Archive for the ‘Projects’ Category

Teaching Children to Read, Write, and Speak in French

January 31, 2014

I have been experimenting on my children, and I want to tell you about it.  My goal has been to raise them to be bilingual.

My Background:

I took two years of French in high school.  The languages offered with an in-person teacher were Spanish and French.  I chose French because there were fewer students in the French program, and the language and culture seemed more interesting.  In retrospect, I think I should have chosen Spanish for purely practical reasons.  I really enjoyed learning French, however, and was able to travel to France (and Spain).

When arriving at college I had (and wanted) to continue language study, and I chose French by default because I had already made a bit of progress, though less than I had hoped.  I wasn’t ready to start over with something new – why waste the investment I had made when I wasn’t yet fluent?

I studied abroad in France for about 3 months during my third year of college and had not yet chosen a major.  I was leaning toward doing something in the history department, but I realized that if I went that route I would need to take so many classes that I would have no more room in my schedule for any French classes.  I thus chose to major in French.  It was enjoyable for the most part, but I had to study a lot of fiction literature and wanted to study more of the philosophers.  In particular, the professor who taught classes on Pascal was on leave, and so I studied about Montaigne, instead.

Upon graduating I decided to become an elementary teacher, which had nothing at all to do with studying French language or literature.  I promptly stopped speaking or reading any French.

Starting French with Basil:

When Basil was fairly young I had a few French language children’s books in the house.  These were left over from a very short-lived after school program I took part in, teaching kindergarteners French.  I would occasionally read one with Basil, but it wasn’t a true effort to teach him French.

When my brother’s family returned from living in Taiwan for two years, his daughter was fairly proficient at speaking Chinese, and his wife encouraged me to really teach Basil French.  I thought about it for a while, and it made a lot of sense to me to pass on to him at his young age something that took me so long to acquire in college.  It also seemed to make sense to me from my Montessori training that it would be much easier for him at his age.

Right after he was about 3 years old I decided to only speak to him in French.  I checked out a couple of books from the library about “one parent one language,” which describes how to raise children bilingually.  At first I tried speaking to Elizabeth in French as well to make it a complete system, but she became too frustrated with not understanding what I was saying, especially in stressful situations, that I stopped doing that.

Stopping French:

Basil became very frustrated, as well.  Just after he turned 3, when I started this experiment, he had just come to a fluency with English.  He was speaking full sentences and was able to express his thoughts.  This was a very important new step for him, and he did not enjoy taking a step back with me.  When I spoke French to him he had to gain his understanding by context clues and the little he had learned from children’s books we’d read.  I also stopped reading English language books with him, which mean, of course, most of the books we had access to.  He became very frustrated with not being able to fully understand what I was saying, and we both became frustrated with my inability to say everything I wanted to say.  I spoke less to him than I had previously because I didn’t know how to say everything I wanted to.  Thus, I read and spoke less to him and he spoke less to me.  Out of concern for my relationship with Basil I decided to stop the experiment.

Starting Again:

The only reason I picked it back up is because Basil requested it of me.  He repeatedly brought to me the book Max et Les Maximonstres, which is Where the Wild Things Are in French.  He had never read this book in English, and it had become his favorite book.  This fact alone inspired me to continue reading in French to him and eventually continue speaking in French with him.  It showed me that in at least some way he enjoyed it and enough to ask for more.

We received a membership to the Alliance Francaise in the area, which had a wide variety of children’s books to check out.  I also started to discover the area libraries that had greater collections of French books – most I had explored had absolutely none.  Eventually, we also signed Basil up for classes at the Alliance Francaise two times, which he really enjoyed.

Why Reading?:

When reading from the OPOL books there was a discussion of what kind of “input” the children were receiving.  When the children are in a certain country that country’s language becomes the majority language and provides the majority of language input (written, spoken, or sung).  It becomes paramount that the children receive as much input in the minority language as possible to provide balance between the two languages.  If only one of the parents is providing input from the minority language the balance is weakened.  If that parent is the father it is further weakened due to a father’s reduced time with children (in traditional family arrangements).  It is advantageous to put the child in a school with the minority language, if possible, to tip the balance back and provide more input in the minority language.

I decided to further this experiment by teaching Basil how to read in French.  We had previously felt no urgency to teach him how to read early.  In addition, because of my concern of the imbalance in languages Basil would encounter I really didn’t want him to learn to read English early.  I wanted him to only have access to French books in order to increase the balance.  If I couldn’t be with him all day speaking French, I wanted him to have good input from the French books in our home.

Starting Reading with the Sandpaper Letters:

From my Montessori training I learned to teach reading with letter sounds.  The primary tool for this is a set of sandpaper letters.  These are expensive, especially French versions, so I decided to make them myself, which wasn’t too hard.  As it turns out, the alphabet is almost exactly the same aside from some accented letters and the important vowel combinations.  Why this particular material is effective is because it uses three senses to teach letter-sound associations: seeing, hearing, and touching.  I had to try hard (still do) to have family members stop teaching the children alphabet songs or reading alphabet books because learning letter names is counterproductive.  It does not help to say “a” as “ay” when reading the word “dad” or when reading the French word “chat.”  English letter names are counterproductive in both languages.  Each night after Macrina when to sleep, Basil and I would have a special time where we would pull out the letters and I would teach him a lesson on three new letters or fewer if they presented a special difficulty, tracing with the finger and saying the associated sound.  You can learn about a “three period lesson” elsewhere.

To guide my progress through the letters of the alphabet (after covering b,a,s,i, and l) I used a book called Pas à Pas, Ma Méthode de Lecture Syllabique, which I ordered from France.  This book provided a nice sequence and several pictures and words matched to practice some of the letter sounds already learned.  What was very nice about this system is that the words provided usually only contained letters already learned, something that was beyond my ability to create.

Sometimes we even made letters out of dinner!

Continuing Reading with the Movable Alphabet:

Also beyond my ability to create was the next material: the Movable Alphabet.  This is a collection of small letters: 5 of each consonant and 10 of each vowel.  The point of this material is to create words and sentences.  In the Montessori method, students learn first how to associate letters with sounds and then they learn how to compose words with those sounds.  Thus, writing comes before reading.  In practice, the reading comes automatically with the ability to write because they read as they write.  With these green letters Basil began stringing together letters – first his name, then other words we had looked at together.  Eventually he began stringing together entire sentences.  He is still very happy to do this activity as he has not yet mastered the spelling of all French words or the proper French grammar or syntax.  It is still a fun challenge for him.

Other supporting activities involved taking dictation for stories that Basil made up (in English and in French) and then having him illustrate them.

We even created an entire book out of movable alphabet letters and taking photographs to go with each page.

We also sing real and made up songs together in French.

Basil sometimes reads French books to his sister, Macrina.

Here is Basil reading Emilia her first ever book.  The book is in French and it is called Super Bobo.

Learning to Read English:

My hypothesis from the beginning was that I needed to teach Basil to read in French early because he would pick up reading English without even trying.  As it turns out, he seems to have picked up reading English more on account of being able to read in French.  The consonant sounds are largely the same.  The vowel sounds are different but not too different.  His superior knowledge of English allows context clues to help him figure out words that aren’t pronounced the same way as English.


To this point Basil is able to read many of his favorite books in French – and I mean READ, not retell from memory.  He is also able to read most of his favorite English books, as well.  Unknown French words are decoded with phonetic knowledge.  Unknown English words are figured out mostly through context clues and using the phonetic clues from his French knowledge.  Basil is not conversationally fluent.  He understands much more than he can say, and this may be due to my laxity in responding to his English rather than expecting him to speak to me in French.  Still, it has been scarcely more than a year (maybe a year and a half) and he can understand and read much French.  With Macrina I began when she was about 1, and with Emilia I will be starting from the very beginning.  I don’t know what difference this will make since the amount of English input is larger for Macrina than it was with Basil – she has two people at home who speak English to her during the day while he had only one.  Still, there are other methods for trying to balance the input, such as the Alliance Francaise classes, French day at the zoo, a French performance of Eric Carle books, and the occasional viewing of a 1980’s Canadian program, called Téléfrancais (Basil’s only screen time).

My Own Study:

In order to do all of this I had to up my French from when I graduated from college in 2006.  To do this I watched, read, and listened to French news through the internet.  I attended one review class at the Alliance Francaise.  I went to local French discussion groups, and I even found a local French-language playgroup (though we have only attended once so far).  In this whole process I thought that perhaps I should think about teaching French professionally – a thought that never entered my mind as I graduated with a French degree and started in the teaching profession.  I subsequently took courses at a local university and became licensed to teach French K-12.  I don’t know if I’ll take a French job, however.  My fluency is still low, in my opinion, and I think it would be a lot of work!

Please feel free to ask questions if I left out details you want!



Little Free Library chez Saathoff

April 23, 2012

I first read about the Little Free Libraries in a Star Tribune article.  Since then I’ve also heard about them in a story on NPR, which has a bit wider reach.

From the moment I read about them I was hooked.  We needed one of those.  But without the tools or the know-how, I sent my father a link to the plans and asked if he’d be willing to put it together and then we could paint it.  This was about the time he decided I needed a circular saw.  So, I went to it.

The first layer was thick plywood, covered with several layers of poly to keep it rainproof.  The plans recommend using recycled materials, so I found some old shingles in the garage and old fence pickets.  I cut those down and created the exterior to the library.

Above you can see our homemade “Little Free Library” sign.  After we registered with the organization, they sent us an official sign that says “Charter  #0907.”  We both felt it had a bit too much text on it – too busy – so I cut off the bottom, and now it looks quite nice.

We had a couple neighbors come by just to say “thank you.”  Several neighbors have told us what a good idea they thought it was.  It’s the most fun for me to come home from work and see what’s changed inside – what’s been taken or returned or what new books have appeared.  When things get thin, we can easily replenish the contents from a nearby thrift store with a steady supply of good books.

My next plan is to grow some Boston Ivy at the bottom of the post to grow up on three of the sides.  I don’t know a thing about growing vines, but from what I’ve read they don’t take much effort.

Happy reading!


A Fair Monday

April 2, 2012

Happy Monday everyone.  And by “everyone”, I mean all those who read this blog.  I really should say “Happy Monday Basil Fans!”  And since you are all Basil fans, here’s an update on what he’s been up to this fair Monday.

After breakfast Basil got busy making some honey wheat bread.  He was an eager kneader.

After covering the dough to rise Basil was not so keen on letting it rest.  To avoid further poking and prodding we went downstairs to other duties.

Oh yes.  Laundry time!  Basil is rather fascinated with the washer.  Conveniently, our washer will continue agitating the clothes with the lid open, so we can watch the show.  (He didn’t fall in.)

A quick train stop since we were downstairs already.

And then to check on the bread.  I was nursing Macrina and trusting that the dough was not being pulverized.

The dough was safe.  But Dagmar the Duck tends to get hungry at the same times as Macrina.  So Dagmar got to nurse too.  And we all enjoyed reading “Sammy Salami” and “The Noisy House”.

               Then a bit of gluing.

And it was time to bake the bread!  I didn’t get pictures of that.  But it was followed by more food production on the earlier end of the process.  Basil planted lettuce seeds.  Carrots went in too, but they were mighty tiny seeds so I avoided having a helper.  But he did man the watering can to give our seeds a good sprinkling.Serious planting was followed by serious digging around in the dirt.  Which is a lot of work.  So we had lunch and it was such a fair Monday that we ate outside and got to exchange pleasantries with our neighbor Linda.  Squirrels keep stealing her lettuce.  We’re hoping ours doesn’t go the same route.

Tasting the fruits of his earlier labor.

Then there were a couple stories and an attempt at a nap.  It seems daytime sleep is a thing of the past for Basil.  Unless we’re in the car.  Then he’ll still fall asleep, if he’s really tired.  It’s hard to tell how much he needs it.  For now the rest hour isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure.

Then Basil loaded and unloaded his garbage truck many many times.  I think the contents were diaper ointment and little finger puppets.  I couldn’t tell what the storyline was for the game.  This was at the same time as insisting on listening to the same song about Paris not being built in one day FOURTEEN times.  He calls it “The Ice Cream Song”.  I don’t get it.  But it is (thankfully!) a pleasant little ditty.

Then playdough.  We discussed “play” vs “real” dough since he experienced both today.  Toothpicks were added to the playdough tool arsenal today.  Very cool.

Playdough starting losing its allure about the same time dinner was done.  Basil wanted to keep playing inside, but I vetoed his plan on account of the weather.  It was far too nice out.

A bike ride all the way around the block.  With a stop to pat the bunny.  Among other stops, of course.

To the playground!

Most of the time was actually spent pulling the pulley by a jump rope someone left tied to it.  It makes a nice ding sound when it hits the end of the track.  He also nervously watched the other family that was there playing. 

Then it was back home for playtime with Papa, dinner, more stories and bedtime.

Wait… you’re a Macrina fan too?  You may be wondering where the younger sibling was during all the day’s excitement.  Macrina was surely along for the ride!  She practiced her sitting (she’s got it down, unaided (!)  but she’s only rolled over a couple times), giggled at Basil, and made goofy fake cough sounds in very conversational ways.  It’s pretty amazing how much Macrina is amused by Basil’s antics already, she really loves watching him.  She especially lights up when he comes downstairs after naptime.  The only thing better is when Papa comes home.  The lack of object permanence seems to make it an especially amazing experience everyday.  Macrina remains a most pleasant (the most ?) pleasant baby.  Last night she woke up in the middle of the night to kick her feet and smile at me.  I don’t wish the timing to be a habit, but it was heart warming.  Even in the middle of the night.

Both Macrina and I have a cold so it wasn’t really the best day for pictures.  But I did get a few good ones.

I guess watching the laundry work was… shocking?

Observing the kneading seems like it must have been a more pleasant view:

Tummy time in the kitchen is a usual perch.  It was dry and warm enough outside that Macrina got to play on the ground for the first time instead of being in arms in the out of doors.  She seemed a lot more excited about it than she appears in the pictures.

  And the usual hideouts.  

Here’s to a fair Tuesday!  (With fewer photographs.)

*Here’s the bread recipe.  It’s pretty tasty and VERY fast.  Swift enough for a 2.5 year old attention span!  I’m hoping to try adjusting the type-of-flour ratio and the honey.  *

Macrina Laughs and Many Meetings

January 19, 2012

Her neck is fairly irresistible for kissing, even when it’s full of crusties from dried spit up.  Who knew it was a tickle spot on a girl so young!

We’ve been very busy and neglectful to our blog audience.  So many things have passed they will hardly be covered, but I will try to provide a few pictures.

Papou Sam and Yiayia Brooke met Macrina:

Basil and Papou Sam meet a Como Zoo Polar Bear:

Oh wait, that’s Jesse Ventura!  Here’s the bear:

Cousin Stella and Auntie Katina meet Macrina:

Uncle Jeff meets Macrina:

Basil meets an orange bike from Yiayia Brooke and takes it for a walk:

A proud papa?

The living room meets a new look:

Macrina meets Danielle and Meredith:

Macrina meets one of her first smiles:

My new tools meet some wood and hardware:

My new tools meet more wood and hardware, as well as very smelly, slowly drying polyurethane…

Basil meets our first real snow of the season:

Mama meets spit-up bad:

Sibling lips meet:

Come meet us!


Tartine Bread

May 28, 2011

At Christmas, my sister-in-law, Katina, and her husband, Jeff, gave me a new bread book called Tartine Bread, which was written by a (locally) famous baker in their city of San Francisco.  I had only seen the cover before and not read much about it.  At the time I was just delving into a fairly new book about bread called Whole Grain Breads by Peter Reinhart.  This would be my second major bread book after his Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  I have checked out other books from the library and I have read many, many blog posts on thefreshloaf, but my main guidance and formulas have been from Reinhart since I began baking, aside from a loaf here and there, which has been these last 6 years.

Since my father recently became interested in baking, I decided it would be fun to do a lot of baking when we went to Kansas.  I also decided it would be interesting to bring the Tartine book with us – it had been getting a lot of attention on the blogs of, and I knew there was something to the dutch oven technique after seeing what the no-knead bread could do.

I reinvigorated my sourdough starter, Ralph, a couple of days before we traveled, feeding him with freshly ground flour.  One morning I began the Basic Country Loaf in this book, intending to cook it in an enameled dutch oven my mother had.  While we were in Joplin, MO, my dad decided to buy two Lodge Combo Cookers – one for himself and one for us.  This is the style of dutch oven used in the Tartine book.  We happened to purchase them at a great price ($30/each) at a store that has now been destroyed by tornado.

The first Reinhart book introduced me to baking – in particular I learned to bake sourdough breads and to use a retarded fermentation to develop flavor.  The delayed fermentation was a focus of the book while the sourdough was mostly a side note.  The second book introduced me to techniques more suited to whole wheat breads, such as using a soaker overnight to fully hydrate the flour.  It was still difficult getting whole wheat breads that compared in look and crumb texture to the white flour breads I had been baking before.  The taste was different, but that was to be expected.  I had also read here and there on and in one Reinhart formula about the “stretch and fold” technique as a gentler and simpler method of kneading.  I hadn’t had much success with it on Reinhart’s ciabatta formula and decided it should wait until further study.

I was also familiar with what’s known as “no-knead” bread.  This is the kind of bread that Elizabeth makes.  It is a high hydration dough that is not kneaded but left to an “autolyse” process for a long period of time.  This bread came out with a fairly consistent crumb full of holes, though the flavor and overall shape did not seem well developed.

Tartine put some of these different ideas together into what has been a very successful and consistent method.  It involves sourdough for leavening, a high hydration level, the stretch and fold method, significant autolyse, and a dutch oven baking environment (as does the no-knead).  This dutch oven, however, would be shallow (to allow scoring of the loaf) with a deep lid (to allow significant oven spring), vastly improving oven spring and appearance.  He also allows for a retarded fermentation to develop more flavor and a soaker for whole wheat, though neither is necessary for successful bread.

The purpose of the dutch oven is to retain high heat after preheating and opening the oven door and to retain moisture.  When I was first baking I would splash water onto the oven walls to create steam in the oven.  There were two problems with this: I could see the steam escaping the oven and I eventually cracked the oven glass.  I then moved to boiling soaked rags and putting them in a loaf pan in the bottom of the oven.  These released steam as long as they were in the oven, but they didn’t release enough, and what was released into the oven quickly escaped out of the vents.  The dutch oven does not need additional steam because it traps all of the moisture and steam released from the dough itself and keeps the exterior of the bread moist.  Why do you need steam?  In order to prevent the exterior of the loaf from immediately hardening and to instead allow the entire loaf to expand with what is called “oven spring” – this can be the difference between a dense and a light loaf.

When we came home from Joplin, I took the retarded loaves out of the refrigerator and preheated the dutch oven.  Reinhart usually says to wait two hours for refrigerated dough to warm up, but the Tartine book said to only wait about 20 minutes.  I then dusted what would be the bottom of the loaf with some rice flour so it would not stick during cooking.

I then made my approach to place the loaf into the preheated skillet / dutch oven.


Scoring (next to impossible in a traditional dutch oven):

Putting the bread in the oven and placing the lid on top.

The results:

1st attempt:


2nd attempt:

3rd attempt:

4th attempt:

This was a 70% whole wheat bread.  I made a few mistakes with this one, the most obvious of which is partly dropping the lid on the top of one of the loaves before it was cooked!

(the edge nearly always looks nicer than the middle!)


The process is significantly less labor-intensive.  The attentiveness required is little more than the Reinhart sourdough was.  The results are much more consistent.  As compared with the “no-knead”, the stretches and folds help the bread build up more structure so that the final shape and crumb holes are both more impressive.  The sourdough leaven provides both better flavor and longer keeping qualities.  The dutch oven technique produces consistent and great oven spring, as well as great color and crust thickness.

I’m not yet completely satisfied with the whole wheat.  It seems better than the no-knead variety we’ve made before.  Hopefully without the same mistakes it will spring more and there will be more visible signs of strong gluten development.  As we went further into the loaf there remained some large holes, but between the holes was significantly denser than I would have liked.

Overall, I think this is a wonderful method for the home baker.  It is not that difficult – no time kneading away at the table, not that I don’t like kneading.  This will be my go-to bread aside from experimentation here and there.  I’m particularly interested to mix Reinhart’s soaking method with this book’s stretch and fold technique, if I can.

The book is filled with a few other breads and then several food recipes in the back to be used with the breads in the book.  Today we are going to try making pizza per the book’s crust instructions, which basically means using the dough from the Basic Country Loaf without shaping into a boule or proofing.

I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Thank you, Katina and Jeff.
Thank you, Papou Sam.


P.S. This has also convinced us to embrace cast iron cookware wholeheartedly.  Helpfully, this has contributed to our kitchen beautification project.

Pictures from December to…

March 19, 2011

Waiting for Stella:

Cheese bread and Harry Potter (Papa’s Christmas activities):

Basil’s Christmas activities:

Family arrives!:

Presents for colleagues (cinnamon raisin swirl):

My first attempt at christopsomo (Greek Christmas bread):

Ciabatta sandwich rolls to break the Advent fast:

Elizabeth makes a cake for ProPapou’s birthday (Dec. 25):

I decorate the massive sandwich cake:

Basil’s new activity:

Momma’s new activity (first goecache find!):

So much better than television!!!:

First try at Vasilopita (St. Basil’s Day bread – New Years):

Caught in the act!:

“Hey, no pictures!”:

Balderdashing on New Year’s Eve:

Ongoing kitchen beautification project:

No longer satisfied to stand back and watch the baking:


Wrangler advert:

Lounging and double-fisted pickles:

Whole wheat breads:

First hair cut.  Mama’s too sentimental about things like this, so Papa’s on the job.

He doesn’t even know what’s going on:

In our new oven, I’m able to switch out the round pizza stone with a collection of unglazed quarry tiles, which enables larger baking surface:

First attempt at Ethiopian injera – I’m now quite happy with the results I’m getting:

Basil’s ark:

Crazy hair day:


Hugging mama:


Don’t mess with Alfalfa:

Mesmerized by monkeys at Como zoo:

We stayed here for a long while:

Writer’s block:

Drawing family members (or scribbling upon their faces):

Waiting for papa…:

I made a couple of bookcases over a break just for fun.  We then realized we don’t have (or want) enough books to fill them up!:

Homemade pizza during meatfare:

Basil, onion, and goat cheese:

Big beard be gone!:

“You mean the snow goes away?!”

Reading with Papou Chris:

Consider yourself updated! :)


It’s Intersession!

November 13, 2010

though work is not yet complete.

“Intersession” is our school’s version of summer, cut up throughout the year.  This week has been a little rough with my regular Tuesday night class (5:00-8:00pm) along with two marathon sessions at school: a full day of teaching Thursday with conferences from 5:00-8:00pm and a full day of conferences on Friday from 9:00am-7:00pm.  I think my absence helped Basil learn the word “Papa,” which makes it all worth it!

My two weeks off have officially begun.  I still have two papers (one almost a week late!) due to St. Kate’s as well as work for my online class through Bemidji State.  I need to observe at two schools early next week and still attend the regular Tuesday night class.  Work is not done.

However, upon waking this morning we saw snow!  Work can wait in order to play in the snow with Basil for the first time and in our new home’s backyard.

First, we had cheesy eggs and pancakes:

Then we overdressed with our thrift store and second hand goods:
(thrift store = Papa and Basil boots and jackets; school colleague = mama jacket)

Basil was especially excited about his new snowsuit, which says “Save the Whales”:

I tried to inspire his excitement about the snow, but he was a little apprehensive:

Within about 10 minutes, mama and papa had created a big snow man.  Basil, during this time, repeated to fall down without being able to get up by himself.  We had lots of fun!  I hope he liked it, too

After we came in and undressed a bit on the front porch, I went straight over to the heating vent.  Basil brought us over some pillows and a blanket, and we warmed up in front of the fire. (ok, the fireplace was just behind us but hasn’t been cleaned yet…)

Happy snowy Saturday!



Other pictures…

Who’s splattering Basil with food?

Visiting the St. Croix river with folks from church:

Here I baked some hamburger buns for a dinner party.  This was the last time I became depressed that I was not a poor baker who never got to see his family.  I’m currently cured:

Basil enjoys playing with his great-grandpa’s train set.  He’s not old enough yet but it was a fun introduction:

Basil enjoys mama’s new project:

Basil tries out the new tight-pants fad.  Does he pull it off successfully?  Maybe it’s the paw prints…

Over and out!


Moving 3

September 26, 2010


Click here for pictures of the house before we made an offer.

Moving 2

September 22, 2010


September 21, 2010

We’re moving again on Friday!  Hmm…