Friday, May 22, 2015

It's a wrap!

Memorial Day weekend is upon and that means we're wrapping up another school year.  So indulge me as I pause to look back on all we've done.


We always start our school day with Bible study.  This year rather than using a purchased study we followed the requirements for his Royal Rangers Bible merit (this is a required merit on the path towards Schnickelfritz's Gold Merit of achievement).  We've had to build a timeline of people and events in the Bible as well as a chronology of when the books were written and what period they covered.  We talked about genres in the Bible--poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc. (eight in all according to the handbook's classification) Then we had to read two books from each genre, none of which we'd read for other merits.  One of his final tasks was to write a 5-8 minute devotional on salvation.


Last fall we reviewed Fix It! Grammar from the Institute for Excellence in Writing and when the review period was over we just kept using it.  I've been amazed at my son's progress.  When we started it would often take him several guesses to come up with the verb in a sentence.  Now he's identifying adverbial clauses and the comma rules that apply to them.  The hardest part was keeping him from reading ahead to find out what happens to Robin Hood (the subject of the story we edited sentence by sentence).  I've already purchased the next level to continue our studies next year.  


Grammar and writing tied together beautifully, which was no surprise since they come from the same company.  We're finishing the first half of the Student Intensive Continuation Course--Level A.  Writing is still Fritz's weakest area, but we're plodding along.  The reinforcement from grammar is helping with his sentence openers, strong verbs and quality adjectives.  Still, where Dickens got paid by the word and thus tends to use as many as possible, I think my son would pay for every word he doesn't have to write.  We'll finish the SICC-Level A course next year.


We've completed the last of the elementary science courses from Apologia written by Jeannie Fulbright.  We'd received the Exploring Creation with Chemistry and Physics  as a review product in the fall of 2013, but we were currently in a co-op using the Anatomy and Physiology book so we set Chem & Phys aside after the review to pick up this year.  As good as the material is, We both missed doing labs with friends (and I missed the reinforcement of being tied to other families to stay on schedule).  Next year we're jumping ahead to Apologia's Biology so that we can work with another family again.  I know this means skipping both General and Physical sciences but I got reassurances from the author of all three titles (Dr. Wile) at this year's Homeschool Expo that my son is ready for it based on his math (see the time table included in the linked post). 


We've worked our way through history from the American Civil War through World War Two.  I'd been combining Volume 2 of All American History with the corresponding titles from Home School in the Woods' Time Travelers series.  This slowed us down as I tried to do both , so by the time we got to WWII we just used Time Travelers.  Now I can confirm that it does work as a stand alone history course (and watch next week for my review of the study).


Our key curriculum was Teaching Textbooks Algebra 1, but we had several interruptions to review online math programs.  I'm concerned that math used to be my son's favorite subject, but it's dropped from that position and may not even be second at the moment.  I don't know if it's the curriculum jumping or the complexity of the work.  Just before Expo this spring my son asked if we could go back to Mr. Demme and Math U See.  So that's what we'll be doing this fall and I'm even going to resume with Algebra 1 again.  Since MUS progresses when mastery is shown we may move through it quickly and be in Geometry before the year's up but I want to make sure Fritz's algebra is solid since he'll be using it in biology.


This has been Fritz's favorite subject of the year.  We were using Homeschool Piano (another review product).  I should have sat with him more to make sure he was doing the work, not just watching the videos.  He does still like to work out his own tunes, but we won't be continuing this as school work next year.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Exploring Ephesus

I have had the very good fortune to do some traveling in my younger days, including two weeks in the Holy Land, but that chapter of my life is past and now I visit the world vicariously.  Recently I had the chance to see the sites of Turkey while watching the DVD Exploring Ephesus.  It’s just one of the many Christian titles available from  I watched the DVD by myself on a Sunday afternoon, but it would be great to show in a Sunday School class or Bible study.  I’m planning on having my son watch when we study history next year.

Ironically, I had a very good chance to be an exchange student to Turkey in my high school years but I had my heart set on going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and selected France instead (and only got to walk beneath, not ascend the monument).  Had I known more about the country sometimes known as the Second Holy Land I may have chosen differently.

Did you know for example that two thirds of the New Testament was written to or in the land of Turkey?  All seven of the churches mentioned in Revelation  are within its borders.  As far as the title city, Ephesus, the Apostle Paul visited  on two of his three missionary journeys.  The Disciple John lived there for 40 years or so, wrote his Epistles there, and is buried there.

Our tour guides on this hour long excursion are Dr. Mark Wilson and Dr. Andy Jackson.  The former is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey and the latter has been traveling and leading tours in Turkey for twenty years.  Although the DVD is called Exploring Ephesus (and it is featured for the majority of the film), they begin their journey in Smyrna and also visit the Island of Patmos and the city of Laodicea. 

Our tour begins when the two men pull over to the side of the road for a scenic overview of the city (which has moved several times over the centuries but focuses on three hills).  A great special effects shot takes us from the sweeping panorama to what I assume is a satellite image with the ancient sites overlaid in red.

The two men then walk through the city, passing by and commenting on sites like the Magnesium Gate, the Library of Celsus, the Roman amphitheater, and the ruins of the Temple of Artemis.  If you a truly interested in the architecture or art of the site, you may be disappointed in the brief glimpses because the focus is more on the spiritual and Biblical aspects of the city.  They did take a moment to highlight a menorah etched as graffiti on the steps of the Library of Celsus—proof that Jews lived in the city, and small enough that you might not be able to find it on your own if you were there in person.

At about the halfway point of the film the two men board a boat to travel to Patmos where we can see the Church of the Apocalypse.   Then we visit the city of Laodicea and see the water delivery system and learn the role it plays in the letter to its church in Revelations.  Finally we return to Ephesus to finish at St. John’s Basilica and the supposed tomb of the beloved disciple.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have done my share of traveling in the past and sometimes things just don’t meet up to our expectations.  For example, when I was visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and looking at what appears to be the face of the skull of Calvary there was the noise and stink of a bus depot right below it.  By watching a DVD, I don’t have to worry about not the crowds, entrance fees, or other things to detract from the experience (there’s no telling what was just out of camera range). Better still,  I didn’t have to endure a 4 hour boat ride but was instantly transported to the next location (for which my stomach was very grateful). 

As for the DVD itself, it is coded to be played in all regions.  The audio is only available in English but there is closed captioning.  Occasionally there will be additional text on the screen (as in the picture above) but they timed it and placed it in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the captions. Review

Friday, May 15, 2015

In the Kitchen: Au Gratin Potatoes

I’m in a cooking rut—not the maid dishes but the sides.  It seems like I’m always grabbing a can of corn or a can of green beans.  I’ve also decided that for our health we need to expand our palate and down the road move to fresher foods.  But for today, I’m just working with what I have on hand—which is lot’s of potatoes.  I bought the 10 pound bag since it was on sale for less than the 3 pound bag, but now I need to use them up before they sprout. 

I pulled out my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and turned to the veggie section.  The first potato recipe where I had all the ingredients was Scalloped Potatoes, but then I noticed the alternative version at the bottom of the page—and everything is better with cheese.  Good thing I’d gotten some natural white cheddar in my last co-op order.


Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

  • 1/2 C. chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 T. butter
  • 2 T. flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/4 t. black pepper
  • 1 1/4 C milk
  • 1 lb. potatoes (peeled if desired)
  • 6 oz. white cheddar cheese, grated

Begin by making a white sauce: melt the butter in a small pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook until tender. Stir in the flour, salt and pepper. Let this cook for a minute to get rid of the raw flour taste.  Add the milk, then cook and stir till thickened.




Add the grated cheese to the thickened sauce and stir while it melts (sorry for the white on white image).  You could also use yellow cheddar, or an American cheese if you wanted a milder flavor.





While that stayed warm I peeled and sliced the potatoes. Normally I’m a “leave the skin on because that’s where all the vitamins are” kind of cook, but with scalloped potatoes the skins tend to fall off in rings anyway so I just peeled them.  This KitchenAid food processor was my birthday present last year.  I normally use it to make butter, but it has a great “select your thickness” feature so I could get my potato slices just the way we like them.





Next begin layering the potatoes in a 1 1/2 quart baking dish.  Mine is stoneware so I didn’t have to worry about sticking, but you may want to grease a metal or glass dish.  Stop halfway and add half the cheese sauce, then repeat. Cover the dish and bake at 350 for 40 minutes.  Remove the cover and bake for another 20.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: Successful Homeschooling Made Easy

I belong to several online homeschooling support groups—one that’s statewide, one for my county, and one for the St. Louis metro area.  It never fails that several times throughout the year a newbie will post that she’s thinking about schooling her kids at home (or has already pulled them from school) and asks what should she do now?  I’m always on the lookout for practical helps for the new homeschooling mom (and I’m looking for my own help as I adapt to working part-time outside the home as we begin the second half of our homeschool journey), so I was pleased to be able to review the Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Course.  This 26 week course, delivered via email, is the brainchild of Stephanie Walmsley- founder of Successful Homeschooling Made Easy.  For the sake of being able to cover a lot in this review, I was given access to the first three weekly lessons and a bonus lesson on math ideas before settling into the week to week delivery system.

The first lesson suggests printing out all the material and keeping it in a binder for quick reference.  Because I am not “starting from scratch” I read the PDF lessons on my Kindle and printed out only those pages necessarily for my homework—yes sometimes the teacher has homework too.  In this case I was often required to think about aspects of our home-life and put them in writing: what time do we get up, what are our weekly commitments, do we function better in the morning or afternoon; my educational goals: what books did I want my son to read in the next month, what things do I want him to be able to accomplish; and prepare a very simplistic schedule.

I’m guessing that Mrs. Walmsley follows the Charlotte Mason program based on the school in the morning/afternoons for activities, emphasis on reading, and including music in school suggestions.  She does spend a lesson discussing the other approaches to homeschooling (classical, unit study, etc.) and encourages you to follow what works for your family.

The idea of taking everything in small weekly steps appealed to me a) because I have plenty of commitments that need my time and attention already and b) I think a newbie would be intimidated by a 26 chapter book handed to them all at once.  Even if this were an emergency situation (the “I just pulled my kid out yesterday—now what do I do?” scenario), my first advice would be to give the kids some time to break from the school mindset.  While they’re reading books on their interests from the library you’ll have time to read Lesson One on creating a simple schedule and Lesson Two on Math made Easy (usually the subject that scares moms the most).  In fact, why not hold off till you’ve read Lesson Three, which is specifically on advice after you’ve brought kids home from public school.  The lessons I’ve received so far are:

  1. Start Homeschooling Today
  2. Math Made Easy
  3. Welcome Home
  4. Fireproof your Homeschool
  5. Three Key Ingredients for Success
  6. Fulfill Your Dreams
  7. Why Curriculum Doesn’t Matter
  8. Let Go of the Good Things
  9. Housework and Homeschool

I thought the lesson I was going to need most was Housework and Homeschool (or putting dinner on the table every night if that one is still coming), but it turns out that God led me to this review for lesson 6.  You see, for several years I’ve been planning on my son joining Frontiersman Camping Fellowship when he was old enough and had earned the required Royal Ranger merits.  Rugged camping, learning to start fires with flint and steel, Dutch oven cooking, what wasn’t to love?  But the day his commander asked my Schnickelfritz if he was ready to turn in the application Fritz said “No.”  It turns out camping and especially this more primitive camping was my dream and not my sons.  At first I was furious that he’d turned down the opportunity (which only opens once per year), but that very week one of my homework questions was “what am I giving my child which is what I want or wanted as a child?”  It turns out I was still viewing my almost-a-teenager as a child for whom I still made all the decisions academically and with “extra-curricular activities” but he’s reached the age where I need to start letting go.  So now my son is going to basketball camp this summer—pursuing his interest, and I am learning to start fires with the flint and steel.  So even though this material is targeted to newbie, we veterans can pick up a tip or two.

At the same time, I would not be will to call Successful Homeschooling Made Easy an “all you need to know” course.  To date I’ve seen nothing about homeschool law or record keeping.  I don’t know if that will be addressed in future lessons or if Mrs. Walmsley is purposefully avoiding those subjects since they really have to be handled on a state by state (or country) basis.


Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Review

Friday, May 8, 2015

FIRST Championships 2015 -- FTC

Let me begin by saying my son and I have been attending the FIRST championships since they arrived in St. Louis in 2011.  Each year we’ve made a brief stop to watch the FTC competitions (usually because the FRC matches had paused for lunch), but the scale of the game field was so much smaller and we had to sit so much farther back in the stands (because they were squeezing all the FTC fans into the space of 1 FRC field) that we never really “connected” with that division. This year the championships were so big that the FTC and JFLL divisions had to be moved to a whole new venue—Union Station. I think both the competition and the landmark location both benefited from the change.

Trains no longer run to the station (although I’m old enough to remember boarding trains there).  In the Eighties the building was renovated to include a hotel and specialty shops—and I’m pleased to say the place where you can watch them make and sample fudge is still there.  The grand ballroom was just big enough to hold four FTC fields and some grandstands (although the stands were very crowded by the elimination matches and then and only then were kids allowed to sit on the floor).

There was a free shuttle to travel between the convention center and Union Station.  One of the perks was this iconic view of the Arch and the Old Courthouse beneath it of the trip back to the convention center.  We used the shuttle Friday because we weren’t aware of the venue situation, but Saturday we purchased an all day pass for Metrolink which has stops at both buildings.

My chief interest in FTC this year was the chance to meet a fellow member of the Review Crew in person as her kids were competing.  This is their “pit” – a place to work on their robot and hang out between matches.

The Blue Crew, Too was competing in the Franklin division and we could see Edison across the way.  I followed the team’s progress on Facebook and Friday evening we knew they were ranked high enough that they’d be able to select an alliance for the elimination rounds so Saturday morning we got off Metrolink at Union Station.

The is a lot of pomp and ceremony to the selection process with seeded teams respectfully requesting teams to join them and those teams in turn graciously accepting (no one respectfully declined because they could not be chosen by another team).  Although only two teams play on the field per side the alliances still consisted of three teams.  The seeded “captain” teams always competed and the partner teams alternated playing.

During the lull while alliances formed strategies we were treated to a parade and dance party by the various team mascots.  Some teams seem to put as much time into these costumes as their robots.

The competition was fierce—both semifinals and finals of the Franklin division went to the third match to determine the winner (best 2 out of 3).  Unfortunately for the Blue Crew,Two they lost in the finals so we didn’t stay to see the Franklin champs take on the Edison champs (but learned later that Franklin won).

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review: Busy Homeschool Mom’s Guide to Daylight


How in the world can I find the time to read a book – I’ve got a garden to plant, dishes in the sink, baskets of laundry, I’ve got to plan and cook supper, take the dog to the vet, not to mention help my son finish his Bible timeline for Royal Rangers AND try to finish another year of homeschooling, even if it kills me (or I kill the student)…and so on and so on.  Every have a day/week/month like this?  You’re not alone.  Want some advice on dealing with it all?  Might I suggest The Busy Homeschool Mom's Guide to Daylight . The author, Heidi St. John is the homeschooling mother of seven so she might know a thing or two about scheduling, cleaning, cooking, etc. and fitting it all into the 24 hours that were all given (actually less than that because this is a guide to DAYLIGHT).  In addition to this title, she offers several Bible studies, a guide to romance, and a lapbooking how-to book through her company Real Life Press.

  I received a PDF download version of this book which I loaded on my Kindle, but she has a paperback version available on her website.  The 199 page book is divided into eight chapters…

  1.  Intentional Daylight~~Let’s face it, none of us started homeschooling by accident.  We didn’t wake up late, miss the bus, and say “Oh well, I guess you’ll have to be taught at home from now on.”  We planned to keep our kids home and now we need a plan to deal with our day to day life.  The plan may change as we reach new seasons in our lives but there still needs to be a plan.  Our goal is to keep it flexible and build in margins.
  2. Organized Daylight~~Not only does our time need to be organized, our space does as well. Much to my chagrin, this wasn’t tips on how to keep from spending your school day looking for the pencil, the workbook, the library book that was due last week.  Rather the subject is clutter: defining it, learning to let it go (both emotionally and physically) and how to tidy what is left and prevent the space from being overtaken again.  Then Heidi moves on to tackle the laundry pile, the office, and school records.
  3. Scheduled Daylight~~There are several examples of hour by hour charts, but the author stresses the point that you have to find what works for you.
  4. Hungry Daylight~~I believe it was Franklin who said nothing is certain but death and taxes. Were he a woman he might have added “and somebody asking what’s for supper.”  This is the area I’m currently struggling with as I get used to working outside the home in the afternoons.  I can’t say I found anything I didn’t already know about: slow cookers, pressure cookers, freezer meals.  I did appreciate her say I didn’t have to feel guilty about opting for take-out every now and then.
  5. Discouraged Daylight~~I’m going to sum this up with a quote from the chapter..”We need to say it when we’re struggling and we need to be grace-filled listeners!”  Somewhere in life we’ve been trained to just answer “fine” when someone asks how we’re doing.  The truth is we’re often anything but fine.  I don’t know if it’s pride or embarrassment that keeps us from reaching out when we need help but we need to get over it.
  6. Consolidated Daylight~~This chapter deals with homeschooling multiple children of varying age: what they can learn together and what showed be taught separately.  Since I only have one I perused it lightly.
  7. Wasted Daylight~~Pick up your feet, as a few toes are about to get stepped on.  Fairly early in the chapter Heidi shares about getting absorbed in Facebook and then being crabby with her kids when she finds they hadn’t started school or done their chores when she finally snaps out of her social media stupor at 10:30.  The only difference between the two of us is that I’d have to leave the “s” off kids in my version of the story.  It’s not just the computer/internet/TV either.  We all need to prioritize what needs to get done vs. what robs us of our time.
  8. Surrendered Daylight~~I probably got the most out of this last chapter. As the ranks of homeschoolers has grown we’re finding we’re not all cut from the same cloth anymore.  Just like the Church has factions that disagree on issues like baptism (sprinkle or immerse), communion (symbolic or transubstantiation), homeschoolers are becoming divisive: dating or courtship, delight-directed or teaching 6 year olds Latin.  I can remember finding a mom in the restroom of co-op crying over comments made to her for allowing her teenage son to attend public high school. She was still homeschooling 5 younger kids, but suddenly she wasn’t one of the club anymore, she’d caved. 

I’ll be frank and say this isn’t a book I’d give to someone just thinking about homeschooling—you might just scare them off with the honest look at what it’s like behind the homeschool doors.  I do think it would make a great book club reading for co-op or homeschool support groups, especially if we could learn to take off our armors and reveal areas where we’re struggling.


Real Life Press Review

Monday, May 4, 2015

Review: A+ Tutorsoft

For the past several weeks Schnickelfritz has been  learning his algebra via the A+ Interactive Math website.  Algebra 1 is currently the highest level currently offered in their Family Math Package (they are working on additional high school levels)


A+ Interactive Math is a subscription based service.  They offer math instruction for varying lengths of time and for one to ten students. The lessons for A+ must be viewed online.  There are no captions for the hearing impaired, but it is possible to click the text button and read a synopsis of the lesson (it is not word for word and the ones we viewed did not include the text for sample problems).  At the end of each lesson, you may take an interactive quiz.  Corresponding to each lesson are worksheets and exams which may be done online or offline.

How We Used It:

Schnickelfritz would watch the lesson presentation online and take the interactive quiz immediately after.  He usually reported his quiz score to me and being so fresh in his mind he almost always got an outstanding score.  On several occasions he mentioned that there was only one question so it was really a case of pass or fail.

We don’t have much space at our computer desk, so rather than try and solve worksheets online I would print out the worksheets and Fritz could have all the space he needed for writing and scratch paper at the dining table. Then he could return to the computer and click the appropriate radio button for the multiple choice questions.  The printed worksheet and the online worksheet had problems listed in different orders so he might have to search his paper for the same question (I also noted the algebraic equations would appear slightly different—his paper might say x/2 and the online question might show 1/2x, which kept him on his toes).  I had the settings for the online worksheet set up so he could see the correct answer and also view a detailed solution if he had gotten the problem wrong.  In this way he was really using the online worksheet to grade his own paper (and automatically record his score).  If your student is working solely online you can hide the solutions to prevent cheating.  I could also have graded his paper and entered his score manually, but I think he was able to learn a great deal from grading his own mistakes.  I printed out the exams and we treated them in a similar fashion.

One nice this about the printed work was that most questions asked him to show his work or explain his answers.  Being able to explain why you did the steps you did is a great way to prove mastery of a subject. 

What we thought of it:

The math and the teachings were all sound.  There are no games or gimmicks (at least not at this level, we did not try levels intended for younger students). Our complaints had more to do with the execution. For example, the recordings of the lessons weren’t very crisp~~ there was static or hissing when speakers made “S” sounds.  If it were a radio broadcast, I’d say we needed to adjust the fine tuning.  I also wish the materials were organized so that you could access everything for one lesson from the same screen—multi-media lesson, worksheets, exams.  Instead you would have to start at the top and drill your way down for each type of material e.g. choosing MM lessons, then opening folder 4, then choosing lesson 4.4 Equations as Relations.  Then when I wanted the exam I would choose the exam tab, folder number 4 and lesson 4.4 again.  What made things worse was the worksheets weren’t numbered like the lessons and I’d have to hover over each one to find the one that corresponded with our lesson.

Similarly, I had to go to very different areas to set up my student.  From my dashboard I was able to set his level of lessons from the second option on the screen (see above). However, if I wanted to change the settings so Fritz could see detailed solutions I would have to Launch my Family Package and then choose the Admin Panel tab from there.

A+ Tutorsoft is running a 2-week 40% to 50% off sale on both “Family Math Packages” and “Adaptive Placement Testing w/ Lessons” programs from  5/4/2015 to 5/18/2015

If the mean time you can check out all these freebies to see if their programs would be a good fit for your family…

Free Math Placement Test:
Free Family Math Packages:

Free Software Download:
Free Single Grade Level:
Free eBook:

Additional Information:
Top 12 Reasons to use "Adaptive Placement Test & Lessons" program:
Top 12 Reasons to use "Family Math package" program:

A+ Interactive Math Review

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