Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Benefits of custom weighted blankets: Are they worth it?

What are the benefits of a custom weighted blanket, and is it worth the cost? Those are the questions I asked when a local mom I know and trust started selling custom made, hand tailored weighted blankets online.

I met Kim Hewett, of Kim's Custom Creations, through our local homeschool group. She and her husband, a respected counselor in our community, adopted their youngest son from Uganda about five years ago. He's a sweet, good natured, helpful boy who I had the pleasure of teaching in a couple of science classes, but at home he was having trouble sleeping and suffering from some sensory issues. Kim set to work, researching solutions, and began to study the benefits of weighted blankets.

These blankets, often used to help children with autism calm down and fall asleep, can be very effective. They have also proven helpful for many kids with sensory processing disorder, ADD, PTSD, restless leg syndrome, insomnia and other issues. But they are expensive, with many selling for $200 or more on Amazon.

Of course, there is a wide range of prices, and according to Kim, that has much to do with the size and weight of the blanket. The weight should be approximately 10 percent of the user's body weight plus one pound, and the blanket should be sized the user's dimensions, so that the weight is evenly distributed without too much overhang. This is where custom made blankets stand apart from those that are mass produced.

You may already be familiar with the relaxing effects of a heavy comforter, but a weighted blanket provides even better stimulation, with deep pressure that not only calms both children and adults, but can also help improve focus and relieve anxiety. These benefits can be immesurable for those with autism spectrum disorders and other special needs.

And with regard to kids and adults on the autism spectrum, by purchasing a custom made weighted blanket from a shop like Kim's Custom Creations, the blankets can be made to order, in a favorite color, with a favorite character or team logo, or even in an exact fabric print as needed to satisfy the recipient's needs. This can mean the difference between a product that will be be happily and regularly used and one that will be rejected.

You might think that getting a custom made product just for your loved one or yourself would be more expensive, but in this case, buying from an independent shop can actually save you money. Kim said once she gets a customer's measurements, she can get them a quote quickly, and often create a blanket they'll love for up to 30 percent less than what they might otherwise pay.

Personally, I love non-invasive, drug free options wherever you can find them, and if you or your loved one are suffering from anxiety, insomnia or other problems that may be aided by the use of a weighted blanket, they may be one of the best purchases you could make. After all, a good night's sleep is worth more than gold when it remains ever elusive.

Oh, and by the way, for a limited time you will get a free unit study from me, The Unplanned Homeschooler, with your purchase of a blanket from Kim's Custom Creations if you mention this blog when you order!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

New study shows age-based grade assignments harmful to millions of students

A new study published by the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University shows that millions of students in the United States are suffering from educational harm caused by age-based grade assignments. According to the study, a surprising percentage of students are performing at a level significantly higher than their assigned grade level, but because of rigid class assignments, these students are not allowed to work up to their potential, and often must rely on their parents to provide stimulating educational experiences outside the classroom.

This Institute suggests alternatives to the current K-12 system of assigning classes strictly by age, including grouping students according to their abilities and allowing advanced students to skip grades and progress through the system more quickly.

The results of this study are probably not surprising news to your average homeschooler. The homeschooling community has known for a long time that individualized education is the best option for most students, regardless of their skill level, because it allows each child to learn at their own pace.

Accoding to Michael Mattews, one of the researchers involved in the study, “Regardless of the instructional level, it is far more likely that teachers will be highly effective when they have a narrower range of ability to address in their classroom.” Matthews added, "It is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to design effective instruction at an appropriate level for all of these learners within the constraints of a 24-hour day.”

Researchers noted that there is a nine year gap between the reading levels of the most and least advanced students in the average upper elementary school class. That means a teacher who is tasked with instructing more than two dozen 5th graders may have students on a range as wide as 2nd to 10th grades, all of whom are being given the same lessons and preparing for the same high stakes standardized tests.

Gifted children, in particular, are often removed from public school because their educational needs are not met in the standard classroom. Too often, instead of being presented with challenging and exciting opportunities to learn, advanced students are instead turned into indentured servants, working for free as teacher's assistants.

If involved parents have to do the extra work of providing their children with learning opportunities outside the classroom, they might as well take hold of their children's entire education and set them free from the constraints they face during school hours.

Not every family is able to homeschool, whether for financial or other logistical reasons, but studies like this one may lead to positive reforms in the public schools if administrators would just take heed, and that could be a good thing for millions of students. Any reforms that would allow kids to work at their skill level, rather than be grouped and paced for 13 years or more based on their age alone would certainly be beneficial for students whose families are unable to provide them with a fully individualized education.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sometimes I just can't...

I think this post has been a long time coming. It's not easy to let your guard down and write something like this. I'd so much rather just maintain the illusion of being a successful, happy homeschool blogger and mom! Yeah, I know, I totally had you buying into the myth of my awesomeness, right? But I feel like I need to write this, if not for my own cathartic release then for the other homeschooling moms who are going through similar circumstances right now.

Here's the thing. Sometimes I just can't.


I talked to a couple of my best friends yesterday, after nearly two weeks of no contact. It's not like me to go so long without talking to my friends. I usually need contact and communication. One of them had asked the other whether she'd heard from me, but she hadn't. I had not even been on Facebook for more than a few minutes each day. It was like I had fallen in a hole.

And in a way, I had. I was in an emotional black hole, and it was one of those times I just couldn't. I couldn't deal with e-mails or messages on social media. I couldn't deal with talking on the phone. I didn't even want to think about going out around people. I managed to keep feeding my kids and providing them with assignments, so they wouldn't fall behind on their lessons, but I was worn out.
Maybe it was hormones. Or the Benadryl I was taking everyday to survive the ragweed in the summer air. Maybe it was the hot, sticky, 95 degree September days that felt more like 110. Or perhaps it was the blahs that seem to set in every year about a month and a half after we start back on our regular school schedule. I don't know.

All I know is that for a while, all I really wanted to do was crank up the air conditioner and hide under a blanket. And a part of me wondered why celebrities are able to retreat to a cushy hospital suite for a week to be treated for "exhaustion" and that option isn't available to moms.

We're the ones who really need that!

No break for you!

Even though I couldn't run off to a spa, I did try to take care of myself during this time. You might notice there is a gap in my blog. I took a little break from writing and played Plants vs. Zombies instead. I've been leading our local homeschool group for more than seven years, but I basically took the last couple of weeks off from managing that, too. I gave myself permission to stay in my cave and rest, as much as I could,

Homeschooling is a full time, year-round commitment that sometimes lasts decades. I think we're kidding ourselves if we think there won't be times that we run out of gas and need to take a break to recharge. Whether this is your first year as a homeschooler or your fifteenth, you've got to allow yourself to float through those occasional times that you are just mentally, emotionally and maybe even physically spent.

Brighter days ahead

I went out yesterday, to my youngest daughter's monthly co-op day. And I spent the afternoon painting at the library with my friends and our kids. I feel like I have made it through another slump, and I am excited for the activities we have coming up over the next few weeks.

I hope that if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with homeschooling and all your other mom duties, you can take some time, even just a day or two, to regroup. Don't be ashamed to ask for help from your spouse, family or friends. And remember that it happens to most, if not all of us. It doesn't mean you are failing, and things will definitely get better if you can just get some rest and then reconnect with people who make you happy.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How good can a manual pencil sharpener be?

I couldn't help wondering what in the world all the fuss was about. How could a pencil sharpener be that much better than others on the market, that I would see it recommended over and over among homeschoolers? But I figured there must be something to it, especially after I finally became yet another devotee of those Ticonderoga pencils you hear so many homeschool moms rave about. Yeah, I buy mine by the 96 pack now.

But that pencil sharpener, the one by Classroom Friendly Supplies, with the funny looking black pincers that stick out on the front: would it live up to all the hype?

As a homeschool blogger, I decided to take advantage of the review program that Classroom Friendly Supplies offers, and try out their famous pencil sharpener for myself. I chose the red one, because I love bright red things. They make me happy. I figured even if the sharpener turned out to be pretty ordinary, it would still look cool.

It took next to no time for the sharpener to arrive in my mailbox. I was anxious to try it out. It took about half a minute to figure out how the black pincers worked. Basically, you pull the metal stage out, away from the sharpener until it clicks, squeeze the black pincers and fully insert your pencil. When you let go of the pincers, your pencil is held securely in place. There's no need to hold it steady. The sharpener holds it in the perfect position for you.

Next, you crank the handle. If you turn it the wrong direction, nothing happens. If you turn it the right direction, the pencil starts moving into the sharpener as the blades quickly and easily whittle a perfectly sharpened end in just a few rotations.

I have a daughter with very poor muscle tone. She was a preemie, and she never really developed much arm and hand strength, even with physical and occupational therapy. She has an extremely hard time even opening a can of pop on her own, so other manual pencil sharpeners are virtually impossible for her to use.

The Classroom Friendly Supplies sharpener was one tool she was able to use with ease. Three cranks of the handle and her pencil was perfectly sharp. It took her less time and effort to use this sharpener than the office grade electric one we normally use. And the pencil's tip came out smoother and neater than with the electric sharpener, too.

I'll admit it, I was a skeptic. I couldn't see how any sharpener could be that much better than others on the market, but I was wrong. If for no other reason than that it works so well for my daughter who can't use other manual sharpeners, I love it! I recommend it! I'm genuinely excited to have it in my home.

Yes, I got a free one to review for this blog, but if I hadn't, after trying one out, I am certain it would be among the top items on my recommended homeschool shopping list, along with a good three-hole punch, a sturdy printer with economical ink refills, and those irreplacable Ticonderoga pencils.

(Affiliate links included)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

How do you teach your child that character matters?

We all want our children to build great character as they grow from little ones into adults. We want them to develop traits like diligence, patience and honesty. But how do you go about instilling these characteristics into your child?

Of course, modeling positive character is the best way to help them develop these traits naturally. We are our kids' number one role models, and they often mirror the way we behave. We can teach all day long from books, but it would be hard to undo our own mentoring if we fail to live as the examples we were meant to be.

Books and lessons are a good way to reinforce the messages we want our kids to learn, though, and I was recently given the opportunity to review a terrific new resource for positive character building from Stephanie Eidson, the Multi Tasking Mom.

Her new program, My Character Matters, includes a student work book, parent guide, flash cards and an activity guide. You can buy all the pieces separately, or together as a set. They work together to help you and your children explore the meaning of character traits like ambition, responsibility and honor, and discover what those words mean to you and your family, how you've seen those traits displayed in real life and in the media, and how your child can work to improve their character.

I am excited to share this resource with you, because it is on sale through August 12, and you can get all of the elements in the kit, a $25 value, for just $12. That's a full 30 weeks of character based lessons for only $12!

But even if you miss the launch week sale, this would still be a great value, at less than $1 per lesson, and an excellent addition to your student's curriculum for the year. I hope you'll check it out.

(Affiliate links included.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Need encouragement for back to school? Check out this giveaway!

I am proud to have partnered with Brookdale House homeschool curriculum publishing as a contributor to this year's Back to Homeschool Mom Encouragement Giveaway.

There are hundreds of dollars worth of prizes and multiple winners will be chosen, plus this giveaway is an excellent way to start your new school year because everyone who enters gets some freebies!

Click the link above to enter by August 3. You could be one of the lucky winners. Want to know more about the fantastic products included in this giveaway? Here's a list...

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Homeschool Bullies: Dealing with Mean Kids, Cliques and Mama Drama

It's one of the least talked about issues in homeschooling today. That's right, I am talking about the problem of homeschool bullies. We don't want to acknowledge they exist, because they mess up the positive picture we'd rather paint. But they do exist, and although homeschooling can be a wonderful experience, and there's no other form of education I would rather choose for my kids, dealing with the bullies within the homeschool community is no fun at all.

I wrote this book after hearing way too many stories of families who started homeschooling only to find themselves bullied within their local groups or online. And having played the role of both a homeschool bully and the victim of bullying myself, I decided it was time to own up to my part in it and make a change for the better.

I take full responsibility for my own actions, and hope that the readers of this book will, too. I believe that working together, we can improve our community, if not for ourselves than for our kids. We can put a stop to homeschool bullying, if we are just brave enough to shine a light on it and learn how to deal with the mean kids, the cliques and the mama drama that we discover.

Visit my store to pick up your copy of "Homeschool Bullies: Dealing with Mean Kids, Cliques and Mama Drama" from CreateSpace or Amazon.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review of 'More Than Words - for Moms'

I wasn't looking for a devotional. Honestly, this summer has been so busy, I didn't think I even had time to review a devotional, much less put one to good use. But this one caught my attention.

"More Than Words - for Moms" is a devotional for busy moms by author, Stephanie Eidson. When she says it's designed for busy moms, I know she is telling the truth because she is a homeschooling mom just like me. We know busy!

So I decided to give it a look. Here's what I found.

Words are the heart of the "More Than Words - for Moms" devotional. Eidson has provided readers with a whole list of words, words that might mean something different to each reader at any particular point in her journey through life, or even through her day.

Temper, for instance, may take on a whole new meaning at 4:00 in the afternoon, when you've just lost yours because your most stubborn child has refused to finish the eight math problems you assigned right after lunch, and your children may find themselves praying you remember the meaning of mercy. Those are just a couple of the words featured in this devotional.

The awesome part is that you can use the journal pages to record your own studies of each word, in any order you'd like, and to dig out what the Bible has to say about them. And, as far as I can tell, you could use the pages over and over, discovering new things about each word, and new things about the associated scriptures you find, because there is a lot to learn about words like sin, grace, and acceptance.

Personally, I don't care much for devotionals that paraphrase scripture and tell you what to think about what the Bible says. I like the kind that lead you to read and discover the Word for yourself, because it has so much to say on its own, and every time you read a passage, you stand to learn something new.

"More Than Words - for Moms" is on sale for $7.99 until July 22. I think it is one devotional worth checking out.

(Affliliate links included.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Summer tips for working out with your dog

Working out with your dog is good for your whole family. You get the benefits of sunshine, fresh air and an exercise buddy that won’t let you down. But summer can be hard on dogs, especially if you are not careful to take care of your four-legged friend.

To keep your workout buddy in tip top shape, make sure you take the summer heat into consideration. Here are some tips to help you and your family dog keep working out all summer long.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Summer sports that will help your kids survive the zombie apocalypse

Are you having trouble motivating your kids to get outdoors and move their bodies this summer? It is awfully hot outside, but we know that kids need fresh air, exercise and play! The trick to getting your kids moving in a healthy way over the summer, besides scheduling outdoor time during the cooler parts of the day, is to provide them with the right sort of motivation.

I'm thinking, surviving the zombie apocalypse ought to do the trick! What better motivation is there than the very survival of the human race? Now, there may never be a zombie apocalypse, but even the CDC has done its part to prepare us for a world infested with zombies, so we should encourage our kids to engage in activities that will help them to ultimately overcome the onslaught and survive.

To that frightening end, let’s figure out the best summer sports your family can focus on to train for battle with the flesh-eating zombies who used to be your friends and neighbors. And remember, you don’t want to start a panic in your neighborhood, so don't feel like you have to tell anyone you are in training to survive the zombie apocalypse. Just take comfort in knowing that your family's efforts at mastering the following sports may mean the difference between life and death… or undeath, as the case may be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Let them talk! They're building language skills

I've never been a proponent of the idea that children should be seen and not heard. Sure, kids should learn manners, and as they grow they should figure out when it is appropriate to use their inside voices, or maintain a respectful silence, but in general, I am a big fan of allowing children to talk, both to one another and to adults.

I will, however admit to wanting to pull my hair out on occasion and scream, "Okay, enough, I don't care to hear one more word about Five Nights at Freddy's, thank you!" That's because I have an 8-year-old who is going through her motor mouth phase, and she never, ever seems to shut up.

But this past weekend, I was speaking at the Tulsa Homeschool Expo, and I had a chance between my sessions to sit down and listen to some of the other speakers, and one of the things I heard really struck me. 

Andrew Pudewa, in a session about building language skills, said that little kids need to hear themselves talk. Hearing themselves say words out loud is a crucial building block of language development. 

Okay, then! According to Mr. Pudewa, language building expert of the homeschool community, my instincts were right to not only allow my kids to talk freely, but to encourage them to do so. That is, of course, except when we're in heavy traffic, when it would be inappropriate for anyone to rattle on, or when mama is down to her last nerve.

I've come to realize that the motor mouth phase only lasts a few years, as my older kids have grown into teenagers and their tendency to talk on and on, even when no one is listening, has waned. They still talk to me, and to each other, but more purposefully now. They don't seem to talk just to hear themselves talk. 

But now that I realize that's exactly what they were doing while they were younger, developing language skills by listening to themselves saying words out loud, I am so happy that I let them jabber. That, along with reading aloud together and other things we did as a family, helped them build strong vocabularies and become confident speakers and writers. 

So, let your kids talk... and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk! 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Register for free for the 2016 Digital Homeschool Convention

Have you heard about the 2016 Digital Homeschool Convention? It's not like other conventions. You can curl up on the couch in your pajamas and watch all the sessions for free at your own leisure during the convention while the workshops are streaming. During and after the convention, videos of the sessions will also be available to purchase in case you weren't able to catch them all. And of course, there will be a virtual vendor hall with lots of great deals on curriculum and resources!

I am thrilled to be one of the speakers featured in this year's Digital Homeschool Convention. I'll be presenting a workshop based on my new book, Homeschool Bullies: Dealing with Mean Kids, Cliques and Mama Drama. Make sure to register for free so you can see all the workshops that are scheduled. There will be up to 40 in total, on a wide range of homeschool topics.

There are so many reasons to check this out, not the least of which is that you can listen to speakers you might not have a chance to see anywhere else, and you can do it for free during the convention. You can't beat that!

(affiliate links included)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Foxes in the neighborhood

I live in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma. It's not unusual to see a variety of urban wildlife around here. A few years ago, authorities had to remove a young black bear from a tree near the college campus, and deer have wandered down our main street. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, armadillos and groundhogs are frequent sights even in the middle of town, and frankly I could do without the digging in my yard.

But it's the foxes that have inhabited a green space in our neighborhood that have us enthralled. We have seen up to half a dozen of them, hanging out at night near the edge of a stand of trees, watching the cars that turn down the street with caution, but not alarm.

All through the spring, we've spotted them if we've driven past slowly late in the evening. One night I happened to have my camera with me, and one of the foxes stayed out, not minding our presence at all as I snapped several shots from inside my van.

I told my kids that it is important, even though the foxes seem quite tolerant of people, that we not approach them or try to tame them further. They are, after all, wild animals, and it can only end badly for them if people start feeding them and trying to pet them.

Two years ago, they made their springtime home in the same location, then disappeared, probably following the creek through town, down toward the river as the summer got hot. I'm guessing they've left again, now that their kits are old enough to travel. I haven't seen them in more than a week. But I am glad I got a few pictures this year!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Don't miss the strawberry moon!

My daughter just came to remind me that we need to check out tonight's full moon. Tonight's moon is a strawberry moon, meaning the full moon in June, that happens to fall on the same night as the summer solstice. It's one of those events that happens just once every 50 years or so, with the last occurrence happening in 1967, and the next one not coming until 2062.

You can read much more about tonight's full moon/summer solstice event on EarthSky, and learn all about other astronomical phenomena, too. Don't miss the meteor shower guide, with dates for all the major showers all year long, including the Perseids coming up in August. That's my favorite meteor shower of the year!

Interview with Sam Sorbo, homeschool advocate and author of 'They're YOUR Kids'

This week, I had the privilege of doing a short interview with Sam Sorbo, actress, author, talk show host and homeschooling mom of three. I heard about her new book, "They're YOUR Kids: An Inspirational Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate" and asked to review a copy for my readers. After I finished the book, she took the time to answer a few questions and talk some more about homeschooling, a topic she is passionate about.

Sam and Kevin Sorbo are not unlike many other celebrity parents who have chosen homeschooling as the most beneficial option for their kids. And in her book, Sorbo explains that one of the reasons they chose to homeschool their three kids in the first place was because it fit their lifestyle better and allowed them to more easily travel to film locales as needed.

What sets Sam Sorbo apart from other homeschooling celebrity moms, in my opinion, is that she not only chose homeschooling for her own children, she put herself out there as an advocate for homeschoolers and as a support for those who may be weighing their options with regard to school. And she pulls no punches when she challenges public schools as they exist today.

I think we all realize that public schools are in trouble, but Sorbo uses an analogy that illustrates the problem so vividly, it's hard to counter her position. She asks readers to consider a tall, refreshing glass of clear, sparkling, ice cold water on an oppressively hot day. And as you are about to take a drink, you see a tiny bit of poop floating in the glass. Noting that things like Common Core new sex ed standards in public schools are akin to poop in the glasses of even the most sparkling local schools, she asks, "How much poop in your water is okay with you?"

And so, she speaks out, not just for her own family but using her celebrity status to open doors not available to all of us, she advocates and works to inform and educate every family about their options. "The best cure for Common Core, which is a name now associated with the entirety of what ails our education system, is to arm parents with accurate information," says Sorbo. "Once they understand what the government is teaching their children, they may well consider alternatives such as home schooling."

Sorbo realized that no one loved her children more than she did, and no one was going to be more dedicated to giving them the highest quality education than she was. In writing this book, she set out to encourage other moms and dads that they're YOUR kids, not the state's, not the school district's, not anyone else's. You have the right to decide what's best for them.

But it was her honesty and openness about her own insecurities and doubts as a fledgling homeschooler really struck home. How many of us have not experienced the same emotions, wondering whether we are qualified to teach our own kids or whether we are doing the right thing? According to Sorbo, that feeling of self-doubt is not our fault.

She wrote, "Our entire society has been brainwashed to believe that teachers have cornered the market on education, that institutional education is the best way to accomplish - what, exactly? Conformity and indroctrination."

In her book, Sorbo explains how she overcame every doubt and insecurity, and grew into a confident homeschooling mom. I asked her if she is facing any new insecurities as her oldest moves into the high school years.

"Home schooling always invites insecurity. I’ve decided that this is because the school system built into us an inherent opinion that we are inferior to it," she replied. "I’m enjoying learning the various subjects alongside my child. I do not fear divulging to him that I don’t have an answer. He knows that I was deprived of a proper education, and that he benefits from a better one than I had. So we learn together."

I also asked if, as a high profile author, she has received any backlash for her book. Sorbo answered, "I did recently experience some backlash for my criticism of the public schools. However, the very idea that public education cannot withstand criticism betrays just how fragile and failed the system is."

And Sorbo shared these final thoughts, which she also went over in her book, but merit even further emphasis. "Children need, first and foremost, LOVE. That’s a dwindling, if not non-existent, commodity in our schools. I dare not deprive them of love, most of all, and that, of course, is the number one motivator for home education. Love on your children. You teach them everything until they go off to kindergarten. What transformation happens to the parent when the child turns 5 or 6, that makes the parent unfit to teach them anymore? The funny thing is that a lot of parents go through a kind of withdrawal, turning their children over to complete strangers at the door to the kindergarten. It feels bad to them, but they fight that uneasiness, because of peer pressure, tradition, group-think, societal expectations, whatever. I say, go with your gut. If you don’t want to let the child go at that tender age, no one should force you to."

Wise words from an intelligent woman. I'm glad she's on our side.  

Friday, June 10, 2016

How Wyoming engineers make snow plow itself

As we drove across the vastness of Wyoming on Interstate 80 last week, my kids and I were struck by the beauty of the landscape, the abundance of antelope and other wildlife, and most of all, the hundreds of miles of fences.

After driving through what seemed like hundreds of miles of giant windmills in Kansas and Colorado a couple of weeks before, we first thought that the fences might be banks of solar panels, similarly harnessing renewable energy resources. But before long, it became clear that the fences were simply made of wood, and not connected in any way that would keep animals in or out, even though cattle seemed to enjoy lying in their shade.

What were they? Why were they there?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Don't let unplanned adventures pass you by

Sometimes having an unplanned learning adventure is as simple as taking a spontaneous turn down a road you've never traveled. Or following something amazing that catches your eye. 

Stop at that scenic overlook and read the plaques. Take the exit marked by the brown signs. That's exactly what has led to some of our most memorable adventures.

Follow the road less traveled

I know it's cliche, but sometimes adventure does lie just off the beaten path. Driving back and forth to St. Louis, while my husband was working there a few years ago, we passed a brown sign near Springfield, Missouri several times. One day, when we the weather was nice and traffic was light, I decided to take the turn at that sign and we ended up at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield.

We'd been studying the Civil War, so I thought we might see some interesting things. But the field trip actually ended up being something the kids would never forget, as it stirred feelings inside them, standing in the very fields where thousands of men died. 

Chase unexpected opportunities

Once, on the way home from a birthday party when my twins were just preschoolers, we spotted a hot air balloon that appeared to be landing less than half a mile off the main road. I persuaded my husband to follow the balloon, and we ended up at a little farm house with a wide open field. We pulled into the driveway to turn around, but the owner of the house was outside, so we waved and told them we had just been following the balloon to see it land.

He invited us to park the car and come on out to the field with him, so the kids could take a closer look. It was so exciting! We'd, of course, seen hot air balloons before, but the kids had never been so close to one. 

That day, my small children were filled with wonder as they saw up close just how big the balloon was, and even got to touch it. But best of all, they were invited to roll around in the billowing fabric to press out the air so the balloon could be packed away. It was an unforgettable hands-on lesson about one of the most beautiful ways to fly.

Leave time for adventures

You'll never have time for unplanned learning adventures if your schedule is packed so full that you can't take an unexpected detour once in a while. Homeschooling gives you freedom, but only if you claim it. Don't be afraid to stop the car and go tilting at windmills.

Leave yourself time to spend with your kids, chasing butterflies and exploring trails, diving into experiences they'll remember forever.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of 'Home for School: The Twins Learn about Homeschooling'

As more and more families decide to pull their kids from public school and give homeschooling a try, there is a need for children's literature that can help them understand and get excited about the experience. That's why I was so excited when I found out that my friend, Gail Nelson, the editor of Learning Tangent Homeschool Magazine, was writing just such a book.

Based in part on her own experience homeschooling her twin boys, "Home for School: The Twins Learn about Homeschooling" shares the story of a mom and dad who decide to begin homeschooling after the end of their sons' school year. Letting the boys finish out the year and enjoy the class field day with their friends, the parents in the book surprise them with the news that as of the end of the school year, they will officially be homeschoolers.

The boys have some concerns, like how exactly the whole school at home thing is going to work, but those concerns are addressed in exciting ways, as they learn that they will be able to spend more time researching the things that interest them, taking field trips, and meeting other homeschoolers. And then the giant box of books and science experiments arrives!

I really enjoyed my sneak preview of this book, and I think it will help a lot of new homeschoolers transition more easily from public school. The watercolor illustrations are fun, and kids will definitely be able to relate to the characters, and see that they are not alone in this exciting adventure. If you are new to homeschooling, considering withdrawing your kids from public school, or know someone who is, this book might be a perfect and timely purchase. Pick one up at the Learning Tangent store.

Plus, if you act before May 30, 2016 you can enter a drawing to win one of five free copies of this book in a giveaway from Goodreads. Good luck!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thanks for the great times, Disney Infinity team!

My kids took a picture this week to send to the developers on the Disney Infinity team. They just wanted to say thank you for all the work they put into the game over the years, and that they are sorry that they lost their jobs. 

I'll be honest, I wasn't entirely sad to read the announcement earlier this month about the death of Disney Infinity, but that's just because it had become such an obsession around our house since the release of version 2.0.

Our family had completely missed the first wave of the wildly popular gaming phenomenon. We never stood in long lines, anxiously snapping up figures from the original platform, and my kids really showed no interest in spending the kind of money it would take to join in the craze.

But then came the release of Disney Infinity 2.0, with figures from Marvel's Avengers. And Christmas and December birthday gifts from their uncle started them off on a collection that would be hard to resist.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

My kids are addicted to McCormick seasonings

I made Mexican crock pot chicken and a pot of brown beans for dinner tonight because I knew I was going to be busy with the Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition sale for much of the evening and I wanted something easy. We had to run out for a bit in the afternoon, so I set the beans on simmer and when we got back, the house smelled just like our favorite Mexican restaurant. The onions and spices in the chicken filled the air with such a savory aroma, anchored by the heavy scent of the simmering beans.

It took no time to shred the chicken and turn it into enchiladas. My son ate three plates full, but he's 14. He can handle it. I joked with the kids, saying, "I'm a GOOD cook!"

My son replied, "Grandma says her mom was a good cook, too."

I agreed, "She was!" And then I noted that she used McCormick, too.

McCormick seasonings are kind of a thing around our house.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of 'Brick Themed Activities for the Year' by Gypsy Road

This month, I was privileged to review a copy of "Brick Themed Activities for the Year," a bundle of unit studies to do throughout the year with your little Lego fans. All three of my kids are Lego fans, so I was excited to try out some of the lessons with my youngest.

If you like holidays, and you like Lego, this is definitely a product meant for you. With holidays from New Year's Eve through Christmas, and even selections for birthdays and back-to-school, you can truly use Lego blocks and minifigs to learn through the whole year. 

It's springtime now, but my daughter wanted to check out the Halloween activities. There were clever writing prompts, math pages that related to real world situations, coloring pages and more. Best of all, they featured some of her favorite minifigs and included ideas for projects she could build. 

Pick up a copy on the Gypsy Road homeschool blog.

The Unplanner, 2016 - 2017 Edition is available NOW!

Are you looking for an organizer that won't overwhelm you? I was suffering from serious planner anxiety, brought on by homeschool planners with an excess of pages and blanks that I never seemed to be able to fill out, and schedules that too often went awry. That's why I created The Unplanner, a homeschool organizer that helps users record what they did more than what they plan to do. 

Are you looking for an organizer that won't overwhelm you? I was suffering from serious planner anxiety, brought on by homeschool planners with an excess of pages and blanks that I never seemed to be able to fill out, and schedules that too often went awry. That's why I created The Unplanner, a homeschool organizer that helps users record what they did more than what they plan to do.

With an attendance log for up to six kids and both a Month at a Glance calendar to schedule important events and weekly calendars to record what you did each day or week, The Unplanner can keep you organized just enough to stay on track without overdoing it. With easy to use pages for recording the curriculum you use, the books your kids read, and those special learning adventures like field trips and experiments, you'll be able to remember all the good stuff, too!

You can get your copy of The Unplanner for just $7.99 in my store, shipped directly from CreateSpace or Amazon. That's less than most printable planners would cost to print and bind, and way less than most other professionally bound planners on the market!

A review of 'Famous Artists: Renaissance to Surrealism'

One of my most memorable experiences as a homeschooler was taking my children to see the traveling exhibit of Claude Monet's water lilies triptych at the St. Louis Art Museum. These three massive paintings, each canvas 7 feet tall and 14 feet wide, are owned by three separate museums in the United States. They had not been shown together since the 1970s, and the chance to see them as they were meant to be was an opportunity we could not miss.

Claude Monet's Water Lilies from the St. Louis Art Museum

I was awestruck, standing in a darkened room with a limited number of guests, silently taking in the beauty of an artist's work I had only seen in pictures and prints. I took my glasses off and looked at the canvases as Monet would have looked at them, or close to it, as my vision is not quite as impaired as his was when he painted these masterpieces in his old age. As the colors converged in my blurry sight, the images took on new life and I could almost believe that if I reached out my hand, it would permeate the water. I felt deeply connected to the art and the man.

Not everyone has a chance to see incredible art up close and have this sort of moving experience. I know, growing up in rural Oklahoma, my opportunities were limited, at least as compared to those who live close enough to stop in at a major museum whenever they'd like.

Maybe that's why I am so impressed with the Famous Artists Volume 1 online unit study by Beth Napoli of Techie Homeschool Mom. This interactive unit study introduces kids to artists like Monet, daVinci and Picasso, whose work they probably already recognize, but also includes artists like Klimt and Dali to introduce forms which may be less familiar.

Gustav Klimt's Kirche in Cassone

With several artists to study, each representing a different and unique style, students can become familiar with a wide range of artistic movements, spanning more than four centuries. And the interactive elements in the study will help kids feel more in touch with the art than just flipping through the pages of a book.

Your students may not have a chance to see the work of these great masters in a museum any time soon, but they are sure to get excited about building and sharing their own virtual gallery. Having completed a unit study like this one, your whole family will have a more complete appreciation of the experience the next time you get to visit a museum in person.

Look for the Famous Artists Volume 1 online unit study on the Techie Homeschool Mom blog.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The hidden costs of free virtual public school

You've heard the saying, "All magic comes with a price!" That's what I think of every time I hear about a family choosing virtual public school because it is free.

Yes, the state-run online public school options are usually free of charge, come with a full set of curriculum and certified teachers to instruct your kids. Many even include money to spend on extracurricular activities or computers for your kids to use at home. It's hard to ignore the extensive prize packages that accompany enrollment in a virtual public school.

But like magic, all education comes with a price, and what appears to be free always comes with strings attached. Here are just some of the hidden costs of virtual public school.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Best urban hiking in St. Louis

St. Louis may be one of the greatest cities in the world for urban hiking. You don’t even have to leave the city to find a great hike with lots of interesting things to see. One of the great benefits to urban hiking in St. Louis is that most of the best locations have a variety of paths from challenging inclines to flat surfaces, and can provide both cardiovascular and mental stimulation to the hiker. 

Even better than that, you can visit each of the following locations for free. So lace up and let’s go.

Best hotels in Oklahoma City for families of five

Before my youngest daughter was born, traveling was a lot simpler. There were just four of us.  Flying was fairly easy, as my husband could sit with one child while I sat with the other. Booking a hotel was simple, because rooms for a family of four are always easy to find.  Even dining out was a breeze, since we all fit nicely into a standard sized booth made for four. But when our little one came along, our family of four turned into a family of five, and suddenly traveling together was anything but easy.

Recently, my husband had an important meeting in Oklahoma City. We decided to make a long weekend of it and take the kids along. But when I started trying to book a room online, I ran into rejection after rejection as our family of five exceeded the limits of one hotel after another. Inspired, I decided to seek out the best hotels in Oklahoma City for families just like mine. 

Residence Inn by Marriott in Bricktown

My family was invited to stay at the Residence Inn in Bricktown, the only hotel directly on the Bricktown Canal. I let the general manager know that I was interested in trying their hotel because it was very easy to book a room for a larger family and was in the middle of a historic district of the city frequented by many visitors each year. 

We stayed in a two bedroom suite, plenty big enough to sleep a family of eight if needed and more than adequate for my family of five. Our suite had two bathrooms, a kitchen with six, yes six place settings in the cupboard, and a living room with a sofa bed and fireplace. We also had a wonderful view of the canal and the city lights. Single bedroom suites are also available, with two queen beds and a sofa bed and enough room to comfortably sleep five or six.

We were so satisfied with our stay, I wrote to tell the manager that my kids said it was the best hotel we’d ever visited. And that’s high praise, considering my children’s favorite amenity, the large outdoor pool, was closed for the season.

Hampton Inn and Suites in Bricktown

Speaking of pools, the large indoor pool with water features for the kids was definitely one of the biggest draws for our family when I contacted the Hampton Inn and Suites in Bricktown about booking a room there. The manager graciously invited us to stay a night in their establishment during our weekend in Oklahoma City, and I am glad he did.

Besides offering comfortable accommodations for a family of five, the Hampton Inn and Suites offers covered parking, a delicious breakfast and many rooms that overlook the Bricktown Ballpark, home of the Oklahoma City RedHawks. It’s like having your very own luxury box.

Our room included two queen size beds, a sofa sleeper, and plenty of space so that we weren’t falling all over each other as we moved around the room. The kids slept well after enjoying an hour in the pool, which stays open late.

Other area hotels

While these Bricktown hotels offer fantastic amenities and easy access to the myriad of entertainment options in the downtown area, there are other hotels around the city which also offer comfortable accommodations for a family of five. Here are a few that I discovered while poring over ratings on TripAdvisor and checking to see whether larger families could easily reserve rooms online.

Close to the Will Rogers World Airport and just outside the hustle and bustle of downtown, you’ll find the Cambria Suites. This hotel offers accommodations for families of five along with an indoor pool, free Wi-Fi and an on-site restaurant with a variety of Cheesecake Factory desserts. Yes, they had me at cheesecake.

·         Also near the Will Rogers World Airport, you’ll find the SpringHill Suites by Marriott.  Offering rooms large enough to accommodate five or six, including two queen size beds and a sofa bed, this hotel gets high marks from travelers. Want to stay closer to the north side of the city? Check out the SpringHill Suites location at Quail Springs for easy access to Oklahoma City, Edmond and more.  Pets are welcome with a deposit.

·         The Hyatt Place on Northwest Expressway comes highly recommended by reviewers on TripAdvisor, perhaps because of the Gallery Menu of fresh and delicious meals available 24 hours a day. Central to the city and within a short drive of many attractions, this hotel can meet your family of five’s needs in style.

Three good reasons to renew your driver's license

When I presented my license at the last local election, the volunteer who checked it reminded me that I was due for a renewal soon. With the extremely volatile Presidential election looming, I don't want to miss my opportunity to cast a vote because I let my driver's license expire. 

In Oklahoma, as in several other states, a valid state or federally issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, must be presented in order to cast a ballot. And in Oklahoma, valid means not expired until after the date of the election.

Preserving my right to vote is a very good reason to make sure and renew my license, but four years ago I discovered an even more important reason, when my recently expired license caused unexpected trouble for both me and my daughter.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What's in the Fine Arts Bundle from the 2016 Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition?

When you ask homeschooling parents what they have the most difficulty teaching, many of them reply with fine arts. There are highly recommended, tried and true resources out there for math, language arts, history and science. But great resources for art are like well-hidden gems.

That's why I am really excited to be a part of the Fine Arts Bundle in the 2016 Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition sale. The Fine Arts Bundle is one of 15 bundles in the sale, and priced at just $20, it's quite a bargain.

I think the real test of any bundle sale is whether you will actually use the products in the bundles. Are they resources your kids will enjoy, and do they cover topics you'll want to teach? As one of the authors included in this year's Fine Arts Bundle, I think the answer is yes.

My own product, The History of Rock and Roll, took weeks of hard work and research. I created the unit study for a co-op class I was teaching, and meticulously collected samples of representative work from rock and roll artists from the birth of the genre in the 1940s to modern times. With videos, graphics and lessons parents can read aloud or give to older students to use independently, this is an extremely user-friendly music appreciation course your students will actually enjoy.

A few of the other products in the bundle include a detailed coloring journal, much like those you would find in art stores and a book with dozens of lessons on drawing horses. These are two products I know my older daughter would love. Also, there are unit studies on famous artists and two art appreciation introductory books by a well known publisher you are sure to recognize. These are solid resources that may spark an interest in the visual arts.

This bundle also includes notebooking pages on dozens of the world's greatest poets, and I know many parents struggle to introduce poetry studies in their curriculum.

There is so much more included, in both visual arts and music. If you have been looking for resources you will actually use in your homeschool, you'll want to see all the products you get for just $20 in this bundle. Make sure and click the link to pre-register for this sale. You'll be entered for a chance to win ALL the bundles, and you'll get a coupon so you can save even more when the sale starts!
(Affiliate links)

Build Your Bundle 2016 - Save 86% - 96% on #homeschool #curriculum! #BYB2016

Win ALL the bundles in the 2016 Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition sale!

Oh my gosh! I have been so excited to share this news, and finally, I can! I was chosen to be one of the contributors in this year's Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition sale. I'm so excited to be part of such an incredible sale! There are so many great products, more than 200 in total, by a carefully selected group of authors and publishers, and everything is discounted - up to 96 percent off retail.
(Affiliate links)

The sale starts on May 16, but you can get a sneak peek at some of the awesome products and the many bundles available right now. Even better, you can enter for a chance to win ALL the bundles! Click the link above to go, go, go and get registered right now for this year's contest and see the different bundles available for 2016!

I almost forgot, you get another bonus for registering early for the sale. It's a coupon you can use to get an even better deal on the bundles you want!

Get your homeschool curriculum shopping done early with the 2016 Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition sale, and don't forget to check out the Fine Arts bundle. That's where you'll find my History of Rock and Roll unit study! I'm really proud to have been included with such a great group of publishers, and I can't wait to shop for my own selections at this incredible sale!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Helping an Infertile Friend Survive Mother’s Day

If you know me at all, outside of this blog, you know that my journey to motherhood - and by association, homeschooling - did not come easily. This Mother's Day, I would like to share one of the first articles I ever published, originally on Yahoo about four years ago. I hope that you will find it of some value today. Happy Mother's Day to those who are celebrating, and much love to those who are just making it through the day.

I suffered through almost a decade of infertility before giving birth to my twins. By far, the hardest day of each year for me was Mother’s Day. I remember with vivid clarity the last Mother’s Day I ever went to church. They asked all the mothers in the room to come and line up at the front of the church to receive a rose and a thank you from the congregation. The elderly assistant pastor who had never married was the only other woman left standing in the pews besides me.

I felt so conspicuous and left-out, and I vowed never to put myself through another Mother’s Day service again.

If you have a friend or loved one who is dealing with infertility this year, you may be wondering how to delicately handle the holiday. Of course, Mother’s Day is a happy day for most people, and one to be celebrated. But the fact is, infertility makes the day insufferable to many women. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to help them make it through a particularly tough time.

Cut her some slack

If your friend does not want to go to church on Mother’s Day or join the family in taking Grandma out to brunch, don’t push the matter. Leave her alone and let her have some space. For an infertile woman, Mother’s Day is like a day of loss, of mourning the child you do not, and may not ever have.

She is not being selfish, and she does not need to be pressured to join in. Mother’s Day is just too emotionally charged for many infertile women to handle in the public eye, and that’s okay.

Show her a good time

Earlier or later in the week, or maybe even a week or two before, do something especially nice for your infertile friend. Take her out to lunch, go see a movie, or spend the day out hitting the junk stores. Show her a really fun time, and do your best to help take her mind off the holiday and give her nice things to think about.

If you are going out before the holiday, don’t make a big deal about Mother’s Day being around the corner. Just get out and have fun together. But do be prepared to listen if she wants to talk.

Let her talk if she wants

Follow your friend’s lead. She may need to vent about how she is feeling, or she may want to keep her feelings to herself. If she decides to share her pain with you, let her talk. If she doesn’t open up the subject, then just let it be.

Don’t be flippant

Women who are dealing with infertility need people around them who are caring and supportive, not people who are flippant or worse, judgmental. Don’t minimize her desire for a family by telling her she can have your kids, that she should get a dog, or that maybe she is just not meant to be a mom.

Also, don’t tell your friend that she should just give up and adopt. Adoption is very personal choice, it can be extremely complicated, and it is not something people "give up" and do. The wait to adopt a child is often years long, not everyone is accepted, and it can cost far more than most people realize.

Whatever you say, just try to be supportive and offer your hopes and prayers.

Stand up for her

If you notice other friends or relatives giving your infertile friend a hard time, stick up for her. It is bad enough that she is dealing with a pain that many people do not understand, but it is even worse when others choose to kick her while she’s down. Your friend will appreciate it more than she can express if you stand up to the bullies on her behalf.
I am so thankful to be a mother after so many years of infertility. I still prefer celebrating quietly at home with my family rather than making a big show of things out in public. I think a part of me will never truly get over thinking of Mother’s Day as sort of a cruel joke on the infertile women of the world.

I feel blessed every single day of the year to be a mom, and I don’t really need a big party on a greeting card holiday to make me any happier or more fulfilled. I hope every mom-in-waiting gets a lot closer to her first Mother's Day this year!