Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Keeping High School Work From Consuming our Lives

I loved our early homeschooling days. We used Five in a Row for a low-key, fun approach to learning. We spent a lot of time reading books together, doing crafts, and simple science projects. We were usually finished with our official school time before lunch.

I miss those days. Although my high school student is quite independent, and doesn’t require as much of my time as she did when she was little, her school days are quite long. She has 6 or 7 required subjects to fit in each week, and each subject must include enough time and content to count for a high school credit. We don’t have much time for “following rabbit trails” because I’m trying to make sure she is prepared for college and that she will have a strong transcript to get her there. Emily’s school days are quite long (from (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later), plus she usually has catch-up work on the weekends. A good deal of the lengthy schedule is her own fault—she dawdles and gets off track frequently or has grumpy days where she’d just rather sit at the kitchen table for hours and do nothing instead of actually working. Some of the problem is the amount of work, though.

I’m trying to come up with some ways to make high school as manageable and enjoyable as elementary school was, or at least recapture some of that early joy.

One thing I already do somewhat, but would like to do more is double-tasking. When Emily’s literature selections reflect the same time periods that she is studying in history, her understanding of both subjects will be deepened. If I assign her essays and reports that relate to her history studies, these assignments can count as either history or English, but will provide content for both.
Emily is a sophomore this year and we are trying to get a lot of her core classes out of the way, so she will have more time to pursue her interests during her junior and senior years. Hopefully those years will be a bit more “fun” and flexible.  In addition to her core classes, she’ll have completed a health class and a her PE credit, as well as 2 years of Spanish by the end of this year. Last year, she took the computer applications course and personal finance courses that I wanted her to have. I’d like her to continue with Spanish, but may have her focus on it less next year, for a half credit instead of a full credit.  She’ll still be continuing with math, English, history, and science, but will have time for 2-3 courses for electives of her choosing instead of ones I’m requiring her to take.

I think an advantage of home school is that high school students have the time and ability to follow their interests and specialize in specific areas of interest. Emily is interested in criminology as a career. I’m not sure if she will stick with those plans, but I want her to have time to follow that passion now to find out how strong her interest is and to allow her to pursue her areas of passion. This year, she’s taking semester-long classes for psychology and criminology (Landry Academy online courses). Next year, she should have more time to focus on similar topics. (Landry also offers classes in terrorism, sociology, and crime scene investigation that she’d like to take.)
How do you keep high school studies from consuming your lives? I’d love to hear some more ideas!

Read more on How to Fit it ALL in while educating in the high school years:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Blue Ribbon Awards—Our Favorite Homeschool Products this Year

Well, another year of reviewing for the Schoolhouse Review Crew has ended.  Wow! I’ve had a lot of fun, discovered a lot of new products and companies, and revisited a few favorites. I recently heard that I’ve been approved to continue for another year with the Schoolhouse Review Crew, which will be starting up again in January. Hurray!

The members of the Schoolhouse Crew recently voted on their favorite homeschool products for the year. Some of those decisions were hard to make, I know.  If you click the banner below, you can see the winners in over 30 categories from Best Reading program to Favorite Online Program to Kid’s favorite.  2015 Schoolhouse Review Crew Blue Ribbon Awards

Here are a few of my personal favorites (linked to my reviews):

Standard Deviants Accelerate

Fascinating Education

Illuminating Literature

Jazz Edge (Piano With Willie)

Brinkman Adventures

Teen Prasso

 USAopoly (Wonky and Tapple games)

Practical Critical Thinking

Middlebury Spanish

Koru Naturals

My overall favorite (and product that I didn’t know I couldn’t life without!): Homeschool Planet

And Emily’s Teen choice: Standard Deviants Accelerate


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Practical Critical Thinking (Schoolhouse Review)

Critical thinking is quite a buzz word these days, but exactly what is it, and how can it be taught? The course, Practical Critical Thinking, published by The Critical Thinking Co. attempts to both answer this question and to develop critical thinking skills in high school students. We received both the Practical Critical Thinking book and the Teacher Manual for review.

This hefty 378 page book includes a variety of activities and skills that fall under the “critical thinking” umbrella. Chapter one actually begins with a lesson entitled “Why Care About Critical Thinking?” and helps the student to understand what it means to think critically and why that is important.

The other seven chapters have the student solving puzzles, distinguishing fact from opinion, evaluating evidence for “crime scenes,” learning about ambiguity in language, and analyzing arguments. Although this isn’t an full logic course, it does provide an introduction to informal logic through the study of informal fallacies.

The emphasis of Practical Critical Thinking is, as the title implies, helping students learn to use critical thinking in their day-to-day lives. There is an entire chapter on advertising that helps the student learn about advertising techniques and guides them through evaluating various ads. Students will also learn how to evaluate the strength of arguments. Just spending a bit of time on Facebook convinces me of the need for this skill in our society! P1050458

Emily enjoyed the many color drawings and photos incorporated into the text. Illustrations included actual advertisements to be evaluated, photographs of news stories, and humorous cartoons.This full-color workbook is consumable, but may be copied for classroom or home use. It includes a large amount of instructional text along with pages for the student to write on.

Practical Critical Thinking is designed for either classroom or individual use. Although the exercises can be worked independently, we found that discussion greatly added to the learning experience. Emily read through the lessons and completed them on her own, then I checked them and we discussed parts of each lesson. There is one lesson at the end of every chapter that is for group activities. Some of the suggested activities were discussion of the various lessons, which we were already doing. Others required small groups, but were easily skipped.P1050460

The Practical Critical Thinking Teacher’s Manual contains answers to the exercises and some additional explanation and points for discussion. It also includes reproducible activities for all the lessons (the same ones as are in the student book). It could not be used alone because the student book also includes a great deal of explanatory text, but if you were copying pages in order to preserve the student book (which is allowed for classroom use by Critical Thinking Co.’s generous copyright policy), it would be more efficient to do so from the teacher’s manual. The teacher’s manual was nice to have, but not essential if the parent doesn’t mind doing without an answer guide. (I didn’t have any trouble coming up with the correct answers to the questions on my own).P1050461

I knew Emily needed some help with critical thinking skills, but I didn’t know just how much! In working through the exercises, I found that she is a very literal thinker who was missing a lot of the ambiguities and subtleties in arguments. We had some good discussions on evaluating evidence and on not taking all statements at face value. She’s already begun using some of these skills as she listens to the presidential campaign debates! I think she will gain a lot through the completion of this course.


Practical Critical Thinking and Teacher Manual sell for $39.99 and $14.00 respectively and are intended for use in grades 9-12.

The Critical Thinking Company Review

I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Teaching Myself Math with Life of Fred


We discovered the Life of Fred math curriculum several years ago. This unique program teaches math in a story format. Readers of the books will follow the adventures of Fred, a 6-year-old math professor at Kittens University. The stories are laugh out loud funny and illustrated by cartoon drawings. Despite this novel approach, they offer sound teaching. Every concept is illustrated in the story, enabling the student to understand why he or she needs to know it. The lessons include many word problems that require the student to really understand what he’s doing.


Emily used one of the pre-algebra books and the algebra book as supplements a couple of years ago. Although Life of Fred is a complete curriculum, I wasn’t sure if there was enough practice for her or if the instruction was thorough enough. This year, though, she wanted to use Fred for her primary curriculum, so we decided to give it a try.

It’s been a LONG time since I’ve studied math. I have had no trouble helping Emily with her algebra I and geometry, but I realized that I would need some brush-up on my math to keep ahead of her from algebra 2 on.  I ordered both the Advanced Algebra and the Trigonometry (which is considered to be a pre-calculus course) Life of Fred books, thinking that I would work through them and keep ahead of Emily. What I didn’t realize was how much fun this would be, or how much insight into math instruction this would give me!P1050483

I started with the Advanced Algebra book 4 weeks ago. I’m moving very quickly through the 500+ page book and will probably finish it this week! Many of the lessons are short, so I’m doing several a day. The story is funny and the lessons are varied and engaging, which makes me want to do “just more lesson.” Pretty funny idea for math, isn’t it?

I wasn’t really sure how well Life of Fred taught the concepts until I actually worked through it myself. With Emily’s previous books, I skimmed through many of the lessons and wondered if there was enough instruction. Now that I’m actually working the problems, I can see how many of the problems are requiring me to incorporate concepts from previous chapters, and to figure out things that haven’t been fully explained yet, making connections between concepts. (Sometimes, a concept is actually explained in the solution, so it’s okay to peek ahead for a little help if you get stuck and it’s also important to read through the solutions even if you get the answer correct, because you might just learn a little something more! If I hadn’t actually used the program, I might not have realized that. Now I know to remind Emily to study the solutions as well. I also realized that Emily would probably need more practice to cement the concepts, so I ordered the supplementary Zillions of Practice Problems for Advanced Algebra. She will probably also use CTC and IXL for additional practice when needed.

A few months ago, I worked through some of the algebra 2 lessons in CTC math. I think CTC math is a good program. It includes short videos that explain the concepts before the student works on the problems and plenty of practice. Emily enjoyed using it for Geometry. I didn’t enjoy it as much. I get bored watching even a 5 minute video—I’d just rather read an explanation! Also, the problems on a page were similar, although they did progress in difficulty, so the work seemed tedious at times. I didn’t mind doing it, because I enjoy math, and I still think it’s a good program, but I didn’t love it either.

I’ve discovered that actually working through a curriculum  myself rather than skimming it gives me a much deeper understanding of it and insight as to whether it would be a good fit for my child. I do read through nearly everything that she does for history and science, but it never occurred to me (nor did I want to take the time) to do the same for math. Now I know!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Brinkman Adventures (Schoolhouse Review)

Brinkman Adventures

Wow! After reading some reviews of The Brinkman Adventures last year, I knew that the series was popular with families. But I didn’t know just how much we would enjoy these stories.  The Brinkman Adventures are audio dramas that tell the stories of current day missionaries through the eyes and experiences of the Brinkman Family. We have just finished listening to
The Brinkman Adventures: Season 3. (Although we hadn’t heard seasons 1 and 2, we were able to jump right in, since each season stands well on its own.)


The Brinkman Adventures: Season 3  includes over five hours of audio on 4 cd’s (a download option is also available). There are twelve separate episodes; some stand alone and others are longer stories broken into multiple parts. Each episode either features a story about the fictional Brinkman family or the people in their community or is in the form of a story being told by or about a missionary about their exciting adventures and the miracles they have encountered. All of the stories are based on real people and real occurrences, although many of the names have been changed for the safety and privacy of those involved. One story tells about a young man who is called to leave his high-powered business track in college to serve God. After being disowned by his family for his decision, he serves as a missionary in several countries that are hostile to Christianity. It was riveting to hear the accounts of him smuggling in thousands of illegal Bibles and never getting caught. Typically, the custom agents would skip checking his luggage, or would even see the Bibles and pass him on through..

Another story tells about a friend of the Brinkmans who overcomes her extreme shyness to become the leader of a group packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, eventually becoming a national spokesperson for the organization. Other stories teach about Bible translation around the world, beekeeping, and relate the exciting accounts of arctic rescues.image

The Brinkman Adventures website has additional information about the people and stories for those who want to find out more. We really enjoyed hearing “the rest of the story,” complete with photos here!

These audio dramas are very high quality productions that are enjoyable for all ages.The dramas feature good acting and audio side effects. They are also easy to listen to and understand. We’ve listened to some audio dramas that are harder to follow simply because of the characters’ accents and other (non-conversational) audio. I’m definitely a visual learner, so it’s sometimes harder for me to follow recorded stories and I appreciated how enjoyable these were.

Every time we got in the car, my 15-year old made sure that the CD was in and playing! As an adult, I enjoyed them also, but think that even young children would enjoy the stories. It’s nice to find products that will appeal to the whole family!

FREE! If you sign up for the Brinkman Adventures newsletter, you can download three free episodes. Your family might love them as much as we do!

Each season of the Brinkman Adventures is $27.99 for the CD set and $17.99 for the MP3 album.

Connect with Brinkman Adventures on Facebook:

Brinkman Adventures Season 3 Review

I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Kitchen Cabinet Organization

After organizing my bathrooms, I moved on to the kitchen. I really didn’t do much, here, just added some wire shelving to my pots and pans cabinets and under the sink. It made a big difference in the neatness and organization, though!

This is “before.”  Believe it or not, everything had a place, but the need to stack it all up to make it fit made it look so messy! First, I added the rack for cookie sheets and larger pans…



I found some double shelves to put at the back of the cabinet under the existing half-shelf. This was perfect for neatly storing casserole dishes and lids.






Here is the “after” picture:


I put a couple more shelves (long expanding single shelves) in my pot cupboard to keep the pots, pans and lids neat. This practically doubled my storage space.


My options were limited for under the sink. I would have loved to use one of the nicer under-sink organizers that I put in my bathrooms, but the garbage disposal and the configuration of the plumbing wouldn’t allow it. I found this Cabinet Basket Organizer at Amazon that was perfect for corralling extra sponges, scrubbing pads and brushes, and small bottles, and I was able to put larger bottles on top.


Next challenge—the pantry!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Standard Deviants Accelerate (Schoolhouse Review)


Over the past month, Emily has had fun reviewing the Homeschool Courses at Standard Deviants Accelerate. Standard Deviants provides fun and lively video instruction for a variety of  topics. For most courses, the Standard Deviants options would be best used as a supplement rather than a full course. Courses include:

  • Earth Science (Grades 6+)
  • Nutrition (Grades 6+)
  • Biology (Grades 7+)
  • Chemistry (Grades 9+)
  • Arithmetic (Grades 3+)
  • Fundamental Math (Grades 4+)
  • Algebra (Grades 7+)
  • English Composition (Grades 9+)
  • US History (Grades 9+)
  • AP Biology, Chemistry, American Government, U.S. History, English Composition (Grades 11+)

For the purposes of this review, Emily has primarily been using the Nutrition course, which we plan to count as part of her high school level Health credit. Topic covered include cells and macronutrients, imagemicronutrients, vitamins and minerals, digestion, food groups, nutritional disorders, the food industry, organic food, and food safety. Each of the eight primary topics is divided into 3-6 lessons plus a chapter review, for a total of about 35 separate lessons.

Each lesson has the same format: first, a 3-5 minute video teaches the information. The videos are fast-moving, jumping from one teacher to another for short bursts of infimageormation interspersed with illustrations. A script for each lesson is also provided. This is very helpful for review, or for a parent who wants to skim the topic without actually watching the whole lesson.


imageThen, a vocabulary page reviews the key terms for the lesson. The vocabulary page is followed by a “diagram,” an interactive review that requires the student to drag key words into place.





A five question quiz and written answer complete the lesson. The quiz is automatically graded and any questions missed are linked to a short video segment that explains the material. I really liked this feature, which allows the student to re-learn the missed material. (The student soon learns that this is important because the upcoming chapter test will include any questions that were previously missed!) Each quiz has only 5 questions, so missing just one will result in a grade of 80. I would have preferred to see 10-question quizzes.



We didn’t care for the written answer portion of the lessons. Each lesson has the exact same question, which the student is expected to answer as it relates to that lesson. Emily found this rather difficult to do, at least in the early lessons, since the question didn’t pertain to any specific lesson. Instead, I let her write a 2-3 sentence summary of the lesson, which I then counted for bonus credit for her test. I also gave bonus credit if Emily made the effort to take notes during the video. This helped to bring up the 80’s that she was making on many of the quizzes and to encourage note taking, which she avoids doing in any subject. (I’m trying to have her improve her note taking skills this year, since that is a skill she hasn’t had much practice with.) Note: the bonus credit was just in my own record keeping; the teacher can’t adjust the grades in the SDA software.

The Chapter Review for each topic allows the student to review, present, and be assessed on the material in unique ways.

Act it Out” captures the spirit of the Standard Deviant style of learning by asking the student to teach a lesson. The topic might not be exciting (“the difference between complete and incomplete proteins”, or “why carbohydrates are the most efficient form of energy for the body”), but the material must be presented in a fun way—making a comic strip, creating a game, or creating a series of Twitter posts about the topic. Teaching someone else is the best way to really learn something, so the Act it Out section helps the student really make the content his own.

The Post-test covers all the lessons in the chapter and is in multiple-choice format. Two Critical Thinking questions require the student to both retain information and use the information to draw conclusions.


The U.S. History course is not a typical sequential approach to history. Instead, it consists of 6 topics: American Presidents, Women’s Movement, Civil Reform, America at War, and Economic Changes. Each topic has several lessons that take the concept through time in U.S history.  We’ve only watched a couple of these lessons so far, but I know they will be a fun supplement for history this year.













    Meet the teachers! This photo gives you an idea about how zany the lessons can be! This goal of SDA and this group of young actors is to make learning fun!

Standard Deviants Accelerate Review

Emily found Standard Deviants Accelerate easy to navigate and use. The content is designed to be entertaining and engaging, and she agreed that it was. SDA keeps track of quiz scores and written answer grades (graded by the parent).image 

I found the parent/teacher portion of the site a bit more awkward to use. It is set up for classroom use, not for home use, so if I had 30 or 100 students, maybe it would have worked better for me. In order to see one of Emily’s written answers, for example, I would have to click on the class, then on the lesson, then on the particular assignment for that lesson, then on Emily’s name. Repeat the entire process to see a written answer from another lesson. After all that, as Emily could tell you, I would be rather irritated to find that she hadn’t completed the written answer yet!  It would be SO much easier to just click on her name, then see all the completed assignments from any subject under it. Other than the set-up of the teacher portal, I was very happy with the classes and content.

Emily gives “two thumbs up” to  the SDA courses. She says that the videos are packed with a lot of information and are entertaining to watch.  Because the lessons are short, she’s often able to complete two lessons a day, so she is already nearing the end of the Nutrition course that she started 6 weeks ago. 

The Standard Deviants Accelerate courses are currently priced at $9.99 per course per month. ($4.99 for the AP Prep courses.)

Standard Deviants Accelerate Review

I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.


Monday, October 26, 2015

The Ultimate Homeschool Planner (Schoolhouse Review)

Apologia Ultimate Homeschool Planner

The Ultimate Homeschool Planner


There are many options for homeschool planning, from traditional plan books to elaborate computer software to even a plain spiral notebook! The Ultimate Homeschool Planner , by Debra Bell, and published by Apologia Educational Ministries is a very nice option that includes not only weekly planning grids, but tools for weekly, monthly and yearly planning for education, family events, and spiritual growth.

Like many planners, the The Ultimate Homeschool Planner includes weekly lesson planning pages, pages for recording books read, field trips, grades, and resource lists.


So what makes this planner unique?P1050423

1. Twelve pages of “how to use this planner” give tips on how to set up and use a yearly planning retreat, monthly planning sessions, weekly planning breaks, and weekly student meetings ensure that your child is on track.


2. Of course, pages are provided each week  for homeschool lesson planning, but there are two additional pages for recording Scripture verses, prayer lists, hospitality/outreach goals, and for recording memorable moments, achievements, evidences of God’s grace, and answers to prayer.



3. Articles at the end of the planner offer great information on raising an independent learner, motivating a reluctant learner, learning styles and thinking skills (a mini how-to-homeschool course).

4. An 8th through 12th grade grid for high school planning is also included. P1050426Including 8th grade on the grid is helpful, because many 8th graders take a high school level class or two.

5. A key component to The Ultimate Homeschool Planner system is the yearly and monthly pre-planning that includes setting character and academic goals for each student, reviewing the previous month both with and without the student, and documenting the student’s growth in both academic and non-academic areas.

6. Pockets! Inside the covers are sturdy pockets for holding those extra papers that always accumulate. I love this!

7. This planner is really pretty. That motivates me to use it. Every week includes a inspiring quote at the top of the page.

How did I use this planner?

I’ve been using an online lesson planner that works well for our family, so I tried out some different uses for The Ultimate Homeschool Planner. The first thing I did was to add some stick-on tabs to divide the sections.


I used the first two weekly planner pages as designed. On Sunday, I wrote down our Bible plan for the week (goals for scripture memory and/or my scripture reading plan for the week, a “fighter plan” verse to meditate on each day, prayer list, and hospitality/outreach goals. I read through and prayed over these items each morning during my quiet time. I found that actually recording a plan for these areas kept me more focused as well as helping me to consider areas (like outreach to others) that tend to be neglected. I tried to record memorable moments and evidences of grace on the following page, but wasn’t as successful keeping up with that. I still think it’s a great goal to write down these things and I am trying to be more aware of those little things that I should be thankful for.

I tried out the lesson plan pages by putting days of the week across the top and subjects down the side. This is very similar to what I used to use (although prettier) for lesson planning. For families with several children, each child could be assigned one of the squares along the left margin, with each day’s assignments all printed in one block. Or each row could be designated for a subject, with each student having one column. With this layout, assignments for one subject for the week could be put in a square. There are lots of possibilities!

I also experimented with using the planning grid to assign chores and for blog planning, and to keep track of points Emily earns with a system we’re experimenting with to help her with time management, attitude, and responsibility.


Part of the yearly planning process is to mark out commitments for the year on a 2-page yearly calendar. This enables you to see these events at a glance, making long-term lesson planning easier. I used this calendar in a different way. I listed Emily’s school subjects down the left side of the page. Then I did some very general long-term planning for each subject for the year. I started doing this type of planning several years ago and have found it very helpful for subjects for which I have multiple resources or units and for working in short-term review resources. For example, in English, I marked off 3-4 weeks for each book study we’ll be doing. Emily is doing one math book for some review right now before she starts her primary text for the year. Other studies are short term, but are part of a larger course, and this planning grid helps me to see how it all fits together. This is done in pencil, because changes will be made as the year progresses!


The Ultimate Homeschool Planner is a very solid planner that includes almost anything that a homeschool family needs to record. It focus on so much more than just lesson plans and that should make anyone’s home run more smoothly.


Exploring Creation Field Trip Journal Review

I received this product free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Organizing my bathrooms!

I’ve been on a bit of an organizing kick lately. My cabinets, throughout the house, are a mess. A big part of that has been that I just have too much stuff! However, I went on a search to find some tools to help me organize and corral all that “stuff.”  (I did throw away or move some of it during the process.)

I’m rather embarrassed to show this “before” picture. What a mess. This is Emily’s bathroom and she is supposed to keep it clean, but you can see that doesn’t happen! We had too much in here and weren’t utilizing some of the vertical space.


I found this great under sink organizer at The Container Store ($29).  Now, everything has a place!


I loved it so much that I bought one for our downstairs powder room too.


My master bathroom has two tall narrow cabinets on each side of the sinks. Again, I have a lot stored in here. It’s a nice storage area that partially makes up for the fact that I have 2 pedestal sinks and no counter space. However, there was vertical space that I wasn’t using.P1050412















Since the cabinets are less than 11 inches wide, it was hard to find any shelves that would fit. Again at The Container Store, I was able to find a 10” square shelf that was perfect. I also found some nice stacking organizer trays that were ideal for corralling toothpaste, make-up, soap, and band-aids. (I do a lot of couponing and sale shopping, so I often have large supplies of some items).

I love how neat everything looks now and how much extra space I have with the addition of a few shelves and stacking bins!


I was surprised to find that The Container Store had the best prices on most of the cabinet organizing shelves and bins that I bought, compared to Target and Amazon, as well as a bigger selection. Some of their products are very pricey, but there were bargains there, too.

Coming soon…kitchen cabinets!