A Day in Oxford // England with Kids // Part 3

IMG_1645 One of our favorite places in the world is Oxford, “the city of dreaming spires.” I visited my friend Laura in Oxford when she was a student there, and then I returned as a summer university student about 10 years ago. Elliott has also visited twice, and we each have our own memories and our own favorite places around the city.

Also, has anyone else read A Severe Mercy, part of which takes place in Oxford? We read it together when we first started dating, and it is a book that we reference often as our inspiration for a tender and adventurous marriage.

We decided to go to Oxford on our second day in England, on Friday, April 8th. We stayed on our feet almost all day and managed to see a lot of this beautiful place!

IMG_0039 First stop: the local library. This was unintended; we got off the bus at the wrong stop — whoops. But we needed wifi in order to orient ourselves. (Later that day we bought SIM cards for our iPhones and now have U.K. phone numbers and data. We’re European locals again for a few weeks!)

IMG_0076 Found these two cute prisoners at the Oxford Castle. We could definitely use one of these at home — hah!

IMG_0040 IMG_0078 IMG_0079 Magdalen College and Magdalen Street (pronounced “Maudlin”) are everywhere in Oxford! Our little Magdalena (nicknamed Lena) loved that.

IMG_0082 At The Eagle and Child pub for lunch with my own littlest child.

IMG_0083 We enjoyed following in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the other “Inklings” to eat and talk at this pub, but we found more Americans here than anywhere else in Oxford. It’s more of a tourist attraction now, I suppose… oh well.

IMG_0043 Around the corner from the pub is the Ashmolean Museum, where the kids saw their first Egyptian mummies and enjoyed the beautiful children’s section.

IMG_0084 IMG_0096 IMG_0085 We adults paid £2 each to go inside the private grounds of Balliol College, one of the many colleges that make up Oxford University. The gardens were in gorgeous spring bloom! It was a perfect spring day, and we ended up staying for over an hour, exploring and then relaxing on the grass. Visiting Balliol is one of my favorite memories of our trip so far. These are a few of my favorite photos (out of about 100!).

IMG_0048 Reading the hymnbook in the Balliol chapel. They’re both beginning readers, so they have been trying to decipher signs and books everywhere we go on this trip.

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IMG_0058 After Balliol, we walked across the street to visit Blackwell’s, a huge and incredible bookshop. When I was a summer student, I spent many hours studying and reading inside the Classics section or the cafe there.

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IMG_0091 IMG_0090 IMG_0092 We walked on to Christ Church Meadow on our way to visit Magdalen College. The kids were enjoying a precious hot chocolate that Elliott had purchased for them in Blackwell’s. He rarely buys them anything sweet, so they were savoring every sip!

IMG_0062 A view of the Christ Church Cathedral from the Meadow.

IMG_0063 IMG_0064 IMG_0065 IMG_0066 Approaching Magdalen College now. All the trees in bloom…!

IMG_0068 Inside the cloisters of Magdalen College. Years ago I went up to the top of that tower with some friends. The key to enter was about 10 inches long.

IMG_0101 The deer park in Magdalen College.

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IMG_0073 We walked through the grounds to the meadow behind the college. The story goes that Lewis and Tolkien used to walk together around the meadow here, feet crunching on the path as they discussed faith and life.

IMG_0070 This beautiful old house reminds me of Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows!

IMG_0071 IMG_0072 I used to come back here to the meadow and quiet gardens behind it as a summer student to read and study. What a gloriously beautiful place!


IMG_0074 If you are in need of grit, Magdalen College has some.

IMG_0075 Magdalen College’s boats being gathered up for the night. I wish we could have hired a punt boat and taken the kids around the River Cherwell in the meadow; I have fond memories of doing that with friends as a summer student. We’ll have to save that for next time… maybe when they can all swim!

And that was the end of our lovely day in Oxford. Have you been? Which little nooks and crannies are your favorites?

7 :: in family, travel

Jet Lag and Farm Parks // England with Kids // Part 2

To see Part 1 of this series, click here!

IMG_0020 Jet lag is no joke, and it is especially rough when your kids are waking up right as you parents are just ready to go to bed. Ugh. However, I shouldn’t complain, as the kids crashed at their usual bedtimes, and Forest and Gil only caused trouble between 10pm-12am. We all slept in late the next morning!

IMG_0022 Our friends have a wonderful playroom for their young son, but even more wonderful was this gadget…

IMG_0019 … their amazing coffee machine which made me a cappuccino each morning! Or maybe more than one cappuccino, hah. I now know what I would like for Christmas, dear Elliott.

IMG_0144 My friend also had bouquets of gorgeous spring flowers all around her home, and more carefully nurtured blooms in her garden outdoors. What a gift to enjoy such generous and beautiful hospitality from old friends!

IMG_0024 While Elliott worked from home and Forest napped, Lena, Gil, and I walked into the little town of Gerrards Cross, admiring the gorgeous homes in the neighborhood along the way. They all had such English names and windows and gardens.

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IMG_0023 After a requisite stop in the town’s bookshop, we walked home and decided to go to a nearby “farm park” for the afternoon. This turned out to be one of Elliott’s greatest ideas ever, as it was just the right level of activity for the kids, low-energy activity for the parents, and cuteness all around.

IMG_0036 We need farm parks in the States! This one had a barn with adorable newborn animals to meet and feed, three huge outdoor playgrounds, a crazy indoor playground, delicious cafe, maze, tractor/hay ride, mini tractors and go karts for kids to drive themselves, and even a mini golf course. We stayed for 5 hours and could have stayed much longer!

IMG_0038 IMG_0025 IMG_0026 IMG_0027 Not so sure about the chickens. He cried every time they moved!

IMG_0028 IMG_0029 He seemed to like the Silkie chickens best, just like his dad does.

IMG_0034 Sheep in the background!

IMG_0030 I laughed out loud when I saw this photo because this is exactly how I felt about this time. We were sitting in bleachers waiting for the kids to give baby goats bottles of milk (!), and I was literally falling asleep on my feet, swaying slightly and catching myself just before losing my balance. Yikes! Where’s the cafe and a giant cup of coffee?!

IMG_0031 I am sure this is why Forest has a runny nose now… ugh. But how could I resist letting him try out an old-fashioned ball pit, and how could he resist a taste?

The older kids were off on a massive indoor playground, like a Chick-Fil-A indoor playspace x1000. If you want to see Lena taking on a slide with a 15-foot vertical drop, check out this video. I had sweaty palms while watching her!

IMG_0033 Falling asleep in my arms… one of the sweetest moments for a mother at the end of a wonderful day.

More to come. :)

4 :: in family, travel

Three Kids and Three Weeks in Europe! // Part 1

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This month, my little family is on the trip of a lifetime: three weeks in Europe!

We’ve been looking for a way to use Elliott’s extra vacation time, and so in January we started looking at airline tickets. Elliott found a phenomenal deal to Europe on Norwegian Airlines. For less than $1100, he purchased roundtrip tickets between LA and Europe for our entire family! We jumped on the flights, and now, in early April, here we are in the U.K.

The days are flying by, and I want to record them in real time if I can. I share a few photos a day on Instagram, but I don’t want to post too much on there. Besides, there is so much more to record and remember!

IMG_1305 Right before we left, our dear friends came to stay in our house and take care of our pets. They have two kids that are close to Lena and Gil’s age, and the four children had so much fun together! We were sorry to leave!

IMG_1310 Forest helped with packing. I’m hoping to write a list of what we packed soon. We brought 4 carry-on suitcases and didn’t check any bags, except for free-to-check baby items: umbrella stroller, baby bed, and narrow car seats and booster seats for our European rental cars.

IMG_1311 And we’re off! We left on Tuesday, April 4, and we had to drive 2 hours to LA first. We parked our car in long-term parking and then took the shuttle to the airport. By the time we got through security, we felt like we’d already run a marathon! Packing, organizing the house, driving, and dealing with the airport had made for a very full day.

IMG_1315 We were super early to the airport, which I loved and Elliott begrudgingly accepted — hah! We have access to certain airport lounges thanks to one of our credit cards, so we headed there for a couple of hours before our flight.

IMG_1317 Lena had turned 6 the day before, so she was eager to break out some of her birthday presents!

IMG_1340 Time to head to our gate! The rolling suitcases took a little bit of figuring out…

IMG_1342 … but this makes it look like a breeze. For those who are interested, these are the suitcases we purchased after comparing tons of them. They fit the carry-on size requirements for all European airlines.

IMG_1345 On the flight, we were seated together, but I requested to move when I saw there was an empty seat in front of the bulkhead, which had the attachments for a baby bassinet. They let me move to that seat, and I was so thankful. However, Forest was really too big for the bassinet (he’s 30 inches long and weighs 20 lbs), and so he only slept comfortably in it for a few hours.

After that I had a terrible time getting him back to sleep; he just wouldn’t settle in the Ergo, the bassinet, or my arms. Finally we both fell asleep with me sitting down and him in the Ergo.

Elliott had a slightly better time with the older kids. Thanks to my move, they each had two seats to themselves! He also gave them melatonin, a natural sleep aid, which was new for us. I purchased this melatonin right before our flight, and our pediatrician friend recommended doses for them based on their age and size. It seemed to work well, as the kids slept off and on for about 7 hours. On a 9.5-hour flight, that is solid gold!

IMG_0017 And finally, many hours later, we landed at London’s Gatwick airport. The kids were still wearing their pajamas when we disembarked… oops!

IMG_1359 And here we are, ready to head out to our rental car. I didn’t plan it, but they are totally matching their suitcases.

IMG_0018 And now in the rental car! I did a lot of research and decided to get Diono car seats for Forest and Gil because they are so narrow and so safe. Thankfully, a mom I trusted in my neighborhood was selling two of them for $40 each, and so I purchased them for this trip and for Hawaii, and I plan to resell them or give them away afterwards. For Lena I purchased a Bubble Bum inflatable booster seat after hearing about it from more trusted pediatrician friends. It is also super narrow.

The Car Crash Detective’s “3 Across Guide” was helpful in determining which configurations of seats would probably fit into little rental cars. We rented a small Skoda Octavia station wagon, and all our luggage fit easily in the back. Now I am wondering why we have a minivan?!

At last, with everything and everyone securely in place, we left the airport. Unfortunately, by now it was 4pm and prime rush hour, so we spent the next 2 hours on the M25 highway around London, exhausted beyond belief, telling the kids “just a little bit longer!”

We finally arrived around dinner time to my friend Laura’s house in Gerrards Cross, a lovely neighborhood outside London. I’ll pick up our story again soon with the details of our first few days!

14 :: in family, travel

On Becca’s Bookshelf // 10 Favorite Books in 2016

collage-2017-01-231 I looooove to read a good book. This, I know, bemuses my husband, who appreciates my love for literature but envies my ability to dive into a novel and forget all else. My sense of responsibility to life fades when I have the hottest new title in hand! He gets it, though. We are a pair of readers who are doing our best to raise a whole family of bookworms.

This year I read 64 books, and you can see all of them here in my Goodreads account. I thought it would be fun to pick my 10 favorite books, the ones I still remember in my daily life (because let’s be honest… a lot of them I already barely remember reading…) and that had the biggest impact on me. They aren’t necessarily the best books I’ve ever read (although some of them are!), but they have been the most influential, thought-provoking, or just plain fun.

Let’s talk books…

*****

THE ONE IN A MILLION BOY by Monica WoodThis is the story of an 11-year-old boy and the 104-year-old woman he comes to help every Saturday morning, and the influence their lives and memories have on those around them. It reminded me of the current bestseller A Man Called Ove, a book I liked, but I didn’t love as much as this one. It took me a couple of chapters to get into One-in-a-Million Boy, but by then I was in love with the young boy with his records, the old lady with a touch of spice, the bewildered father finally growing up, and the grieving mother learning to live again. Deeper and sweeter and truer than I expected. Tears were shed. Highly recommend. — 5 stars

*****

THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue In rural Ireland, a lonely but meticulous nurse is hired to keep watch over a child who claims to be living on manna from heaven. It’s a mystery — can the nurse solve it? The author’s clean prose kept me engaged even when the story flagged a bit in the middle. Worth it for the ending! For some reason I keep thinking about this book, maybe because the plot was so unusual. — 4 stars

*****

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena FerranteThis Italian novel is intensely detailed and unlike anything I’ve ever read. Sometimes I felt bored, sometimes confused, sometimes awed. This book (and the two sequels in the trilogy) are mega-bestsellers, but while reading I wondered what the hype was all about. Was this just a soap opera about two poor Italian girls? But there is more here. There is truth in the portrayal of this dependent, jealous, undying friendship and the friends, family, and country that influences it. Time to find the second one in the series…. — 4 stars

*****

BABY CATCHER: CHRONICLES OF A MODERN MIDWIFE by Peggy VincentThis is a highly readable, endlessly entertaining account of a midwife who was practicing during the “wild west” of midwifery (1980s and ’90s) before a lot of our modern laws came into effect. Made me laugh out loud as well as cry. For those who love birth stories, or even just want to see inside the mind of your assistants, nurses, and doctors at childbirth, this is a wonderful read. — 5 stars

*****

THE DOLLHOUSE by Fiona DavisI recommend this book with caution, as it is certainly rated PG-13 in parts and many of you may not care for it. The book captured a slice of women’s history in the 1950s when women lived in a large hotel (nicknamed “The Dollhouse”) in Manhattan while pursuing acting, modeling, or secretarial careers. The story overlaps with a modern-day journalist who is writing about the hotel, and the entire book is all set in the old hotel itself. I could hardly put it down. — 3.5 stars

*****

FAITHFUL by Alice HoffmanA good story of loss, brokenness, and redemption. I recommend this one with caution as well as many of you might not connect with the main character. That said, the author realistically described someone who is suffering after a terrible tragedy for which she (wrongly) takes all the blame. After a slow, faltering journey, she finally matures out of the brokenness and into a strong, confident woman. (Also, as the wife of a veterinarian, I loved the veterinary angle. Animal rescuers will love this one.) — 3.5 stars

*****

TRULY MADLY GUILTY by Liane MoriartyLike all the best of Moriarty’s books, this one is set in a regular Australian suburban neighborhood with very human parents and their very beloved children — and then tragedy strikes and all presuppositions and choices in life are reexamined. This was so very insightful about the human condition, the way we think, and our motives and fears and desires. I loved the clever way the author told the story and the thoughtful weaving together of threads to resolve it. Another reason why Liane Moriarty is one of my favorites! — 4 stars

*****

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah “Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.” Beautiful, gripping, real, and so very sad. It is the story of two adult daughters and their father in occupied France during WWII and how each of them fights and survives the war in their own unique way. A love story of family and marriage and country. Beautifully written. I read this soon after reading All the Light We Cannot See and, truthfully, I enjoyed this one more. — 5 stars

*****

ELIGIBLE by Curtis SittenfeldWhat a fun, creative book! The author kept me totally entertained the entire time with her clever modernization of the story of Pride and Prejudice, beginning in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Bennett family is abuzz with the gossip that the most recent star of the hit TV romance show (called Eligible, but clearly The Bachelor) has just moved to Cincinnati for his job as a doctor at the local hospital. I laughed out loud at many of the author’s reinterpretations of the story. Very smart, almost believable, and completely enjoyable. — 3.5 stars

Note: The story deals with many aspects of sexuality with which some might be uncomfortable, and it is not for the prudish. If you are a P&P fan and don’t mind a bit of a racy novel, you’ll enjoy this one, but I do recommend with caution.

*****

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi And I saved the best for last. This book was written by a young neurosurgeon who has just discovered he has a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis. He grapples with work and faith and love as he struggles to finish his training, to prepare for possible death, and to continue to live fully in the world for as long as he can. Magnificent, gut-wrenching, true. One of the best and most powerful books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll be recommending this to everyone.5 stars

*****

And there you have it! Have you read any of these? Any recommendations to share with all of us?

Right now I just finished re-reading The Happiness Project, started The Gilded Years last night, and hope to get my hands on The Mothers by Brit Bennett at the library. Have you read any of these?

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9 :: in book reviews, On Becca’s Bookshelf

What Classical Conversations Looks Like In Our Home

img_8283 My children starting school on a recent morning!

If you came into my house right now and asked Lena, “Hey Lena, can you tell me about the Hundred Years War?” she would sing:

“Yes! During the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc and King Charles VII led the French to defeat England at the Battle of Orleans. In the late 1340s, fleas on rats carried the Plague, which killed one out of three Europeans.”

“Can you tell me about how animals react to environmental change?”

“In reaction to environmental change, animals will adapt, migrate, or hibernate.”

“What about skip counting by 2s?”

And she would sing a clever little ditty to the ABC tune that ends with, “Would you like to hear some more?”

And at that point you might or you might not like to hear some more, but she can go on for a long time!


All of this information comes from different things Lena has learned in Classical Conversations. In my last post, I discussed our kindergarten curriculum, and I mentioned that we joined Classical Conversations as well. Deciding to join was a big decision for us this year, and I think we’re still adjusting. There is a lot to get used to!

For those who are unfamiliar, Classical Conversations (CC) is a homeschooling support organization. Communities or campuses are everywhere, including overseas. Last year, as we were considering homeschooling,  I learned a lot of my friends were attending the weekly “schoolhouse” meeting and loving it. Since the closest CC community meets just four blocks from our house, and because we already knew half the group, it seemed a shame not to join! We have enjoyed it a lot, but it has also been challenging. (More about this at the end of my post.)

Every Tuesday we meet with the other homeschoolers at CC for three hours. Lena is in a class with other 5- and 6-year-olds, Gil is in a nursery/preschool room, and Forest hangs out with me — which is challenging because I am required to be with Lena the whole time and help in her class. This ain’t no drop-off program! Parents are involved in every aspect.

img_6310 Some of our CC Timeline Cards on display in our dining/school room.

During those three hours, Lena and the eight other kids in her class are taught by a fellow mom, called a tutor. Lena learns the new “grammar” for the week (one item from history, math, English, science, Latin, and geography, and seven new points on the timeline), participates in an art project and a science experiment, does a 3-minute presentation on an assigned topic that she has prepared, and spends 30 minutes reviewing information she learned previously in the year.

It’s like drinking from a fire hose. A fire hose that never turns off!

That said, I have found a lot to appreciate about CC. I love that she is learning history and geography, that she is learning alongside other kids (they have so much fun!), that I am not her only teacher, and that she already is learning good public speaking skills.


And now — how do we “do” Classical Conversations in our home? I think there are about four main ways:

  • Displaying the “memory work” for the week
  • Review games and questions
  • Timeline cards with the song
  • Dry-erase maps
  • Songs from CC Connected and the CC cds

img_8558 Displaying the “memory work” for the week: This is a pretty basic thing that I think every CC mom does, but I am actually not very faithful at doing this! I am learning.

If it’s a good week, on Monday morning I will print (or write/make, but that doesn’t happen as easily) the history, geography, math, science, and English facts for the week and display them in our dining/school room alongside the seven timeline cards for the week. (CC moms, I mostly find these on CC Connected under “File Sharing” and by searching for “Tri-Fold” downloads for the week we’re on.)

A lot of moms have tri-fold or bulletin boards that they tape everything to, but in our current house I don’t have a good space to display one, so I just use painter’s tape to attach things to the wall.

img_6318 becca-garber-classical-conversations-homeschool-review-book-jpg Review games and questions: This little photo album of the weekly CC information has been so helpful for me. I made it at the beginning of the year by using downloads I found on the CC Connected file sharing. (CC moms, I searched for username “barledge” and “4×6 Flipbook,” printed all the files as photos at Walgreens, and put them in a 48-photo album I found on Amazon.)

Lena and I use this review book when we knit together on the couch, or when we play Candyland. If Lena lands on a red square in Candyland, she has to answer a science question because the science questions are red in the review book. If I land on a blue square, I answer an English question, and so on.

If Gil wants to play… well, we don’t get very far in our review!

fullsizerender-3 Timeline cards with the song: Each week we learn seven new points on the timeline, which starts with “Age of Ancient Empires” and ends with current events. Each point on the timeline has a laminated card (see above), and I keep all of them in 5.5 x 8.5 binders with page protectors.

There is also a timeline song that we use to memorize all the points on the timeline. We even learn hand motions for each point! (Well, we try… those are hard for five-year-olds.) The video above includes the entire song if you’d like to hear it. Lena and I sing the song as we flip through the timeline cards, stopping to ask questions about different ones.

fullsizerender-2 Dry-erase maps: Another thing we do is use these laminated maps to review geography. I’ll ask her to find Portugal or the Aral Sea or the Scandinavian Peninsula, and Lena will check each location with a dry erase marker. We also occasionally use our globe instead, which I purchased with charter school money.

Songs from CC Connected and the CC cds: CC has put a lot of the material children need to learn to song, such as the timeline song above. This is so helpful with memorization! The kids and I listen to songs I’ve downloaded from the CC Connected file sharing. Today they were singing about pints, quarts, liquids, and plasma with me in the kitchen as we made cookies.

We also listen to the CC cds when we drive in the car. We spend very little time in our car, though — maybe 30 minutes total every week — so this isn’t a great way for us to memorize and learn material. This is the “disadvantage” of living in a walkable community!


One question you might be asking is, “Does Lena get it? Is all this memorization worth it?”

I think the answer is NO, she doesn’t get it, but YES, she is learning, and by the end of the year she will have grown exponentially in her knowledge of history and geography. (The English, some of the science, and a lot of the math facts will be over her head for a while yet.)

If we stick with CC, Lena will learn almost all new information each year for three years. (The timeline and some of the other information stays the same every year.) Each year, the tutor in her class will introduce the material at her level and expect more of her, as will I at home. After three years, she’ll repeat all three years. This way she’ll get this information twice over the course of six years from Kindergarten-Fifth Grade. It takes some of the pressure off of this year for sure.

Is all this memorization worth it? I think so, at least to some degree. She will not remember everything she learns this year, but it’s ok. There are no tests. She might remember it in three years when she repeats all this information, but in the meantime she is exercising her memory muscles, learning so much about the world and her place in it, and gets a sense of pride and accomplishment from working hard and learning the information. These skills are worth a very great deal.

Do I love CC? Will we stick with this for all of elementary school, or all of our homeschooling years? I have nooooooo idea. I do think one of the greatest gifts of CC is community. It is hugely encouraging to hang out with other families each week, to eat a picnic lunch at the park together after class (every week because this is Southern California and the weather is always gorgeous!), and to talk and be inspired and be refreshed every Tuesday.

However, if I were presented with another homeschooling co-op with awesome classes and friendships, I am not so sure I’d do CC. I think this is because I am more excited about the community than about CC itself. I like the approach CC takes a lot, but I was also homeschooled K-12 myself and then went to a public university and had an incredible experience with like-minded believers there, so I know there are many, many ways to do homeschooling and do education in general.

I think our bottom line is: we’ll just take each year at a time, evaluating thoughtfully how each of our kids are doing, how we are doing, and what educational approach would fit our family and our kids best. We’ll stay humble, we’ll stay flexible, we’ll all keep learning together.


What do you think? Would you ever do CC? Why or why not?

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