Monday, December 31, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays A Christmas Surprise

One evening, a couple of days before Christmas, my son heard some rustling at our front door and saw a young woman placing a package on our steps. "Who is it, Mom?" he asked, peeping through the blinds. It was one of my students from long ago! "Go ahead, open the door and welcome her in!"

Most of the time, the last time I see my students is when they are in their cap and gown and on their merry way to living life. I wonder sometimes what they've made of their lives, if they remember a thing or two that I taught them, if they are following their dreams.

It was such a treat to see V****, now a confident young woman fighting in every way she can to pursue her higher education. She brought me coffee beans, a lovely peppermint candle, and a sweet little ornament of an owl sitting atop and apple. But best of all was the little card with her handwritten message.

Thank you, V****, for reminding me why I so appreciate being a teacher.

Monday, December 24, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Merry Christmas!

Wishing you all a very, very, merry, merry, Merry Christmas!

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Friday, December 21, 2012

How *does* our family make it to so many shows/plays/musicals? and Two Awesome Plays We've Seen This Week: War Horse and Book of Mormom

Recently a friend asked me: How *do* you manage to see so many shows!?!

We are fortunate to live in one of the greatest theater cities in the world. There are so many free/almost free plays, musicals, operas and fun, family events on offer every day (One of our favorites this year was the Dance-Along Nutcracker!). Everybody knows about HotTix, too, right? (where you can snag $9 tickets to see the Christmas Pageant at the Annoyance, tonight!).

Our home is situated in Bucktown/Logan Square, near the Fullerton exit of the 90. This means that from our garage to a theater in the loop takes us less than 20 minutes. We have our secret parking spots, and if they aren't available, I know the best parking garages in the city! Hint: I like the parking garage on Randolph and Wabash, near the Chicago Cultural Center: It's just a few blocks from the Loop Theater District, and they will valet your car for $14 after 6pm. This means that we literally are in and out of the loop in minutes.

Also - we don't watch tv in our home. We don't even have cable or a tv in our living room. So heading out to a show at night is our version of hunkering down in front of the tv.

My youngest child, Chiara, age 3, has been attending live performances since she was one. Her first show ever was the Redmoon Winter Spectacular. She learned early how to behave at the theatre. So she can tag along to pretty much any (G-rated) show - no babysitter required.

This week, we saw two amazing, wonderful shows: War Horse and the Book of Mormon.

War Horse was nothing short of spectacular - the best show of 2012 for me. It tells the story of the loyalty and love that exist between a beloved horse and the boy who follows him through World War I, risking his life in the name of true friendship. I never thought I would become so emotional over a play involving a puppet, but Joey, the beloved horse, seemed to live and breathe through his puppeteers. My son and nephew, both age 11, were at the edge of their seats throughout the show, laughing and sometimes holding their breath, as they followed along with Albert from childhood into adulthood. Don't miss War Horse!

I also had the pleasure of seeing the premier of The Book of Mormon. This winner of nine Tony awards, including Best Musical, was everything that it was hyped up to be. It was absolutely hilarious - and the audience was filled with laughter the entire show as we tagged along with two bumbling Mormon missionaries on their first missionary trip to Uganda. The singing, the dancing, everything about this show just shined.

One quick note: My son, age 11, attended The Book of Mormon with me. He absolutely loved it and was doubled up in fits of laughter at several points during the show. That said, there are many adult themes and much adult language. Consider the maturity level of your child before you go. At age 11, my son was familiar with most of the themes  (i.e. AIDS, genital mutilation, etc.) and the show sparked more conversation. Humor is a great means to moving towards more serious talks.

Looking for that perfect last-minute gift? Consider a subscription to Broadway in Chicago!

Monday, December 17, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Sharing the Blessings of the Advent Season

I feel so blessed this holiday season with so many wonderful opportunities to see the sights and sounds of Christmas, together with friends and family. And in light of recent, tragic events, I feel blessed just to wake up (even so early!) in the morning and snuggle with my two kids in bed as they open their advent calendars. Over the weekend, I found myself asking: What can I do to honor the innocent children that were murdered in Connecticut, as well as the hundreds of children murdered by gunshot this year, in the very same school system where I am a teacher?

This holiday season and beyond, I will honor the schoolchildren that have lost their lives due to gun violence by trying my best to make sure that every child in my classroom feels respected and valued. I will take those extra steps to let them know that I care.

There are many small steps: greeting my students with a smile and a sincere hello, trying to learn more about my students and their lives outside of school, and making sure to acknowledge the quiet and withdrawn students just as much as the students that tend to be loud and boisterous.

And a few bigger steps: On Wednesday, I will be taking a group of 40 students to an Italian-speaking nursing home where they will paint the residents' nails, play cards, and just lend an ear for a morning. We'll enjoy a pizza lunch together on Wednesday, too (pizza graciously provided by BuildOn - a service learning organization that I am a part of through my work). On Thursday, we'll be making Christmas cards for the elderly residents, to thank them for sharing the morning with us. On Friday, I'll be lugging my heavy pizzelle maker and a ton of ingredients to school, and I'll be teaching my students - all 100+ of them - how to make this classic Christmas cookie. They have been asking me EVERY DAY about these Christmas cookies ever since I first mentioned them a couple of weeks ago. I hope to intersperse my entire school year with more service learning projects, teambuilding projects, and other special classroom activities. (I'd like to do something special for the Festa della Donna on March 8th, and also make homemade gelato in the springtime!).

I'll also be signing petitions this week and talking with my own son about gun violence.

I am thankful to have a job where I can have a positive impact on the lives of children. I am humbled by the actions of those that stood up and protected the schoolchildren, especially Victoria Soto. I am hopeful that many little steps, and a few bigger ones, will add up and make a difference in the lives of my students.

Here are some other ways to help the Sandy Hook Elementary Families and the hundreds of Chicago public school students and their families affected by gun violence.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Biking to Work: Winter Edition

So, it's December 13th.... and I am still riding my bike to work. In Chicago. Because I actually love riding my bike, I've accidentally become a bicycle commuter. And just about four miles each day makes for 8 miles a day. The weather has been unseasonably warm, and that motivates me, too, but I am committed to riding through the winter, as long as there is no snow and the temperature is above 30 degrees.

The main reason I ride my bike to work is because there is something glorious, to me at least, about setting off on a bike in the morning light. I love love love my route: Logan Boulevard to Milwaukee Ave., and then straight down Milwaukee for 3 miles. Though I may be chilly when I first set off, after about five minutes, I am breaking a sweat.You would think that I would be ravenously hungry after all that I do in a day's work and 8 miles of city biking, but it actually curbs my appetite. That said, I don't feel that I have to pass on, say, sugar cookie dough, or raclette, because I burn enough calories in a day to cover the extra over-the-holiday's caloric intake. I haven't weighed myself in forever, but my clothes fit just fine and I'm pretty sure I haven't lost or gained weight. What I have gained is muscle power. I feel... strong.

I really do need to research better clothing and outerwear options for winter bike commuters, but let me tell you, I do feel very merry with my red gloves and green bern helmet (which I finally broke down and bought at the Bike Lane).

I also swear that I am going to buy myself a new bicycle in the springtime. My pink Schwinn is lovely, but it's time for a more serious bike. Regardless, if a mom of two on a pink Schwinn bike can commit to riding 8 miles to and fro work every day - so can you.

P.S.: I would so love to see this on very bike busy Milwaukee Avenue.

Monday, December 10, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays Dance-Along Nutcracker, the Grinch, and the Museum of Science and Industry

Yesterday, we ventured out in the rain (?) to one of my favorite Chicago places - the Chicago Cultural Center - for the annual Dance-Along Nutcracker.

The Lakeside Pride Symphonic Band provided the tunes, and prima ballerinas from some of Chicago's top schools and companies interacted with the children, who were invited to twirl and swirl along in this interactive version of the beloved Christmas classic.

We just recently saw the House Theatre's outstanding rendition of The Nutcracker, so Chiara was already familiar with the story, making this event all the more meaningful. Chiara could not help but to get up and dance - she was so obviously inspired by all the beautiful and talented and budding ballerinas that surrounded her.

On Friday evening, Chiara and I went to see The Grinch at the Cadillac Palace Theater. It was a colorful, fun and merry musical, and needless to say my daughter loved it. We've seen so many wonderful holiday shows this year - here's my guide to the best holiday shows for families this season.

At the Cadillac Palace in her holiday best for The Grinch

Marshall Field's Christmas windows, German hot dog in hand.
It was so unseasonably warm on Friday night, and Chiara was so excited and full of energy after the show, that we wandered over to the Christkindl Market where she cornered me into buying her a German-style hotdog. Then we caught the Christmas windows at Macy's. Chiara ooohed and aaahhed over the decorations as she munched on her hot dog. She just adores the holidays! It was a delightful Mommy and Me date.

On Saturday, I took my son and his friend to the Museum of Science and Industry. It was fun to see one of our favorite museum's transformed for the holiday season. If you've never been, don't miss a visit to the Holidays Around the World exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, on display until January 6th.

Daniel and his pal in front of the Museum of Science and
Industry's Grand Tree.

 My one complaint: this weekend went by too quickly. I'd like one extra Sunday, please!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Giveaway! $40 certificate for Novica.Com

One of my favorite websites for unique, thoughtful and affordable gifts throughout the year is Novica, in association with National Geographic, connects shoppers with artisans from around the world. The artisans featured on Novica set their own prices and receive fair compensation for their work.

Novica has a great gift guide that makes selecting that perfect gift even easier. There are so many filters you are guaranteed to find something quickly and easily for everyone on your holiday list.

In the under $25 category, you'll find thousands of gifts that you won't find anywhere else, like this beautiful Alpaca blend scarf, made in Peru...

or these beautiful wrought iron dove ornaments... also has a number of member-curated collections. Check out this one, inspired by Colorful Traditions from around the World, or this Elephant-inspired Jewelry and Gifts collection. 

I have to admit, I treated myself to a completely impractical and out-of-season gift from this holiday season... a hammock! I have always wanted one for our backyard during the summertime, and to take along on camping trips, and Novica has a wonderful selection of hammocks.

I have a $40 giftcode to give away - just in time for some last-minute holiday shopping. Just enter below via Rafflecopter, letting me know your favorite product from Novica's giftfinder.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclosure: Special thanks to for sponsoring this post and giveaway. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Best and Easiest Sugar Cookies Ever

My daughter, saving the world one sprinkle at at time.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without our family's tried and true sugar cookie recipe. It's the easiest sugar cookie recipe ever - guaranteed! While I love baking (and eating!) different varieties of holiday cookies, there is nothing like baking these easy sugar cookies, cutting them out with our Christmas cookie cutters, and decorating them with sprinkles and candies. 

You'll need....

  • 1 cup of butter at room temp
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar 
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 3/4 cups of flour
  • 2 Tbs baking powder
  • In a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and vanilla. 
  • In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the creamed sugar and butter and blend. 
  • For best results, refrigerate the dough for at least an hour. Then roll out onto a floured surface for cookie cutting. 
  • Place onto ungreased cookie sheets and bake 8 to 10 minutes in a preheated oven (375 degrees).  
Williams Sonoma has come up with a great guide showcasing how to make beautifully decorated Christmas cookies that are almost too gorgeous to eat. These works of edible art can be mastered at home easily; all it takes is the right tools and a little bit of practice. 

Disclosure: This post is a collaboration with Williams-Sonoma, but all words and opinions are my own.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holiday Fun with Build-a-Bear at Chicago's Navy Pier

Last week, the kids were treated to a special afternoon at Build-a-Bear's Navy Pier location.

We have passed by this store time and time again on our visits to Navy Pier, but never ventured inside. But when we saw Build-a-Bear's latest holiday collection of adorable stuffies, we decided to pay a visit.

Chiara decided to make her very own Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, while Daniel opted for a Grinch. Sandy, the bubbly store manager, handed the kids their empty stuffies, and expertly showed us how to fill them with fluff.
Chiara was amazed by the fluff machine
 There was a huge selection of affordable stuffies to be made.

The next step was the heart ceremony. Both the kids had to make a little promise to take good care of their new friends, and each gave a kiss to the little heart that would be placed inside their stuffies before they were stitched up. The stuffies are also given a microchip, so that if they are ever lost and found, they can be returned to any Build-a-Bear location where they'll be reunited with an owner. Over 5,000 beloved stuffies have been returned to owners since Build-a-Bear began microchipping!
The heart ceremony
Next the kids gave their new friends a nice bath with a good scrubbin'. Chiara really had fun with this! And her awesome big brother had fun alongside her, too.

Next the kids finished off their new pals' birth certificates. They were also registered for - Build-a-Bear's safe, fun website where you can interact with your stuffies.

There were a ton of accessories to choose from!
And here are our cheery Build-a-Bear style Grinch and Rudolph (pictured with his BFF, Clarice). Rudolph of course lights the way with his glowing nose, and the Grinch's little heart lights up three sizes larger as his holiday spirit grows!

This was a great holiday activity that the kids and I really enjoyed taking part in together. You can you pop in to make your own stuffy or bring a few pals and host your next birthday party at the store. Our new friends have become a fun part of our holiday decor this year, and our trip to Build-a-Bear created a fun holiday memory!

Disclosure: Special thanks to Build-a-Bear for gifting us with two adorable stuffies. I was not asked to write this review;all opinions are my own!

Monday, December 3, 2012

#makesmesmilemonday Holiday Sunday Funday

Yesterday, we went to the Clubhouse in OakBrook for brunch with Santa. 

Chiara and Daniel both sat on Santa's lap.

Daniel asked for a helicopter. Chiara requested.... a snake. 

This is the third or fourth time that Chiara has asked me for a pet snake. I think this year, Santa is going to stick with a fake snake. But if she still asks for one next year, maybe he'll give her a little garter snake. Thankfully, Daniel wants a remote control helicopter and not a real one. 

Then we went to pick out our Christmas tree. I told the kids we would bring home the biggest (real!) tree in the lot, and sure enough, we did. It's over ten feet tall! 

Here is Chiara giving her beautiful Christmas tree a hug:

 While unpacking the Christmas decorations, the kids came across the tin filled with cookie cutters, so of course a big batch of sugar cookies had to be made ASAP. 

 And as always, Chiara went totally nuts with the sprinkles. 

I feel so blessed to have a chance to glimpse the magic of Christmas through the eyes of my children. Childhood is so precious and fleeting - and the joy that these two little kids bring into my life is by far the biggest and best gift that I've ever received. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Give a Child the Gift of Reading: My Top 10 Children's Book Picks for Christmas 2012

I'm a mom, a writer and a teacher, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without some new books under the tree! Everyone - kids and adults alike - needs a pile of good books to curl up with under a blanket, by a fire, during the long winter months! Here are my picks for the best children's books  for Christmas 2012:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid - The Third Wheel 

Daniel in front of the Wimpy Kid Bus!
My son Daniel, age 11, has grown up with Greg, the main character of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by author Jeff Kinney. So when Jeff Kinney himself he rolled into town last week in his Wimpy Kid Bus, my son was ecstatic to meet him in person, at the Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park. In the 7th book of the series, The Third Wheel, Greg is in middle school and scrambling to find a date for the first school dance (Daniel will experience his first school dance later this winter - Yikes!). Here's a video of the interview Daniel participated in with some other lucky Chicago kids: (Thanks,!)

Thinking Girls Treasury of Dastardly Dames 

Forget about the frilly, prissy princesses! Learn the truth behind some of history's most notorious women in Goosebottom Books' new series, The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames. From the atrocious Agrippina to the bold Black Queen Catherine de 'Medici, these books charm with their fun take on some of history's most challenging rulers, bringing them back to life by detailing what they wore, ate, and why they made certain, often downright nasty, choices. Maps, photos and historic artifacts supply the historical context. Currently available titles in the series introduce young readers to Cleopatra, Agrippina, Mary Tudor, Catherine de' Medici, Marie Antoinette, and Cixi, the Dragon Empress.  

Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight by Kate Endle and Caspar Babypants

Chiara, age 3 adores this sweet little board book. Even better, it comes with a free song download.  Order the book at Kate Endle's Etsy shop,, and download the free song here

Weelicious by Catherine McCord

This cookbook for both parents and budding young chefs features fast, easy and healthy recipes for homemade baby food, toddler finger food, school lunch recipes and dinner ideas that the entire family will love.  

Steve Light Storyboxes
Here's an adorable (and educational!) new product on the market: Storyboxes by Steve Light. My daughter just adores her Rapunzel Storybox: it's essentially an old-school interactive story book - no batteries required. Each wooden box contains a classical fairy tale and all the character pieces and props to make the story come alive via that magical kid's creativity. The Rapunzel Storybox contains Rapunzel, the Prince, the Witch, and the garden radishes, all hand painted. Chiara is most impressed by Rapunzel's long hair. I love watching her come up with her own oddball stories using the characters - most of which involve the evil witch scaring the Prince and Rapunzel with her shenanigans. Check out the other Storyboxes available at

You Choose: Interactive History Series by Capstone Publishing

The Interactive History Series lets kids choose their own pathway through history.  Each book has 3 story paths with over 33 choices and 18 endings. For example, in Life as a Gladiator, you can choose to take part in the rebellion led by Spartacus, to train as a gladiator as a free citizen, or to fight as a veteran gladiator. Throughout each story, you make even more choices, i.e. Do you want to stay with the rebels? or Do you want to escape?.  These books explore history in a unique and challenging way. 

The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood and Janice Nadeu

The Tooth Mouse delivers money to French children in exchange for their baby teeth. Follow along as she names her successor, Sofie, a small mouse who must prove that she is brave, honest and wise enough to take on the job. 

A Strange Place to Call Home: The World's Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals That Call Them Home by Marilyn Singer and Ed Young

Check out 14 amazing creatures that call some of the strangest places on our planet home. From the flamingos living in the barren, cold, salt desert to blind fish living in the deepest, darkest caves, these animals are celebrated by renowned poet Marilyn Singer and artist Ed Young in this compelling picture book.

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals by Helene Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt
Meet the animals that lost their battle to survive against humans and the tide of climate change in this sad yet spirited picture book. 

Mimi's Village: How Basic Health Care Transformed It by Kate Smith Milway and Eugenie Fernandes
When Mimi's little sister becomes sick after drinking contaminated water, Mimi and her village set out on a pathway to better health through simple heal care measures. This hopeful book introduces children to the struggles of children in third world countries, where every day more than 21,000 children under the age of five die, most of them from diseases that could have been prevented with basic health care. 

Disclosure: I have been provided with review copies of many of these books, but not all. All opinions are my own. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

If these walls could talk: searching the 1940 census to see who lived in our Chicago home #makesmesmilemondays

For the past two years, we've lived in a former two-flat (now single family home) in the Bucktown/Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. This year, I am working hard to totally remodel our home, in small, inexpensive ways that I'll be sharing with you throughout.

Home Sweet Home. The were once gargoyles
on our front porch! Now they only come out
for Halloween!
This is the home that I hope to see my children grow up in: I dream of seeing my son come down the stairs in his cap and gown on graduation day; I dream of seeing my daughter off on her first day of school from this dear home. I love our little city neighborhood, and I love our home. This Thanksgiving season, I was more thankful than ever for home. 

The day we moved in, summer 2010.
I can't believe how much my kids have
grown in these past two years.
Our home is an older home; I believe it was built in about 1910. A contractor told me that our long, wide radiators, which keep our home extra toasty, were popular around 1910 because of a TB epidemic: evidently people at the time believed in keeping windows open to air out the home, which required keeping the heat on at full blast.
Our dear old radiators
I often joke with my son - who has likely the largest LEGO collection in the world - that 100 years from now people will be finding LEGOS hidden around our home. And sometimes, I come across things that the family who lived in our home likely used 100 years ago.
Open this cubby and you'll find a murphy-style ironing board.

For example, the ironing boards. Ours are built into the walls. I imagine that years ago, this was a prized, ultra-moderne feature in the home. Nowadays, I rarely iron. My kids use these hidden ironing board cupboards (there are two in the home) to hide things. (My son actually hid BRUSSELS SPROUTS that he didn't want to eat in the ironing board cubby!).
We can't open the ironing board all the way as
it would slam into a bookshelf now, but
you get the idea. 

In our basement, I found an old telephone switchboard, a horseshoe and a sprig of plastic mistletoe. There is a scary, dark closet in our basement - for coal storage perhaps. I'll bet the children growing up in this home were always a bit frightened of that dark closet with the thick metal door.

And I've often thought - if these walls could talk - what would they tell me? More families than ours have made memories in this home. Who were they?

Today I was able to answer that question at least in part: I searched the 1940 census database to see who was living in my home in 1940. In 1940, our home consisted of two 2-bedroom rental units. On the top floor lived Walter Wasielweski, aged 52, and his wife, Rose, age 47. Walter was a piano tuner, born in Poland, and I suppose Rose was a homemaker as no profession was listed. They had three children still living with them: Raymond, age 27, a shipping clerk; Irene, age 21, a typist; and George, age 17, a delivery boy. On the ground floor lived Anthony, age 64, and his wife Rose, age 62. They had no professions listed - were they retired? unemployed? Their daughter, Jean, lived with them, and worked as a typist.

You can search the database here:

The school a block and a half from our home, way back when.

Do you know the history of your home? If the walls of your home could talk - what stories would they tell?

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