Inside the Mommyvan

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

product reviews

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.


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:




As I begin (yes, I said “begin”, not “finish”) planning in earnest for the upcoming school year, I have turned back to a tool I once loved but have neglected recently: Evernote.

There are numerous ways to make one’s information portable and mobile, and I have tried many of them. Evernote stands out among the rest for reasons that are difficult to pin down, but can be summed up in two words: it’s easy. It’s also free, which is nice, but as someone willing to pay for functional tools that’s less important to me than the ‘easy’ part.

There are versions of Evernote for Windows, Mac, all of the major mobile platforms, and a web interface. Notebooks are stored, synced, and accessed through Evernote’s online service, and with a reasonably priced ($5/month or $45/year as of this writing) Premium subscription can be stored on mobile devices for offline access and editing. Notes flow seamlessly between whatever platforms you’re using.

Also easy is capturing information from photos, handwritten notes (bonus: automatic text recognition for later searching), websites, email, audio, even original or marked-up images using the free Skitch add-on. Want to share a note with a friend? Easy: post to social media, email the note, or pass along a web address where others can view your note on Evernote’s server (and turn off the web sharing when you no longer need it) — even allow editing with a Premium account.

Finding notes is easy, whether you use Notebooks, Tags, geo-tagging, or some combination of these to keep track of your stuff. The search bar will help you find what you’re looking for within notes — keywords, tags, even typed or handwritten text in images, as automatic text recognition and indexing is done whenever you add a PDF or image file to a note.

Want to learn more about using Evernote? Download the app, and check out the easy Getting Started guides for Mac, Windows, iOS (iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch), Android, and the web interface, plus tips in their blog and around the web from users who have come up with all sorts of creative solutions.

If you use Evernote, or if you start using it, let me know what clever ideas you have for using it around the house or with homeschooling in particular!

I love Shutterfly. I’m not just saying that because using the links below might earn me a few bucks, but because I really do love their stuff. I first ordered Christmas cards from them when the twins were babies, and I haven’t looked back. I have a stack of photo books (I once even used the paperback books as favors to commemorate a special event!), and I have bought photo mugs, puzzles, calendars, labels, cute personalized notecards:

3×5 Folded Card
View the entire collection of cards.

… all sorts of goodies. I have (knock wood) never had a problem with their website working the way it should or with the quality of their products, and my orders usually arrive sooner than I expect.

They have some nice deals going for Black Friday and “Cyber Monday” too:

Up to 50% off all photo books, 40% off Stationary Cards, 20% off Greeting Card & Photo Cards from Offer valid 11/20-11/28

30% off 1 or 40% off 2 or more Calendars from! Offer valid 11/20-11/25

Buy 1, Get Unlimited for up to 50% off Calendars from! Offer valid 11/26-11/28

1 FREE card from– use coupon code CARD4U. Offer valid 11/20-11/21

1 FREE calendar from, no minimum purchase requirement – use code CALENDAR2013. Offer valid 11/20-11/23

Choice of 10 FREE 5×7 flat or 5×7 folded cards from Shutterfly! Use code BLACKFRIDAY. Offer valid 11/22-11/25

Cyber MonTueWednesday – take an additional 20% off entire order from – use coupon code EXTRA20. Offer valid 11/26-11/28

My kids just played Word Racer, with a little bit of help from me, for nearly an hour. Yes, you read that right, an HOUR. They were 20121008-100342.jpgreading and choosing grammatically correct sentences, learning new phonics rules & sight words, and they had fun doing it. I sweetened the pot a little with points on our chart for everyone who reached the finish line (and a couple of warnings that bad behavior would put them out of the game), but once we got into the game I think they would have finished even if I took the points out of the picture.

The gameplay is simple, each player has a car token on a straight racetrack of about 15 spaces. There are a few bonus and hazard spaces (move forward/back or miss a turn). On their turn, each player draws a card from the pile — 50 cards are provided, and you could easily make more of your own. The card has a short sentence with a blank somewhere in it, and two words beneath it from which to choose. The player picks a word and turns the 20121008-100332.jpgcard over to see if their choice is correct and how many spaces to “race ahead” if so. The game ends when one (or all, depending on how you like to play) players reach the finish line.

I’m not sure where I picked up this game, it’s been on the shelf for a while waiting for their reading and grammar skills to reach the level needed to play. We tried it once or twice before with me reading the words and sentences, but it didn’t work quite as well that way. Now that they are sounding out most simple words and some long vowels and sight words, it’s perfect. I provided a little coaching on the digraphs and some of the sight words, but the game keeps things nicely in reach of a strong beginning reader.

Buy it from Amazon here:

I use the heck out of my iPad. It has truly been a game-changer for me, going places and doing things that my clunky laptop, or even my nimble little netbook, could not.

One shortcoming, however, was trying to type anything of consequence. Between typos introduced by tapping just a little bit out of position, the lack of the tactile feedback I am so used to, and being able to see only the half of the screen not covered by the keypad, email and other documents tended to be short and sweet.

I tried a folding, portable bluetooth keyboard, which was better, but the keyboard itself was not quite right. It had smaller-than-normal keys and an annoying tendency to flex at its center hinge even when the “lock” switch was slid into position.

Browsing through the Apple store one day, I came across the Incase Origami Workstation for iPad. 20120823-162527.jpg Wow, this looks like just what I’ve been dreaming of! A few minutes later I was on my way home with the case and a new wireless Apple keyboard.

It may sound hyperbolic, but this stand has been almost as much of an improvement as the iPad itself. The use of the same keyboard as I have on my desktop means that I don’t have to confuse my fingers switching keyboards throughout the day (anyone who has used different computers at home and in an office, for example, knows exactly what I mean). They keyboard snaps into the bottom of the “workstation” and is covered and protected when the case is closed. The iPad — any type will fit, as well as most other tablets or even a smartphone — doesn’t lock in, but rests just behind the keyboard made by pressing the tab closures of the Origami together in back. The double-sided velcro tabs do double duty, holding the case closed for transport and propping up the stand in a jiffy for typing. 20120823-162514.jpg The inclusion of a single extra square of velcro (making both sides of both tabs “sticky”) means that either way the tabs land atop each other when setting up the stand, they’ll stick. While using the stand, a smart cover or similar can remain on the iPad, and all of the ports and controls are accessible.

I can now do lengthy typing on my iPad — email, lesson plans, even this blog entry — as easily as I do at my desk. I have use of the entire screen for viewing, as iOS is intelligent enough to hide the on-screen keypad when it detects an external keyboard. The only downside, and I hesitate to even call it a downside as the product does not pretend to be an iPad case — is that the stand has no way to secure the iPad. This matters not a bit for tabletop use, but is somewhat cumbersome when trying to move the whole assembly or use it on less-stable surfaces (like my lap).

Like the sound of this handy gadget? Buy it here: Incase Origami Workstation for iPad