Inside the Mommyvan

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

They made their own! (Sorry, the post title popped into my head and I couldn’t help myself)


We have a basket of fabric remnants, ribbons, pipe cleaners, and other embellishments that the kids can use for crafts or whatever else they want. The girls love to create their own costumes; sometimes they even put on a show using what they’ve made.

This is an activity I don’t ever suggest, they pull it out when they are feeling inspired. The fabric all goes back into the basket afterwards, so they do all of this knowing that their creations are temporary (I do try to get a photo or two of the finished product, though).

We got our copy of Adventures with Atoms and Molecules in the mail last week, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

I love that it has simple, straightforward experiments that demonstrate physical and chemical principles, without asking kids to figure out concepts that are far above their level of knowledge. There are plenty of science experiment books out there, and this is an important thing to remember when using any of them. At this age (we’re ramping up for 2nd grade), students need to observe, record, and learn from the experiments. These activities shouldn’t be “magic tricks” that are never explained, nor should they be unfathomable mysteries.

This morning we watched (groups of) molecules move and talked about the differences between how the molecules move in warm water, cool water, and ice:




Sometimes presentation can make all the difference. When we need a little extra motivation, I’ll often pull out the mini M&Ms and use them as prizes for questions answered correctly during lesson time.

The other day, I changed things up just a little bit. Instead of announcing the next lesson as usual, I said “I’m going to show you how to win M&Ms!”

Whaddaya know… instead of moaning and groaning, three kids came running and were excited to get started!

I’m not a fan of the Common Core initiative. It has some good points, but the realities of implementation are overwhelming those with negatives.

You may have seen one of the “Common Core” math homework pages floating around the internet. They show what seems to be an over-complicated exercise to solve a simple addition or subtraction problem that the parent could do in 5 seconds using the “old” way we were taught math.

These purport to show how ridiculous the new standards are, but that’s a short-sighted view. There are many reasons to dislike Common Core, but this method of teaching math is not one of them. This isn’t even a new way of teaching. It’s been used for years in other countries, and most of those places are far ahead of US students in mathematics. Doesn’t that sound like something that might be worth a closer look?

Teaching Student Centered Mathematics

Arithmetic for Parents


I love All About Reading and its companion, All About Spelling. from All About Learning Press.

We started with AAS 1 last year, and AAR 2 (since my kids already had some phonics under their belt) earlier this school year. The results have been nothing short of amazing. J has gone from a reluctant reader of one-line-per-page books to a kid who enjoys reading not only the stories that go with the AAR lessons, but all sorts of other books as well.

I’m… not a great cook. I don’t get much enjoyment from it either. As you might imagine, oven-ready lasagna noodles are my friend! As I was shopping last week, I decided to try something different, because I didn’t even feel like browning the ground beef for a regular meat lasagna. Recalling once upon a time when the twins were tiny babies and a friend brought us a delicious lasagna that had pepperoni added between a couple of the layers (amazing that I can remember anything from those days, but this was some really good food), I grabbed some turkey pepperoni and, on a whim, a package of sliced mushrooms.

I followed the directions on the lasagna package more-or-less (it called for ricotta cheese with egg and seasonings plus tomato sauce with the browned meat mixed in), but I used a jar of sauce on its own, without the ground beef.

I added the pepperoni (torn in half) and mushrooms atop the sauce layer, all except the very bottom & top. I added a little shredded parmesan cheese on top and baked as directed–350F for 30 min. with foil on top, then another 15 min. uncovered to make everything nicely browned and bubbly.

I really had no idea how it would turn out, but with the preparation as easy as it was, I’d be happy as long as it was edible. It ended up even better than that. The kids gobbled it up, my husband loved it, and the flavors were light but just different enough to make it interesting.


My guest post over at Tales of an Unlikely Mother:

If you spend much time around homeschoolers, you’ll probably hear them talk about their “co-op” days. I was recently asked for an explanation of these mysterious organizations by someone who’d heard they they were “like school, but without qualified teachers.”

I suppose that description may fit some co-ops, but I’m fortunate to live in an area where that couldn’t be farther from the truth, at any of the half-dozen co-ops in my general vicinity (and those are just the ones I’ve heard of).

First off, what is a homeschool co-op? Details vary, but in general it’s when a group of homeschoolers get together–usually once a week–for a day of more-or-less classes. These are often, but not always, taught by the co-op parents, and the subject matter can range from belly dancing to advanced biology. There is usually a fee for classes, which generally goes to the individual teachers to pay for their time and supplies. Some large co-ops have a paid administrative staff, but most are truly co-operative, relying on parent volunteers for everything from scheduling classes to cleaning up the lunch room. The best organizations double as a support and social group for both parents and students. Some have the interpersonal drama you might expect from any organized group of individuals, but no more than you’d find in a PTA or neighborhood organization.

As for the teachers’ qualifications, there are a few things to keep in mind. One, many former professional teachers homeschool their own kids; two, co-ops often attract outside (non-homeschooling) teachers and experts; and three, truly unqualified teachers are easy to avoid. As word gets around, and it does, about their lack of teaching skills or subject-matter knowledge, they’re not invited back to the co-op or people just don’t enroll in their classes. How many traditional-school parents have (or wish they had) that option? The reality is that public school teachers are often placed in classrooms far outside their areas of expertise (take a look at your state’s minimum requirements for a teaching certificate sometime), and much of their class time is spent on high-stakes standardized test prepararation. Worst-case at co-op: we’ve spent an hour a week for one semester in a worthless class. At a tradtitional school, that class with the “bad” teacher may be the student’s entire day, every day (for lower grades) or their only opportunity to take an advanced class in the upper grades.

Some co-ops add on many of the extra-curriculars found at traditional schools: field trips, yearbooks, science fairs, student council, art shows, even prom and graduation ceremonies. Others focus on rigorous academic subjects, with highly qualified teachers and loads of homework. Still others are relaxed, with an eclectic mix of classes where age or grade levels are mere suggestions and parents, often with babes-in-arms, can be found sitting in on class sessions.

Whichever type you choose, co-ops can be a valuable addition to a homeschooler’s toolbox for academics, extra-curriculars, and social time. My kids are currently taking a science & nature class from a long-time professional educator (who brings in all sorts of critters for the kids to see and touch) and a class on playing games (fall semester focused on old-school games and good sportsmanship, this spring is games from around the world complete with geography and culture lessons). In the past they have taken arts & crafts classes (with themes from a storybook reading), Lego construction (including simple machines), ballet, tap, and hip-hop dance, exploring water (from physical/chemical properties, art, and nature perspectives), local plants & wildlife (great day-long field trip that semester), and Waldorf-inspired art.

We also spend hours on the playground and at the park each week, just hanging out and playing with friends. This may be the best part of our co-op experience, as kids of all ages play together and look out for each other; cliques and bullying are practically non-existent.

So yes, it is sort of like school… but the difference isn’t in the teachers, it’s in the parents and students.

Now that we have emerged from the post-winter-break chaos, I’ve discovered a few key elements that have been making our days move along smoothly, much more so than before.

  1. Get an early start:
    We wake up (sometimes slowly), we eat breakfast, we do chores, and we start schoolwork. Play time comes a little later, electronics come much later, at the end of the day.
  2. Daily and weekly, not hourly schedules:
    Because there’s so much variation in how long one or all of my kids will take to complete a particular lesson, trying to stick to a time-based schedule resulted in stress and frustration all around. Setting goals for the day and simply working through them one by one allows us to take more time where necessary. A bonus when we sail through things quickly is that there’s a chunk of free time at the end of the day instead of having it all in bits and pieces through the day. We do have break times, but the quick days give us enough time in the afternoon to go do something.
  3. Whiteboard it:
    Like most homeschoolers, I have tried a variety of lesson planning tools. My favorite so far is a small whiteboard. I list the next lesson in each subject area or curriculum, so I can see at a glance what materials I need to prep next. Some things on the whiteboard will be for today; others for later in the week (or even into the next week), but it gives me a good idea of where we stand and options for our next steps. Changing plans is a snap, whether moving forward or shifting gears, just erase & re-write.


    I keep a weekly planning sheet on paper as well, and usually get the next whiteboard entries from that (where they’re not obvious from chapter or page numbers), but the paper planner is more for getting the week thought out in my head than a checklist of what must get done. The whiteboard is what I follow day by day. I also mark lessons as we complete them. It gives my students a nice way to see what they’ve accomplished during the day, and I can take a snapshot in the evening for an extra record of our current status (my formal log, required by our state, is a subject for another post).

  4. Rest time:
    I read a forum post and watched a youtube video which both mentioned daily “rest time” or “quiet time” and I had an epiphany. I’d previously thought that since naps were long gone in this house, the chance of getting them back into their rooms mid-day was somewhere between slim and none. At the same time, the kids were becoming more and more rowdy regardless of how much outdoor and physical play time they had. It almost seemed as though more outdoor time was exacerbating the problem. On top of that, I didn’t get a break when I could just stop and gather my thoughts, so I was frazzled as well.

    I shifted gears and tried an hour or so of quiet time after lunch, and it was like magic! That afternoon’s lessons were calm, relaxed, and completed with minimal whiing and complaining. Rest time has become an integral part of nearly every day, generally immediately after lunch, and it’s made an enormous difference in attitudes and quality of work throughout the day.

  5. Go with the flow:
    Regardless of what’s on the whiteboard or the weekly planning sheet, I try to stay in tune with what my crew is struggling with and what they’re breezing through, and I adjust our lessons accordingly. If math is popular today, I’ll toss some extra at them; if they are overwhelmed by the next piece of reading, we’ll rewind a few steps and work our way back up to the troublesome lesson. Sometimes we’re just not into spelling or grammar or whatever, and I can pick the next cool science lesson off the board instead. If we sail through lessons in the morning, we might take off in the afternoon for some fun surprise adventure.

    Some days I’ll have one kid smash through everything in record time while another is taking alllll mooorrrrrniiiinnng to get a simple worksheet done. This is where flexibility really comes into play. I have to be ready to keep the quick worker busy without penalizing him or her for finishing first, but I also have to be ready to sit at pokey’s elbow without rewarding the dawdling with extra attention from Mom. It’s a constant balancing act, and second only to not being able to adequately teach or explain a concept in frustration for me.

And that’s what’s working for us right now.

Kids love to play with magnets, and there are some great learning experiences to be had with even a small educational magnet kit.

Those iron filings, though. They create such a beautiful illustration of magnetic fields for young and old alike, but the potential for a disastrous mess–especially with younger students–makes me dread even opening the container.


Until today’s brainstorm: my trusty Ziploc bags to the rescue! I dumped the iron filings into a large (gallon-size) zipper bag and sealed it up. With the help of a paper plate or thin piece of cardboard, I can now make those beautiful field line images, and even let the kids fool around with them, with no mess!


This is the magnet kit we’re using. It comes with a bar magnet, two sizes of horseshoe magnets, iron filings, and a batch of small steel pellets that are great for comparing the strength of different magnets.

She who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.

Sometimes life homeschooling kids is a fight. It’s a dirty, messy slog through hostile terrain, day after interminable day. There are days when I’m convinced that they really are out to kill me, or at least to shatter my sanity beyond repair. The same can be said, I’m sure, of life with kids in traditional school, or of life with a spouse, roommate, or anyone else with whom one shares intimate space on a daily basis.

When it’s been like this for a while–and getting us back into our schooling routine after an extended winter break most definitely qualifies, as does the month of February in general–it’s time to step back. Waaaaay back. To retreat strategically, regroup, and come back stronger.

I’m fortunate that a group of women in my church family plan a wonderful retreat each year right around the time I most need it.

Earlier this month about 15 of us met up at a camp out in the woods for the weekend. We shed our outside roles: wife, mother, employee, boss, retiree, whatever. We became a group finding our shared experiences and interests, taking a brief spiritual journey together, finding peace and serenity in the gorgeous natural setting, and enjoying the fellowship and connections made along the way.

The weekend was not without its challenges, but we also saw unexpected gifts arise from the difficulty. There was hope and strength; and there was vulnerability and tears. The care these women took with each other’s sometimes fragile souls was beautiful, and there was honesty even when our opinions differed. It was a safe place, a place of deepening friendships, a place of food and fun and laughter, especially when the games came out in the evenings.

I came home renewed in spirit, refreshed in body, but best of all with my mental reserves and my social connections strengthened for the battles to be fought in the days and weeks ahead.