Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If It Ain't Written Down...It Ain't Happening

If I were giving a tour of our homeschool, I'd probably be sharing all the bargains I've found over the years--the free chalk board, the binding machine from ebay, etc.  This week's Blog Cruise subject is lesson planning and if I had to choose the one item that keeps our homeschool going it would be the record keeping software I paid full price for (and still consider a bargain).   I purchased Edu-Track when I learned we would be moving from Indiana to Missouri and I'd be switching from checking off days on a calendar to tracking hours, specifically:  1000 total hours with at least 600 in core subjects,  of which 400 hours must take place at the regular home school location.  Edu-Track was developed by a Missourian so  all this core/non-core gobbledy-gook is built into the software and all I have to do is check a box here and there.

I like to start off my school year having as much scheduling done as possible.  I've found if I don't have it written down I'll discover that we haven't cracked open the spelling book for two weeks.  This year, for the first time, I'm sharing host duties for our science experiments with another local homeschooling mom.  If  we don't keep to a rigorous reading schedule, we won't be ready for the experiment on those pre-determined days.   I may have to tweak dates as the year progresses but I know my 1000 hours (or at least the 600 core hours) are accounted for up front.  Edu-Track has a great recurring activity feature that makes data input easy.  If I know we're going to start each week watching the next lesson of Math-U-See  I fill in the Recpeating Activity Screen as follows.

Just like that I have 30 core hours scheduled.  I can repeat this step for Worksheets B-D on Tuesdays-Thursdays and schedule a test for Fridays.  One hundred fifty hours of math input in less than 5 minutes.  For other subjects, like science, I may put in a generic activity like "Read pp ____ in Land Animals of the Third Day" to set up the repeating activity and go in to manually enter the specific page numbers later.

At the beginning of each week I print out a schedule by subject. 

The paper leaves plenty of room for me to "edit."  If a crisis occurs and we don't our social studies done on Wednesday, I just draw an arrow to Thursday.  If someone calls to let us know about a great exhibit at the Science Center, I can write in the details of the field trip.  When the week is complete, I'll make any necessary changes to our Edu-Track records and print out an updated and accurate copy to keep in our record book.  The software allows me to bump individual and groups of activities forward and backward with just a few clicks of the mouse.  When Schnickelfritz gets to college I can use Edu-Track to create transcripts.  For now, I use other features to keep track of chores to be done, books read, field trips, even Fritz's immunizations. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: e-Mealz

Benjamin Franklin gave us the quote "The only things certain in life are death and taxes."  I think if Mr. Franklin had consulted Mrs.Franklin she might have added one more--at sometime during the day someone will utter the phrase "What's for dinner?"   In an ideal world, it would be asked by my husband and he tries to identify that delicious aroma wafting towards him at the front door.  It's often my son who asks when his tummy starts rumbling around 4:30.  Worst case scenario:  I'm asking myself this question as I peer into cabinets or the freezer wondering what ingredients I can throw together to make the semblance of a meal.  When the Homeschool Crew got the chance to review e-Mealz , a tool to help organize dinner menus and grocery shopping, I was thrilled.

A three-month subscription to e-Mealz costs $15 and entitles you to download a meal plan and grocery list each week.  Plans are available for national and regional chains like Aldi, Walmart, Kroger and Publix.  You may choose a 2-3 person plan or a 4-6 person plan.  There are also options available for dietary restrictions like gluten free or portion control.  I selected the Aldi plan as I shop there anyway.  My three concerns were: Does the food taste good,  am I more organized,  and am I saving money?

Delicious or no?

If my family isn't willing to eat what I prepare, it's no bargain no matter how little it costs.  I might as well just throw cash in the trash.   I can report that my family enjoyed every meal I tried from Shepherd's Pie and Low Country Stew  to Swiss Chicken and Taco Salad.   Some of these recipes will definitely make it into my rotating line-up of family dinners.    There were also some dishes that I purposefully did not prepare--fish is not a favorite in our house and one week had two fish recipes.  It's easy enough to cross off ingredients you won't need from the grocery list as everything includes its meal number.  If I'm not making Tuna Muffins, I just don't buy anything with meal #7 beside it.  You can of course prepare the meals in any order.  When we started e-Mealz we had temps in the hundreds and I didn't want the heavy stew that was scheduled.  We swapped it out for a chicken quesadilla.  Three days later when the temperature dropped 50 degrees the stew seemed more appropriate.

Am I more organized?

I have to say that few things are more satisfying at four in the afternoon than the knowledge that dinner's already taken care of.  Even if I still have to prepare the meal, I don't find that nearly as draining and the frantic dash around the kitchen to see what I've got on hand and what I can make with it.  I even went the step beyond and kept each meal's ingredients grouped together in the fridge and the pantry.  And shopping was easier as well.  I think most Aldi stores have the same floor plan and the grocery list was organized by produce, dairy, canned goods, etc.  A word of warning though--always be sure to check the list of staple items at the bottom of the shopping list.  One night I didn't have pecans on hand because they were listed down in the staples section and I don't consider that as a staple in my house.  There was also one occasion when an ingredient wasn't available at Aldi--the shopping list noted this with an "n/a" in the price column.  The ingredient was a package of seasoning for white chicken chili.  I ended up referring to a cookbook for a similar recipe and copied the spices.

Am I Saving Money?

Shortly after beginning my review period for e-Mealz I was a caller on the Dave Ramsey show.  I was amazed at how frequently I heard a commercial for e-Mealz--usually with Dave himself touting how e-Mealz allowed a family to eat much more than rice & beans off a rice & beans budget.  I'll agree with him to a point.  If you don't have any plan and you're constantly falling back  on a trip to the golden arches for dinner, you will blow the family budget.   By the same token, if you are making multiple trips to the store to pick up missing ingredients you increase you risk of leaving the store with more than the one or two items you went in for--another budget buster.   When I first started e-Mealz, I was surprised that the average weekly shopping trip would cost $65-85 dollars at Aldi's and that's not even covering lunches and breakfasts.  I'm already spending much less than that for all my meals.   It didn't take me long perusing the shopping lists to see why the sticker shock.     Some of the "side dishes" include: potato, tortilla, and corn chips,  frozen Texas toast, and canned buttermilk biscuits.   I don't consider chips a suitable side dish for dinner.  They're snacks, and expensive ones at that.  I was also paying for the convenience of pre-cooked meatballs rather than buying ground beef and making my own.   Dave Ramsey may be impressed but I think it's possible to do better.

Bottom Line:

I don't believe we will continue a subscription to e-Mealz.   I have my own collection of family favorite recipes and I save money by stocking up on loss-leaders at the stores and shopping from my own pantry to make dinner.  I just need to be more organized about planning meals beforehand so maybe a menu calendar is in order.  I would recommend e-Mealz as a starting point for someone who has does not have their own recipe collection, never planned menus, or shopped from a grocery list before.  It would also helpful if your family is adventuresome about what they eat--not from the standpoint that you'll be eating exotic foods but it does take some openness to eat a different meal every night with no repetition for months.  You can find one or two day sample menu plans on their website to see which one might be right for your family.

You can read how others on the Homeschool Crew felt about their e-Mealz experience by clicking here.
Disclaimer: I received a free 3-month subscription to e-Mealz for the purpose of completing this review.  I received no other compensation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

School Budgets: What would Dave Say?

If confession is good for the soul then I'll feel better after I admit that for years I did not budget money for our homeschooling.   "What's the big deal?" some of you are thinking, "neither do I."  Well, I was an accountant by trade so I knew better.  When we were a two income family, I would purchase books and supplies years in advance so we'd have them when I stopped working to homeschool our son.  Schnickelfritz is in third grade now and we've pretty much gone through most of those materials now.   In the past I always assumed that we would have had costs associated with public school (we lived in Indiana and families have to pay hundreds of dollars to rent school books each year) and as long as I was doing it for less then we were ahead.  Then we moved to Missouri, I stopped working outside of the home, and our family income was cut by more than a third.  When I'd go to the homeschool fair I may have drooled over a lot of great products but I was VERY stingy about what I'd buy.  In the back of my mind I'd be thinking about how high the credit card balance already was and I didn't want to take it above what we could afford to pay in full each month. (Dave Ramsey, if you're reading this blog, this was before FPU.  I know how you feel about credit cards, even if they're paid off every month).

This fall my husband and I started Financial Peace University at our church.  Can I first say that FPU is not just for people in serious financial situations?  We actually had no consumer debt when we started the course.  While paying off debt is the topic of some of the classes, we also are learning how men and women view money differently and how to talk about money instead of squabble (or avoiding the talk all together).  Some nights we learn how to get the best bargain possible on purchases, what types of insurance are available and which we need, and we're looking forward to learning about sound investing.  I honestly don't think there is anyone who wouldn't benefit from FPU.  Wives, if you're worried your husband won't like being lectured to,  every man in our class that has found Dave Ramsey's humorous teaching style entertaining as well as informative.  On the Dave Ramsey's website you can type in your zip code and find classes in your area.

Now the point of this blog was homeschool budgets.  According to Dave, we need to have every dollar spent on paper before it every gets deposited in our bank account and we need to be in agreement on where it's spent.  When our FPU homework assignment was to create a family budget we purposefully included a line item for home school ($25 per month).  It's not a large amount, but when we have to pay an entrance fee to a museum or I need to pick up supplies for a science experiment I can pull cash out of the homeschool envelope and take care of it.  Of course, I don't spend all of the money.  Most of it will stay in the envelope until homeschool fair time.  Then I can purchase my ticket and peruse the curriculum hall without the nagging fear that I'm spreading our finances to thin.   Prior to the event, we may discuss adding more to the homeschooling envelope at our monthly cash flow meeting (budgets are meant to be flexible not written in stone) but it won't have to be as big a chunk since we've been saving for it year long.

Be sure to click on the Blog Cruise button to see what others have to say about budgeting for books and supplies.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A binding machine for the home

I just wanted to share a few pictures and thoughts about my latest toy I mean tool for better organization and efficiency.   I had been watching a crafting gadget demonstration on one of those shop at home channels and was drooling over a wire-binding machine.   Drooling but not buying,  I headed over to eBay to see what bargains I could find.  In the end I found a model that can use both plastic combs and o-wire--that way we can fill and re-arrange books throughout our school year and change them to a permanent binding when they're complete.   I found loads of different size plastic combs in the clearance section of Office Max (25  1/2 inch combs for $2) .  Above is a picture of some of the projects I done so far, going clockwise ....

Schnickelfritz has been working on his President's merit badge for Royal Rangers.  This book holds a page for each president in chronological order listing years in office, education, birth state, vice president(s) and two events from each administration.  Next comes 10 Bible verses that cover leadership qualities and finally and essay on Fritz's favorite president and how he meets some of those qualities.    This book is a definite keeper and I may switch it to a permanent wire binding.

I've been making up my own Missouri history curriculum this year using Where Rivers Meet as a spine.  This book contains a timeline specifically for Missouri (our main timeline is in a hallway in our basement),  one-page biographical summaries for famous Missourians,  a variety of maps, etc.  We'll probably add pages with postcards or travel brochures as well (I'm beginning to appreciate the flexibility of comb binding over wire binding more and more).  Recently, Post-It advertised an offer to get samples and coupons of their latest products on TV.  I found their tabs worked great to separate sections of this binder.

 Next is my first project--our school planner (we call ourselves Tanglewood Academy).  I've included two-page spreads for each month of the year, a page to list field trips, books read, goals, and more.  I use the calendar to note appointments and field trips and any activities I need to add to my Edu-Track lesson planner.  When the week is over, I print out the details (which are all accurate at this point) and file them in the back of the planner.

Sometimes I bind together projects for my own reference.  This is the users manual for Graphic Toolbox.  We reviewed this product during my first year of the Homeschool Crew.  I still use it all the time, in fact I made all of the covers for these books with GT.   I just find it easier to have a hard copy in front of me that switching back and forth between the online version and my project.   Other things I've bound include handouts from a canning class I took at the county extension office,  recipes for my pressure cooker and others for cooking in the dutch oven on our campfire.

Last is Fritz's newest merit project--Chess.  I'll use it to show you how I make books.  It is possible to buy clear plastic, pre-punched cover pages for binders but I much prefer to make my own.  After designing fronts and backs, I print them out on card stock and laminate them in 3 mil pouches.   I bought 200 pouches at Sam's Club for under $15.

 After laminating, you can punch the covers in the binding machine one at a time.  My machine has a separate mark for covers at 11 1/4 inches instead of the regular 11.  And take care when punching the back page--remember you're making a book so think about which side to punch so the correct side faces out.  Of course, you could leave the back blank and then it won't be an issue, but I like to put the date of our project on the back.  When assembling the book I start with the front cover face down.  This enables me to add any new pages to the back without having to completely taking the book apart.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Weekly wrap-up for Oct 7

After a week in Disney World, going back to a school schedule was hard for both student and teacher.  "Math just isn't very exciting" my Schnickelfritz informed me.  No, he's right, after Space Mountain it's hard to go back to dividing with remainders but math and science are necessary if you're going to build the next big thing in roller coasters.  

We wrapped up our study of canniforms with an experiment on how the black skin of polar bears keeps them warm.   We placed two thermometers on the driveway and covered them with plastic trash bags--one white and one black.  We had to weight them done with a lot of rocks as it was a very blustery day.   During the interval before checking the temperatures we watched Walt Disney's nature short, "Bear Country."    When the kitchen timer went off the kids raced out and grabbed the thermometers but they had a little difficulty gauging the small lines so they handed them over to the two moms. Imagine the disappointment  when it appeared that yet another experiment wasn't going to turn out the way it was supposed to--they both said 96 degrees.  We decided to redo the experiment, this time using heavy paving stones to hold down the trash bags and keep the wind from blowing the heat out from underneath.  Twenty minutes later we had temps of 96 and 107 degrees! 

In Missouri history, Louis Joliet has just reached Pere Marquette and they are preparing to journey down the Wisconson river in hopes that it will empty into the mighty Mississippi.  We are using the Landmark title "The Explorations of Pere Marquette" and it's hard for me to read aloud when Fritz keeps wanting to turn back to the maps.  I've printed out some blank outline maps so he can track the journey himself although my source makes it look like they had a mighty long portage from the Fox to the Wisconsin.

We've completed our President's book.  We've included official portraits, dates and number of terms, birth states, education, Vice Presidents and two significant events from each administration.  Now we have to list 10 Bible verses that allude to qualities of good leaders and write an essay on Fritz's favorite president to complete the Royal Ranger's badge.

We do have one reminder of our Disney trip--Fritz built several roller coaster simulations at Sum of All Thrills in Epcot's Innoventions.  He kepts the  magnetic card from the exhibit and we've been able to access a video of his coasts and play other cool games at Raytheon's website  www.mathmovesu.com .
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