Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Writing for a magazine

I'm enjoying writing for Learning Tangent magazine. I've had articles featured in the last two issues, along with an advice column for homeschoolers. I get a lot of joy out of helping others learn to homeschool happily and successfully, even as I continue learning and growing with my own kids.

Here's a link to my latest article, in the Winter 2014 edition of Learning Tangent, entitled, "Reaching out to New Homeschoolers in Love." It's all about finding ways to break down arbitrary barriers that so often prevent new homeschoolers from finding the support they need in their local communities. I tried to provide a number of ideas that groups can implement, no matter how inclusive or exclusive they want to be, in order to help new homeschoolers in their area.

Don't forget to check out the rest of the magazine. It's free to read online, and there is a photography contest for homeschoolers detailed inside. I'd also love to hear from you if you have a homeschooling question you'd like to see answered in the Unplanned Homeschooler's column in the next issue!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

To break or not to break? Deciding on a holiday schedule for your homeschool

Winter break is just around the corner for millions of public school kids. A couple of weeks off to celebrate Christmas and the new year are a welcome break around the midpoint of the school year. But for homeschoolers, the question of whether to take an extended break over the holidays really depends on individual families.

My family typically does not take an extended winter break from school, although we do take off on Thanksgiving and Christmas for sure. Winter is a great time for us to ramp up our focus on school work, since we spend most of our time indoors.

Taking weeks off at the turn of the year, just because that's what the public schools are doing, doesn't make sense for us. We don't like to lose our momentum just when things are getting good.

We also like to save our breaks for times when the weather is better and our friends are up for getting together outdoors. Living in Oklahoma, spring and fall are definitely our favorite times to take extended breaks because it's not too hot and not too cold.

But there are some great reasons to go ahead and schedule a long winter break around Christmas. Here are a few to consider.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Embrace change, become a butterfly

Sometimes we seek change and welcome it readily, and sometimes it is thrust upon us. For many of us, the decision to homeschool involved change, and often a response to changes over which we had no control.

Butterflies are such a beautiful portrait of change fully embraced. They, like so many other insects, live their early lives in a state much different from what they will eventually become. As caterpillars, butterflies inch along, focused mainly on eating whatever plant material they can reach, and eventually, as the approach maturity, on building their cocoon. 

It's a simple life, but one to which they are accustomed. That is, until everything changes.

Emerging in their adult form, butterflies have a whole new diet. They move in a whole new way. Their entire world is expanded, as suddenly the impetus to mate and to migrate, perhaps over thousands of miles, becomes a priority. The challenges they faced as a caterpillar are different than those they face as a butterfly, but so are the rewards.

I don't think caterpillars spend a lot of time or energy focused on their lives before the change. I think, instead, they fully embrace their new existence and move ahead, because they aren't likely to ever go back to the way life was before their change.

Homeschooling successfully takes almost as determined a mindset. If a bully was making your kids' lives miserable before, leave them behind and embrace new friends. If the curriculum was holding your child  down, put it behind you and set your child soaring with a curriculum that fits. If mama drama had you tied up in knots, celebrate your freedom and fly!

In other words, acknowledge the change that brought you to where you are today, but don't dwell on the past. Embrace your metamorphosis, and be the beautiful butterfly you were always meant to be. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The best places to find bargains on old books

Several kids from our homeschool group volunteered with the Friends of the Library book sale at our local library today. They hauled boxes of books and helped set up the room for the big sale, which begins tomorrow. Of course, I couldn't resist taking a peek at the great books that the library had put aside to sell, and of course, I found a box full of selections I just had to take home with me.

I love books, especially old books. I'm so thankful for used books, and for the many ways they find new homes. I've found awesome old books in so many places. Here are a few favorites.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween parties are my favorite homeschool events

Yesterday, our homeschool group had our fifth annual Halloween party, and like each year before, it was our biggest and most popular party by far. We love having parties for the kids. We do Christmas parties, Valentine's Day parties, Easter parties, etc. But it's Halloween that always draws the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds.

Roughly two-thirds of the guests at our Halloween party this year.

Here are a few reasons why Halloween parties are my personal favorite homeschool event of the year, and why your group might want to consider hosting one next year, too.

The weather is usually awesome

Late October, at least in Oklahoma, is almost always mild enough to sit outdoors in nothing heavier than a sweater and sometimes in just t-shirts and jeans. But it's cool enough that we aren't plagued by mosquitoes and flies, and the kids keep their costumes on for at least enough time to get a group picture before deciding they are too hot and stripping down to their play clothes.

Kids get to show their creative sides

I love seeing all the cool costumes on the kids in our group, and especially being able to talk to the kids and hear why they picked the outfits they decided to wear. This year we had historic characters, animals, modern real-life heroes, characters from movies, monsters, and more.

One thing I really like is that kids don't have to censor their costumes like they might in schools. The young police officer carried his side arm, the Civil War soldier carried his rifle, Merida was armed with her bow, the pirate queens held daggers, and Fin from "Sharknado" had his bloody chainsaw, just in case. There were many battles waged on the playground this year, but no one was injured in the melee.  

The food is fun

Halloween themed cookies, cupcakes and other treats make for a very festive array of snacks, and because everyone is not exhausted from holiday cooking that is still a few weeks away, they're excited to bring creative goodies to share.

There are treats aplenty

We always ask kids to bring candy or other treats to share with their friends, and a bag or bucket to collect their own. With 55 children at our party yesterday, there were so many treats some kids' bags wouldn't even hold them all!

Everyone has a great time

Our Halloween parties always seem to go on for hours and hours, and this year was no different. It's just so good to sit and visit with the other parents while the kids play imaginatively, go on expeditions together, and sneak pieces of candy from their buckets. Because the Halloween party is always our biggest event, we get to meet new members each year, too.  

Nearly 90 people attended our party this year. We ended the day exhausted, but happy, and really looking forward to the good times to come.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

New homeschoolers, don't throw in the towel!

This year, I have seen far more new homeschoolers than ever before. But just a couple of months into the school year, so many are already frustrated to the point of considering giving up. and sending their kids back to school.

If you are among those ready to call it quits, because homeschooling is so much harder than you thought it would be, I just want to tell you, don't throw in that towel. Homeschooling is hard, but it's going to get easier.

We've all been there

I've been there. We've all been there! There's a wall that no one tells you about, that you hit a few weeks or a few months into homeschooling, where you just don't know if you made the right decision at all. Your carefully chosen curriculum isn't working for your kids, your kids are pushing your every button, you feel like you're getting no support, and you can't remember why you thought homeschooling was a good idea in the first place.

The reason you hardly ever hear about this is simple...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Last minute Halloween party activities

So, you're getting ready for a Halloween party, but you have no idea what sort of games and activities to plan? Here are a few easy and fun ideas you can put together in no time! Don't worry if it's last minute, you can still plan some great activities in a single afternoon.

Poison Pumpkin

This variation of hot potato is so simple, and you probably have all the supplies you need already on hand. All you need is a small or mini pumpkin and some spooky, suspenseful music. You can carve the pumpkin and light with an LED tea light, or leave the pumpkin intact.

Get everyone in a circle, except for one lucky volunteer, who will be in charge of starting and stopping the music randomly. Begin passing the poison pumpkin around, from person to person. Start the music, and whoever is holding the ghoulish gourd when the music stops is dead. Continue on until there is but one survivor.

Reconstructing Mr. Bones

Mr. Bones is in an awful shape. His pieces have been scattered all over, and it's up to your party guests to find them and put him back together the way he belongs. This fun game is part scavenger hunt, part biology lesson, and all perfectly fun for Halloween!

Print the pieces for this large skeleton for free on Games Crafts Coloring, and then hide them carefully. Print up a list of clues for your guests to follow to find the bones. Have a crowd? Make multiple copies, color code the pieces of each skeleton with a dot, and divide your crowd into teams to see who can reconstruct Mr. Bones first.

Indoor fun for everyone

One of the trickiest parts of planning a fall party is dealing with the weather. What happens if your outdoor party suddenly has to move inside out of the cold or the rain? Well, I am prepared for such an occasion this year, because my friend, Fran Wisniewski, from Fran's World of Discovery, gave me a preview copy of her "13 Haunted Halloween Activities" guide. With games, printables and tons of resources, this guide will come in very handy, especially if I find myself needing some quick and easy last minute activities I can pull together quickly.

Whether you're planning a party, or just entertaining your kids with Halloween themed fun, this guide is full of ideas you'll like. I think my favorite is one of the simplest: Captured in a Haunted House. It's a game that takes no more than a pencil and paper, and could be easily help pass the time at the doctor's office, in a restaurant and more.

Disclosure: My copy of this activity guide was a gift, without any agreement to write a review, but I liked it a lot, so I'm sharing with my readers! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Homeschoolers become zombies to fight breast cancer!

This week, several members of my local homeschool group volunteered in the Thriller at Tenkiller 5K zombie run, hosted by the Beta Sigma Phi, Delta Kappa chapter at Northeastern State University. We were among the spooky, undead creatures whose duty it was to inspire the contestants to run for their lives.

This isn't the first time members of our homeschool group have engaged in community service and given their time for a good cause, but it certainly might have been the most fun!

On the morning of the race, my youngest woke up and practically leapt from her bed, exclaiming, "It's ZOMBIE DAY!" Indeed it was.

There are great opportunities in virtually every community for your kids to make a difference in the lives of others. And those opportunities not only give your family a chance to serve others, they give you ways to create unforgettable memories together!

We appreciate the ladies of Beta Sigma Phi letting us participate in this year's zombie run. We hope we helped make it a fun event for the runners, and that they will be encouraged to return next year and raise even more money to help local women who are battling breast cancer.

Monday, October 6, 2014

For the love of old dictionaries

One of my favorite books, when I was growing up, was an old, brown dictionary, at least three inches thick and older than my mother. It had been hers as long as she could remember. The cover was worn, and the spine was fragile. Any and every word I could think of was contained within the hundreds of delicate pages.

Someday, when my mother is gone, I will treasure her old dictionary, not only for the information it contains, but for the memories it holds.

This week, I read a post from a fellow homeschooler on Facebook. His 10-year-old son had found a 100-year-old dictionary at a used book store for $1, and stayed up late into the night looking up words. I loved the photo of this young man, immersed in his antique dictionary so much, I asked his dad if I could share it here. Look what great condition this old book is still in today!

Photo by Shane D. Manley

My own kids have good quality collegiate dictionaries, which I started them using very soon after they learned to read. Teaching them how to look up words the old fashioned way, without Google or an handheld device was not easy, but I felt that it was important that they have that tool at their disposal.

I hope hard bound, paper dictionaries never die. There is something special about using them. Maybe it's knowing that others before you have turned the same pages, perhaps to find the same words. Maybe it's being able to seamlessly browse and wander, learning new words you never set out to find. Or maybe it's knowing that if the grid ever went down, you'd have the skills to navigate through the building blocks of out language, in alphabetical order, without fumbling to find your way.

Whatever it is, I love dictionaries, especially old, well used ones. Do you?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Green your Halloween with these eco-friendly tips

Halloween is a favorite holiday for most kids, but it can be even better if your family takes steps to make your Halloween festivities just a little more green.

No, I don’t mean dressing up as Frankenstein or a dancing cucumber. I’m suggesting that you green up your Halloween by making it just a little more environmentally friendly with one of these easy tips.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Leaving public school is sometimes like escaping a cult

I wonder, how many homeschoolers actually felt like you were survivors of a traumatic experience when you pulled your kids out of public school? I did. In many ways, I felt like I'd escaped from a cult, where people with absolute power had control over me and my kids, where our entire community pressured us to stay and conform, and we were all suffering because of it.

Like many homeschoolers, I lived in a district where the schools were overcrowded, and where I had no choice over which elementary school my kids attended. I had to fight to get my kids the speech therapy they needed, and to keep them from being pigeon holed into classes where they didn't belong. We dealt with classroom bullies, an inattentive bus driver who lost my kindergartner, teaching methods that failed to engage my son, and lunch periods so short they threatened my daughter's health.

But we escaped! And although leaving behind the only form of education we had ever known was hard, it was the best decision my husband and I could have made for our kids.

Being able to talk about our bad experiences with the schools, and hear the stories of others who'd transitioned from public school to homeschooling made a tremendously cathartic for me. It was like group therapy, and I discovered that I was not alone. Many new homeschoolers feel exactly the same, as if they have just escaped from a controlling, unhealthy, often traumatic situation.

It's not just bashing public schools

Talking with others about the negative aspects of public school may be perceived as bashing by some, especially non-homeschoolers or homeschoolers who still have connections to their local schools. But for those who have been hurt at the schools, physically and/or emotionally, and may still be tormented by friends and family who are critical of their decision to homeschool, a place to vent is especially important.

That's what makes online and local support groups for new homeschoolers so critical. They need a safe place to vent about the system they left behind, and to learn what they need to know to move successfully into educating their children at home. They need support, not only in deciding what curriculum to pick and how to set up their school schedule, but in confirming that they made the absolute right choice for their family.

Publicly, openly acknowledging how bad public school can be helps those who left awful situations behind to work through the emotional trauma and crushing doubts that so often accompany leaving public school. To commiserate with other "survivors" of sorts helps work out the feelings of anger and loss, and then to move past the hurt and into the good parts of homeschooling.

We're not all at the same place on our homeschooling journey, but I guarantee you, without being able to talk about the negatives of public school with other people who'd been there when we got out, I would have never become the happy and successful homeschooler I am today!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Not your ordinary pumpkin patch field trip

So, the Unplanned Homeschooler didn't exactly plan to spend hours and hours at the pumpkin patch today, but this wasn't your ordinary pumpkin patch.

The Peek-a-boo Petting Zoo in Gore, Oklahoma transformed into a pumpkin patch for the kids, complete with a hay maze, old fashioned games, hundreds of pumpkins, and lots of great spots for taking pictures. But best of all, admission still included all the time you'd like to spend with the animals at the petting zoo.

Each child in our group got a cup of feed for the animals, which included llamas, goats, sheep, donkeys, a pig, chickens, geese, turkeys, bunnies and more. The baby bunnies and chicks were the favorites of most of the kids, by a wide margin.

There were lots of games to play, too, and a playground with a see-saw big enough for lots of kids to pile on and ride. And of course, every kid in our group got to take home a pumpkin. Some chose large pumpkins.

Others chose small pumpkins.

And then some chose pumpkins that could only make you laugh!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What should you do when your bullied child begs to be homeschooled?

This week, I read a post on Facebook from a mom who was homeschooling one son, and had two other kids in public elementary school. Her younger son, who'd been asking to be homeschooled as well, suffered through a bullying incident and came home crying, and begging to be taken out of the public school. The mom wanted advice on what she should do.

The scenario reminded me of another from my own home state a couple of years ago. A 12-year-old boy texted his dad from inside a bathroom stall in his middle school in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The text read, “Just get me out of this school.”

The boy’s parents had been in contact with the school over the bullying that the boy said took place every single day. He said not a day went by that he wasn’t called horrible names, pushed, punched, or had milk dumped in his backpack. Finally, after suffering a beating from five other boys outside the school building, the child had enough.

Echoes of other children

Mitchell Wilson, age 11, from Canada begged his family to homeschool him after being tormented for years. Wilson, who had Muscular Dystrophy and could not escape his bullies, said he would rather die than go back to his school. 

Just weeks later, Ashlynn Conner, a 10-year-old honor student from Illinois, begged her parents to homeschool her because of the bullying she faced at school.

These cases and too many others are haunting, because the children begged their parents for help, essentially saying the same thing as the young boy in Bartlesville and the little boy whose mother was asking for help on Facebook. 

Just get me out of this school!  

They begged their families to do the one thing that would make their life tolerable, and their parents said no. Forced to face returning to school, the kids chose to end their own lives rather than be bullied one more day.

Options available to parents

If your child is being bullied so badly that they are begging to be taken out of their school, you owe it to them to explore your options. And there are options. If you live in a large district, you can insist that your child be transferred to another school for their protection. You may have to get a lawyer to make it happen if the district does not allow open transfers, but it is possible. You may also be able to have your child enrolled in a homebound program where a tutor from the district comes to your house and teaches your child at home.

In many states, you have the right to pull your child out of school for any reason. You can choose to homeschool your child or send them to a private school. Even if you have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get your child removed from their school, it is better than seeing them die.

Hopes for the future

People are becoming more aware of the effects of bullying, but the hopes for the future may not be enough to save your child today. The parents of the Bartlesville victim filed a police report after their son was attacked and said that they want teachers to pay more attention to what is going on in school.  

The day may come that anti-bullying policies actually do something to stop the torment that many children suffer, but if it is happening to your child, don’t wait for that day to come. It may be too late. If your bullied child desperately wants out, help them! Exercise your options and get them out.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

I suck at drawing! Or maybe I just thought I did...

I can't tell you how many times I have said that line. "I suck at drawing!" Most of my life, I have been frustrated, because the things I wanted to draw didn't come out looking like they did in my head. And I hated that.

But recently, after watching a video by The Virtual Instructor on YouTube, where he slowly and systematically demonstrated how to draw a realistic eye, it occurred to me that if I want my kids to bravely try things, and not give up after a few failed attempts - you know, if I didn't want to hear them say, "I suck at that!" - I needed to lead by example.

So, I asked my older daughter if I could borrow the oil pastels she'd gotten for Christmas last year, and we sat down with a coffee table book about animals and a few sheets of black construction paper.

Now, my drawings are usually so bad, so flat and non-lifelike, so honestly pathetic that I gave up on ever pursuing art as any sort of hobby or pastime years ago. But going slowly, and just trying to put down on the paper the colors I saw in my reference photo, like the instructor in the YouTube video suggested, my drawing began to look pretty cool. Not bad at all for a first attempt at drawing with oil pastels, even if poor Quasimodo's right eye is oddly over sized.

Okay, so maybe I don't suck at drawing. Maybe I just never had a good teacher before, and maybe I never gave it a proper chance. But I am pretty thrilled with my frog, and I am anxious to try drawing again, and to watch more of The Virtual Instructor's videos! And if this experience helps to encourage my kids to try more things, even things they think they suck at, well, that's the best part of all.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why virtual public school is not legally considered homeschooling

It's amazing how far the homeschooling community has come in understanding this issue in the couple of years since I first published this article on Yahoo! Back then, homeschoolers who dared to insist that virtual public school was not homeschooling were shouted down in online forums, and I was actually threatened for spreading the message that the term "homeschool" should be guarded and reserved only for true homeschoolers.

Today, when someone in an online homeschool group posts that they are using K12, Connections, Epic or other virtual public school programs, they are immediately reminded, usually by several people, that what they are doing is not really homeschool, and that they have other options.

I am thrilled to see the homeschooling community defending the term "homeschool" for use only as applicable to legal homeschooling, and not to public school at home. For those new to either homeschooling or virtual public school, here's why the proper terminology is so important.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Homeschool support is all about changing lives

Good Sunday morning, readers! Today, I would like to share some good news and some gratitude.

I've been one of the leaders of my local homeschool group since it was founded, nearly five years ago. And although I have interacted with scores of homeschoolers, and helped dozens of families begin their homeschooling journey in those years, the magnitude of what I've been helping to do as a volunteer didn't truly hit me until recently.

Recently, I realized that I have perhaps not been as thankful as I should have been for the work that God has done through our little group in northeastern Oklahoma, and for the good things He has allowed me to witness through His grace.

You see, homeschool support really is all about changing lives. Becoming a homeschooling family isn't always an easy step. Just making the decision to take full responsibility for your child's education, then getting through the adjustment period of those first months is hard. But with the right support, homeschooling can completely transform your family in some pretty fantastic ways!

Amazing life changes

Some of the changes I have seen in the lives of the homeschoolers I know have been nothing short of amazing:

A little boy who often cried because he was bullied and had no friends at school now greets friends of all ages enthusiastically with hugs and high fives and looks forward to getting together to learn and play.

A mother who felt isolated and alone, homeschooling her child with medical issues, now feels connected and empowered as she and her daughter make new friends.

Kids who were lost in the the cracks in public school, falling behind academically or bored to the point of distraction in the classroom, are able to learn at their own pace and indulge their interests at home.

The role of a support

Homeschool groups, and especially leaders, are vitally important to the success of many homeschooling families. As someone who has been part of the support network for many families on the local level, and who has relied just as much on the care and support of others, I have seen what a difference caring, acceptance and encouragement can make.

I've also seen how damaging bad leadership within a homeschool community can be. In my own personal growth as a support leader, I know I have sometimes put my trust in the wrong places and made mistakes that I can't go back and change, but I have learned valuable lessons.

Our efforts, magnified

An unexpected situation forced me to really take stock of my own role as a leader in my local homeschooling community this summer. When I did, I realized that the role of a homeschool support leader is much akin to a ministry, reaching out to others to help effect a positive change in their lives. I also realized that with God's help, I could be a much better, more effective and more loving leader than I could ever hope to be on my own.

Leaning on God, and trying to follow His guidance rather than acquiescing to others, I started to see wonderful changes, not just in my homeschool group, but in my own family. My kids were happier than they'd ever been, our school schedule ran more smoothly than it had in months, and good people started to surround me and lift me up.

Our local group began to blossom like never before. We grew to nearly double our previous size in a matter of weeks and welcomed new families whose lives were a testimony to the good work God was accomplishing through our members. Other area groups began working cooperatively with ours and the number of expected attendees at our upcoming events climbed to unprecedented numbers.

Yes, our efforts at outreach and support seem to be magnified as we work to honor God rather than to satisfy others. So it is with gratitude that I acknowledge the strongest support any homeschooling family could hope to have, and with sincerity that I hope to keep putting His will first as I continue to work to support other homeschoolers locally and around the world.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How my kids reacted to a night time fire drill may save your family's life

Yes, I am the Unplanned Homeschooler, but when it comes to fire safety, I believe strongly in planning ahead. In fact, there may be nothing more likely to save your family's lives in the case of an emergency than having a good plan and running enough drills so that everyone knows what to do automatically.

That's why I would like to recommend to each and every one of my readers, please schedule a night time fire drill for your family. You never know how your kids will actually react to a fire alarm when they are sleeping until you see the results for yourself. I did, and it was terrifying.

I thought my kids knew what to do

If you think your kids know what to do in case of an emergency, you are not alone. I thought so, too, until last year. I’d gone over lots of scenarios with them, from fires and tornadoes to injuries and intruders, and I really thought they knew what to do if an emergency should arise.

One emergency situation we'd talked about at length, but not actually practiced how to address was a fire at night. I did some research on fire drills, and found the Home Fire Drill website, with videos of how children really reacted to night time fire drills. The videos were frightening. Some children slept right through the alarms of the smoke detector, and others failed to do what they were taught in daytime drills.

Still, I was confident that my own children would do better in a night time fire drill than the kids in the videos.

Night time drills are a must

I had done more than a lot of parents to prepare my children for a fire, primarily because we live in a split level home and the kids’ bedrooms do not have windows. Their avenues of escape are limited, so it's even more important that they know what to do in case of a fire. Also, my grandmother died in a fire when I was ten years old, so I have always taken fire safety very seriously. 

I thought that running through fire scenarios, planning escape routes and learning safety procedures from the fire department would be enough. We discussed our safety plan regularly, and updated it as the children grew older.  Unfortunately, I learned last night all the daytime preparation in the world is no substitute for a night time drill, performed after your children have been asleep for a while.

Results of our fire drill

I had to suppress the giggles as I sneaked downstairs to set off the smoke alarm. I thought for sure my twins would come running out of their rooms in confusion, but then quickly remember the fire escape plan. My amusement quickly faded as the smoke alarm blared and neither child made a sound. Approximately 30 seconds went by before my daughter moaned incoherently.
Several more seconds went by as my daughter whined, “Turn in off,” in a mumbling voice about half a dozen times. A fear settled like a stone in my stomach as I imagined what would happen in the case of a real fire. Finally, my daughter called out in a sleepy cry for her brother. When he heard her say his name, he immediately jumped out of bed.

By then, it had been more than a full minute since the alarm started. In a real fire, you may have only a couple of minutes to escape.

My son saw me in the hall between their rooms and asked what was going on. I said, “Fire! Get out!” He acted very confused and just stood still. I said again, “Fire! Get your sister and get out!” Had the danger been real, he would not have had those verbal instructions.

My son went into my daughter’s room, but neither of them came out until I yelled one more time, “Get out! Fire!” Finally they came stumbling out of the room, neither of them ducking low to avoid smoke inhalation. They went up the stairs instead of out the back door, the planned route to safety we had so often discussed.

My children would have likely died

According to the Home Fire Drill website, approximately 50 percent of people who die in fires were actively trying to escape. But in a real fire, you have only two or three minutes to exit the house before you die. If my children reacted to a real fire as they did in the drill, they would have definitely died.  

This reality scares me, but it also motivates me to hold more fire drills while the kids are asleep, until their subconscious mind is trained to react to the sound of the smoke alarm and they know instinctively what to do.
Please take my family's experience to heart if you have children. Hold a fire drill of your own, a couple of hours after your children go to bed when they are most likely to be in a state of deep sleep. If your kids need improvement, give them the chance to learn the right responses before a real emergency occurs. And share this information with other families you know. It just might save their lives.   

Saturday, August 23, 2014

To doodle or not to doodle?

This week, I followed a discussion on Facebook about kids doodling on their homework. Some homeschooling moms strictly prohibited the practice, while others thought it was just fine, and most agreed that a little doodling doesn't hurt anything as long as it doesn't cover up the student's work.

I love that most of the worksheets my kids have done over the years have plenty of extra white space. I've found miscellaneous doodles, poems, jokes and sometimes even carefully thought out scenes that traverse the whole page. Those extra marks on the page never failed to make me smile, as they revealed my kids' personalities, their creativity, and their budding senses of humor. 

Now that my twins are in middle school, when I look back at their binders of elementary school work, I couldn't care less about seeing 8+4=12. But I LOVE seeing my daughter's evolving skill at drawing animals, my son's amazing superhero adventures, and both of their fascinations with goofy jokes. 

Doodling is good for your brain!

Some of the moms in the Facebook discussion recommended a TED Talk, by Sunni Brown, who purports that doodling is a powerful tool to help boost your learning power. This article in Psychology Today expands on the video, explaining Brown's research and going into greater detail about exactly how doodling can improve memory and help students retain more information as they work.

Many homeschoolers already incorporate music and movement into their routine, to help auditory and kinesthetic learners better absorb the material they are trying to master. Why not allow doodles, too?

A time and place for neatness 

I appreciate a sharp presentation, with crisp margins and clean lines. There is definitely a time and place for neatness, and students do need to learn how to put together a clean report and how not to doodle all over an important test. But worksheets are for practice, not for show. They're a scant step up from whiteboards and dry erase markers, in that once the material is learned, they are completely disposable and irrelevant.

By constricting the free and spontaneous flow of creativity that may be expressed in the white spaces of children's worksheets, parents may be missing out on some of the best memories of their children's development they could hope to capture.

Or at least a great laugh at the their child's visual joke about stinky feet and poot clouds!

Oh, hey! One more thing... if you want a great deal on some awesome art curriculum for your kids, act fast. This sale ends soon.

One Week Only - Ends 5/23/16 - Save 90% on the Fine Arts Bundle

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Model plane enthusiasts hope to help young flyers take off

The 13th Annual Hatbox Field Memorial Fly-In is coming up October 10 and 11, 2014. This event, hosted by the Three Rivers Area Model Plane Society, draws in model plane enthusiasts from several states, and features all sorts of remote controlled aircraft, including planes, helicopters, an even giant planes with wingspans of more than 10 feet!

A while back, my kids had a chance to see a smaller exhibition of model airplanes in flight. They thought these replica planes were awesome. I thought likewise of the pilots, who had the planes doing loops and dives that would rival what we had seen at an air show. I took the chance after the show to interview a couple of the pilots about how folks could get started with the exciting hobby of building and flying model airplanes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Don't try to duplicate public school at home

There are so many new homeschoolers this year, more than I have ever seen before! And of course, all the newbies are looking for some advice to help them get started in the right direction. The absolute best piece of advice the Unplanned Homeschooler can give is this: Don’t try to duplicate school at home. 
As a new homeschooler five years ago, I didn’t know exactly what the veteran homeschoolers I met meant when they issued this warning, but I soon learned.
This sort of cluttered classroom environment is probably not best for your kids.

I grew up in public school, and my own kids started out there. The public school classroom was the only model of elementary education I had to work from, and while it may be the acceptable standard for simultaneously teaching 20 or more children of the same grade level, it’s not the ideal for most homeschooling families. 

Fortunately, there are a few easy solutions that can turn the public school experience you probably remember from your own childhood into a homeschool environment much more conducive to educating your children one-on-one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Planning a Not Back to School Party

As we begin our sixth year of homeschooling, I'm so excited because my twins are full fledged middle schoolers now, going into seventh grade as it were, and their homeschool group is thriving like never before. This year, we're even adding an overnight campout to our annual Not Back to School party.

What's a Not Back to School party? Why, it's just about the best way possible for a group of homeschoolers to celebrate the beginning of a new year of learning together. Although many homeschoolers follow different schedules than the public schools, it is impossible to escape the fact that August means back to school for most of the nation's kids.

My son and friends playing games at our first Not Back to School party.

The time of year can leave some homeschoolers feeling a little left out, and even though they don't want to leave summer behind and head into a classroom with their peers, it's still great to celebrate the beginning of a year full of new learning adventures with their friends.

How to plan a Not Back to School party

If you belong to a homeschool group, or just have a few homeschooling friends who enjoy getting together occasionally, planning a Not Back to School party will be a snap. First, you want to make it a fun event, so try to find a location where your kids can play and have a good time, like a playground, splash pad, swimming pool, bowling alley, etc.

Next, make sure you have plenty of food on hand, because kids get hungry when they play hard. You can arrange with other parents to all bring snacks to share, or perhaps contact a local pizza place and ask for a discount.

Opt for a new adventure

If you are part of a larger group, especially one that has done a few Not Back to School parties in the past, consider ramping things up a notch this year. Add a new adventure, something the kids have never done together before, to create a more memorable experience.

As I mentioned above, my own group decided to take our annual Not Back to School party to the next level by camping overnight at an area lake instead of just meeting for the afternoon at a local park. The kids will still be able to play on a playground, enjoy a picnic, and do some hiking like they did in years past, but this year there will be so much more to do, and more time to do it.

Not the camping types? You can still add more adventure to your annual party by incorporating an exciting activity the kids haven't tried before, or maybe going to a brand new location. Use your imagination and give the kids an experience they would not be likely to get in school.

Setting the tone for the year

Your Not Back to School party is about more than just showing your kids a good time. It's about setting the tone for the coming year. Whether this is your first year homeschooling or your 21st, starting the year with a fun and exciting new experience is sure to stoke everyone's enthusiasm, so don't hesitate to make your party the best it can be.

Monday, August 4, 2014

An exciting alternative to the postcard exchange

I've seen a lot of buzz lately about postcard swaps. The idea is to find other homeschoolers from around the country, ideally one in every state, and set up an exchange, so that each child in the group gets postcards from all the other states and learns a little bit about history and geography along the way.

The idea of a postcard swap sounds neat. Kids love getting mail, and postcards from all around the country could spur a lot of interest in learning about our great states. But organizing a swap can get complicated, especially when trying to exchange addresses and other personal information with strangers you've met online. Parents want to be safe, after all.

I figured out another way to fill our mailbox with educational materials from every state, and it was easy and free to do. A few years ago, when I wanted to spark my children's interest in U.S. geography and help them learn more about the 50 states, I sent requests to the state travel and tourism offices in every state to request maps and tourism guides for our family.

Three years ago, I looked up state travel and tourism offices individually, just doing a search by state names. But another homeschooling mom showed me a site that has links for all 50 states conveniently compiled together, so the hard part is done for you.

Some states offered many more resources than just travel guides, free for the asking, including brochures about historic landmarks and battlefields, maps of specific areas of the state, and more. Before long, we had in our hands full color books, from every state, full of information about major cities, state history, natural resources, sports and entertainment, and all sorts of cultural treasures.

So, if you are a little wary about participating in a postcard exchange with folks you don't know, or if you happened to miss out on the sign up, consider this alternative. It might be the perfect way to request educational mail for your child, and to stock up on valuable educational materials like full sized state maps. Who knows, you might even find a great place to take a family vacation!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Back to school science kits to consider

School funding for science and other subjects, especially at the elementary school level, has sharply decreased over recent years as more focus has been placed on math and reading. But that doesn’t mean your students have to miss out on great learning experiences.

Whether you are a classroom teacher, a home educator or simply a parent who wishes to supplement your child’s education at home, you may be interested in picking up some science kits for back to school.

Here are a few favorites for you to check out.

Live animals

You can order science kits that allow you to hatch butterflies, frogs, chickens and more. Bird eggs, like chickens and quail, require an incubator. This can be a little pricey for a single use, but if you have a classroom or a homeschool group that could use the incubator over and over, it’s definitely worth the cost. Frog hatcheries and butterfly hatcheries are a lot less expensive, and can be reused with new orders of eggs or you can find eggs or larvae in the wild. 

Dissection kits

If your student is interested in the inner workings of the body, there is no better way to get an understanding of anatomy and physiology than through a firsthand look. You can get a variety of small animals, including a frog, a fish, several invertebrates and even a fetal pig, complete with a dissection kit and instructions for less than $50. That’s enough for weeks and weeks of lab work and will give your student a look at a wide variety of animal organs and structures. Single animal kits are significantly less expensive.

Rocket science

If your students would like to learn about rockets, you have to check out Estes. This company makes a huge variety of customizable rockets available at hobby stores and online. Better yet, they provide lesson plans in information for students and teachers on their website for free. You only need one launch kit, which you can get for under $20 complete with a rocket. Many additional rockets can be purchased for under $10 apiece.  


There are so many chemistry kits available, or you can basically build your own by purchasing individual chemicals and pieces of lab equipment. If you are purchasing a chemistry kit for younger students, make sure it has enough materials to do several experiments. I recommend kits that allow you to make slime, grow crystals, and study a variety of scientific concepts.


Kits are available to study the bacteria and fungi in the world around you on a basic level or in a more advanced way. If you already own a microscope, you can get started studying microbiology for less than $30, with enough supplies for a whole classroom or for a few students to do a larger experiment. Home Science Tools offers free experiment ideas on their website for everyday science or even for science fairs.

Silver linings are the gift of a grateful heart

July was one of the most dramatic months I've experienced in a while. So much happened in such a short amount of time. And while much of what happened around our household in July was bad, still, I can see so much good.

You see, those silver linings around life's dark clouds are something I look for continually. I know they are the gift of a grateful heart, and if you focus on what blessings you have, rather than your hurts, you'll start to see them, too.

Let me give you a few examples from my own roller coaster of a month:

I lost my job

At the beginning of July, Yahoo shut down the site I wrote for and eliminated most of my personal income, so essentially, I lost my job. As a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom of three, my job options are pretty limited, but I had done well supplementing our household income as a freelance writer. Unfortunately, there are few reputable companies left that pay for the type of writing I was doing at Yahoo, and many writers vying for those jobs.

But, looking at the silver lining, I got the rights back to almost all the work I had done for Yahoo over the past couple of years, which meant I could use my work in a new way. I built a couple of blogs, and I am working on a book. New doors are opening, and that's exciting!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Table etiquette for homeschoolers

My parents tell me that public schools used to teach etiquette and manners as part of a student's elementary education. They say that teachers used to sit with students at lunch time and instruct them on proper table manners, correcting them as needed, so the children grew up at least knowing the basics of table etiquette.

But that wasn't my experience in school, and it definitely wasn't my children's experience when they entered public school a few years ago. With the uproarious clamor of an overcrowded cafeteria, and just minutes to spend at the table, my children's lunch period was overwhelming. The staff on duty had all they could handle just ushering kids in an out the doors and making sure no one was throwing food.

Thankfully homeschooling allows us to enjoy a much more relaxed and calm midday meal, where the kids have plenty of time to eat their lunch and it's relatively peaceful and quiet. But the table manners I try to instill in my children are, admittedly, short of the etiquette that may be expected at a formal dinner or an important business luncheon when they get older.

As much as I love the look of a formal table setting, our meals are decidedly informal. We don't set out more plates or silverware than we need, we usually eat our salad with the same fork as the rest of our dinner, and no one ever gets more than one glass or cup. Like many families in today's busy world, we often eat on the go, or even on TV trays while we watch a movie together.

Honestly, I'm concerned that my kids have had few opportunities to learn the higher level table etiquette they may need to make a good impression on future employers.

But I'm a homeschooler, and that means I can teach my kids anything I want as part of their basic education. I know there are resources that we, as homeschooling parents, can use to instruct our kids, and perhaps even ourselves, in the best of proper table etiquette before our youngsters grow up and leave the nest.

I'm fortunate to be friends with etiquette expert and fellow writer, Rebecca Black, who has written many books and articles. She knows all about proper manners for every situation, and writes in such a helpful way that she makes it a pleasure to learn. I'm excited to see that she has published a new book, "Dining Etiquette: Essential Guide for Table Manners, Business Meals, Sushi, Wine and Tea Etiquette," which would be a perfect resource for teaching homeschooled teens and pre-teens everything they need to know about table etiquette before they go to college or begin careers.

I'm looking forward to checking out this book, and perhaps staging practice dinners with my own kids, so that they are better acquainted with all the rules of etiquette they will need to flourish in any dining experience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

If you don't send your kids to public school, you're a bad guy?

A controversial article from Slate made the rounds on social media about this time last year. The title says it all. "If you send your kids to private school, you are a bad person." It's not the first time a Slate writer stirred things up with an inflammatory article bashing parents who opt for something other than public school. In 2012, the hot button title was, "Liberals, don't homeschool your kids."

Both of these articles had the same general premise. Parents, especially educated and affluent parents, have a responsibility to the community at large to send their children to public school. Those who choose to do otherwise, by either sending their kids to private school or homeschooling, are cheating the public school kids out of their involvement and influence.

These authors acknowledge that public schools in many instances are broken, and that it might take generations of involved parents to get them back on track, but they insist that parents should make the sacrifice, foregoing the benefits of an alternative education, in order to eventually improve public schools for all.

As a parent, I balk at the notion of sacrificing my children's education, their happiness, and even their safety in pursuit of a collective social good that may never be obtained.

If public schools might be compared to swimming pools, many today are choked with crud. You have everything from predators on the faculty, academic scandals in the classrooms and bullies in the hallways. What the Slate writers insist is that the slime in the schools could be cleared away if parents didn't pull their kids out of public school and choose other alternatives. But kids aren't magical filters that can change a system that has been decades in the making. Leaving your kids in a cruddy school only guarantees one thing - they will come home covered in the same grime they've been swimming in every day.

We chose to homeschool because we believed it was the best option for our kids. We sacrificed my income so that we could provide our kids with an alternative education that is individualized and helps them reach their potential. Making the best choice possible for our own children doesn't make us bad people.

Why didn't we stick with the public schools and devote our time and energy to making them better? Don't we care about kids stuck in failing public schools? Certainly! Do we have the power to effect change on behalf of those children? Unfortunately, to a large extent the answer is no.

Because as I see it, public education in America is no longer a local entity that can be changed with the involvement of caring and dedicated parents and teachers. I see public education as a giant, run by corporations, unions and government officials. And the chance of changing anything, from the number of standardized tests kids take to the time they have at the lunch table, is virtually nonexistent, at least in the short time that my kids will still be kids.

So I do what's best for mine, and I hope you can do what's best for yours. And together we can vote for officials who will try to put control of the schools back in the local communities, back where parents and teachers really can make a difference.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Go ahead, get your homeschooler a backpack

It's almost time for back-to-school, and even though you are very happy with your decision to homeschool instead of sending your little one off to kindergarten, your child may still be expressing a desire to go to public school with the other neighborhood kids.

It's no wonder, really. Kids are inundated with the same back-to-school ads we see. The children's section of the library is full of books about so-and-so's first day of school. And those big, yellow school buses are truly fascinating if you've never been stuck on one for an hour with no air conditioning in the middle of August. 

But when parents stop and ask their preschool or kindergarten age kids what it is about school that they desire the most, often the answer is surprising and simple. They just want a cool lunchbox or a backpack like the ones they've seen in the stores!

My twins on the first day of kindergarten.

My twins went to kindergarten in public school. They got new backpacks and they both picked out a brand new lunchbox to take to school on the first day. My son picked Spiderman, and my daughter chose Disney princesses. I probably wouldn't have bought them lunchboxes if we'd started out homeschooling, but the backpacks have come in very handy over the years.

My kids have used backpacks to take books and crayons to doctors appointments, to carry clothes and toys on overnight trips to their grandparents' house, to use as carry on bags on airplanes, to store treasures in at home, and much more. 

You might not think your child needs a backpack, since they'll be homeschooled. But chances are, you'll find plenty of opportunities for them to use a backpack, and because they won't be dragging it around every day, it will likely last them for several years. If a backpack makes them feel more like they are doing "real" school, by all means, go ahead and get them one and fill it up with this year's crayons, pencils and other supplies. I promise, you won't regret it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

How homeschooling helps save big on school supplies

When I first started homeschooling, I really didn't know what supplies I would need to buy for my kids. As an unplanned homeschooler, I was jumping out of public school and into homeschooling knowing I would have to learn as I went along.

I had been spending between about $85 and $150 per child for the supplies on the teachers' lists when my kids were in public school. I knew homeschooling would save us money on the standard school supplies, but over the first few years, I was shocked at just how little we ended up spending. This year, I expect to spend less than $100 on all three kids combined, excluding some special art supplies my older daughter wants for her birthday.

Here are just a few tips that have saved my family money on homeschool supplies over the years.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pandas on a playground. How cool is that?

Oh, you guys! Today's unplanned adventure started with a video I saw on a friend's Facebook page. It featured young pandas playing on a wooden slide. Pandas on playground equipment, people! I don't think it gets much cuter than that.

Of course, I wasn't satisfied to just watch the video over and over and grin ear to ear. I needed to know where these adorable pandas lived, and what exactly was up with the panda playground. I found the original video on YouTube, and discovered that the young pandas were part of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China.

This one of a kind research center gives researchers a chance to study the giant pandas native to China, and to help in the effort to conserve the species. There are tons of educational resources on the site, perfect for anyone who loves pandas, and even live 24 hour high definition webcams where you can watch and listen to the Chengdu pandas from anywhere in the world!

Today's venture into the world of the Chengdu pandas was definitely an unplanned stop, but sometimes those are the very best learning adventures of all!

Happy as a cow in the summer rain

You couldn't ask for better weather than we've had this week in Oklahoma. It's mid-July, but our temperatures are hovering in the 70s and low 80s and we're enjoying a nice steady rain. I couldn't think of a better time to be a cow.

Today, my kids and I had to go to Tulsa to pick up my youngest daughter's glasses and get the estimate done on our van after the collision I wrote about last week. Along the way, we passed pasture after pasture full of happy, happy cows.

And why wouldn't they be happy? It's nice and cool, the rain is coming down just steadily enough to keep the biting flies at bay, and there's an abundance of tender, green grass growing where the hay was cut and baled over the last couple of weeks.

Next week, some of the members of my homeschool group will be taking a field trip to a local ranch to visit cows and learn more about farming. The field trip reminds me of my daughter's third birthday, when her only wish was to "pet a baby cow."

Farms make wonderful destinations for field trips, especially when there are new babies to see. Have your kids had a memorable experience on a farm? I'd love to hear about it!