Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Time for a Break

For our third day in Gatlinburg, we decided to take one of the auto touring trails through the park. These trails have guide books that describe the stops on the route. You can take as much time as you like making your way along the trail, stopping and checking out things like this grist mill along the road. The boys spent a lot of time exploring areas near streams that criss-crossed the road all along the Roaring Fork Trail that we followed.

The weather was perfect that day, so we took our time and got out of the car at most of the parking areas. Later, we made our way back to the park office, did a little souvenir shopping, and followed the easy nature trail hike that started at the visitor's center. We bought one of the National Park Passport books so we could start recording our trips. Each time you visit a national park, you take the book to the visitor center and get the special stamp for that park with the date you visited. We were able to pick up two stamps on this vacation.

Our school days are wrapping up for 2015. Today was our last official day until January 12, 2016. There will be some school work during our Christmas break though. JT needs to keep making progress on his Rosetta Stone German 2 since we didn't take it with us on our vacation. He also needs to log some days for his introduction to computer programming class he is doing. We want to count it as a half credit for this year so he will need to log 60 days by the beginning of May. He only has about 20 days at this point, so extra days during the holiday break will be good. EM is in the middle of a chapter in his Thinkwell pre-algebra, so I thought he should probably finish it instead of stopping for three weeks and coming back mid-chapter. Other than those few things, our days should be pretty relaxed. That is a good thing since the wind up to Christmas has really worn me down. I need a few weeks with no planning necessary. Have a Merry Christmas and I'll be back in 2016!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Gloomy Days

Our second day of the Tennessee trip was spent in downtown Gatlinburg. We went to the aquarium and did some shopping and eating. The aquarium was more pricey than other nicer aquariums we have visited in the past. As part of our package for our rental we got one free admission. If it wasn't for that, we probably would have skipped it.

The town itself is interesting. My husband described it as a boardwalk minus the beach. There were stores selling just about anything you could think of, lots of places to get food, and even a Sky Lift that runs from the main street up the mountain. We spent a few hours walking and shopping, then had dinner at Calhoun's, a great BBQ place. Later we went to the Gatlinburg Church of Christ to see a couple that had moved from our area congregation nearly 20 years ago. It was fun to walk in and visit after not seeing them in so many years. My next post will be our final day in Gatlinburg before we traveled further west in Tennessee.

As far as things going on in life right now, this whole week we have been dealing with very thick fog in our area. I'm not sure what has caused it, but I know I am tired of not seeing the sun. JT was complaining tonight about feeling exhausted for the last few days. I think we are all experiencing some gloomy feelings because of the lack of sun. This picture is right before sunset when the fog starting thickening up for the night. We went to game night at the library; driving home I didn't get above 15 mph on our road because I just couldn't see anything. This morning the sky is still hazy, but I did see a little sun peeking through the clouds. I plan to drag the kids outside for a walk if it lasts. I guess I shouldn't complain, last year on this day we had about nine inches of snow on the ground!

For the last few months I have been trying to find an Envirothon team for JT to join this year. It looks like that is not going to work out. No local homeschoolers seem to have a team and our school district is not participating due to budget issues. I did connect with the science teacher who has coached the team in the past; she loaned me a lot of good material from a previous year. I will use those to round out JT's ecology course for the remainder of the year. The last two weeks have been focused on the environmental movement. He watched a PBS American Experience film, Earth Days. I downloaded the teacher's guide from the site and he's been doing the activities. We just ordered the documentary Silent Spring through our inter-library loan system to finish the remaining activities from the guide. In the meantime he's reading the book, Last Child in the Woods by Robert Louv.

I just looked out the window and the gloom is gone! I think it's time to act on some of the ideas in that book and get these kids outside.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Getting Back on Track

I had very good intentions to get back to weekly posting after we came home from our trip to Tennessee. Seven weeks later... here I am! My plan for the next few weeks is to include a picture with a short description of a part of our trip at the beginning of each post in order to give a summary of our adventure. The picture here is from the top of Clingman's Dome, one of our many stops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To get there we left the park visitor center and followed the Newfound Gap Road up the mountain, turning on to the Clingman's Dome Road. The drive took us to an elevation of about 6,340 feet. After arriving in the parking area we needed to hike about half a mile up a rather steep, paved trail, to get to the observation tower. The dome is at an elevation of 6,643 feet. The view is incredible and well worth the short, strenuous hike.

Since we've been home, the boys have been doing quite a bit of school work. Both of them wrote a short composition about our trip. It was interesting to see what each considered to be the important details and best parts of the vacation. EM expressed that he was ready to come home a few days before we did, but JT was happy to be traveling. A week after we came home, I saw a great deal for a weekend trip to the shore, but when I mentioned it to the boys, EM said, "We just got home! I don't want to go on any more trips." The plans wouldn't have worked out anyway, but if they had, I think I may have had to do a lot of persuading to get him interested in the trip.

We are working our way through the Lightning Lit materials I bought this year. EM is using the Seventh Grade books and JT is using the American Lit. EM recently read Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, thoroughly enjoyed the book, and did the activities from the guide. He is still very resistant to any writing assignments so I limited the work to just a few things. JT did not enjoy reading The Scarlet Letter for his most recent novel. The study guide had a long discussion about kinds of conflict in literature. We realized that JT's least favorite literature all has a large quantity of internal conflict which would explain why The Scarlet Letter was not an especially gripping read for him.

Since we have been home JT has also been working on reading and researching the Civil Rights Movement for his American history paper. He has read quite a few books, watched a PBS American Experience movie called Freedom Riders, and watched the movie Selma. The topic for his paper will be why the non-violent protests were effective. This week he has been putting his outline together and started writing his introduction. This paper will be his 10 page paper required for the PHAA diploma program. I would like to see him get it out of the way before Christmas break. Last year, the paper was the last thing he did for the year and I felt like it was hanging over our heads at the end. I'm glad he is making the progress that he is so we won't have to experience that again.

As of this Friday, we will have 82 days of our required 180 days completed. Even if we take a two week break for Christmas, our school year should end at the beginning of May. I feel like things are on target with their work and going smoothly even with our extended vacation in October. That's a good feeling to have!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Travel Adventure 2015

Who says homeschoolers stay at home? Monday morning we started our long awaited fall vacation. We left Pennsylvania around 9am and arrived in Gatlinburg, Tennessee around 7pm. It was a mostly uneventful drive with only one nasty bit of traffic in southern Virginia. I have never been to Tennessee before but I have always thought it would be awesome to see the Smoky Mountains. So when the boys and I talked about places we would like to visit, I convinced them that we should travel to Tennessee this year. The trip gradually evolved into a twelve day trip, later cut to ten days. We spent the first 4 days in Gatlinburg at a Stony Brook Chalet. Tonight I only have time to throw a few pictures up here because we leave in the morning to continue to Kentucky. I hope to really go into detail about the first half of our trip in my next post.

This is the living room of the rental home where we stayed. The whole house was absolutely gorgeous and had everything we needed. I loved this room. The bright sunlight made it the perfect place to hang out. The boys spent more of their time in the family room downstairs playing air hockey and pool.

But with a view like this from the deck, I really just spent most of my time looking at the mountains.

I could sit at the kitchen table and have coffee while watching the cloud shadows on the mountains.

Or sit in the hot tub and look at the mountains.

The last night we were there, we had a fire when it got a little cooler.

Which of course meant S'mores!

I had a very hard time leaving this house. I think we may have found the best place for us to retire when we are ready. In fact, it could even turn me into a morning person if I could see a sunrise like this living there.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

On the Road Again

I know... I've been really slacking off here. I have been working hard to get the boys ahead of the game for the year because we are about to head out on a travel adventure. The bags are nearly packed, the school work is wrapped up, the maps are printed. We will be traveling nearly 2,000 miles over the next ten days with stops in Gatlinburg, TN to hang out at the Smoky Mountain National Park, Henderson, TN to see friends, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY, and The Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. We have never taken such a long trip with our boys before so it has taken a lot of planning on my part. I will try to blog while we are on the road, but I hope you'll excuse me if I don't find time to do it. When we get home, I'll be sure to share all the details of our trip.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reconnecting with my Local Homeschool Community

A few years ago I had been actively involved in a Meetup group for local homeschoolers but when the leadership in the group changed and they started charging dues, I decided to drop out. I really hadn't been very involved in the community; I would look at the upcoming events parents were posting and sometimes we would attend. Not all of the events were sponsored by members of the group, sometimes it worked more as a central location to learn about things happening in the community where homeschoolers could participate. When the leadership changed there seemed to be more focus on the local homeschool co-op that I had no interest in joining. The structure of co-ops really doesn't fit our style.

My boys attend a few regular activities with other homeschoolers, our monthly book club and bi-weekly game nights at the library. At the last game night a mom was talking about an ecology day that had been planned and posted in the Meetup. I realized we were missing out on events because I had quit the group. So I reluctantly paid my dues and started checking out the site.

I spent some time reading the schedule for their weekly co-op and I started to think, "Wouldn't it be great to take advantage of these classes?!" But then I thought about the time commitment we'd have to make; even though it's only one day a week, we'd be unable to travel during the months co-op was in session. I'd have to agree to teach or help in some way. We'd have to be there early in the morning and spend a whole day doing classes. This was starting to sound more and more like 'regular' school, except in this case, we'd have to pay a fee! One way it wouldn't be like regular school was that these classes are only held one day a week. I couldn't really see how a once a week class could really do much to improve the boys' math, science, or history learning. So even though some outsourcing may be appealing, I decided it was not worth it.

But then I found something we would be interested in trying. One father was putting together a three on three basketball program. Last year was our final year with Upward because EM has reached the maximum age. This would be a great opportunity for us. The group will meet one day a week for some instruction and then games. It looks like the rules will be very similar to Upward which will make it easy for them to adapt. The cost will only be a $20 participation fee. Overall, it looks like a great fit for us. The only problem is that the first week will be when we are traveling, but the coordinator said it wouldn't be a problem for us to miss one week. So I signed them up and we'll be playing basketball later this fall.

I found myself checking and re-checking the conversation about this event. Hopefully Meetup doesn't turn into another time waster like Facebook for me. Believe me, I don't need any more distractions from what I am supposed to be doing around here! It's hard enough to stay focused and get these kids a little education when there are so many other things that can suck up my time.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Admitting my Weaknesses

For years I have been struggling with the problem of math instruction; I even took an algebra class on Coursera to try and help myself get back up to speed. I quickly found that this wasn't going to turn me into a good math teacher. All it did was remind me how little I really remember. EM seems to naturally pick up math with little or no instruction, so he hasn't needed much from me. But JT has the same struggles I do with math and that hasn't been a good thing. 

For the last two years, JT had been using Thinkwell for his math learning. I only needed to jump in to correct the worksheets and <Hooray!> the answer keys were provided. This year he did not want to continue with Thinkwell so I had to find a Geometry text book that he could use. We found a good fit with an old Harold Jacobs book published in 1974. But guess what? Only selected answers in the back of the book! After a week or so I realized I was out of my league. It was time to pass the torch to someone who knows what they are doing. Hooray for former math major husbands!

I'm not sure if it will continue to be true throughout the year, but for now, I think JT is doing better in math than usual. Part of the reason is that he is finally receiving appropriate math instruction. For years I've fallen victim to the fallacy that all gifted kids are naturally good at math. Even though I knew he was struggling, it just felt like he should be able to do this by reading the book and working harder. I still believe working harder would help him, but now I know he needs more direct instruction. My husband is a good teacher. He isn't a teacher in the professional sense, but he does teach classes at our church, both to adults and children, and he's very good at helping people understand the material he is presenting. When I asked him to take over math instruction this year, he agreed to do it with the caveat that he might not be able to do it at the time JT was used to, but it would get done by the end of the day. So far, things are working very well and I am far less stressed out because kids are not coming to me with math questions that I can not answer. Instead, I got to do some art with EM today.

When I'm feeling overwhelmed by schooling, the fun things tend to get pushed aside. This week we made time for a little watercolor work. We printed out templates from the Woo!Jr site, cut them out, traced them on to our watercolor paper in pencil, then went over the pencil with a Sharpie marker. We added the veins and then started painting. EM chose an oak leaf and I did an elm.

EM is using Thinkwell this year for his prealgebra course. This is his first year away from Singapore math so it's a little different for him. When he used Singapore, I'd do a little instruction if he needed it, but that was rare. If he ends up having any questions this year, I'll just send him off to talk to his Dad and I can get on with the things I am good at like art projects, history, science experiments, and literature.

Friday, August 7, 2015

School and Fun

Foil Hat!
Things are moving along pretty well for our start of the year. We are finding our groove and things are going smoothly. This week we took a break from the new routine to go to a concert given by the king of the non-conformists. My husband and I have been fans of Weird Al since we first heard him on Dr. Demento so of course we have raised our children on a steady diet of musical parody. When we saw that the Mandatory Fun tour was coming within easy driving distance, tickets had to be purchased for the whole family, including my adult daughter and her husband. This was EM's first concert experience and he had a great time.

As far as schooling goes, I made a decision to buy a few more books for our literature study this year. I had already purchased Lightning Literature's Mid to Late 19th Century American Lit book for JT from a friend a few years ago. When I started looking through it, I decided to go ahead and buy the Early to Mid 19th Century Student Guide and the teacher's guides for both books. Then I started looking at their 7th Grade Literature program for EM and decided it would be a great fit for him. I bought the student guide directly from Hewitt Homeschooling but found a copy of the student workbook on Amazon for a little less. I'm still hoping to buy the teacher's guide without paying full price, but don't know for sure if I need it until I see the student books after they arrive. Sometimes I find the teacher's guides don't offer much more and I can figure out answers on my own. When I buy math and science books, I like to have the teacher guides so I don't have to figure out all the answers on my own. I don't always want to have to read all of the textbook to check their work. One nice thing about the Lightning Lit teacher's guides is that they give you a nice schedule for your student. I found that the 7th grade schedule is available as a free PDF download so as long as I can figure out answers on my own, I shouldn't need to buy that one.

Next week the boys are going to the annual Fire Safety Camp for three days so we will once again have a shortened classroom schedule. The following week we should be up to full speed and be able to continue with that until we take our two week vacation in October. There will be a few days of schooling during the trip, but mostly it will be a true vacation for all of us.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Hey Kids! Ready for School?

Last Monday I decided I'd better do some calendar calculations to figure out when we should begin our school year. I looked at last year's chart and saw that we had logged 101 days when we started our Christmas break. Counting backwards from this year's break,  and taking out nearly a month for our planned epic travel adventure (more on that in a future post) I discovered schooling would have to start that day if we wanted to finish in May.

Good thing I bought my books early this year and already had the classroom ready to go!

The boys were not exactly thrilled, but were good sports about the sudden schooling. EM was scheduled to go to a local history camp three days that week, so he only did grammar, a few analogy worksheets, reading, and some math. I knew he was going to do pre-algebra this year, but wasn't 100% sure which textbook I wanted to use. I sat down with him that Monday to look through what we had. Nothing felt like a perfect fit. Then I got an email from the Homeschool Buyer's Co-op that Thinkwell courses were half price. I showed EM a sample from the pre-algebra class and he told me he'd like to use it. JT used Thinkwell for two years and wasn't really a fan. EM loves the fact that he can work through it at his own pace. We had to wait a few days to get things set up so he did a little of Edward Zaccaro's Challenge Math book to warm up for the year, then when it was ready, worked his way through most of the first chapter of his Thinkwell course.

JT started Rosetta Stone's German Level 2, is reading the third book in C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, started his Jacob's Geometry text, and began his study of ecology. We are piecing together his ecology course from many sources including an ecology workbook, the book Bottle Biology, ecology videos on the Crash Course Youtube channel, and a few other books I have lying around. Because it's so pieced together, we will log 120 days of work instead of completion of a textbook as our record for his science credit through PHAA.

We also started reading Volume 4 of Story of the World and a biography of president Harry S. Truman.

For the next few weeks I will add in more subjects gradually until we get up to full speed for our schooling. I'm starting things a little more slowly this year. JT is doing a few subjects that are only a semester long so I am going to spread their start times out a bit to keep it from feeling too overwhelming at the beginning of the year.

One good thing about starting so suddenly is that I had no real time to dread the start of school. One day it was summer vacation, the next day, school!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Early Plans for 2015-2016 School Year

I am making good progress on the classroom cleaning and planning for next year. I currently have all of the books for next year back on the shelves; I also cleaned one of my smaller bookcases that had many good, but no longer needed, books on it. It is hard for me to part with some of them, especially my Janice VanCleave books, but I know I really don't need them anymore and they will find good homes with other families. As you can see in the picture,I have our entire work table covered with books to sell. I'm hoping to make enough cash to pay for the materials we will need for next year. Speaking of next year, let me tell you what we have planned so far.

JT will be using Lightning Lit American Literature from Hewitt Homeschooling Resources. This will be our first year using any of their materials, but I really like what I've seen so far. I especially like the fact that most of their products have a syllabus available. I used to do all course planning myself and frankly, I'm tired of having to do that! For math, he will be studying geometry using Harold Jacob's Geometry published in 1974. A friend recommended this for JT and it looks like a perfect fit. The reviews on Amazon make it sound like the Holy Grail of math textbooks. For science he is going to study ecology/environmental science. I bought a 100 page work/text book, but want to find either a good text or some other supplemental materials. We are also looking into getting him on an Envirothon team. For social studies, he will be continuing our time line study of American history, but this year, he will be writing his required long English essay about something we have studied for his credit requirement. He will also do a 1/2 year health course using a text I bought from Hewitt as well. He will continue with Rosetta Stone for German 2, continue fencing for a 1/2 credit in health, and start taking some art classes. The final piece for next year will be a computer programming class. A few weeks ago he was walking around thinking about a computer game he'd like to create. He suddenly realized that he is going to have to learn how to program in order to make the games he dreams up. So, my husband recommend that he start learning JavaScript, and he agreed!

EM will be using Anatomy Academy workbooks for his science studies. For social studies, he will continue with American history, beginning with WWII. Health will be a continued study of the text we have been using for the last two years. He will finish the next unit in his civics text book, and use the Maps, Charts, and Graphs level G workbook for geography. Math is going to be new this year because he has completed the Singapore math books. I gave him a pretest to determine if he's ready for algebra. He really only needs a few more concepts to begin algebra 1, so I think we are going to do a compacted pre-algebra for part of the year and then maybe start algebra when we see that he is ready. He will also be using a few of the writing workbooks I picked up, a grammar workbook, continue his diagramming work, and start expanding his reading by adding more non-fiction works to his reading list.

The boys both have some activities planned for the summer. JT will start a Coursera writing class on June 19th that will continue for five weeks. Both will attend Susquehanna University's Kids' College this month. In July, EM will attend a local history camp for three days. Both will go to Fire Safety Camp in August. JT will continue fencing on Monday nights. Last week, I saw a post by a local golf course that they were offering free lessons for kids every Wednesday morning for the next 8 weeks. EM went this week and really enjoyed it, so he will be continuing with that program through July.

I'm sure I will still be working out the details for our studies for another few weeks, but I feel like I have a good foundation ready for next year. This is probably the first summer that I have so much planned and ready to go before the end of June. Hopefully I can keep up the level of motivation to get everything in place before we start in mid-July. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wrap up for 2014-2015

I didn't really mean to take a month off. It just happened. My end of the year insanity seemed especially pressing this time. Last week we had the boys' evaluations. After I breathed a sigh of relief, I immediately dove into major classroom cleanup mode. I decided to surface tonight and share the wrap up for our year.

JT's first year of high school went well. PHAA's graduation requirements are:

Four credits of English
Three credits of math
Three credits of science
Three credits of social studies
Two credits of arts and humanities

He earned seven of his fifteen this year. One credit each for English, algebra, biology, American government, German 1, music (drums), and creative game design. This was the first year I had to grade all of his work. Usually I only graded spelling tests and the occasional worksheet. He ended up with all As. I was surprised to find he cared as much as he did about his grades. When he looked through the portfolio of his work and saw that he had some lower grades on a few activities in the Rosetta Stone he seemed to want to go back and do it again to improve his score. After so many years of not worrying about grades, he seems happy to see some measure of his work. 
I think the most interesting thing we did this year was his creative game design credit. I put together a very basic rubric that he had to meet to consider the class finished.
1. Learn about aspects of game design via books, blogs, and other online sources.

2. Design and develop a playable prototype of a card game, create a rough draft rule book, and alpha version of cards.

3. Playtest the game with a variety of players multiple times. Do extensive self testing. Request feedback from players and incorporate suggestions into the game.

4. Complete a 2500 word essay about aspects of game design and how you applied what you learned through your research to your own game.

It was good to be able to use the PHAA framework to customize his education to fit his interests and career aspirations. Next year I hope to do more of the same with art classes and a programming class.

EM did a great job this year. We spent a lot of time working on sentence diagramming to help him with his understanding of grammar and writing. He read a lot of books, completed a 6th grade spelling workbook, and studied analogies. He flew through Singapore math 6A and B. He studied a few units of a 6th grade science textbook, but spent the bulk of his year learning about electronics using the Great Courses Understanding Modern Electronics DVDs and doing projects with his dad. We continued our time line study of American history by reading presidential biographies starting with Grover Cleveland and finishing with Franklin Delano Roosevelt this year. His geography unit focused on the countries of Asia and he wrote a report on Mongolia and a poster presentation on India. He learned about the writing of the Constitution in his civics unit and made great progress in his first year of piano lessons.

for sale pile
I think we have all worked hard and deserve to enjoy a fantastic summer. But before I can start my time to relax I will finish my cleaning and planning for next year. I have an outline of all of their subjects nearly finished and I have already placed orders with two book companies with one more sitting on my desk. I have a HUGE stack of things to sell on the Gifted Homeschoolers' email list.

too many choices
The hardest part for my planning next year will probably be coming up with a good framework to help EM improve his writing skills. After watching JT spend far too much time trying to write his long essay (2500 words) for the PHAA English requirement, I want to make sure EM is ready when he reaches 9th grade. I have a ton of writing workbooks and activity books. I just need to see which ones I want to use and which ones I can put aside or sell.

I will put together one more post before I take my planned break for the summer. Once I have the final outline this week for next year, I will share my plans and then it's off to the pool!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Whatever... It's Almost Over

Windsock... really.
This was the week where I threw in the towel and let my students run amok.

On Monday JT hopped out of bed and told me he needed paper towel rolls and duct tape. He made a small windsock to gauge his flying potential, then they spent the better part of the day testing new models of paper airplanes in the backyard. I occasionally said things like,

 "You still have some school work to do."

"You can't use your computers until you finish your math." 

Since they were perfectly happy to stay outside and didn't really want to use a computer anyway, I figured I had lost the battle, but won the war.

We did manage to do some work. We finished reading Volume 3: Early Modern times from the Story of the World series this year. It has taken us about 2 years to get through each of the volumes. We generally read one lesson per week. For the first two volumes we would do some of the activity book as well, but as the boys got older, I found that the activities were not really appropriate for them anymore. As a final project this year, we made a time line for the book. JT and EM each chose eight chapters from the book to illustrate.

Next year when I purchase Volume 4, I don't think I will bother with the activity book. I will still probably get a copy of the test booklet though. I enjoy the style of these books, however, we do not like the way the chapters are not presented in chronological order. It was annoying to have to double-check dates on many of the events to be able to order them for our time line.

Finally, here's the poster EM made on Wal-mart's website. It arrived in the mail this week. He's written two Haikus that we will also frame and hang with his representation of spring.

The boys are not the only ones not doing their work this week. I had meant to start work on portfolios, but alas, I will have to do that next week instead.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The End is Nigh

Schooling this year seemed to fly by...
analog keyboard

until this last month arrived.

I am so glad that we are nearly finished. My planning for each week has been handled in a very haphazard way for most of March and April. Fortunately both boys have been working on things that have a schedule already established so I really only need to say, "Just do the next lesson." I know when the new year starts, my energy level will be back where it needs to be. For now, I'm just ready to call it quits and do some gardening.

Last Thursday we broke up the routine a little and went on a road trip to Williamsport to visit the Thomas Taber Museum. Out of all the exhibits there, the thing that held their interest the most, was a manual typewriter. Both of the boys had to test their skills. EM spent more than 15 minutes typing a message. There was a handwritten letter there that was to be transcribed by anyone who wanted to try it out. JT made an attempt but had difficulty reading the old-fashioned script in the letter. Other exhibits at the museum included a history of the logging industry in Pennsylvania and an extensive model train collection.

There was one little project we did this week that turned out to be more interesting than I expected. EM loves to take pictures. Last year he got a nice digital camera for his birthday and he seems to have a good eye for photography. Last week I told him he needed to do one more art project for the year. I asked him to go outside and take pictures that he felt represented spring. Then we would have them printed and make a collage poster. When we went to the Wal-mart photo center website, we learned that he could make a collage poster online. I decided that was a great option that would require less work and absolutely no glue!  I showed him how to upload the pictures and we put together a poster that will arrive at our doorstep next week. As a follow-up to this project, he also wrote a haiku about spring that he will use as part of his final presentation.

Our official last day of the 180 day requirement will be Monday. EM will be finished with all of his work, but JT will need to continue a few subjects for about 10 more days. He is nearly finished with Rosetta Stone's German 1 course. He also needs to do his last chapter test for Thinkwell Algebra. And depending on the weather, he might need a few more days to wrap up his biology unit due to some outside experiment requirements. Overall, I think we have had a good year. Next week I'll put together a more extensive summary of what we did this year. I will also be starting to put our portfolios together so I will able to share that process, as well.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Slacking Off

When I first started blogging about homeschooling, I made a commitment to myself to write a post every Friday. For the most part, I have kept to that goal, until this year. I'm not sure if it's because I have gotten lazy, have gotten busier, or if I just have less to say.

It has been busy around here lately, so that has contributed to my slacking off on the blog. I am starting to put our end of year portfolios together. This year I have the added task of compiling JT's grades for the evaluator so she can begin creating his high school transcript. I have a lot of questions about JT's future and how best to help him find his path. That has also contributed to my lack of posts. Many of my recent entries have focused on the fact that I have no idea what I am doing anymore. When he was looking at studying biology in college, the path seemed well-defined. Now that he wants to design board games or write music for video games or just about any other creative job that doesn't have an obvious step-by-step path that leads from high school graduation to career... I'm spending hours looking at college programs and art schools and biographies of people who didn't follow the beaten path and still managed to feed themselves.

Something else I have been doing is reading for pleasure more than I have in the last few years. I joined a Facebook group doing this 2015 Reading Challenge. Because of it, I've been picking up books I probably never would have read before. And since the list has 52 entries, I'm reading at least one book per week to try and finish by the end of the year. This has been taking up a lot of my free time. It's a good thing, and I'm enjoying it immensely, but I don't get much done outside of absolute necessities of life. JT is also doing the challenge, so I can count it as school related, right?

So these are my excuses. I tell myself I will do better from now on. We shall see...

Friday, March 20, 2015


I am getting anxious for spring weather. It has been a ridiculously cold, snowy, disease-laden winter here. A few days this week were nice enough for walks, but tomorrow we are expected to get another round of snow. Will it ever end?!

When spring is on the horizon, I start feeling worn thin by our schooling routine. The boys are less likely to be cooperative and I am less likely to pleasantly motivate them to work. I started recognizing the onset of this spring fever last week and I know I will need to work hard to get us back on track. Once this round of snowy weather comes and goes I plan to take the boys on a few outings to improve morale. I'm thinking a hiking trip at one of the state parks in our area and maybe we'll sign up for a program or two in the next month. Or maybe just the chance to get out in the yard more often will be enough to end the cabin fever.

Another project I have going is choosing our curriculum for next year. As usual, my original plan had to be amended so I need to do a lot of research before purchasing can begin. EM finished Singapore math 6 this year so we need to decide where he's going next. I'm sure he's ready for some algebra; I'm just not sure if we should do a full year of pre-algebra or just go straight into algebra. I'm going to be pulling a few placement tests off the web to help make that decision. Then there is JT. He is a math enigma that I need to crack before we move on for next year. Algebra has been a struggle with Thinkwell this year, so we will not continue using that platform for his next math course. Whether we go online or with a text, geometry is the traditional choice, but I just can't see that as a good fit. I know he needs some in order to take the SATs, but I'm leaning more towards Art of Problem Solving's Introduction to Number Theory for his next step. It seems like a better fit for someone interested in game design. We can always do geometry for his junior year, or just do some SAT prep math in addition to the number theory.

I also need to look at science for next year. JT will have biology under his belt at the end of this year. In a usual setting, chemistry would be next. I'm thinking it would be better to look for a community college opportunity for chemistry later in his high school career. So, again, what's the next logical choice? Maybe environmental science, ecology, human anatomy? EM will likely continue his study of electronics or move on to study machines and physics. Or we could just pull a seventh grade science textbook and go with that.

If they were in public school we'd have such limited choices for their course work. It would be a drawback in some ways, but in others, I can see how it would be a blessing. With so many options in front of us, it's so hard to choose the best path.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Are All Opportunities Equal?

Last week at the end of his lesson, JT's drum teacher asked if he could give me a call to talk about something. I must have looked worried because he immediately said, "It's nothing bad." It turns out he wanted to tell me that he thinks JT is making excellent progress and that he feels more frequent lessons would be a good idea. I told him we'd discuss it and let him know.

JT started taking lessons from this instructor September of 2013. He had his first exposure to drums playing Rock Band. We realized immediately that he had a bit of natural talent. My husband had bought a drum set for himself not long before that and we moved Jacob to the real drums to see what he could do. In no time he was playing with his dad and even composing his own songs.

We decided to send him for lessons to make sure he learned the rudiments and didn't develop any bad habits learning independently. The instructor is a well-known drummer and his prices are on the more expensive end. We wanted to give it a try so we set him up for an hour lesson every other week. After the phone call, we were looking at doubling our expenses for the drum lessons.

So, would it be worth it?

My husband and I both agreed that even though JT has great natural talent and ability, he doesn't have the passion for drumming that we would want to see if we were going to spend that kind of money. Sure he 'likes' to play but does he 'love' it? I don't see him running to the drums to play on his own. He practices what he has been assigned, usually for the minimum number of hours expected each week. He goes to the lesson and plays well. But the passion just isn't there. In all honesty, we had started to wonder if the every other week lessons were going to continue much longer.

When the teacher called, my husband told him we'd keep things the way they are for now. He explained that even though JT is a good drummer we can't see his drumming ever being more than a hobby. If he were considering a career in drumming it might be worth the cost but as a hobby it's not.

Maybe that sounds harsh... or cheap... But as parents I think we are encouraged far too often to push our kids to have the absolute best opportunities even when they aren't a good fit. I see parents spending loads of money on elite sports teams, fancy summer camps, high-end music lessons, and every experience you can think of under the sun. What happens when they seem to be naturally good at everything they try? Do we have an obligation to keep pushing that pursuit if they are only mildly interested? If it's your child's passion and you have the means to do it, then go for it! But when it's something we do just because we can, I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying no.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Answering Questions with Style

Yes, I am a slob.
Last week, I attended the annual PDE conference in Hershey. Every year I come home with a bit of knowledge that I always plan to employ with the boys. Most of the time, I quickly forget what great new thing I learned or I try it out and they are less than inspired with my new methods. This year I have finally found something that seems to excite both me and my students.

I went to a session titled, Short Writing Often, Not Just Long Writing Seldom by Dr. Anita Archer. I was hoping to get some ideas to use with EM since he is a resistant writer. What I came away with was a whole collection of resources to use with both of the boys. I realized I have been spending too much time trying to push them to write lengthy compositions when what they really need to do is step back and learn the basics so they can build a better foundation. Just last week, JT was asking me about the writing component of the SAT. He knows his best chance at a decent score on that test will require him to ace the vocab and writing portions so he can make up for any issues he has in the math section. We started looking at examples on the College Board website and he decided he was going to need to do some work if he wanted a good score on his writing. I was thrilled that he was being realistic and wanted to work to improve. Now I just needed to find the best way to help him with that goal. Enter Anita Archer...

Today we tried an exercise I learned in the session. I wrote a question on the white board related to our American history reading from yesterday.

What action during Coolidge's term as governor brought him national attention?

Then I gave this answer.

He stopped a strike.

While we all agreed this was a correct answer, we knew it wasn't a good answer. The next step involved using a tool from the session. This sentence expansion worksheet originally came from a book by Judith Hochman, Teaching Basic Writing Skills, which sadly, appears to be out of print.

question words
The student will look at the question asked and then use question words like, who, what, where, when, how, and why to expand the details they will use to answer. Once they write out the answers to the question words, they write their expanded sentence. We worked together to come up with answers for our question words on the board. Once we had the information needed to write a better answer, I had each of the boys write their own improved sentence. JT wrote:

While Calvin Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, he came to national attention when he resolved a policemen strike in Boston by calling in the national guard and ordering the commissioner to replace the strikers.

Much more detailed than, he stopped the strike, yes? I plan to use this new exercise every week to reinforce our American history study. After our reading aloud, I will give the boys a question to answer. We will gradually move away from working together on the white board until they can complete the question word outline alone to come up with their own answer. There were many more great writing frames Dr. Archer shared in her presentation that I plan to put into action in the next few months. As of right now, you can still access the handouts from the session here on the PaTTAN site. Please note that there is a drop down on the page to get both of the PDFs.

The greatest part of the whole experience was when JT told me today, "You know, I think I'm starting to like writing. I really enjoyed writing that answer." It turns out he was having a hard time choosing what bits of information to use. Too many things are in his head and instead of picking the appropriate details, he tends to answer with as little as possible to avoid the decisions. Now that he has a good way to identify the important details, he feels more in control and able to give the best answer.

I could get mad at myself for not thinking of this sooner, but I've learned that the right tool seems to come along at the right time in our schooling. Maybe if I had picked this up a few years ago, JT and EM wouldn't have been ready to use it. Maybe I wouldn't have been ready to implement it in a way that would have made sense. I'm just happy that this knowledge has come to me at a time when JT is thinking about his need to improve his writing and that he is interested in putting new tools to work. We will be employing the short writing often method as often as we can!

Thursday, February 5, 2015


As a homeschooling family, we sometimes find our boys have unique opportunities that other kids their age may not experience. Sometimes it's fun things, like vacationing during the school year or playing outside during school hours. Other times these opportunities are a little different, but very valuable to their growth as part of the community.

In recent months our church congregation has lost a few members. Because our schedule is flexible we are often able to attend funerals when other children would need to be in school. This has allowed our boys to experience memorial services for people other than immediate family members. I find this to be good to help them see grief in a less threatening way. The services we attended were for older men and women that had lived rich, full lives. We heard many family members tell stories of the hardships their loved ones had endured, the challenges they had met, and the love they had shared with the people they knew. We were also able to hear of the hope they have to see them again when they come to the end of their own lives. Sharing in these moments will help our children start to feel the bonds of our community. I hope it will also help them deal with grief in the future when it hits closer to home.

Sometimes homeschooling presents opportunities that I would never have thought of as educational before we started this journey. But I'm finding there is much to learn when we open our eyes to life as a teacher.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Still Life of Influenza

Not a great week in our homeschooling household. Monday night my husband, EM, and I all started coughing. By Tuesday morning we knew we were really sick. As the week went on, we heard stories of many members of our church being diagnosed with the flu, so we knew what we were up against. JT stayed healthy up until today, when he started coughing. Earlier in the week he shoveled the driveway, made us dinner, and avoided breathing our air as much as possible. My older daughter stopped by twice to deliver supplies, but never came in the sick house. As you would guess, there has been little schooling happening, but plenty of coughing, sniffling, and sleeping. We had to skip piano lessons, drum lessons, basketball practice, and Bible class. Maybe by Saturday EM will be well enough to play in his basketball game, but if not, we'll continue in hermit mode until all of the germs have been vanquished. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Volunteering Brings Opportunity

A few months ago, while visiting one of our local libraries, JT and I noticed a sign advertising the need for library volunteers. We talked about it on the ride home and after I contacted the librarian to check age requirements, JT filled out an application to volunteer. Monday was his first day on the job.

As a student volunteer he will be putting in about three hours most weeks, hopefully all on one day to avoid driving there too often. We decided not to do more hours than that to start to avoid overloading his schedule with too many away-from-home activities during the school year. He may add a few hours in the summer months if he is needed.

In the days leading up to this experience, we started reviewing the way the library is organized. A discussion on the Dewey Decimal system and the specific layout of our library helped him feel more comfortable with his new environment. He really shouldn't need much help for that since he has been a weekly library visitor from his birth until now. In fact, if you want to count my visits while pregnant, it goes back a little further. Even though we own a houseful of books, we can't stop ourselves from borrowing more every week.

In spite of the preparation, he was still quite nervous his first day. I dropped him off at 1pm and returned to pick him up at 4. As I got out of my car, a librarian and the therapy dog were coming out to go home. She called over to me to tell me what a wonderful job he had done on his first day. Proud mom moment! Inside the library, the woman in charge of the volunteer program told me that JT had helped her with some ideas for activities for teen boys and that she wanted to implement one of them in the future.

JT told me all about his day. He had worked to shelve movies, children's fiction and non-fiction, restock the tax preparation forms, and his favorite job, taping the covers of the new books. He said he liked working in the back room because it was so quiet and the work was a good fit for his perfectionist traits. He thought it was cool that he got to see the newest books being added to the library collection.

Later he told me how at one point in the day he was asked if he was tired of working yet. He told me that being there had not felt like work because he enjoyed it so much. With that revelation we are adding library careers to his list of potential employment to pursue as an adult. This experience has made me realize that getting him out into the world to try new things will help him find where he will fit as an adult. For years I have wondered how he would make the decision about his eventual career. I worried that without a school guidance counselor he might not have the college and career planning available to him that most students experience. After Monday I realized that as a homeschooler he may have more real-world experiences and time to investigate job options than traditional students might have. I hope to provide as many opportunities as possible for that exploration in the years to come.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breaking Things Down

second try
About a year ago I wrote a post about grammar and how I was starting to work with JT on sentence diagramming. Well that only lasted a few weeks before I abandoned the idea. The book I was using wasn't really appropriate for his level. Also, he found it tedious. So I tossed it aside and went back to our usual routine. Now he's using the free version of English Grammar 101 for his instruction and that works just fine for him.

At the start of this year, I realized I needed something new for EM. Language, especially written, has always been his weakest subject. I planned to use a combination of Calvert's 5th grade grammar workbook and the diagramming workbook as a supplement to see how it worked for him. As the weeks went on, it became obvious that Calvert's traditional approach of breaking down sentences by underlining and circling various components wasn't making sentence construction clear to him. However, he was flying through the diagramming book with no problems. I was telling a friend how much difficulty he was having with the Calvert book and she said, "Get rid of it! Why not just use the diagramming?" Sometimes I just can't put two and two together.

too many directions
The diagramming workbook does start each lesson with a long set of directions to identify the parts of a few example sentences. I discovered two things in this process. EM can not handle multiple instructions being given in one set of written directions. Once I realized that, we would circle or underline each of the separate requirements in those instructions. Then he would mark them off, one at a time, as he completed them. This simple change made things so much easier for him. But the real difference came in being able to SEE those sentence parts and their relationships to each other by doing the actual diagramming. He could finally understand how the adjectives were related to the nouns they modified because it became obvious when diagrammed. I knew he was a visual learner, but I had never really thought about how much easier grammar would be if he could see it in that way.

spiral bound books are the best
Since the little diagramming book I had on my shelf only has a few months worth of lessons in it, I went ahead and invested in a weightier volume that should last us well into his high school years. I read good reviews of Drawing Sentences by Eugene R. Moutoux and I'm hoping it lives up to them. Thankfully it has a complete answer key in the back. I didn't do much diagramming in my own school years, so I'm learning right there with him.

One test question at the very end of the book has a sentence that fills an entire page. It is an excerpt from a speech by Thomas Jefferson.

I think I have some work cut out for me in the future.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

About Face!

Christmas robot
Changes are coming. After four years in which the boys learned science using  three or four large unit studies designed by me each school year, I made the choice to leave that pattern behind. Since JT is now working to add up credits for his high school transcript, he is completing a full year course in biology. I decided to use a standard 6th grade textbook for EM.

This was a bad decision.

EM enjoys reading fiction but has little interest in non-fiction, especially if that non-fiction comes in the form of textbooks. I started off the year assigning a short section of reading each week, supplementing with BrainPOP videos and activities. When he would reach the end of a chapter I would go over the review questions with him. As the months went on, I realized he wasn't really retaining what he was reading. I also started to suspect he wasn't actually reading his assignments. I began to sit with him while he was reading each section and we would read some aloud and discuss what he had read. Finally, a few weeks before Christmas, he was doing a unit review and his answers were so off I knew this learning method was going to have to change.

DVDs for the win!
Around the same time, a Great Courses catalog came in the mail. We already own a few courses that we have used for supplemental work, but they have never watched a complete series. When I saw the modern electronics class, I was fairly certain it would be a perfect fit for EM. I showed him the syllabus and he was in favor of giving it a try. After the poor results of our textbook use, I've decided to switch EM to a unit study on electronics for the remainder of this school year. He will use the Great Courses material, build some of his own projects, and do some work with his dad. My husband has been dabbling in electronics repair for years and just received a new book for Christmas, How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic that will fit right into my plan for EM. I had also bought a Robo Link deluxe kit for EM from Home Science Tools for Christmas. He built one of the robots yesterday. And I must say, it's a pretty cool set. The motor assemblies can be altered to different gear ratios depending on how much power you need for a particular model. I think this new plan for science will probably take more work on my part but should be much more rewarding for EM than what we have been doing so far this year.

The other DVD set in the picture is for JT's game design course. As part of this course, he is writing a 2500 minimum word paper on the topic of game design. He completed his first rough draft right before our holiday break. I started my initial proof reading but couldn't stay focused with all of the Christmas chaos. Tomorrow I will be sequestering myself so I can finish and make some comments to help him start on his revision process. Another goal for the class is to design a game from idea to completion by the end of the school year.  He took the card game he has been working on to a New Year's Eve party at our church and played it with two friends. The cards are still in their primitive forms but game play seems to be working pretty well. Now that he's completed some play testing, I'd like to see him looking at creating more professional looking game components. We may need to purchase new software to do that if we can't find something available either in Open Source or perhaps a program we already have. But I'm happy to say it looks like he's well on his way to meeting his goals for this course.

I spent some time this week looking ahead at the calendar and calculating the remaining lessons JT needs to cover in German, algebra, and biology to complete those subjects. It looks like he may need to work into the second week of May. This will run us a week later than our usual end time for our school year. Part of this is my fault for being indecisive about his science text at the start of the year. We also had to slow down a bit on algebra when JT came to a concept that needed more intense focus. But considering this was our first year working with a more structured schedule for his diploma program, I think we did a good job meeting deadlines. We're learning for our next year so we can make adjustments and plan a little better.

Am I the only homeschooler out there that completely changes gear mid-year on a fairly regular basis? If you have found yourself in the same situation, have you been happy with the about faces you have made in your plans? I think most of our reconfiguring proves beneficial. What about you?