Inside the Mommyvan

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


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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

During school time, some things are non-negotiable. The lessons and assignments must be completed, handwriting must be legible, and so on. There are times when I enforce strict discipline; for example, handwriting practice is done sitting with good posture at our work table, because lying upside-down on the couch is not conducive to beautiful handwriting.

Other times, though, the subject matter requires primarily brain work, and the writing is secondary. For those exercises, each kid has a clipboard that they are allowed to take most anywhere they want to work. Today, Sarah chose the closet where our dress-up costumes live. I must admit, it does look like a cozy little nest!

Katie, as Rapunzel, got straight to work lying on Mom & Dad’s bed:

If they’re having fun, if they have some control over their day, the work goes much more smoothly, they enjoy it more, and — most important — they seem to put more thought into what they are working on instead of just racing to the end so they can get up from their desks. Learning the material, not finishing the worksheets, is the true goal. Anything that gets us there more easily is a plus!


Graphs are fun. It’s a nice break from the fact-memorizing, the math-sentence-building, answering “Do I do this with plus or minus?” for the 73rd time this morning.

Today was graphs. Embracing the Singapore Math model to its fullest, we built graphs with colored shapes. We identified one problem with using different shapes in our graph, in that they don’t line up with one another very well. We moved on to making math link cubes, in matching colors, to represent each shape.

From there, it was on to picture and symbol graphs on paper, plus a Discovery Education video showing different types of bar graphs. Finally, we did a few SM worksheets, reading graphs printed on paper, into which were snuck a few difference problems. It was fun to watch the kids pull a lesson from last week out of their brains, finding “how many more” and “how many fewer” using subtraction sentences. I’m not sure they even realized they were doing it, but I sure did, and it is reassuring to know that some of it is sinking in!