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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Homeschooling when Mom is away

Last month I had to prepare my husband and my kids for a week without me, as I planned to spend my days at the hospital with my mom while she recovered from open heart surgery. Like most of the homeschooling moms I know, I spend the majority of my time with my kids, rarely getting away for more than an afternoon or evening at a time. And even if I do leave town for a couple of days, perhaps to attend a convention or fulfill a speaking obligation, I typically don't worry about keeping the kids' school schedule on track during my absence.

But knowing that I would be gone for nearly a week, or maybe more, and not wanting to burn time off that I would rather spend doing fun things this spring, I decided to keep my chindren homeschooling all throughout my time away.

Whether you have to be away for just a couple of days or an extended period, here are a few good ideas that may help you keep your homeschooling routine on track while you are gone. They helped me, and I was glad to come back from my week away and not find the kids a week behind in school.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Get four times the fun with this free worksheet

You may have seen the meme that the Facebook page, Math is Awesome, shared this week. Using addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, factorials and carefully placed parentheses, students can solve expressions using four fours to equal every number from 0 to 13.

I thought this would be a neat exercise to give my own homeschoolers, so they could see the good old order of operations in a creative way. With a little bit of work, and a refresher on how to type the division symbol, I turned the meme into a worksheet.

Click here to get a free copy of the worksheet you can use with your students. And just in case you don't remember everything from your algebra class, in the problems near the end, 4! means 4 factorial, which is 4x3x2x1. Have fun!

How a simplified homeschooling routine helps in difficult times

I don't know if folks who don't know me well in real life follow this blog closely enough to know when I take some time off from writing, but in case you did happen to miss me over the last couple of months, I wanted to take a moment to check in and confirm that yes, I am still here and still homeschooling!

I had to put my blog on the back burner over the holidays, as my family dealt with some difficult times. My mom had some pretty severe health issues, including being hospitalized with a stroke before Christmas, having surgery shortly after that to resolve a blocked renal artery and finding out she would have to have open heart surgery as soon as possible. In the middle of all that, my uncle on my mom's side passed away following an extended stay in the hospital. 

When it became clear that this school year was going to be complicated by difficult times, I realized I would need to simplify our homeschool routine in order to keep things running smoothly and keep the kids on track with their studies.

You may be homeschooling through difficult times as well, or find yourself doing so in the future. These are some of the things that have helped us to keep homeschooling in spite of the complications.

Reducing our obligations

From running our local homeschool group and writing this blog to taking the kids to extracurricular activities and events, I had several obligations outside of simply homeschooling and maintaining the house, which in itself is a full time job. One of the first things I did, when I realized we were in the middle of a difficult season, was pull back. 

It's not always easy to reduce your obligations, especially if you don't have others to pull up the slack for you. I am not a super-blogger with a virtual assistant on staff to keep things going when I need to step away, and I didn't have a reservoir of pre-written pieces I could just schedule to post in my absence. So stepping away meant letting the blog sit idle for a while, and being okay with that. 

Reducing my outside obligations in our local homeschool meant letting some things go, too. During a time when I would normally be busy planning activities and leading field trips, I have had to step back and hope others would take my place. 

Revising our schedule

The next thing I did when I realized we had weeks, and possibly months of work ahead of us helping my parents as my mom recovered was to revise our schedule. I knew that my twins would need help with things like learning new concepts in algebra, but they could easily handle studying world history on their own. So I changed our schedule to focus more heavily on math at the beginning of this semester, before the heart surgery, so we could get more of that done while I have more time at home.

As homeschoolers, our schedule is wonderfully flexible, in that we can move lessons and even full courses around to accommodate our family's needs. While I am spending time with my mom at the hospital, my twins will likely be working on history and literature, subjects they can do without supervision, and my youngest will be focused on reinforcing a few skills that need work before moving on to new concepts in the spring.

Reassigning our chores

Along with revising our school schedule, I realized quickly that I needed to use this time to reassign the household chores. As my kids have gotten older, their list of chores and household duties has not always kept up. Like many moms, I have found it easier to do things myself than to delegate the responsibilities that I should. But I needed help, and my kids are more than capable of doing extra work around the house. 

Of course, with more responsibilities come greater rewards, so in addition to increasing their basic chore list, we gave them lots of opportuinities to earn a few bucks by going above and beyond what was expected. In the coming months, there will be plenty of ways for them to earn both spending money and other rewards by helping with big jobs at our house and their grandparents'.

Renewing our  faith

There's nothing like hard times to remind you of your faith. Of course, we find ourselves praying a lot lately that my mom will be okay, but we also find ourselves feeling thankful for the little ways we see God moving in our lives day to day. It shouldn't take a crisis to bring us closer to Him, but there is nothing wrong with resting on God's promises and leaning on His grace and love during times of trouble. 

Letting difficult times put your homeschool routine in perspective can be a good thing. Yes, we're still focused on learning, and on getting through this year's material in a timely manner, but if that time ends up encompassing part of the summer, so be it. Even though a lot was added to our plates in the middle of this school year, simplifying our homeschool routing and adjusting our priorities has actually made the load seem lighter than it was before, and maybe by the time this rough patch is over, we'll be breathing that much easier. 

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.

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