Inside the Mommyvan

Homeschooling & Life Inside the Mommyvan - an old dog learning new tricks

To the women in my life, past and present, who do not have children this Mother’s Day: I honor you today, and thank you for mothering me in your own ways and helping me become the Mama I am today.

You were role models and cheerleaders through my career in a field dominated by men. You showed me what fulfilling independent lives looked like when my own future was unclear. You gave me hope and comfort during my journey to motherhood. You allow me to enjoy your lives vicariously, with tales of travel, adventures, career paths, and other things that I traded in for life as a full-time mother. You give me perspective and clarity from a point of view that isn’t so intertwined with little developing personalities. You care for, and about, my children with love and kindness.

Whether this is a day of happiness, sadness, or indifference for you, know that this grateful Mom appreciates you today.

The pencils. Oh, the pencils. I had no idea that homeschooling would involve purchasing pencils by the hundred.

Here is my son’s starting pencil lineup for a math page this morning.

He drops pencils on the floor like I’ve greased them before laying them out in the morning. The time spent bending over, hunting for the fumbled implement, attempting to grasp it with his toes, getting settled back into his seat, and similar maneuvers means that his math work stretches on to very near the end of my patience. That’s before the bathroom trips, drinks of water, banging some body part on the edge of the table, or perceived offense from a sister.

I try to minimize some of the distraction by having a ready supply of replacement pencils and handing him another when I hear one hit the floor. I am amazed at how quickly a pencil can go from the table, to this boy’s hand, to the floor without ever touching his schoolwork paper!

Between the dropping, the tapping, the poking into erasers, the overzealous sharpening, and the growing-legs-and-wandering-off, we go through a lot of pencils. I’ve become something of a connoisseur. Decorative pencils, while fun for the kids, are usually round. Round pencils roll off the table very easily. The designs are sometimes printed on a plastic wrapper, which gets mangled in the pencil sharpener and gives fiddly kids one more thing to distract them from their work. Cheap pencils break easily, resulting in freshly sharpened pencils that fail the moment they are touched to paper. There are so many of these that I give each pencil point a little wiggle test after sharpening; about 25% lose the end of their lead and need to be sharpened again. High quality pencils are well worth the small difference in price. Nothing beats good old bright yellow Dixon Ticonderoga wood pencils. They’re sturdy, the erasers work, and the flat sides mean they stay put on the school table.

Sometimes I even splurge for the Pre-sharpened Dixon Ticonderogas! Especially when we’re out and about, it’s so nice to pull out a pencil that is not only perfectly sharpened, but with a shallow angle on the point such that it doesn’t break easily floating around in my bag.

Speaking of sharpening, I don’t know what I would do without my pair of heavy-duty electric pencil sharpeners (plug-in, not battery). One for me (Staples “Power Pro – works great, but the next one I buy will have a larger bin for the shavings and not spill as much when I empty it), and one for the kids to use. Tip: if you can’t bolt it down, get an upright model for the kids so that they are pushing the pencil down into the sharpener instead of pushing the sharpener across the table.


I’ve spent quite a bit of time pondering what, if anything, I wanted to write about this issue. The thought that keeps coming to the front of my mind is this: They will know we are Christians by our LOVE.
For those who haven’t heard this news, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), of which I am a member, last week altered its constitution to define marriage as involving “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” I wrote much of what’s below as a comment on a friend’s post, but I would like to give it a wider audience.
Our interpretation of God’s word can’t help but be influenced by our culture. As that culture changes so do our interpretations (just in recent years: slavery, women in church leadership; before that the Reformation that brought about the Presbyterian church).
Even more important is that as Presbyterians we realize that where we disagree on some particular interpretation, love and grace mean allowing that we might be mistaken, that no one in this world has all the answers. That the greatest commandment means accepting our brothers and sisters in Christ fully, as they are, and leaving the judgment to God.
We accept people who lie, people who harbor jealousy, even people who have been divorced and remarried (adultery, according to scripture). We accept many who flub one or more of the Ten Commandments, not to mention other less definitive instructions in the Bible. Every person sitting in the pews, every couple married in our church, all of us are sinners.
Now, finally, we as a church are accepting fully those whose most cherished, committed earthly relationship happens to be with someone of the same gender. If it turns out that one belief or another is wrong about if and to what magnitude this is sinful, aren’t we better off erring on the side of love and compassion?

If you have kids in public school, or if you spend any time on social media, you’ve probably heard, read, or written at least one rant about the new “common core” math (which isn’t really new at all, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

Parents and teachers are understandably frustrated trying to help young students learn problem-solving techniques that they don’t understand themselevs, and which seem so terribly complex compared to the “carry-the-one” method we all learned in school.

Let me direct your attention to two words in the paragraph above: problem-solving. The object of these convoluted techniques is not to teach kids how to most efficiently find the answer to a particular calculation, but to illustrate and illuminate mathematical concepts and engage students in problem-solving strategies. Both of these are critically important if our kids are to become mathmatically literate – not just cranking out answers by rote, but understanding why those mechanical algorithms work, what’s happening to the numbers under the hood.

solving multiplication conceptually

This is our chalkboard after my kids, as a team and with some guidance from me, produced the answer to 3421 x 54. After we worked through the whole thing, they shrieked when they tapped the numbers into their calculators and verified their answer.

Yes, it took us ten or fifteen minutes to work through. Yes, it involved drawing pictures, invoking “5 times 10 apples” repeatedly to get past the multiplying thousands hurdle, and many more intermediate steps. No, I don’t expect anyone who hasn’t researched and learned this method to understand how we got from Point A to Point B… though I am happy to explain (to the best of my ability) how and why we did it this way to anyone interested.

At the end of it all, my second graders, my 6 and 7 year-olds who are just beginning to soak times tables into their brains, understand that they are able to multiply huge numbers just as easily as they do 2 x 2. They are believers, but better yet, they are understand-ers. They are learning not only how to do multiplcation, but what it means and how to apply it to other situations that involve multiplying numbers (as well as realizing which situations do call for multiplication, because problems in real life don’t come with nice neat vertically-arranged, place-value-aligned numbers to manipulate).

This is what learning math is all about. This is the math that they will use as adults. This is the math that is so much more than memorization and rote calculation, that will live inside them as one of the many problem-solving tools they acquire through their school years, that will make them truly mathmatically literate as adults, even if it’s not a focus of their higher education.

I understand the frustration surrounding “new” math (whatever it is that’s “new” this generation), but there is a baby in that messy bathwater and it’s in the best interest of all of our kids to not toss that gem out with the confusion and misunderstanding.

I posted a quip on Facebook today, something about tallying the number of times my kids said “I hate you” during a tired and difficult day of homeschooling. A few of the responses my friends posted got me thinking beyond the shared mom-joke of ruining our kids’ lives (according to them) by simply carrying out our parental duties.

On our family’s checklist of daily expectations, one item for all three kids is to use gentle hands and kind words. Showing repect to adults as well as their peers is also a requirement. Those are easy things for a parent to say, but have I ever taught my children how to do those things in the midst of frustration, disappointment, or jealousy? Heck, I have trouble when emotions flare not saying things I’ll later regret; how reasonable is it for me to expect a 7 year-old to consistently exercise appropriate restraint?

Being taken outside to spend some time surrounded by nature, without toys, was one childhood experience shared by a friend. For my crew, nature is full of toys so I’m not sure that would lead to the introspection I’m shooting for here. The idea, though, I like. Find a quiet, private place where a kid can sit with their feelings, reflect on their words and actions, and begin to understand what emotions are behind that impulse to say or do something hurtful.

Once they have a chance to figure that out, perhaps it will be easier in the future to verbalize the real feelings instead of lashing out. For my part, I’ll have to remind myself to validate and respond to those feelings, once they’re figured out, with something positive. I may not be able to fix the source problem, but I can certainly reward the effort to redirect an outburst appropriately.

Journaling has never been of much use to me, but perhaps it will be for them. Perhaps a blank book where they can write or draw what happened, how they feel, or just let out the negative onto paper instead of directed at someone else. Not a requirement, but a tool they can learn how to use if it’s helpful.

I’ll be gathering resources and giving this a try, stay tuned for an update on how it works down the road.

We use the Life of Fred books from Polka Dot Publishing as a supplement to our regular math curriculum. The kids usually read the Fred stories with Daddy in the evenings or on weekends.

These books follow the adventures of Fred, a five year-old professor at KITTENS University, and his doll Kingie. As we join Fred’s very silly daily life (one day, he watches as the campus bell tower tips over; on another occasion butterflies fly out of his office window), we discover that he uses math everywhere he goes. There’s so much more to Fred, though. The stories are not just silliness and math, they’re full of all sorts of interesting information about topics ranging from astronomy to yurts. There are a handful of questions at the end of each chapter, some about math and some about other topics covered in that chapter or previous ones.

This is fun math. How much fun? One daughter created her very own Life of Fred book:








(The spelling, yes, I know. We’re doing 2nd grade, I don’t fuss over spelling on just-for-fun projects like this one)

My wacky kids at math time. Boy started off by letting me know how he felt about today’s work. The girls responded, and he realized he was outnumbered.

The latest addition to our point system is a new set of prizes, and they’ve been a huge hit!

In the clearance bin at a local craft store, I found some packages of reward cards made for this purpose, with a blank to write in the prize and scratch-off stickers to place on top. The hidden rewards include choosing dinner, staying up 30 minutes late, picking a show to watch on the big TV in the living room, and baking something with Mom.


You can find tutorials online, like this one at The Dainty Squid, to make your own; you’ll need acrylic paint, liquid dish soap, and clear packing tape. I’ve heard of people using a heavy coat of crayon over the tape as well.

Simpler is to buy online: has a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. I am using a couple of different 2″ x 1″ rectangular stickers (links below) and, although they are smaller than the ones in the kits, they are easier to scratch off and come off much more cleanly.


With some index cards (or cardstock) and my own fun stickers, I now have a nearly endless supply of surprise prizes. The kids are as excited about the mystery as the reward itself!

My kids and I got to the park before our friends today, and there was a group we’d seen there before, about a half dozen people with developmental disabilities. We haven’t had a chance to meet any of them previously as they’re usually already leaving when we arrive, but this time a few of them noticed us and headed our way across the playground.

One woman was a bit intimidating until one of the aides with the group explained thatshe liked to sneak up behind people and tickle them — her repeated “I’m gonna get you!” made a lot more sense then. My kids have met children with various differences, but have until today had only the briefest of interactions with adults who have this type of disability.

Another gentleman was working on personal space boundaries (again, explained by the aide). The kids and I shook hands with him, and high-5ed & fist-bumped several times, but turned away when he tried to hug us or sat too close. I am proud of my kids, who although they were a bit frightened at first (as they told me later), just followed my lead.

Our new friends left not long afterwards, and the kids and I had a good talk about developmental disabilities. I answered their questions, explained why I didn’t want them to be afraid of people who walk or talk or act differently, and why it was important to be friendly, to shake hands and high-5 instead of ignoring them or walking away.


I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to finally meet this group and interact with people quite different from ourselves, that it gave us a chance to have some important discussions about those differences, and that we were able to show kindness instead of fear or worse.

I am grateful also for the extraordinary opportunities we have as homeschoolers to encounter situations like this as we go about our day. Unplanned, unscripted, up close and personal moments that jar us out of our routine… just part of life, but such a learning experience for us all!

Today is the first day of school for most of the kids in our county; for us it’s party time!


Always fun to do a little socializing with our “unsocialized homeschooler” friends!


Before we headed out, we did spend a little time getting our school supplies organized and talking about what we’ll be doing this year — 2nd grade!