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!

Well, <h1> (in html) used to strike me. But i do html with ease <h1> is heading (h) 1! I started with javascript, went to python, then to html, then css. 4 languages fast I enjoy this. You should too, or at least try to!

If you learn other languages like java, python, or css first. But it’s very wise to start with python. And how did I learn it? You will say “of course” but, i used python for kids! Its not just for kids. Adults find it fun! They find it most fun doing it with their kids! (the kids think it is very very very fun with parents too!)

I hope you find yourself telling everyone else this:

(you don’t need to read all this, its the same thing up there! 🔝🔝🔝)

“Well, <h1> (in html) used to strike me. But i do html with ease <h1> is heading (h) 1! I started with javascript, went to python, then to html, then css. 4 languages fast i enjoy this. You should too, or at least try to! If you learn other languages like java, python, or css first. But its very wise to start with python. And how did i learn it? You will say “of corse” but, I used python for kids its for adults to! Trust me! Do it with your kids and both of you find this activity fun!”

We spent some time at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa yesterday. One topic of discussion this morning was the high-wire bike, and why the kids woule never ever go on it.

We did a little science project about center of mass and how it affects balancing, and now they can’t wait to ride!


Amidst all of the adorable back to school pictures our friends posted on various social media, these were ours:

11953314_10153545551544727_8293208923135990811_oYep, THIRD graders! (Who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since preschool)
These are the days I need to remember when the going gets tough!

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.


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.

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’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.