Inside the Mommyvan

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


My kids, like my husband and I, are fascinated with anything that has to do with outer space. We kicked off our school year with a star party at Kennedy Space Center during the Perseids meteor shower, and the educational activities that UF Astronomy students provided really inspired me to find ways to make science more interesting this year.

One thing that really caught the attention of my crew during the KSC visit was that a few different people talked about the “Mars generation” — that the first astronauts to travel to Mars are, right now, kids around their age. I thought I’d capitalize on this surge of interest, and a little poking around on NASA’s websites found a page chock full of Mars resources for educators. The main Mars Exploration site is another good starting point, and NASA’s main educational resources page if you have interests outside of just the red planet.

You’re in training, I told them. If you want to be the first humans on Mars, now is the time to start learning all you can about your mission. They’re eating it up. Even when it’s about side topics like what’s up with all those GPS satellites?

A big hit has been the Surviving and Thriving on Mars [PDF, 5.3Mb] activity booklet. Color printing makes a striking front-and-back cover page holding 16 (B&W) pages of games, coloring, puzzles, and Mars facts.

Destination: Mars [PDF, 1.1Mb] from Johnson Space Center has activity guides for teachers/parents and worksheet pages for students on everything from orbital dynamics to imaginary Martians.

I loved the Mars Match game [PDF, 4,2Mb] from the Phoenix Mars Mission robotics lessons page. We got into a great discussion about how scientists can figure things out about places we can’t get to ourselves from images alone, and what other types of data they use to answer questions about what might be happening on planets in our solar system and elsewhere!

If you have access to Discovery Education videos, Red PlanetRover [43 min.] is a great addition to these activities, following the Curiosity rover and the NASA engineering and science teams through the first 200 days of its mission.

Science is, for me, the easiest subject to make into interesting learning that they maybe don’t even realize is schoolwork, but it still takes some imagination and some preparation. NASA has a wealth of resources that make all of that even easier!

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)

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:




I have another guest post at Parentwin:

Last fall, one of my young students began to struggle with a particular math concept. In his case it was adding mubers with sums just beyond the next ten, like 8+7 or 43+9, and doing similar subtractions “across a ten.”. i put that away for a bit and moved on to some different math topics, thinking maybe we just weren’t quite ready to tackle that. The “Asian math” curriculum we’ve been using as our primary is known for being fairly rigorous and fast-paced.

When i revisited it in December, the results were no better; if anything it was worse. i tried every teaching methid i could think up or read about, but nothing seemed to stick with this child. ALL of the manipulatives came out: the unit blocks, the base-ten set, the abacus, the ten frames. i drew oictures and diagrams. I explained with words and we counted on our fingers. We used online programs and iPad apps to make it more interesting. I offered bribes and made dire threats. He could get to the correct answer by brute force (and, interestingly, he had many of the sums between 10 and 20 already memorized) but i could tell that he just wasn’t gettting the key concept.

(That concept, for those interested, is that the “ones” being added are split into two parts. First enough are “given” to the other addend’s ones digit to complete “the next ten” and then the remainder become the ones digit of the sum. 28+5 becomes, first physically with blocks or abacus and then on paper with little tens-and-ones pictures and finally with numerals, (28 + 2) + 3, and on to 30 + 3, and finally 33. That they learn this before the old “carry the one” vertical addiition algorithm is critical to developing strong mental math skills.)

We’d hit a brick wall. This child was going nowhere, and I had exhausted all of the topics with which I could work around this one. If we were going to progress, I had to find a way to get this idea into his brain. My patience was wearing thin at this point, and i was about ready to throw in the towel and… i don’t even know. We even tried an outside enrichment program, to no avail (it wasn’t a very good one).

Finally, I took a leap and putchased another popular math curriculum. I’d prevoiusly shied away from it because it seemed to have a lot of busywork, drill quesns which looked like duplicates of work we were doing online. it wasn’t cheap for something i wasn’t even sure we’d use, but i was desperate. It devotes a couple dozen pages to slowly building this particular topic up, step by tiny step. Surely the kids would be bored before we were halfway through, going over and over the same material.

I pulled every page relevant to our trouble topic out of both the main text/workbook and the supplement. i reviewed the first baby step with our manioulatives. I took a deep breath, and set the first page in front of him. He breezed through it! We tried two more pages the next day… same result. I could see the light bulb flickering to life! Before long, he’d made it through the entire section. Best of all, he’s gotten a taste of success where previously there had been only frustration, and he’s enjoying it! He is now doing sums in his head that he could previously do only with base ten blocks and lots of coaching.

Often, a failure in the classroom – even a homeschool classroom – is unilaterally placed on the student’s shoulders. It’s inattention, carelessness, laziness or willfull obstinance, even a learning disability. For some students this is accurate, but before slapping one of thise labels on we need to be sure it’s not instead a failure of the teaching. As homeschoolers, we have the luxury of slowing down, even backing up to try a different teaching method or curriculum, but we must remember to take advantage to that and not be slaves to the checkboxes in our lesson planners. In our case, a simple change from one math book to another was the ladder we needed to hop right over that brick wall we’d slammed into a few months back.

While the kids finish up their last few weeks of summer camp (art camp x 2 weeks, then done!), I have been busy planning our coming school year. I’m also gradually easing us (yes, all of us) back into school mode with a few short review assignments each day.

Now that I have some idea of what I’m doing, with a whole year (full-time) of this under my belt, I have set a few goals for the year. One of my goals is to streamline — not necessarily minimize, but efficientize — the set of curriculum materials we are using at any one time. Here is what I ended up with for our first two weeks: pages chopped out of workbooks, online learning, looseleaf pages removed from their binders for the week, digital copies of teacher guides, and leaving the extras and supplemental materials on the shelf unless and until I need that particular resource.

This level of streamlining does call for some compromises, and one of them is financial. As much as I love my Kindle, I cannot skim, survey, or plan without a physical, dead-tree book in my hands. Once I’ve got the idea into my head, though, 95% or more of that book is dead weight in any given week. So, for certain resources, I buy both the paper and electronic versions. The cost isn’t quite double, but the savings in my aching back are substantial.

What I’ve ended up with is a small stack of books and papers, plus my trusty Kindle and iPad, all of which fits in this old swag bag from an HP Tech conference (I’d tell you more about that, but you know what they say about Vegas…)

What we’re doing this year, or what I have planned, anyway:
ETC,, AAS, HWT, Wordly Wise 3000, WWE, FLL, SM,,, BrainPop Jr. BFSU, Growing Up WILD!, FIAR, ToG, SOTW, SongSchool Latin, Atelier, My First Piano Adventure… and some other stuff

Note that not all of these will be used every week, nor do I expect to complete them all during the year! I like to have options to move between depending on what’s working at the moment.

To decipher the alphabet soup:
ETC = Explode the Code (phonics) = online reading program
AAS = All About Spelling
HWT = Handwriting Without Tears
Wordly Wise 3000 = online vocabulary program
WWE = Writing With Ease (language arts: exposure to high quality writing w/copywork & narration)
SM = Singapore Math = online math program (with adaptive learning, very cool!) = online math program (drills)
BrainPop Jr. = online videos w/games & quizzes on many topics (multi-subject)
BFSU = Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding
Growing Up WILD! = nature-oriented unit studies (multi-subject)
FIAR = Five In A Row (unit studies based on classic children’s books, multi-subject)
ToG = Tapestry of Grace (history, geography + some language arts, and other subjects related to the period being studied)
SOTW = Story of the World (history text and activity books)
SongSchool Latin = introduction to Latin for young children w/music & video
Atelier = art technique, history, & appreciation for young students
My First Piano Adventure = piano & music theory for young musicians

I have a pile of other materials and supplements, as well as outside activities we’ll be involved in, but this list makes up the core of our planned curriculum for the year.

We’re not all-out unschoolers by any means, but there is something to be said for child-led learning. Young children, especially, want to learn. They’re little sponges. Anyone who has had a child obsessed with interested in dinosaurs, or Disney princesses, or construction vehicles, or gardening, or most anything else can testify to that. My son can tell you anything you want to know about sharks because he spends nearly every spare moment looking at books, watching videos, or asking questions about them.

That interest generally does not always carry over into the less exciting subjects and lessons. Math drills, spelling tests, and difficult reading assignments are not always met with the same enthusiasm.

Sometimes, though, they are. Those times are almost always when the students choose the activity, rather than having something handed to them.

Just this morning, I found S sitting at the table looking through my subitizing flash cards and writing out sums from the dot patterns. Is her handwriting perfect? No. Does it matter? Not at all. She’s learning. Best of all, she is fully engaged, excited about it because it is a project she dreamed up herself!

A little while later, J came to me and asked if he could write out “The cow jumped over the moon” and draw a picture to go with it. Sure! I pulled out our Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose (a wonderful treasury of nursery rhymes, with glorious illustrations), showed him how to locate the piece he wanted in the index, and sat him down at the table with the book, a blank sheet of paper, and a pen. Yes, a pen. That is what he was perhaps most excited about, that I agreed to his pen request.

So here I have a boy who is generally reluctant, at best, about copywork assignments, happily doing it on his own. Again, this may not be the best handwriting practice (he did not want to use lined paper, as he’s going to illustrate it at the end), but he’s learning. He’s reading a classic nursery rhyme, he’s exercising his fine motor skills, and he’s having fun doing it.

I don’t know that unschooling as a full-time school paradigm would work for our family, but I’m grateful to the people I know who do use it and who have shared their knowledge and experience with me. It has all been helpful in giving me the courage to step outside the (curriculum) box and give my children the freedom to learn in ways that are best for them on any given day.

We’re working on basic math facts right now, and as any parent of a grade-schooler knows, this part — as with most things that require rote memorization — isn’t much fun. It’s essential, though, for them to have the basics drilled into their heads until they come as naturally as walking, because these are the tools they will use when they’re doing more advanced math later on.

The basics right now are the “number bonds” (as the Singapore Math curriculum calls them) up to ten. That means that they’re working on all the ways to add two numbers to make any sum up to and including 10. I especially like the “number bonds” concept because it encompasses subtraction and the beginnings of algebraic thinking using single-digit numbers, without much more work on the part of the student.

My younger readers (or those with older kids) may already know this, but for those of us who attended grade school in the stone age, it’s a new way of thinking. Here’s the old way: addition facts (1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, etc.) now, subtraction next year, word problems after we’d memorized the number facts, and algebra much later on.

The new way is to learn number bonds or number families, and the whole & part operations related to a number family all at once: for example, we worked on 5s today. 5 has three number bonds, one for each set of addends: 0 + 5, 1 + 4, and 2 + 3. For each “family”, they wrote down the addition and subtraction facts, plus some missing number problems — this is the algebraic thinking that will serve them well in years to come — e.g. 2 plus what equals 5?

There are also “number stories”, where pictures and words are used to help the kids grasp the idea of part and whole — a concept as important as the number facts themselves. The picture might show a group of 6 animals with various distinguishing characteristics: standing vs. lying down, different colors, babies vs. adult, and so on. The student is to come up with as many different “stories” as they can about the picture, such as “Three dogs are sitting and four are standing up. How many dogs are there altogether?” This reinforces the part-and-whole thinking that gives meaning to the addition and subtraction facts they are memorizing at the same time: 3 (sitting) + 4 (standing) = 7 (all of the dogs). For a subtraction-based story: of the seven dogs, four are standing up; how many are sitting (translation: 7 – 4 = __ )? This is sure to take some of the pain out of deciphering word problems later on too!

At the end of the day, though, they still have to memorize those basic number facts, and repetition is the way to get there. Nothing says the repetition has to be bland worksheet after worksheet, though, so I have been on the hunt for ways to make these drills fun. Ihit on some real winners yesterday, activities from The School Bell’s Number Family area. On the Worksheet Packet page, the “T-Bar & Puzzle” worksheets were a big hit! After writing all of the addition facts in the T-Bar section, they got to color, cut, and paste the puzzle pieces… and then write the numbers again underneath each completed block. The Number Family Booklets are also turning out to be fun — I’ve skipped the circle mat and counters, and just let them draw little X’s or spots instead of writing the numbers in each half of the circle on the booklet pages.

I hope these resources help, and please share anything you’ve found to make this math memorization process more fun!

What’s going on here? Illicit spinning in Daddy’s office chair? No, it’s science class!


They learned to say “conservation of angular momentum” and observed its effects. I explained, briefly, what it all meant and gave the old twirling ice skater example. Then we flung the chair around a few more times. I do try to avoid sucking all the fun out of these moments by turning them into school. Of course this particular subject will come up again eventually with vectors and equations and whatnot, but they’re never too young for a little classical mechanics, right?

Will they remember any of my explanations? Probably not… but maybe, someday, there will be an exam question on the topic and their memories 20130105-204811.jpg will flash back to a night long ago, way past bedtime, giggling and spinning and falling in a pile on our bedroom floor, and that will make all the difference.

Speaking of science, I found a science book / curriculum that I think I love. From my reading so far I really like the approach. In the early years it builds up the major areas of science (at this level: the nature of matter, life science, physical science, and earth & space science) simultaneously from the most basic building blocks, tying together the areas where it makes sense to do so. Most importantly, it aims to teach students to think, not just to memorize, leading to (one hopes) lifelong, inquisitive, enthusiastic learners.

The book is Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, and it is volume 1 of a three-volume set which I hope will take us right through the middle school years.

This is far from a boxed curriculum, and upon my initial read-through seems that it requires a certain level of knowledge (or at least willingness to learn in advance of the lesson) from the educator, whether that be parent or school / co-op teacher. It also requires materials and prep-work for the lessons themselves, but in return offers detailed explanations, small-group questions and discussion topics, take-homes (for traditional school or co-op teachers), suggested books for further reading, connections to higher-level followup topics, and even standards information, for those to whom that is necessary.

At $10 a pop for the Kindle versions (links below – don’t forget my favorite Kindle feature: free sample chapters!), you can’t afford not to at least check these out if you’re teaching science anywhere from K – 8th grade:

If you dn’t have a Kindle yet, I highly recommend the Kindle Paperwhite. The “special offers” (ads) are unobtrusive, and you can shell out the extra $$ at any time to turn them off. It’s small, has its own light, but maintains the matte (no glare) screen of its predecessors for easy reading anywhere from a dark bedroom to bright sunlight. I was a paper-book purist for a while, but having an entire library at my fingertips has ruined me.

If you ask a dozen homeschoolers, you’ll get a dozen different ways to plan your homeschool days. Some purchase a boxed curriculum that includes everything down to a day-by-day schedule of educational activities. Others have no plan at all and follow their children’s interests, finding teaching opportunities in daily activities, chores, and play. I, like most, am somewhere between the two. Here’s how I do it.

One of my curriculum sources is a boxed, scheduled package, and another provides a less-detailed weekly schedule. I use only pieces from each of those, so I need to do my own scheduling for the rest. And I do plan my weeks in advance, as I find that my days flow much more smoothly when I can grab the next piece of schoolwork without thinking too much about it. 20121001-120923.jpgNow, that doesn’t mean we stick to a rigid schedule, despite the fact that my week plans have a column for each day of the week. I still work around out-of-the-house activities and go with strong interests that aren’t in the lesson plan. Most of the time, I’m happy if we complete most or all of what I have written down for the week by the end of the week. Sometimes we play catch-up the following week, and in extreme cases such as our recent back-to-back travels, I will stretch one week’s plan over several week’s time. Now that we’re home and back into our usual routine, though, I will do my best to keep us on track.

After looking at a number of planning forms in books and online, I came up with my own, a combination that matches my way of thinking. It’s a simple chart, with subject areas down the side, days of the week across the top, and a space for the week number (to line up with the curriculum schedules I use) and dates. I recently added a column at the front for weekly goals, because too often I found myself wanting a place to put things that weren’t one particular day’s work, but largerconcepts or topics that we would deal with throughout the week. I also have lines at the bottom of the page to list spelling and vocabulary words. Of course, these are few and simple right now; I imagine these (and possibly other subjects) will leave the schedule page and have their own sheets as we progress into higher grades.

Weekly lesson planning chart

I fill in scheduled activities like lessons and co-ops first, then write down my goals for the week in the first box for each subject. These usually include weekly goals from both my boxed curricula and other workbooks — in their teacher’s guide, online, or sometimes even in the workbook itself you can find suggested daily or weekly scheduling suggestions. I look over the daily lesson plans where they’re available and fill them in (sometimes with my own modifications), then fill in the blanks with whatever is left to do. Giving some thought to those weekly goals first makes the process easier, as I just have to look at the time that’s not already claimed and spread portions of those goals into the empty space.

Once I’ve done that, I have only to glance at the schedule sheet to see if there’s a subject area that needs catching-up, and what lesson comes next. I keep track of what we’ve completed by checking off the item on the planning sheet, so that when I’m looking for what to do next I can skip over the items already checked off. For more permanent recordkeeping I keep notes in my little pocket notebook then transfer them to the spreadsheet I use for our activity log… but that is another whole blog post.

We didn’t “finish” this week’s plan, so we wil continue it next week. Since we’re doing school year-round and often on weekends, I expect this to happen from time to time as we travel and take time off here and there for purely fun stuff.

Our week began with arts & crafts on Sunday, tie-dye shirts. Each of us made several shirts, in different patterns. I think the kids’ shirts actually turned out better than mine, here’s to not yet knowing they’re supposed ot be afraid of messing up and just going with their heart! We also worked on a new song that we may sing in our church talent show… Big maybe.

In language arts, we added verbs to our word bank cards and made some very silly sentences with subjects, verbs, and objects. We covered a few more I Can Read It! stories, worked on short-u words for phonics, learned about series commas, and did some handwriting and copywork.

We began The House at Pooh Corner as our new read-aloud. I have the book, but decided to try the audiobook version instead of reading this one myself. This one is dramatised (the version is, the CD doesn’t specify), so It’s a lot of fun! I can choose whether to listen with the kids, or use the time to organize our next lesson (if I do this, I keep one ear on the story, or skim the chapter for our discussion afterwards). Speaking of, I joined up figuring I’ll get my money’s worth in read-alouds over the next few years anyway. I love the fact that I can use the Audible app on my phone and plug into the car stereo! We continue to work our way through The Llama Who Had No Pajama and The Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose at bedtime.

Math this week got into adding by ‘counting on’ and then beginning subtraction. We did a lot with Cuisenaire rods to cntinue memorizing addition facts / number bonds up to 10.

For science we read about grasslands and rainforests, and watched several of our new Magic School Bus DVDs about rainforests and subjects we’d touched on in previous weeks: desert animals, volcanos, air pressure, and weather.

History will have to wait until next week (we have enough to do that I’m calling it week “6a”), but we did do some map work in preparing for our trip to Disney World on Friday.

The new P.E. DVDs we got are good for indoor days. P.E. At Home is structured like a typical grade school gym class from my childhood, with running around cones (or around pillows on the floor), jumping jacks, skipping, and so on. Fit Factor Kids is lighter in tone, but just as active. It has several themed sections, our fave being the one that makes exercise of animal imitations.

The highlight of our week was a meetup on Friday afternoon with our ‘Duffy & Friends Adventure Club’ — a subset of the ‘Disneyschooling’ group we belong to that is mostly the younger kids. We went on some rides and maybe even learned a thing or two (I was thrilled that when we saw the hippos on the Jungle Cruise, my kids remembered where the name came from – water horses! – from last week’s history lesson on Mesopotamia – the land between the waters / rivers). We also had a great time earlier in the week at a beach party with one of our co-op groups. Lots of new friends this week!

A complete(-ish) list of our curriculum materials can be found here: if you want to see what we’re using for each subject.