the subjects we need to do for the day, and at the end of the day we turn in the completed checklist for her signature. Not only does this give Mom an easy way to track what we’re doing and how we’re progressing, it also provides us with an easy way to keep track of what we have yet to do in a day. Especially for the youngest kids, this is a good resource/reminder to keep them on track – and even us older kids need a list sometimes.

In other words, Mom is able to teach at so many grade levels because she has an effective and efficient system in place and she makes sure it stays organized.

It also probably has something to do with the fact that when most people realize that teaching this many kids at home is supposedly impossible, she got distracted and forgot to have that realization. She’s like that sometimes.

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Chicken Gum! (What the Clan does with free chickens)

The Clan has been known to accept free things.

We are frequently the recipients of any leftover food from family gatherings. In the fall keep our ears pricked for any mention of neighbors with extra apples or pears on their trees—we’ll pick them ourselves, but there’s no way we could can the 200+ quarts of applesauce we need to get through the year just off our one tree.

We also take venison shot by neighbors and nearby relatives who are only interested in the trophy, and we willingly accept overflow garden produce from people whose squash or cucumbers have gone completely bonkers. And our chicken-owning neighbors frequently use us to dispose of their surplus egg supply, which doesn’t both us in the slightest.

Last but not least, we also accept unwanted surplus chickens.

Basically, we’re always in the market for free food. I’m sure you can understand why.

Over the past 8 or so years, we’ve turned into the drop-off site for all the unwanted poultry in the area. Mom gets called a couple times a year by chicken-owning neighbors who want to know if she wants to come pick up their latest batch of crabby old hens or surplus roosters.

The answer is, of course, always yes. Even if we don’t need any more roosters at the moment, they fit into jars just as well as hens do. We’re ready to throw a couple cat carriers in the back of the truck and go collect some disgruntled chickens any old day.

In addition to being a big, crabby rooster, Goldilocks here had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of spending a couple days in the house recuperating from losing his tail feathers to a dog that hadn’t learned not to mess with the chickens. This experience was never repeated (by the rooster or by the dog).

Of course, one of the terms and conditions of the Hansen Home for Reject Chickens is that we do not accept chickens of particular sentimental value to their previous owners. We’re not in the rehoming business. If a hen doesn’t lay and a rooster doesn’t keep the hens in line, then there’s really only one other place for them.

If you really wanted those four young roosters to live out their full, entire lives, you really shouldn’t have given them to us.

These little frou-frou roosters are rapidly approaching the “ready-for-canning” end of the Chicken Spectrum.

In the end, most of the birds that come to live at our house will find their way into jars at some point. Regardless of whether they were originally donations, ones we bought as chicks, or hatched from our incubator, the end destination of all Clan chickens is a quart canning jar. We’re not very sentimental about our chickens.

But one of the fun things about free chickens is that you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s a handful of old crabby hens or a big cranky rooster. Other times we get a motley collection of all the young and inexperienced roosters that didn’t have the size or the gumption to beat up the ruling rooster at whatever chicken house they came from. Years of experience have taught us that crabby old hens and wimpy young roosters don’t mix well.

Most of the free hens in our coops are of the old and crabby variety, and each of our three chicken sheds has a rigid pecking order in place—reinforced by, well, pecking. Turns out that in addition to being pretty stupid, chickens are also mean, especially the hens.

But most of our free roosters are of the young and terrified variety. The roosters we keep have to be big tough guys who will whip those bossy girls into shape. Shrimpy, non-assertive roosters who haven’t even grown into their spurs and tail feathers just don’t cut it around here. This means that young roosters at the Hansen Home for Reject Chickens have a relatively short lifespan. And this brings us to the second fun part about free chickens.

Eventually, all our free chickens are going to end up in a jar and later reappear in hotdishes or on chicken melts (chicken and mayo on bread, sprinkled with cheese and broiled in the oven until black or we remember to take them out). Since it never pays to be particularly picky around here, we eat ‘em and like ‘em. But the fact remains that old hens are pretty tough, and although young roosters are less likely to be stringy, they’re still not the tenderest birds alive.

Sometimes if you disguise it enough with squash and ranch dressing in our infamous chicken ranch hotdish, you don’t notice the extra chew. Other times we have chicken gum for supper and that’s all there is to it.

Posted in food Tagged with: , , , ,