Sunday, August 31, 2014

In search of a new calendar/planner

Most families have to do a lot of complicated scheduling, and homeschool seems to add to that complexity in many cases. Scheduling is one of things that I struggle the most with.  I have a tendency to overschedule and double schedule.  One thing I have been working very hard on is choosing our activities carefully so that I don't have too much going on.  Even so, we do have 4 people in our family (and 2 pets) that I have to schedule around, and I'm always on the lookout for a tool that will help me to keep up with our schedule better. 

Here are two tools that I have found helpful in the past:

Cozi:  This is a great website that families can use to plan their schedules.  I have used it to inform my husband about our activities.  He didn't look at it too much, but at least when he expressed shock over me going scrapbooking all day the next day, I could tell him that, not only did I tell him about it verbally, but it had been on Cozi for the past month.  The e-mail reminders it sends were very useful for us.  From my laptop, it was really easy to enter events and set up email reminders.  The thing I like about it the least is the cost:  To use all the features, you have to pay for an annual plan, which is very expensive at $30/year.  Granted, it is similar in cost to buying one paper planner per year, but I'm not convinced that you can't get an app that is as good or better for much less money (and without an annual subscription).  I also prefer the PC/web version to the iOS app.  It does not always seem to work very well offline.  For instance, I wanted to put in a dentist appointment when I was at the dentist's office but I couldn't even access my calendar because the app didn't have me signed in.  I also find it annoying that I am constantly having to enter my password to log in from my laptop. 

PlannerPad:   This is the best paper planner that I have seen.  It has a great weekly view and to-do list system.  The problem is that I need to use the reminders on my iTouch, I need to share my calender with my husband somehow, my older son likes to have a printout of our schedule on the fridge, and all of those things require me to enter data in more than one place, which I really don't have time for.  Also, even the smaller-sized planner pads are bulky (for me) to carry around.  I prefer a small purse that I can over my shoulder at all times when I'm out (so that I don't lose it). I wish the PlannerPad people would make an app.  I can see how a paper planner works best for many people, but when you are having to sync schedules with multiple people, an electronic system has a lot of advantages.

So, I am on the lookout for a new calendar/to-do system. 

A lot of people are happy with the calendar that comes with their smartphone (or my case, iTouch because I use a dumbphone for my phone), but many find that those apps lack features.  I've been scouring the Internet, trying to find a suitable program.  There are a lot of options, both free and modestly priced.  I've used enough apps to know that sometimes the free or inexpensive ones are the best.  [As I wrote yesterday, I found that LessonTracker, which only costs $2 is the best homeschool record keeping system for me!]

I have found MANY app possibilities online.  It's pretty much overwhelming.  I am going to try some apps and see if if I can fine something that works okay for me! 

Homeschool Spanish Academy: A Review

There are tons of methods for learning Spanish and other foreign languages out there.  Most are bad.  A few are good.  If I had to recommend only one tool for learning Spanish it would be private lessons via Skype, and one company I can highly recommend is Homeschool Spanish Academy.

A little background on me:  I have wanted to learn Spanish all of my life.  I never really felt complete or fully educated only speaking one language (I took dead languages in college).  Finally, a few years ago, I realized that I needed to do it or it might never happen.  If I didn't act, I might die monolingual and unfulfilled!  I started with a lot of audio options and eventually started taking private lessons on Skype.  I took the kids to Panama for a month in 2013, where we each had private lessons and stayed with a Panamanian family.  I have continued taking private Spanish lessons online off and on over the months.  I am at a high intermediate level in Spanish and feel comfortable helping my kids with it.  Both of my kids can understand quite a bit of Spanish, know many words, and Bee can form simple sentences. 

Based on my understanding of the process of language acquisition as well as my personal experience learning Spanish, I recommend private lessons with a native speaker because interaction with a native (or near native) speaker in the language is THE KEY to learning. You get so much more for your learning with private lessons than you do for any sort of software package (which in my opinion are a waste of money--I'll write about that in another post).  You also get something even more valuable; your child gets the opportunity to know an individual from another culture. 

My son Bee, age 10, takes lessons from Homeschool Spanish Academy from a teacher in Guatemala.  He only did one lesson a a week last year, but a child who is a little more focused could easily do more than that.  This year he will be doing twice a week, and if he does well with that and we have time, I would love to add another day.  I have found the program to be very customizable and child friendly.  The prices are incredible for what you get, a highly educated, friendly native Spanish speaker to work with your child or children (they offer semi-private options as well as private). The lessons for the younger kids last 30 minutes, which is just the right amount of time. 

I would sign Bug up for lessons too, but he's feeling really shy about it, so I'm not going to push him... yet.  I do have plans to bribe him to get over his nervousness, but perhaps after he turns 7.  For now, I will just work with him on my own.  

I took a couple of months of lessons from Homeschool Spanish Academy myself, had lessons with 5 of the teachers, and was so impressed.  I recommend it for adults too. 

It's easy to sign up for lessons at the time you want, and you can choose your preferred teacher (from those available).  They have a number of different packages and a free trial lesson.  All the teachers do speak English, so the parent or child can communicate with the teacher in English if needed.  It's also great to have an option where you don't have to drive anywhere.  They have late afternoon and evening times for courses too, so it's an option for kids who are in traditional school, as well as kids who are homeschooled. 

We Americans tend to think that learning a language is difficult-to-impossible, because the approaches used in our classrooms typically don't work very well.  I would like everyone out there to know that it is very possible to learn a foreign language.  I learned Spanish in my 30's and am going to continue my studies.  I hope to try to learn Mandarin one day too.  I would encourage anyone of any age who wants to learn any language to take the approach of interaction with a human being who speaks the language, which is the way that our brains are wired to learn language. Going to another country and becoming completely immersed in the new language is the BEST way, but that's not usually practical or affordable, and I think that finding a teacher who can interact with you in the new language is extremely useful too.  The Internet has made finding a teacher so much easier! 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lesson Tracker: My favorite homeschool record keepiing system

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

I can't remember exactly why I went looking for a record keeping app, but last year I downloaded this great little iOS app called Lesson Tracker.  Incredibly, this useful app costs only $2.  It is the best homeschool record keeping system I have tried.  I have it on my iTouch, so it is easy to use without having to open up my laptop.  I used it for several months last year and am going to use it again this year and hopefully keep up with it for the whole year.  The fact that I used it for more than one consecutive week is pretty much a miracle for me. 

This is how it works:  You set up your school year, your students, subjects, and sub-subjects.  And then you track what your kids do and how long they spend doing it.  (I estimate time--I do not time them exactly).  It is especially useful if you don't make highly specific lesson plans, but could be used by someone who does as well.  

For instance, if I do spelling with Bee, I tap the plus symbol to add an entry.  I then select Language Arts, and then All About Spelling.  I tap on the date (usually the same day I would be doing the entry) and choose the amount of time (for that, usually 15 or 30 minutes). There is a section for notes, and I can jot down the level and step we are in if I choose to do so.  There is also a field for a score, which is also optional.  I do not use this at this time but might want to use it for the high school years. 

The app can create reports and send them to you.  The reports include all the information entered, including any notes you include.  You can choose the amount of time that you would like your report to cover.  The app gets backed up when you sync to iTunes, but it seems to me a good idea to send yourself a report once a month. 

One thing I did not like about this app initially was that you have to select the amount of time your child spent on each activity.  I didn't think that this would be useful to me; I just wanted to write in what they did.  However, I found that putting in a time for each activity (even if it was just a rough estimate) was very helpful for me and showed me that my children spend far more time engaged in educational pursuits (planned or not planned) than I had imagined. 

Another thing I did not like about the app initially was that you could only select one child.  So, if I took both children to swim team, which counted for part of their PE, I had to make two separate entries.   But they fixed that with the most recent update, which is awesome!  There are many things that they do together, so that update is a huge timesaver for me. 

I put in all sorts of things that our family does.  I generally put in an hour each day (including weekends) for reading, which is actually a very low estimate.  Any family trip to a museum, zoo, cultural or historical attraction can go in.  Documentaries can go in.  Piano lessons and music practice go in.  The Spanish and classical music time that goes on in the car goes in.  All the hours of running around at the park are PE.

When we move to Georgia, we are supposed to keep an attendance record "on file" in our home, and I feel like these reports will be really useful for those purposes.  We are to have at least 180 days of school, consisting of 4.5 hours per day.  Even though I'll probably never have to show that to anyone, it's nice to know that I can account for the hours.

However, I feel like I'd want to keep using Lesson Tracker even if we were staying in Virginia because it just makes me feel much more productive.  Sometimes I feel like we don't do enough, but when I put the hours into the app, I can see that we are doing a good job after all.  All of those hours add up! 

Thank you to the app's creators, for making such a useful and affordable homeschool app! 

Our Eclectic Plans for 2014-2015 (Fifth and First Grades)

Image courtesy of kibsri at

I found it so helpful to write up my plans last year that I'm doing it again this year.  It is really interesting to look back and see what I thought would work and what actually did work.  I found that I held to my plans last year much better than in years past, which I think means that I'm doing a better job of making realistic plans.  For both children, I am very open to changing plans if our plan isn't working or if new opportunities become available. 

Bee, 5th Grade:
  • Reading: He will read books of his own choosing on a daily basis.  Books on subjects related to what he is studying in other areas will be available. 
  • Spelling:  We will continue All About Spelling, Level 4.  After that is complete, we will begin Level 5 and possibly complete it by the end of the year. 
  • Writing:  We will continue using a tutor at 
  • Grammar:  I would like to get some sort of workbook, but I haven't decided on one.  If I can't find anything better, I may just pick up something in Barnes and Noble in the second half of the year and work through that.  And hopefully we'll do some Mad Libs! 
  • Math:  We will finish up the Life of Fred elementary series and do Fraction and Decimals.  When that is completed, he will work on Math Minutes, 6th Grade.  We will also probably need to do some additional multiplication and division practice (long division and multi-digit multiplication).  Throughout the year, we will be listening to Schoolhouse Rock Multiplication in the car.  I still feel like Bee has to think too long on some of his basic multiplication facts, although I'm very pleased with his conceptual understanding in all areas of math. I will also be getting a math dictionary for his age. 
  • History:  We'll continue with Crash Course History of the World and probably begin Crash Course American History.  I have some field trips planned to historical sites.  I also plan for us to read selections from two biased historical texts for children and have Bee compare them.  
  • Science:  He'll be participating in a First Lego League team until we move.  After that, we'll do ASK science kits, visiting science museums, watching documentaries (including Cosmos), and he learns a lot through discussions with his mathematician dad.  
  • Spanish:  Bee will be taking private lessons on Skype twice a week through Homeschool Spanish Academy.  We'll be supplementing that with the program Risas y Sonrisas, Salsa Spanish, additional Spanish music, books, and TV, and some Reader's Theater Spanish plays that we'll be reading out loud together. 
  • Music:  He will continue his piano lessons until we move.  After that, I may take over as piano teacher for a while.  We'll also be listening to music in the car, changing the theme with each month (such as a different composer).  We did this for part of the year last year, and I'd like to pick it up again.  
  • Art:  Undecided at this time, but I'd like to find a class of some sort in the city that we are moving to.  
  • PE: Lots of outdoor play.  I am going to insist that they choose some kind of structured activity to do at least twice a week this winter. 

Bug, First Grade:
  • Reading: He will read books of his own choosing on a daily basis.  Books on subjects related to what he is studying in other areas will be available. 
  • Spelling:  We will continue All About Spelling, Level 2, which we started over the summer.  Bug is pretty excited about it.  I've noticed that this program makes both of my boys feel very good about their learning. 
  • Writing: Undecided.  Probably a mixture of some age-appropriate prompts and just "draw a picture and write a sentence." 
  • Grammar:  Mad Libs.  He will be doing some sentence dictation as a part of his spelling program and will practice some capitalization and punctuation there. 
  • Math:  I have two workbooks for Bug to work in.  One is called Math for the Gifted Child, Grade 2 and the other is Math Minutes, Grade 2.  Both were inexpensive books available at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  They serve our purposes in giving some practice.  Throughout the year, we will be listening to Schoolhouse Rock Multiplication in the car.  I will also be getting a math dictionary for his age.  Bug asks a lot of math questions and learns a lot about math through conversation and daily life. 
  • History: We'll be doing field trips, reading some history books, and Bug can color history coloring book pages while his brother watches Crash Course History. 
  • Science:  He'll be participating in a Junior First Lego League team until we move.  After that, we'll do Magic School Bus science kits, visiting science museums, watching documentaries (including Cosmos), and he learns a lot through discussions with his mathematician dad.  
  • Spanish:  We'll be using the program Risas y Sonrisas, Salsa Spanish, additional Spanish music, books, and TV, and some Reader's Theater Spanish plays that we'll be reading out loud together.  
  • Music:  We'll be listening to lots of music in the car, changing the theme with each month(such as a different composer).  We did this for part of the year last year, and I'd like to pick it up again.  
  • Spanish:
  • Art:  Undecided at this time, but I'd like to find a class of some sort in the city that we are moving to.  
  • PE: Lots of outdoor play.  I am going to insist that they choose some kind of structured activity to do at least twice a week this winter. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Looking back on the 2013-2014 School Year (4th grade and Kindergarten)

I am not a reliable blogger.  I have several blogs on various topics.  I don't keep any of them updated. Part of the problem is that I know that "proper" blogs are updated once a week or more.  I only feel like blogging in a particular blog once every now and then, and when I do, I feel like making a whole bunch of posts at once.  This is how my ADHD brain works.

So why fight it?  I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and not have ADHD.  I will blog when I am inspired to blog, and I will not feel guilty about not blogging when I am not inspired to blog.

This past school year went really well, I thought.  I tried many things with the children, and some of them worked.  They learned many things from life, and in many cases they learned in spite of my efforts.

Overall, I have learned that we do best with structured but child-centered programs that are very interactive and don't involve a lot of busywork on the part of the teacher or child.  

I will make a short list of what worked for us, what kind of worked, and what didn't really work.  I will do more extensive reviews of programs that were our favorites:

  • Homeschool Spanish Academy:  Bee took lessons via Skype once a week from a native speaker in Guatemala.  I will write more about this school later, but I really can't say enough good things about it.  
  • All About Spelling:  I am still in love with this program.  This will be my third year to use it.  
    It works well for my logical thinkers.  I think that Bee is a more auditory learner, and it has helped him vastly, and Bug has learned a lot from it too, and he is a more visual learner and a very natural speller.  I am so impressed how well the program works for both of them. 
  • WriteGuide: I hired an online tutor through this company to help Bee with this writing, since I was tired of struggling to plan something only to have him sit at the computer for 2 hours and then find out that he had written nothing.  He really responded much better to the tutor than he does to me, even though she tells him a lot of the same things that I have been telling him.  I just think it's a lot more exciting for him to write to someone who is not Old Mom.  
  • Life of Fred Elementary Series:  Bee LOVES Life of Fred.  He will take several to bed with him and read them on his own.  
  • Field trips for history and science.  Obvious, but yup.  We found that we enjoy field trips more as a family.  When we go with a bunch of our friends, the kids are much more distracted and just want to play. 
  • Documentaries for history and science:  I'm amazed at how much my kids learn from these.
  • Swim team at the YMCA:  Great PE activity for noncompetitive homeschooled children.  Had a great coach who is also a homeschooling mom. 
  • Private piano lessons:  Great for any kid, homeschooled or not.  We were lucky to find a great teacher who is also a homeschooling mom. 
  • LONG park days and beach days and afternoons at the bounce house place. 
  • Magic School Bus science kits.  Bug is loving these!  He also loves the videos.  
  • Math Minute workbooks.  I had the 5th grade one for Bee, and it was a nice supplement to use with Life of Fred to make sure he is familiar with the math that kids in traditional schools are learning.
  • Real Science for Kids Chemistry:  I had the sense that I had failed at that, but I looked back on my blog and saw that we actually did 10/12 chapters.  After that, however, my enthusiasm waned.  I found the experiments took a little more time for me to prepare than I would have liked. Still, I do think it's a good series and may consider using it again.  
  • Crash Course History:  We started the world history.  Bee loved it.  There are a few off-color jokes, but I'm pretty sure they went over his little head.  
  • Setting the boys free on their reading:  They read books that they chose and lots of them.  Bee has become a voracious reader; he especially loved the Warriors series this year.  I can't believe that Bug was only doing BOB books a year ago!  Now he giggles himself to sleep with Captain Underpants.  They are both allowed to read after they go to bed, and they often get an hour or two of reading in.  
  • Lesson Tracker (app for OS devices).  Best record keeping app I have ever tried.  No, I didn't keep it up all year, but I kept it up more than I have anything else.  I plan to use it again.  I will write a more thorough review later.  
  • Learning from Life:  Letting Bug (kindergarten) learn almost exclusively through living books, conversation, play, and life in general.  I am sure that Bee learned more this way as well than from anything I did with him.  The most important lessons will always come from life experience; they cannot be taught. 
  • ASK Science Kit:  I started this with Bee, but he hasn't been too enthusiastic about it. I hope to pick it back up. 
  • BigBrainz Multiplication:  Bee got bored of it.  Still, he is getting better at his multiplication. Bug learned some multiplication from it and will probably master his facts with it one day.  
  • Handwriting:  This is torture for both boys.  Bee's print is getting better.  Bug (who was only in K last year) was very resistant about it.  Honestly, there are so many more important things for them to work on that I don't push handwriting as hard as I might. 
  • Speekee Spanish:  I started it with Bug, but we didn't finish it. 

  • Michael Clay Thompson language arts:  I thought I should try this because my kids are gifted (so I believe anyway), and Hoagie's Gifted website said that gifted kids NEED Michael Clay Thompson.  Bee calls him Boring Clay Thompson.  And I can't blame him. 
  • A Little History of the World:  Neither Bee nor Bug liked it much. 
  • History Pockets:  Felt like it was too much work for me.  I may try it next year but only with Bug because he is more interested in crafts.  I hate going to so much trouble for Bee on something like that, only to have him plod through it painfully, so that he can get back to reading a book or playing Minecraft. 
  • Feltboard.  I failed at using the feltboard. 

Writing this all out has made me feel a lot better because I see that so much of what we did was useful and good.  I am excited about next year! 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

End of Year Homeschool Party Crafts

It's been a busy year, and blogging has not been high on my priority list.  As the year winds down, I hope to make a few posts about what worked and what didn't this year.  Today, I wanted to share the crafts for our End-of-Year Homeschool Party that we had yesterday!  

I had so much fun putting these activities together.  We had a big group of homeschoolers at a beautiful park in the woods.  We have our parties at a playground with several pavillions around it.  I never reserve the pavillions, since they are available on a first-come first-served basis when not reserved and are almost never reserved on a weekday during the school year. 

This year, I decided to set up the food for our potluck at the pavillion second-closest to the playground.  We put the crafts at the one closest to the playground, to make it easier for the kids to move back and forth. 

After lunch, the kids were free to play or do crafts/activities of their choosing.  I wasn't sure if too many of the kids would be participating in the crafts, so I was pleased when the craft pavillion was mobbed by busy kids.  Our group ranges in age from toddler to upper elementary.  (We welcome older kids but don't have many at this time, as we haven't had any families with kids of that age join who were willing to organize activities). 

We had 7 craft stations, mostly based on a spring/summer theme: 
  • Seed planting:  I will do a separate post on this and link to it here.  It's pretty basic, but I didn't get the instructions anywhere, so I will write up what I did.  The best thing about this activity is its appeal to all ages, from toddler to adult. 
  • Bubble station:  I brought a dishpan, bubble solution, and one of those packs of bubble wands.  (I removed the pipes and blowers so that the kids didn't all swap spit.)  I sat the dishpan on the ground (to decrease the likelihood of it getting spilled) and poured a bunch of bubble solution in it.  I placed the wands on the low brick rail going around the pavillion.  It was all set up for the kids to play with!  Easy and perfect for the preschool crowd!  The only thing I want to do differently next time is make my own bubble solution to save money.    
  • Bird feeders:  These are easily made with pipe cleaners and plain Cheerios (I used Market Pantry brand).  Basically, you just string some Cheerios onto a pipe cleaner, making a stopper at each end by bending the pipe cleaner.  They can be bent into shapes and then stuck on the tree.  We don't currently have any nut allergic kids in our group that I know of, but I really liked it that this kind of bird feeder did not use peanut butter, since that can exclude kids with nut allergies and cause safety issues.  
  • Beading:  Another mom brought pony beads and craft lace.  We also set out pipe cleaners, and just let the kids make whatever necklaces and bracelets they wanted.  (I had the idea to also make bubble wands with the pipe cleaners and beads but didn't get a chance to make an example.  I will save that idea for another time.) 
  • Paper boat making.  I used these instructions.  They have a great printable PDF.  I printed 2, put them in plastic sheet protectors and set them out, along with some scrapbooking paper, which I had in a folder.  I did not buy the paper; I have a ton of extra at home and just picked some that I didn't think I would use in my scrapbooking.  I cut it into standard-sized paper I made 2 boats and taped them to the tablecloth.  I have to say that we had the least amount of interest in this activity. 
  •  Minecraft Blocks:  These were very popular, especially amongst the boys!  I got the idea because my older son has made some Minecraft papercraft figures in the past.  I thought blocks would be a better idea for the party because they are the simplest to make.  I brought scissors, tape, and glue, but most of the kids used tape.  I printed out many different kinds of blocks from Pixel Paper Craft.  I made examples beforehand and taped them to the tablecloth.  
  • Sewing with plastic Canvas:  I will be making a separate post about this as well, and will link to it.  This was much more popular than I had expected and kept me busy for about 3 hours! 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Learning from Last Year

The big thing we did last year was a Spanish language immersion trip to Central America in the spring.  I will write more about that at a later date, but it was overall a really awesome experience.  So, all other academics took a backseat to our trip and its preparation.  

Our homeschool had to change drastically with Bug being out of preschool.  I had devised many ways to “keep him busy” while I worked with his brother.  However, he did not want to be “kept busy” while his brother received an education!  He wanted to interact constantly with us.  For this year, he should be able to participate in virtually everything that I do with his brother, and I have more things to work on just with him.  I hope he will enjoy listening to the history, language arts, and math texts that I will be reading to his brother and not feel left out.  

Bug also had to learn that he does have to wait sometimes.  I’ve had to physically remove him from the room that I do All About Spelling in because he would act up and try to get attention during his brother’s spelling lesson and not respond to redirection.  He’s matured and learned and can now play quietly during his brother’s brief spelling lesson.  It helped that I started him with AAS too, so that he doesn’t feel neglected.  (I would have preferred to wait on it a little longer, but he’s doing very well.)  

I’m learning to prioritize a little better.  For instance, it’s been nagging at me that we haven’t done much in the way of formal science.  Both boys know quite a bit of science for their age in spite of this.  Bug has watched hours of Nova and other science documentaries over the years.  They’ve visited many a science museum.  They’ve gotten the most science education, I think, from conversations with their mathematician father.  

This year, I decided that science has going to be a priority.  I chose something finishable, Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry.  It only has 10 chapters and 10 activities, all basic concepts that children can build upon.  We’ve had so much fun with it so far!  And we’re all learning a lot, me included.

In addition, I am not starting history, language arts, or art until we have finished that science curriculum, and I will stagger these in gradually, making each a priority in turn.  You would think that as a trained Montessori teacher and a nontraditional sort of learner/person, I would not struggle so much to break free of the school mentality of doing every subject 36 weeks out of the year, but I do struggle with it a lot.  Some things (math, Spanish, spelling) need to be done more consistently, but other subjects are best learned in chunks.  

I think that Bee learns best through stories, so the vast majority of his subjects with be based in narratives, including math.  We will be spending much more time snuggled on the couch, reading.  I just don’t see how that can go wrong.  

I am really going to limit our outside activities and driving time on weekday mornings.  We are going to save the mornings for school, unless it’s a really special sort of field trip.  In the afternoons, I will schedule our activities and time with friends.