Sunday, May 25, 2014

Homeschool Review: Language Arts and More for Elementary School

Whew!  All this blogging is taking up so much of my time that maybe I should look into getting paid for reviews.  Hmmm...just kidding.  Partly.  Therefore, this post doesn't contain any affiliate links either.  I'm writing because I enjoy it.  Really.  Oh great, now I feel guilty spending so many hours selfishly enjoying something...ah the life of a mom!

I'm hoping I can get through everything else in one post and without any further soap box moments.

All Things Fun and Fascinating by IEW
I'm working through this curriculum with Zeke and Josh this year.  I felt confident to teach it after two years of previous experience with IEW's writing method (Teaching Writing with Structure and Style).  My mantra quickly became, "You can't help them too much."  Help I did.  At first it felt like I was writing each paragraph/story twice (once for each boy) for them, rather than them doing it.  Any frustration on my part was simply the lesson God designed for me in patience (I'm a poor student).  My help for the boys meant that learning to write became a possibility rather than a lesson in futility.  They are learning that they can do it--and that's a great first step!  We didn't quite finish the curriculum, and I haven't decided if we will or not.  I'm ready for a change, and I sense that they are too.  We have many great stories in the boys' portfolios now.  We have our sights set on the Student Writing Intensive for next year.

As a curriculum, AFF is well-written.  There is a student book (with copyright permission within each family) and a teacher's manual (ebook).  The teacher's manual includes lesson plans and tips, as well as a coordinating vocabulary component.  The stories in AFF are fun and interesting, living up to the book's title.

AFF alone is not enough to be a full language arts curriculum.  We added in spelling and reading.  For reading we tried to choose titles that coordinated with our history studies, or whatever I happened to be in the mood for.  For grammar we finished up a book by Evan Moore (Daily Language Review) and just recently cracked into Daily Oral Language.  None of what we have used so far have given Zeke and Josh a decent foundation in knowing the parts of speech, so I pulled out Winston Grammar a couple weeks ago.  So far I like it.

For history we used BJU Heritage Studies 4 student text and the student activity book.  I picked and chose which activity sheets to do based on what I thought may be interesting to my students while adding to their learning at the same time.  It is clear to me that my boys learn and retain much more history when we employ delight-directed learning.  That is, when they choose to read books that appeal to them.  Do I even need to say it?  Next year we will use TruthQuest History and our public library.  ;)

We didn't do very much science this year.  I purchased Science in the Beginning by Dr. Jay Wile.  I love that the format is similar to the books he wrote for middle and high school science.  I love that the text is rich with experiments.  I simply have not had time to do more than a few lessons with the boys.  We are going to study a lot of science this summer, and I hope to make it through this book!  It would be really awesome if our study of science coordinated with our history timeline, but that's not going to happen this year.  It's alright...I know that connections will be made where they need to be made.

I think this concludes my reviews of homeschool materials now, unless of course I forgot something that I really wanted to tell you about.  I will return later this summer to share a list of what we are using for the next school year.

Homeschool Review: Math-U-See

My free time is slipping away quickly, so I need to wrap this up.  I have three students in elementary school.  If you consider a traditional calendar, Zeke is in 4th grade, Josh is in 3rd grade, and Malachi is in 1st grade.  I don't really think there is anything traditional about the way these three do school though.  I finally am at peace with their custom-made education.  It seems to be working well for us.  This post ended up being a lot longer than I expected, so I am highlighting Math-U-See and will get to the other subjects in a future post!

Math-U-See
I have experience now with Math-U-See for several years.  We have covered Primer, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.  We typically spend a full school year on each level.  This past spring I finally settled into a good routine of doing one lesson per week.  If you are unfamiliar with MUS, this is how it works:  a new topic is introduced each lesson.  Each lesson consists of 3 worksheets practicing exclusively that new skill (for example, Lesson 1A, 1B, and 1C).  The next 3 worksheets are review sheets (Lesson 1D, 1E, and 1F) that cover all previous materials and incorporate the new skill as well.  Students are presented with a traditional variety of practice problems, including word or story problems. At the conclusion of the lesson, the student is given a test, by which to demonstrate mastery of the new skill (and retained skills from previous lessons).  Finally, an enrichment sheet (1G) is included.  In some cases this enrichment sheet goes beyond the scope of learning "just the basics" and can be fun for the kids to do.

The instruction pack includes detailed instructions for the parent (including step-by-step demonstrations of how to teach each new skill), the answer key, and a DVD of Steve Demme teaching each lesson before a class.  The DVD lessons are very short and are designed to teach the parent how to teach, not for the student to learn from (though I admit to having my kids watch it when I am short on time!).  The lesson instructions often include some topics that may not be covered by a worksheet.  One such example is "mental math."  This is something that my hubby does in his third grade public school class. My students at home would miss out if I never bothered to pick up the instruction manual.  Also, the instruction manual as well as the DVD demonstrate how to use the manipulatives.  My students sometimes complain when I tell them to get out the blocks.  They want the short-cut to learning math, but I'm here to tell you there are no short cuts.  The blocks actually do help.  We don't need them for very long--usually only to help the students get through rough spots.

I appreciate MUS's clean and simple approach to math.  The worksheets are plain and simple, with no art for distractions (though Josh often illustrates his math page).  MUS is a mastery based approach to math, therefore you should not move on until your student has really mastered the basic facts.  If you find your student struggling in the lower levels (Primer through Delta), I would venture to guess that a refresher of basic computation would help (aka speed drills, flash cards, etc).  MUS does not contain a lot of "fluff."  My students aren't wasting spending their time learning some new-fangled common core nonsense.  (Sorry.)  My kids are spending their days focusing on adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.
This:

Not this:
 The above picture is a worksheet from Mitch's 3rd grade class.  Don't get me wrong--my students may study some of those topics (in the second picture) on their enrichment pages, and typically they are at least introduced sometime in the school year.  But MUS students are not tested on them, nor are they expected to master them.  They are expected to master the basics.  Honestly the lack of basic facts in the PS math curriculum concerns me deeply.  Keep these topics fun.  Introduce them.  Play with them.  But the primary focus should be to understand My Dear Aunt Sally (Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract)!

 Now here is the kicker--Zeke is in 4th grade and is not working with fractions yet (we had a basic introduction at the end of Delta).  That is a little different than even when I went to school.  He is, however, dividing crazy big numbers.  So large that I would just give up and get a calculator (who wouldn't?).  So that's where the mastery part comes in.  Once he really really has a grasp of what multiplication and division even mean, he can begin to understand what a fraction is.  He will be able to do so much more with fractions once he dives into Epsilon.  Since MUS introduces topics this way and is a mastery-based approach, it would be difficult for me to decide to do a completely different curriculum for math next year.  I couldn't get Saxon 5/4 math for example and expect Zeke to do it.  It is a con of MUS and the mastery approach, but it's not really--I simply expect to stay with MUS at least through Epsilon next year and Zeta the year after that.  Then I feel that Zeke will have covered all the topics necessary to begin Pre-Algebra.  At that point we will most likely switch to Saxon Algebra 1/2, but I'm not 100% sure.  I have heard that MUS Algebra makes a lot of sense.  It would cost me more money, so I guess I can say that it costs a lot of cents.  I'll look at it when I get there--that's a ways down the road yet.

Bottom line:  MUS is not some magical, easy formula for learning math.  There is no such thing.  It is a solid program, but you really need to follow the instruction book and see it through (many years) to realize the benefits.  You need to make sure your student has really mastered a skill before building on it, or it will come back to haunt you both later in reviews.  For example, last year when Josh didn't really have a firm grasp on all of his subtraction facts, subtracting large numbers with borrowing became quite a cumbersome chore!  I knew it was time to hit the flashcards again.  Know ahead of time that if you decide to switch from MUS to some other curriculum down the road you will have learning gaps through which you will patiently have to teach your student.

(Um, I don't want Mitch to get in trouble here, so you must know that I am expressing my own personal opinion and I do not speak for him when I talk about public school curriculum or common core.  He is a phenomenal teacher and he incorporates much more than the above worksheet into his math class!  He strives to make sure his students have a good foundation and plenty of opportunities to reinforce basic mathematical functions.  In some ways, the students in his class receive a "better" education than my students at home, if you compare apples and oranges.  ;)  Parents need to know that they have a burden of responsibility laid upon them for their own child's education, even if their children are in public school.  You don't have to pull your kids out of public school and homeschool them just because I think the math curriculum is stupid.  ::joking::  I hear all the time parents say that they have no idea how to do math "the new way" that is being taught in school today.  I encourage parents to talk with teachers, figure it out, be involved. You don't have to help your child with every math problem, but if your child is struggling in any area of math YOU should be the one working to help your child master and understand it.  Don't wait for the teacher--who is working with 20 to 30 students--to give your child an individualized education.  It's impossible!  Check your student's homework.  Check their test scores.  Rework missed problems with your child.  Just because someone else is teaching your child doesn't mean that you don't have to be a teacher now.  Ok...sliding my soap box back into the closet.)

Homeschool Review: All About Learning Press

As I dig into the resources we use for elementary school, I would like to highlight one company--All About Learning Press.

Before I get started, let me say up front that I am not including any affiliate links (ie: links I earn money for), I wasn't paid to review, and I didn't even get any of the products for free.  Shucks, I didn't even buy any of the products used.  I paid full price.  You know how much I love a bargain, so when I'm willing to fork over full retail price for something, it had better be worth every dime!

I received Level 1 of All About Spelling (AAS) bundled in the Primary Art of Learning (PAL) Writing kit I purchased from the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW).  I was only mildly interested at first.  Up until that point, I had been unimpressed with every other spelling curriculum I had encountered.  I don't remember when Malachi and I first cracked the book and got started, but I do remember feeling quite impressed before too long.  In fact, I soon had Zeke (who hates spelling...seriously crawl-under-the-table-and-cry hates spelling) trying it out as well.  Before the end of the school year last year I purchased Level 2 so we could keep going without interruption.  One day my teacher's manual got absolutely drenched with water on the table.  It was beyond saving.  (Remember how I'm a miser/penny-pincher.)  I grieved over the loss of the book.  Ugh.  I dreamed about the day when I could re-order it and Level 3 as well.  Something was seriously wrong with me.  Anyway...tax refund came, my homeschool budget was funded, and we added to our collection.  In addition I was able to invest in several reading products as well.  Whew!

Ok, all that to try to convince you that I'm excited and dedicated to this product.  Big deal.  What is so great about it?  How is it different than other offerings?

For years we used A Beka to teach our kids to read.  Micah, Eden, Caleb, Zeke, and Josh all learned to read using A Beka.  Out of the five of them, only two are good spellers, and I suspect it is because it comes naturally to them.  Zeke struggled for a long time with "sight" words (words which can not phonetically be sounded out), which slowed down his reading and was a discouragement to him.  So obviously A Beka's method--while building a strong foundation in phonics--had some gaps that my children couldn't jump over with the decoding skills they had.  A Beka's program teaches the basic (first) sounds of each letter, then teaches a long list of phonograms such as "ck in duck" called "special sounds."  This is a very long list of phonograms for a student to memorize, however slowly they try.

All About Spelling and All About Reading (AAR) use a similar but fundamentally different approach.  Each letter is taught with its own phonograms.  For example, b has only the phonogram /b/ but c has the phonograms /k/ and /s/.  Later easy-to-remember rules are added for helping a student decode when to use which letter.  The teaching methods follow a logical-sequential pattern.  I don't know much about it, but it is the Orton-Gillingham approach.  Apparently this method really works well for students with dyslexia or dysgraphia.  My children don't have this struggle, but that certainly doesn't diminish the benefit to them!



As a mom to nine children, homeschooling 6 (soon to be 7) of them, and running a daycare, I do not have a lot of time for one-on-one instruction.  In order for AAS and AAR to be used correctly, I need to teach each student on his or her individual level.  If I am going to make this work, then I need to maximize my time with the student and minimize any prep time.  All About Learning Press does that for me.  I have my board ready to go all the time.  I only need to open the book and teach.  I learned the hard way that all the components of the program are necessary.  They may not be necessary every day.  What one child needs on one lesson, another child may not need.  But all of the components for all of the children are necessary.  I thought I could get away with purchasing only the teacher's manual for spelling, so that's what I tried for Level 3.  I thought, "I'm saving $17!"  Several lessons into the book I looked up at Josh and said, "That's it.  We have to order the student package.  Spelling is on hold until next week."  On a happy note, it is quite easy to use the products in such a way that they may be reused for future children.  My life would be easier if I purchased boxes and dividers for each child, but I developed a system that works for me and saved a few bucks.  Copyright permission is given for individual (household) use of the reading activity books--hurray!


You may use either program--spelling or reading--without the other, but if your student is learning both, it makes sense to use both.  They work so well together, and one reinforces the other.  Malachi is doing this, and Tirzah will eventually (we are working through Pre-reading together now).  Malachi is in Level 2 of both reading and spelling, but we don't strive to make him be on the same step or to have them "match up."  Reading and spelling are different.  Reading requires decoding the phonograms, and spelling requires building the phonograms back together.  If you would like to read about this further, I recommend this blog post: http://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/whats-the-difference-aar-aas/#more-5199.  So what happens with Malachi is he gets review and reinforcement.  He exercises using phonograms in different ways, cementing them into his mind.  He had a good start with PAL learning to read, but it was so different from A Beka's method that I personally struggled with teaching him.  We started using All About Reading a little over a month ago and I've already marked improvements.  I purchased Level 1 and Level 2, but he was ready for Level 2 so we went with it, always prepared to back off and review if needed.  I will work through the AAR levels until Malachi is comfortably reading on his own, and choosing to read on his own.  Zeke and Josh already do this, so I do not feel the need to do a formal reading program with them.

With Malachi and Zeke doing spelling, and now Josh too, that is three boys needing individual spelling instruction.  Malachi also needs individual reading instruction.  Where do I find the time?  I allot approximately 15 min per kid for spelling, but sometimes it is only 10 or sometimes up to 20 min, depending on how many times I am interrupted or how much fun we are having, or if the student has already mastered it.

So, the programs cost a bit of money.  It is an investment.  Is Pre-reading worth it?  Yes.  This is far more than teaching a preschooler to recognize the letters of the alphabet and their sounds.  They learn the beginnings of decoding in creative, fun ways.  A "step" or lesson typically takes less than 10 min of my time (not counting the 30 min of reading a day we should do together for fun).  It's amazing to me what Tirzah has been able to pick up during this structured 10 min a day.

Discovering All About Learning Press has been invigorating for me.  It has inspired and motivated me to keep going with this homeschool thing.  That may sound a bit silly, but it's true.  It has made learning fun for ME, and hopefully that is rubbing off onto the kids as well.  At least Zeke doesn't crawl under the table to cry anymore.  I think he is starting to believe me when I tell him that it's ok to spell a word wrong during spelling class--that shows us where we need to work, and where he is able to learn.  :)

Stay tuned for more...I'm heading out to do some shopping (at the thrift store, of course, LOL)!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Middle School Homeschool Curriculum

Caleb was in 7th grade this year and here's the low-down on his books...

Saxon Algebra 1/2, Third edition
I picked it up at a garage sale for dirt cheap, assuming Caleb could do it.  At first I made an attempt to go over lessons each day with him.  It soon became apparent that my help wasn't necessary.  This curriculum has a great mix of reviewing the basics while introducing some algebra topics.  It works very well as a pre-algebra course.  I took Pre-Algebra when I was in 8th grade, and so Caleb has this view that he's actually a year ahead in math.  Unfortunately in Minnesota it is now standard for 8th graders to take Algebra, so that puts Caleb right on track.  I will say that this is a practice with which I wholeheartedly disagree.  Based on research I did a couple years ago, I conclude that the version of Algebra that 8th graders receive in the public schools covers fewer topics than the high school level Algebra I that I took back in the day.  When will students make this up?  And now I read that common core says that students do not need to master Algebra II in order to graduate from high school.  Well, I suppose that is true, but I am deeply concerned that these students will have a much poorer foundation in Algebra than ever before.  Ugh. This does not appear to be a problem with Saxon.  I'm thankful more than ever for homeschool where I can set my standards higher and still be able to help my students reach those standards.

Following Narnia
Caleb used this writing curriculum from the Institute for Excellence in Writing to help him review writing with structure and style.  Since we had already done the SWI-B and the SICC-B courses, this was a pretty easy course for him and required very little of my time.  It had just enough review to help him practice skills that he spent the last two years acquiring.  It was also a relatively easy way for me to assign composition.  I didn't have to think about it much.  If Caleb had been less confident and capable in his writing skills, I could have carved out time each week to teach the lesson and guide him through writing assignments.  It is a well-done course, especially now that I am familiar with IEW's program.  Caleb is a creative young man and I enjoyed getting to hear him practice his "voice" when writing.  The writing assignments were thoughtful and interesting.  They often provided background information to C.S. Lewis's stories, making a great history connection. 

Just in case you have not tried anything from IEW yet, let me also put a plug in for their Student Writing Intensive and the Student Writing Intensive Continuation Course.  I am so glad we found this company!  I love their products.  I love that they give copyright permission for families.  I love the free webinars, articles, etc, that they provide on their website as well as the support group on yahoo.  I love that they have both secular and religious products, so that public school teachers (like my husband!) have access to their resources, yet as a homeschool mom I have access to great resources that support our Christian faith (such as Following Narnia).

Caleb also used Apologia's Exploring Creation with General Science, which was quite good.  We used the First edition of this book, and I didn't note any major problems with doing this.  Caleb used BJU World Studies for history...he made it through, but by the end I scrapped all but just reading.  Like I said in a previous post, reading a textbook and taking tests is the worst way to study history.  We are happily headed back to TruthQuest History, where everyone agrees we all learned more.  I rounded out Caleb's language arts with assigned novels.  We used the Socratic questions from Teaching the Classics to dig into these novels.  We used some vocab that was built into both Fix-it! Grammar and Following Narnia, and we used spelling lists on SpellingCity.com for review (Caleb seems to be a naturally good speller).

It feels like I'm forgetting something...maybe Caleb will remind me.  Next time I log in I will write about Elementary School.  Yay!

(There are no affiliate links in this blog post.  I do not receive compensation for these reviews, nor do I earn a commission if you buy anything.)

High School Homeschool Curriculum

I have Micah and Eden working at the same level because it is easier for me.  Eden seems to rise to the occasion just fine, anyway.  Officially, Micah is in 10th grade and Eden is in 9th.

The Virtual Homeschool Group
Besides Devona's awesome lesson planning, the Virtual Homeschool Group is my favorite resource discovered this year.  I only found it about a month ago, so we haven't plunged the depths, but I am in love.  This is a free group, not actually a curriculum.  In many cases you need to already own or purchase curriculum for the courses you sign up for.  Students can enroll in either live classes (enrollment begins in August, so we have not yet participated in live classes) or at-your-own-pace classes.  We have tried out classes for both science and math.  They have AYOP classes using Apologia's curricula as well as some preview classes for math using Saxon's curricula.  Awesomesauce!

So here's how the AYOP course works:  a student enrolls in the class.  They then have access to quite a few resources including: map of topics covered in each module, items needed for labs in the module (nothing like needing red cabbage but not finding out until the day you need it), newsletter for parents, videos of labs, recordings of lectures, online quizzes and tests (with instant grading), email help (!!!), and I'm sure there's more here yet to be discovered.  I'm floored by the offerings.  And not just that, but it is also all HIGH QUALITY.  These lessons do not replace the student books.  The student must have the books, and they must actually read their books.  But the additional information on the website can really unlock their understanding of the material.  This has definitely been true for Micah.  He ACED the last module in his Biology book, and I know it is because of The Virtual Homeschool Group.  I'm thrilled to be able to use this for Exploring Creation with Chemistry next year.

On my to-do list:  create an account for Caleb, then email the moderators of the site and ask them to make my account a "parent" account so I can log in and monitor Micah, Eden, and Caleb's work.

Saxon Algebra II, Second Edition
I am confident in Saxon.  This is our second year using it, and I feel like I made the right choice.  It's very traditional, and it covers all the parts of Algebra that I hope to cover.  The author does a nice job of explaining the lesson.  Eden usually prefers to read the lesson for herself and work the problems, only asking me for help when she gets "stuck."  Micah prefers me teaching the lesson (which usually means that I read it out loud to him and work the examples on the board).  Hey--I like to teach Algebra, so he's just getting on my good side.  ;)  Micah seems to like working the problems on the Virtual Homeschool Group (they are the same problems) because he gets immediate feedback.  He reworks the problem until he gets it right.  Even though it is multiple choice, he still ends up needing to work out the problems.  Can I say "thank you!!" to VHG again?  I sat down to create a multiple choice test one day and it was HARD.  I'm so glad they have done the work for me.

On the other hand, I'm not loving that I purchased the second edition of Algebra II.  I'm sure I was motivated by the price, but I wish I had gotten the third edition.  (I made the same mistake and have the second edition for Advanced Math for next year too.)  The biggest difference for me in the third edition is each practice problem has a reference to what lesson it came from.  So in the second edition when you are on Lesson 113 and can't remember exactly how to do a review problem from the beginning of the year, it might leave you searching for a while.

Another note about the preview version of Saxon Algebra II on the Virtual Homeschool Group--the lesson recordings typically are comprised of one example problem.  The student really MUST read the lesson in their Algebra book.

One final note about Saxon Algebra, and this applies to both the second and third editions.  I didn't know this ahead of time, and I'm not sure I would have made the same choice if I did.  A typical high school student may take Algebra I (or take that in 8th grade), Geometry, Algebra II, then Trigonometry/Pre-calculus.  Saxon has integrated Geometry into the Algebra courses so that the second and third editions have this course for their students:  Algebra I, Algebra II, and Advanced Mathematics.  Upon completion of Alg II and Adv. Math, a student will actually have 3 full math credits instead of 2.  I really like this idea--the student does not forget all their Algebra while they are learning Geometry.  On the other hand, I don't know how colleges viewing my students' transcripts will feel about it.  Is it too non-traditional?  Will my students have "enough" Geometry?  Now that we are at the end of Algebra II, the lessons are very long.  It is common for Micah to spend 2 hours or more on a homework assignment.  So I can see where they get the 3 credits from.  It has very strong pros, but it also has cons.  Therefore I'm not sure I would choose to study math this way if I could go back and do it again.  Saxon does have fourth editions of their books, which follow the traditional path of doing Geometry completely separate.  Both the third edition and the fourth edition are still printed concurrently.

Windows to the World and A Syllabus for Introduction to Literary Analysis
The Institute for Excellence in Writing now sells these items bundled together.
Windows to the World (WW) consists of a student book and a teacher book with activities that help teach students the elements of literary analysis in some depth.  The original book by Lesha Myers uses a flavorful variety of short stories and poetry to give students hands-on experience with literary analysis.  The syllabus by Jill Pike rounds out the curriculum to make a full course by including a wider variety of literature and more exercises, as well as providing weekly lesson plans.  We did a lot of learning together this year.  We explored theme, thesis statements, mood, point-of-view, tone, and so on.  We wrestled through essays together, using all our best structure and style from our first two years of studying IEW's writing curriculum.   I have enjoyed the way this has stretched all of us.  There is no "fluff" here.

Cons:  I wish we could have done this in a group (co-op) setting.  Yes, we are doing a little better than some in that we had the three of us to talk through the lessons, but I think that students could be even more sharpened and challenged by having a larger group.  Sometimes I felt like Micah and Eden didn't take it seriously enough because it was "just me" as their teacher.  On the other hand, I feel confident we have laid a good foundation for a literary analysis class at the college level.  Another con is in putting the all the resource materials together.  The WW curriculum consists of a student book and teacher's manual, which requires the teacher (me!) to read both.  Then the syllabus consists of student pages as well as teacher pages.  All this must be put together--which I did into 3-ring binders--and kept straight by the teacher (possibly a little more complicated).  I wasn't satisfied with the organization of this.  I had to really use my noodle in order to break down the weekly assignments into daily lesson plans for Micah and Eden.  Also, the first few lessons of the syllabus use the Teaching the Classics course.  I love Teaching the Classics, too, and it is quite helpful here, but consider that might be another purchase on top of this one.  To help off-set the costs, copyright permission is granted for families to copy the student materials for students in the same family.

Exploring Creation with Biology
I don't know that I really need to review this course, as it is extremely popular, especially among homeschoolers.  I believe in a literal 6-day Creation and a young Earth, and this book shares that view.  It is challenging and presents everything that a public school Biology course would.  At times it was hard for my kids to study.  When they slacked off, their grades reflected that.  That's a quality curriculum!  They were appropriately challenged most of the time, but I admit feeling like some of the time it was just more difficult than they even cared to put the effort into.  A couple months ago I finally emailed the company and asked for alternate tests, which they courteously sent me.  I was worried that the alternate tests would be "too easy" and that I was motivated by obtaining a good grade for my kids rather than an accurate reflection of their mastery of the material.  I needn't have worried--yes, there were multiple-choice and matching questions on the test, but there were still a few essay questions requiring deeper thinking.  The breadth of the tests reassured me that they were still an accurate measurement tool.  I appreciate having these, and proactively requested tests for Chemistry next year.

Other stuff:
We finished the second half of BJU World History, plus read most of the BJU Geography book.  It was ok.  I'm not really a fan.  Micah and Eden were sick of it by the time we finished.  Reading a textbook and taking a test is the worst possible way to study history in my opinion.  It is back to TruthQuest History for us next year!!

We continued using Rosetta Stone to study German, and now we have added Spanish as well.  It has some pros and cons.  The biggest con is that there's a loss of some things that a student in high school might normally study in a language course (directly teaching grammar, semantics).  On the other hand, it may well be that establishing a solid foundation for hearing and speaking a foreign language will give way to an easier understanding of a more formal study later.  (Yeah, I'll tell myself that anyway to assuage my guilt).  The pros are the resources that are available to help a student learn this course.  I recommend the homeschool version even though it does not include some of the newer technology features in the 4th edition.  Now, if I could just get my kids to be faithful and diligent with their studies!

SOS High School Health.  It got the job done. 

Fix-it! Grammar by IEW.  My kids don't have super-high percentile ranks on their standardized tests because of this course, and I doubt it will prepare them for the SAT or ACT, but it has also been relatively painless.  It helps keep grammar rules fresh.  On the other hand, I think my students may be missing some grammar rules.  Hmmm.  Next year we're going to try to zone in on some vocabulary hopefully by exploring Latin and Greek roots.  We're also going to get a little different grammar practice in, but I don't think we will overdo it. 

Ok, it's time for a break!  I'll come back later with some more homeschool product reviews.


(There are NO affiliate links in this blog post.  I do not receive anything for these reviews.)

Our Homeschool Year in Review

I am blessed with a little "free time" this holiday weekend, so I hope to write out some blog posts related to homeschooling.  If I get bored I'll write some regular family updates too.  :)

To start I will give an overview, then I want to do some more in-depth reviews of a few products.

If you want to go back and re-read, here is the blog post I wrote at the beginning of the school year outlining what we planned to use this year:  http://stephsoundoff.blogspot.com/2013/08/back-to-school.html

It is the end of the year, and the public and private schools in our area have either one or two weeks of school left, depending on the school.  So my kids are talking to their friends, for whom school truly does "end," and are getting pretty anxious for the "end" of our school year as well.  And hey--let's be honest--I don't know a teacher that can keep his/her students' attention when the weather finally gets nice out.  It happens to everyone, everywhere.  The outdoors calls.  Even *I* want to be working on other projects, not tying up loose ends!  So as the time slips away and the days get progressively sunnier and warmer, we start chucking worksheets and focusing only on what really matters.

We had a pretty good year overall.  We didn't have many missed days--no chunks of time where we were not able to do school as expected.  I feel peace about what we covered, and I have been able to let go of what we were not able to cover. The kids all performed well on their standardized tests.  Out of five students who were tested (using the IOWA basic skills test), the lowest was right at the 50th% and the highest was well into the 90th%.  I like the test because I also was able to see each student's personal score by section (for example, if there were 4 spelling questions, what was their percentage correct...which often matters more to me than how they compare to other students).  Then I can use that information to decide where we might need to focus more.

At the beginning of the year my friend Devona shared with me the method that she uses to assign school work.  I think it was pretty genius.  Free is nice, too (assuming you have access to a spreadsheet program).  She uses an Excel spreadsheet.  She assigns one row to each subject.  Then in each column across the row she divides the school work up by day.  The columns are wide enough so that 5 columns (Mon-Fri) print on a single piece of paper.  This takes some work at the beginning of the school year to type in each assignment for the year, but the payoff is huge.  She can easily create a weekly checklist for each student by deleting the assignments that were completed, and selecting to shift cells to the left.  So let's say for example that her student did Mon-Thu assignments, but unexpectedly was not able to do school on Friday.  She would simply delete Mon-Thu, and select to shift cells to the left.  Now Friday's assignment is shifted to Monday, and the student can pick up where he left off.  If she needs a day off, she can simply insert a blank cell (and shift back to the right).  All this deleting, inserting, shifting of cells means about 5 min' worth of work before the school week begins.  Genius.  Simple.  Free.  Here is an example:

 Oh, and of course I saved a master copy...so if Caleb is doing something similar to Micah and Eden in a couple years from now, I simply have to add that subject row to his spreadsheet rather than type it all out again.

This was also easy to modify.  As I went along I was able to see how things were working, and was able to change it and make it better fit our needs.  I really tend to over-complicate things when it comes to schedules, so this was a simple method that actually worked for me, for the entire school year.  Yay!!

So what have we not finished?  And to answer my poor children's question: when will we be done with school for the year? Or will we even get a summer break?  The poor darlings.  LOL.  I told them that for sure they don't have to do school while we are in Nicaragua.  Yay! 12 days of summer!  Haha.  We are going to slow waaaaayyyyy down.  There are some things that I want to continue working on throughout the summer so our brains don't get all rusty.  On the other hand, I know from experience that once Daddy is home for the summer it is best to just be "done" with school.  He always has great ideas for going and doing, and no one wants to be burdened with a science lesson that must be done or a math sheet that is not yet completed.  Nope, not even me.  So I haven't made any specific goals yet.  Micah and Eden need to finish Algebra II, and I want to read Hamlet together with them.  Zeke and Josh finished their math levels this past week, so they deserve a break from math (for at least a week!).  I'm toying with the idea of doing block classes--where we intensively study just one subject and nothing else.  I don't yet know what that looks like.  Caleb finished all his work a couple weeks ago.  I think I was too easy on him.  :)  Malachi has 8 more lessons to go in his MUS level, so that's approximately 8 more weeks.  Since that is a bit much, I expect we will spread out some work over the summer.  It would be too hard to jump back in and finish it if we took the entire summer off (the books start off easy and get really hard by the end).  In the meantime, summer is a great time for me to give Tirzah a jump start to her kindergarten year.  So we will do just that.

Short answer:  we need to finish Math and Literature.  Yes, we will do some school in the summer.  Yes, we will have plenty of days with no school.

Check back later for product reviews!

Click here for reviews of the various high school curricula we used.
Click here for middle school curricula.
Elementary School Reviews:
All About Learning Press
Math-U-See
Language Arts and More

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cash, Checks, or Prayers accepted here


I was busy making supper, but I knew it was late and the youngest kids were on the verge of melt-down.  Tirzah asked if she could have some watermelon, so I said, "Sure!" 

She bounded over to the table, then said, "Are we going to pray?"

I said, "Yes, we are going to pray, but you may eat some watermelon now, before we pray."

Tirzah happily shouted out to her brothers, "Guys, we can eat watermelon for free!"

{That is an impressive stack of rinds...she is a girl after my own heart!  Haha..
.just kidding...she ate four pieces and the boys stacked theirs on her plate.}

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Nicaragua Update

I am humbled and blessed by the donations we have received towards our trip so far.  We learned at the meeting on Sunday that in order to be on track, we should be at about 33% of our goal.  We were right at 20%.  We received a few more response cards in the mail and now we are at 34.67%.  I am so thankful!

I finished my first round of gift bags for sale, and have listed them in my hyena cart store online that I use to sell Pampered Cheeks products.  Here are just a few...

 The bags all come in a variety of sizes.  They are perfect to use instead of wrapping paper or paper gift bags.  They hide the contents of the bag well.  They can be washed, if needed.
 They fold up easily for storage, and take up much less space than paper bags or rolls of wrapping paper.  We used some like these at Christmas time, and we found that having a variety of sizes was perfect.  It was so much faster and better than anything we've ever used. 
If you live locally and would like to buy some bags, you can!  We can arrange for pick-up/drop off, and you can even pay me in person.  If you want to see them before you buy, we can do that too. 

Please stop by and buy a bag...or a few...www.hyenacart.com/pamperedcheeks.  Oh, and also note that the shipping for just one bag is kind of high, but each additional bag is only a small add-on charge.  I will refund shipping over-payments!

Paypal charges me small fee for transactions paid for through my store (2.9% + $0.30), and there may be shipping costs, otherwise ALL of the proceeds from the sale of these bags will go to our missions trip goal.  [Since you are receiving an item in exchange for your donation, and also since I am a business, not a non-profit, any contributions made this way are not tax-deductible.]

We have also been practicing our Spanish.  :)  Eden and I are using Rosetta Stone most frequently.  Micah uses an app on his phone as well as forced drills.  Mitch is also getting drilled by me on a regular basis.  Actually, Mitch probably has the largest vocabulary base of any of us...he says his biggest struggle is stringing together coherent sentences.  I seem to remember well the "mechanics" of Spanish and not as much vocabulary.  I suppose we complement each other.  :)  Something else Eden and I are enjoying is listening to songs in Spanish.  We are listening to "kid songs" like we will sing at VBS, but we have also found some Spanish versions of the worship songs we sing in church.  This is a great way to learn!  Lastly, with resources available like You Version, we have access to Spanish translations of the bible and not only that, but to audio as well.  It is really easy to get exposure in different ways.

Prayer requests:
  • We are still in the fund raising stage.  Please pray that God will provide what we need!  We hope to have all of the money turned in by the end of May.  We are committed to continuing to work towards our goal beyond this date as well, however.  Mitch will be [more] available as a handy-man soon!
  • Pray for continued enthusiasm for learning Spanish.  According to our translator, knowing even just a little Spanish will be a big help.
  • Pray for our preparation.  In the great scheme of things, these 12 days we will be gone seem very small.  What will it matter?  What will it change or accomplish?  Pray for wisdom as we study God's word, missions, and social justice.  And pray for our heart attitudes.  
  • Pray for the church in Nicaragua.  They face the reality of life in one of the poorest countries in Latin America every day.  Their physical and spiritual battles are present today, tomorrow, next month, and will still be present after we return from our trip.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Drama Mama

A week ago, when our weather was nice enough for the boys to play outside and ride bikes, Zeke came running in screaming with a bloody finger.  He said the bicycle wasn't really riding smoothly, so he turned it upside down to see if anything was caught in the chain.  He was spinning the chain around (using the pedal), and accidentally caught his finger in it.  Poor Zeke was pretty freaked out.  I knew he needed attention just to get calmed down.  We loaded up and went to the ER immediately.  He was panicking.  On the way there, he said, "I just want to do school--I don't want to be hurt!"  He said, "Is it going to hurt?"  I said, "Well, we don't have to go."  He said, "No, I want to go.  But is it going to hurt?"  I tried to help him see that the anticipation was way worse than it would actually be.  I brought along some lavendar essential oil, and instructed him to take deep breaths and just smell it.  It must have worked, because he was quiet as a mouse as we entered the ER.  Unfortunately, we had a long wait ahead of us...maybe he should have been screaming still!

While we were at the ER my friend Bonnie "heard it through the grapevine" and gave me a call.  Her husband, Tom, is a plastic surgeon with Midsota Plastic Surgeons.  I texted her a picture, which she forwarded to him.  He then called me at the ER.  I asked him to speak with the Physician's Assistant who was treating Zeke, which he graciously did.  The PA ordered an xRay and found that the tip of Zeke's bone was chipped...ouch!  Tom told her to wash it, bandage it, and he would see us in his office the next morning.  Zeke was amazing.  It was really hard to get his finger numb, but he was patient and calm.



Bonnie told me that Tom is great with kids, and this was not just a wife brag--he really was great with Zeke.  He was so gentle and did a good job talking to him.  Bonnie even came and babysat the kids for me while Zeke and I went in.  I was fascinated watching Tom sew up Zeke's finger.  Bonnie said it's like watching an artist, and it's true.  I had as much appreciation for the skill of Tom's hands as I have watching a composer work.  It was really cool.  Zeke wasn't much into watching, so he was distracted by watching a movie on Netflix.  :)  In the office though we had a skeleton of a hand to look at, as well as a drawing that showed the nerves where Zeke would receive the numbing shots.  I said we can homeschool anywhere.  I'm really glad we were able to have Tom stitch up Zeke's finger.  Once I saw how thoroughly he cleaned it, and how skillfully he repaired the finger, I wondered why in the world we would have gone anywhere else.  Soon we were back home.  Zeke rested for about 5 minutes.


Then he was up and feeling too good to rest.  Unfortunately when the numbing medication wore off later that night Zeke was sorry he hadn't rested.  We have done several dressing changes in the past week and his finger is looking a lot better now.  The OT who saw Zeke said it will probably take a few months before it's not really "sore" anymore.






Once we were finally done with last week, I was relieved.  I thought that we would get back on track this week.  Monday just before lunch I headed down the stairs to get something (who knows what), and at the bottom of the stairs my feet sunk into the wet carpet, "squish."  My first thought was that someone had poured water over the ledge.  It only took seconds for me to realize the problem was much, much bigger.  I peeked into the crawl space and saw standing water everywhere.  Of course, our crawl space was not empty...not even close.  The boys have not stayed out of there, even though I made the rule that they should.  Not only that, but things had been "rearranged" to a severe degree and since the crawl space has a door I had quite neglected cleaning it.  In other words, I couldn't really see the floor.  Only enough to see that the sump pail was overflowing.  It was no wonder--later I found out we had had 0.73 inches of rain Monday morning alone, and 3.5 inches since Wednesday morning.  We suspect that the ground is still frozen deeply, so the water had no where to go but under the house and up through the floor.  At first I hoped the seeping water was limited to the crawl space alone.  As I walked around the carpet, my compression brought water to the surface in seemingly random places all over.


I knew that the first thing I needed to do was get the sump pail empty.  I wasn't sure where the sump pump was, or if it was working.  What if it was in the bottom of the full pail?  I would have to reach my hand in, pull it out, and hook up the water hose to it while it was slimy from sitting in the water!  Gross!!  Not only that, but the water hose was outside on the grass, covered with mud and wood chips and DIRT.  Oh, and you know, I do have a bunch of kids to watch at the same time.  I started to panic.  The first thing I did was call Mitch.  I don't know why--he couldn't be home.  He could only tell me to do what I knew I needed to do.  He didn't answer.  :(  So I hit facebook.  I simply requested prayer.  Then I breathed deeply, decided mud on the water hose was the least of my worries, and got to it.  Caleb helped me get the screen out of the window so we could thread the water hose out to drain.  Thankfully the sump pump was sitting beside the pail, high and dry.  I got it hooked up and it worked perfectly.  It began draining the pail with no problems.  I cried a little bit, then I got to work.  Eden helped out by serving the kids lunch upstairs.  While she had them taken care of, Caleb and I emptied the crawl space and vacuumed up water.  It was a mess, but we took it one step at a time.  The work was back-breaking, and I am STILL sore.  I really worked my core muscles!


At one point I looked up from my work and saw Jamie Brouwer come by to help.  Jamie was diagnosed recently with sarcoma cancer and has been undergoing painful treatment (caring bridge site here:  http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/jamiebrouwer).  Mitch and I had just helped out at a benefit on Saturday for him.  I was humbled and grateful.  It was a relief to know that someone was able to help and give advice in a tangible way.  He brought over some fans, helped run the vacuum, and just help me make decisions on what to do next.  Others stepped in to help, too.  Doug and Teri Kleinsmith brought some fans and took our boys for the evening.  Luke Neuman came over Tuesday and helped remove the carpet.  Another friend, Jennifer, loaned us her huge industrial fan.  Many others called to offer support or prayed for us.  I am so thankful!  It really helped me to manage the stress and do the hard thing. 


At one point while moving/cleaning, I had a thought, "I wish I could just do school!"  I remembered Zeke's cry the week before, and I felt empathy much deeper for him.  Oh how I grumble and complain!



As we pulled back the carpet, we discovered water had leaked in through all the cracks and along the walls in some places.  We really couldn't leave the carpet down anywhere because we couldn't know all the places where it was wet.  I'm hugely concerned about mold growth, so we just got rid of it all.  :(




Mitch put boards down to keep stuff off the cement so it can dry, but also so we can watch to make sure it doesn't continue to leak (it shouldn't). 


We have lived here 11 years and this is not a problem that we have had before.  The combination of soaking rains, frozen ground, and OUR failure to empty the sump pail is what did it.  If we had checked the pail sooner, I'm sure it would have been ok.  It's been a long time since we needed to, though, so it hadn't even crossed my mind.  (Though as recently as 3 weeks ago we were debating how many times in 11 years we have even had to empty it--I said it was only a couple and Mitch said it was more like 4.)


In just one day it dried significantly.






Mitch text me yesterday at the end of his school day to ask how things were going.  I sent him this picture.





Haha.  This was taken before we moved in in 2003.  We lived in our house while finishing off the lower level (it's really only half-way under ground so it is not technically a basement?).  It took us 4 years.  We have had carpet for only 7 years down there.


 "Been there, done that."


We don't have flood insurance coverage for a few reasons--ultimately it boils down to cost vs. benefit.  I'm so thankful that we only lost carpet.  Yes, it was frustrating.  Yes, it was hard work.  Yes, I'm disappointed.  Yes, I am exhausted.  But that is all it is.  When I read about Rob Tittle, who was a father to 9 and worked at Family Life, who lost his life in the tornadoes on Sunday, I really had a shift in perspective.

I feel God is pressing in to show me what it really means to believe that He is sovereign.  He ordains my days.  When I grumble and complain over math not done or crackers smooshed all over the floor, I am grumbling against His divine authority.  I have been reading the book A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger Than You  by Paul Tripp.  I highly recommend it. It's taking me a long time to go through because I highlight every other page.  I have been challenged to die to myself--to my expectations, to my to-do list.  Tripp writes, "Christ calls each of his children to this three-fold death: death to the priority of self, death to our pursuit of our lives, and death to our pursuit of our own plan" (p. 116).  Oh that sounds so logical, so "christianese."  It's an over-used phrase, "Die to self."  It comes from the Bible--Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23, Galatians 5:24, and many more.  But how do you actually do it?  How do I stop living as the king of my own little kingdom, and surrender to God's sovereign authority and power?  Ah, that's what I'm working through!  That's what God is pressing in and teaching me, slowly, day by day.  It isn't something I can just go read and then I've got it.  He's teaching me, loving me, disciplining me, and He is so patient.  Some more quotes from Tripp:  "Only as we die to the glory of our claim on our own lives will we begin to experience the transcendent glories of living for the Lord" (p. 116). "To jealously hold on to my dream of what I want to accomplish, experience, and enjoy is to guarantee that I will never ever experience true life" (p. 117).  "Christ's call to you is a rescue.  In asking you to deny yourself and follow, he is giving to you what you could never earn or achieve on your own.  You will not find it in your marriage, in parenting your children, in accumulating possessions, in the esteem of friends, in theological knowledge, or in the most beautiful location" (p. 121).  "Big kingdom living is living with the purpose character, call, grace, and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ as central motivation and hope for everything you think, desire, do, and say...And living this way will result in a life of meaning and purpose, where you really do make a difference wherever God places you" (p. 124).  "The issue here is not doing a bunch of new and different things, but responding to the things God has already placed in your life in a very new way" (p. 126).

Meditating today on these words from Philippians 2:14-15: "Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world."  And these from Galatians 6:9 that my friend Heidi text to me: "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."  While I meditate, I head out to be used where God has placed me.  It is not easy...unless I die to myself.  This little promise from Matthew 11:28-30 strengthens me, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."