Sunday, August 30, 2020

Our Favorite Homeschool Curriculum Choices 2020

Even in the mess we're in, starting the new school year feels good. Our first week is always exciting, as we crack open new workbooks and use new supplies. Everything feels fresh and promising. This year the homeschooling ranks have swelled. Since we've been doing this for a while, I'm often asked about "the best" homeschool curriculum. My stock answer is "the best curriculum is the one that works for you and your kid!", but I know that is less than helpful for many new and sometimes reluctant homeschoolers. Fortunately, I've made enough choices I didn't like over the past five years that have made me very confident in my favorites today.

This year, the girls are in 3rd and 5th grade. I'm starting my 7th year of homeschooling, and by now, I can generally start the year and feel confident.

Some of these links are affiliate links. They will bring you to the same site you'd normally go to, with the same prices, but I'll receive a few pennies if you purchase coming from my site.


We are on our fourth year of using Lightning Literature, and I see absolutely no reason to switch. I'm a huge fan of this program. Grammar, comprehension, and writing skills are taught and developed using quality children's literature. In first and second grade, that means primarily picture books, but this year, in third and fifth, it's chapter books. Although we definitely like some books more than others, we have been happy with all the selections. 

We do supplement, and in some cases, replace, the writing portion of the curriculum with a different program. The writing piece is good, but Madison in particular needs a little more instruction and encouragement. This year we switched to WriteShop Junior. I can't sing the praises too strongly yet, but both girls have been very engaged so far. It's much more teacher intensive than the program we used last year, which was video based, but it's thorough and engaging, and very well laid out. The writing prompts are high interest, the lessons aren't long, and the support system through their social media group is fantastic.




We round out language arts with spelling and word study. I discovered Words Their Way when I was getting my master's degree in reading education, and I think it's a good way to get kids thinking about how words are related and understanding the patterns of spelling. 

Both girls also thrive on a traditional spelling program, so we're using Traditional Spelling for third grade, and Spelling Workout for Madison. We start the week with a focused list, spend a few days practicing with different strategies, and end with a test. If my kids "fail" the test, we practice the words and take it again. 


We're sticking with Math Mammoth. I've tried online programs, I've tested the waters with other workbook based programs, and we always come back to Math Mammoth. It's mastery based, which means each chapter focuses on one concept (fractions, division, regrouping, etc). Once we finish the chapter and take the test, we move on to the next. Obviously the old skills do come back, and there is a review of all the chapters covered so far at the end of each new chapter, but it's a method that works for us.

OMG, the common core question. Math Mammoth is technically "common core aligned".  This makes some people happy and others stabby. ALL this means is that it meets the National standards for each grade level. It has little to do with HOW the math is taught. What I like about Math Mammoth is that the concepts are taught with several different methods, and when it's time to apply the skills, the encouragement is to "pick your favorite". 


We use Scott Foresman science books. I find both the books and workbooks on Ebay or Amazon, and we've been using them for a few years now. Every chapter incorporates a reading skill, a math skill, an experiment, and an overview of a career in science that would use the concepts just covered. It's an overview program, so we deal with biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy every year, and each year builds on the previous year. It's easy to find videos to supplement where we need it.


After a year of using Scott Foresman for science, I did some research and added the social studies curriculum. The books cover history, geography, civics, economics, and culture. 


We supplement with Little Passports, which both girls LOVE. We're on the second year of what will be a two-year cycle. Reagan is doing the World Edition, and Madison is doing the US edition. I planned this ahead of time, so we have enough kits in reserve to open a new one every 2-3 weeks instead of once a month. This is probably the favorite item on the agenda every week.


We use Zaner-Bloser books for handwriting, and I think the program is great. Both girls are working almost entirely in cursive right now. I like how the program mixes things up between drills, longer copywork pieces, and writing their own pieces. 

We switched typing programs this year and are using The Good and the Beautiful. Rather than an online typing program that feels like a game, this is a very classic, simple program that reminds me of when I learned to type. Both girls are in level one this year, because I felt that they needed to go back and make sure that their fundamentals were strong.


We have a few extra pieces. We use Kumon workbooks for a little extra work in writing every week. I discovered this growth mindset journal from Lakeshore Learning, and it's been a nice start to the day. And we are slowly working our way through our accumulated Kiwi and Tinker crates while we wait for our art classes to start. Finally, although we haven't had flute instruction since April, I'm attempting to take the reins myself since our teacher is still unable to resume lessons. This is honestly the curriculum that terrifies me the most, which is ironic, since I was a music teacher. I know. But flute is not my instrument. We'll see how this goes.

It only took seven years, but I'm feeling so confident about our curriculum choices and I'm really ready to start the year!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Is Homeschool the Right Choice in 2020?

There hasn't been much to be grateful for over the past few months, but one thing that I am happy about is that I don't have to spend the summer agonizing over what to do for the school year. 

Even though we didn't make the choice to homeschool in a pandemic, where safety was the paramount concern, we were forced into the choice a little earlier than anticipated. We'd been talking about it since Madison was born, but I wasn't totally convinced and I wanted to spend more time researching curriculum, groups, and everything else. But then things changed.

We started homeschooling a year earlier than our earliest plans, in the fall of 2014. Madison should have been entering PK4. We knew that homeschool was a possibility - even a probability at that point - for kindergarten in 2015, but I wanted her to have the preschool experience first. Circumstances changed, her preschool permanently closed that spring, and I couldn't find another program that was a) affordable, b) play based, and c) with openings for four year olds. 

We learned all this in March. By mid April, we stopped looking for new schools and started looking for homeschool curriculum. I had almost five months to plan for September, but I still felt rushed. Once we started, I felt a few months feeling overwhelmed, just like I had when I started my first public school teaching job, but I found the groove, learned how to adjust when necessary, and we haven't regretted our decision since.

Most parents who make the choice to homeschool do so deliberately. Sometimes they want more freedom, or a personalized education. Sometimes they feel like the curriculum in school is failing their child in some way. Some parents don't like their district. Some parents just love the idea. Some do it for religious reasons. Some are reacting to a bad experience, like bullying. There are many good reasons to homeschool, along with a few that I don't agree with, but generally speaking, the parents have made the choice, and usually after plenty of discussion and weighing of options. They've looked at curriculum and co-ops.

Does homeschool make sense for 2020?

2020 is an odd year, because some parents are feeling forced into a choice. They're choosing to homeschool because the other options feel worse, not because homeschooling feels right. And when you go into it with that mindset, it can become a more daunting experience with lots of hurdles. Some of those hurdles may be:

I'm not qualified to be in charge of their education.
I was a public school teacher, so plenty of people assume I must be qualified. I can tell you right now that it didn't do much to help me teach my own kids, with the possible exception that I know public school teachers doubt themselves too when kids struggle. You don't need a degree. Elementary teachers aren't experts in everything, they're just invested in helping kids learn and are willing to do the research to figure out how to make that happen. A lot of the time I'm learning/relearning right along with the girls. Any parent can find a good curriculum and your kids WILL learn.

Distance Learning/Homework is a TOTAL fail. They didn't and won't learn from me.
Listen, my homeschooled kids aren't magical beings and I'm not a magical mom. My kids don't listen to me when I tell them to clean their rooms and they become magically hearing impaired when I announce bedtime. But somehow, we get our schoolwork done. 

First, the sudden abrupt shift to distance learning that happened this March was NOT homeschooling and is NOT a good indicator of how your kids would handle actual homeschooling. They were ripped from routine without a chance to say a real goodbye. Teachers and administrators were scrambling. Everyone felt unsettled. If you feel like your kids didn't learn anything this spring, you aren't alone. Our brains were otherwise occupied this spring.

And if homework is a nightly struggle, homeschool can change that. Yes, they're doing more "work" at "home", but this "homework" isn't on TOP of a full school day. You get to work with them when they're fresh. And when they're done, they're done. 

They need to be with their friends.
Yup. They do. My homeschooled kids do too. They miss our full calendar. Remember, very few homeschoolers do so in a bubble. They have meet ups and co-ops and classes. My kids have been homeschooled for years, so theoretically the shut down in March shouldn't have impacted them. School was the same, right? NO. It was just as hard on them. 

Even if your kids return to public school, the interactions won't be the same. Staying six feet apart is tough, and school will be an adjustment this year, no matter which option your choose. Homeschoolers may have the advantage in this area, as they can do smaller meet ups outdoors.

They'll end up behind.
Behind who? Behind how? The world is upside down right now. If you have a kid in elementary school, they will be ok. Even if you have a few months where you think they didn't learn anything. They did, I promise. It's in there. You may find that your kid who was "behind" in traditional or distance learning will thrive in homeschooling, simply because they don't feel behind. Homeschooled kids are usually right on par with their peers, if not ahead.

I work, and I can't teach from 9-3 every day.
In this case, homeschooling might be a great choice! Homeschooling is flexible. You can get as creative as you like. Unlike many of the distance learning options, you aren't bound to the 9-3 schedule. Adam and I both work from home, and we've found that we can both make it work if necessary. If we had to go into work, we'd have to find childcare, but we could still make the school piece work. It's certainly easier if you have a dedicated parent who isn't trying to juggle, but most parents who work and homeschool can find a solution for their own situations.

Is homeschool the right choice in 2020?
The million dollar question. 

Maybe? Probably?

If you know you're being dragged into the homeschool choice kicking and screaming, and every day you'll approach it with doom, then maybe not. The one thing I'm confident in is that kids pick up on your attitude about it. 

But if you aren't comfortable having your kids in a school building, and you aren't confident in keeping up with the distance learning, homeschool CAN be the right choice for you in 2020, and maybe beyond!

Friday, July 24, 2020

So, Where Were We?

It's July, 2020. My first baby is ten years old. We're in a weird "not in lockdown but still not back to normal" state of the world. Everything feels unsettled.

Back in December, when the world was seemingly chugging along just fine, I stopped posting and started realigning my goals here. I wanted to take about a month off.

Can't you tell?

I started this blog when the girls were still babies. I wrote about funny things they did, and funny things they said. I wrote about pacifiers and potty training and the endless topics that come up in conversation when you have babies and toddlers. Random parenting stories about babies and toddlers were - are - relatable, funny, and easy to share.

Random parenting stories can be harder to come by when you have "big kids". They're still cute and funny and full of interesting anecdotes to share, but they're also their own people with their own personalities, and the parenting "catch all" just wasn't working for me. I mean, I look back at what I was writing in 2019, and I was all over the place. I had toy reviews, random mom stories, book reviews, home and parenting tips and tricks, dance mom stuff, homeschool musings, curriculum review, EVERYTHING. I mean, I may as well have thrown in some physics research. I didn't know who wanted to read this mess. Actually, I do know. No one. No one was interested in my scattered brain. 

And so I pushed pause. 

I needed to focus and write with some organization.

Do I want to go full on dance mom stories and advice?

Homeschooling curriculum and planning?

Stories of raising bigger kids and tweens?

I used to love doing reviews - could I go back and do that? 

Did I want to combine all these, working into a "many faces of me" thing? Yeah! That sounds good!

Wait, wasn't that what I had been doing? 

And wasn't the whole revamp because writing with a "many faces" angle was super scattered?


Well, shoot. 

I wasn't sure. Every time I thought I'd found a path, I second guessed myself. I have many, many notebooks where I tried to puzzle all this out. I made lists of what I wanted to cover on each topic, and I planned how I'd organize myself. But the fact that I couldn't really settle paralyzed me. If I was puzzling it out in notebooks, I was "working on it" without actually having to do anything.

I was also - and still am - writing for different sites in the interim, and trying to balance the time I could invest. I needed to look at the time I could dedicate to writing, then figure out how to portion that time out between writing I did for others and writing I did for my own site.

Then, just as I thought I'd figured that all out, things changed. I stopped writing for one site and started writing for another, and the adjustment period took me more time than I anticipated. The style of writing I was asked to do was different. Not bad, just different. And I fell victim to the "I don't have the time right now to work out my own stuff, and I don't want to start until I have everything worked out".

And then...the world turned upside down. And shut down. And there's no dance, which means I don't have those few hours when the girls are in class and I have time to myself. And everyone is homeschooling, but not really, and I'm writing more for other sites in the time I don't have about how to get through this. And everything I wanted to write about that isn't pandemic related seems trivial.

And I decided to extend the pause.

But I've realized in the last few months that I miss this space. I'm not ready to abandon it for good. No matter where else my writing lands, I want my little corner of the internet to stay.

So, while I have made no final decisions on direction, my lovely and dedicated writing time has been completely thrown out the window, and I'm generally feeling uneasy and stressed...

I'm back.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Just Don't Be a Jerk

When you're out in the world, interacting with society, this should be the absolute bare minimum:

Just don't be a jerk.

This could be online. It could be with strangers in the store. It could be with neighbors. It could be with family.

We've all got our own stresses, our own buttons that can be pushed. Sometimes, we make an active decision to be a jerk, because selfishness gets in the way of good sense, or someone was a jerk to us, so we feel we can go ahead and toss it out. Sometimes, we lose ourselves and our focus, and we're an accidental jerk.

But honestly, neither is ok. It's just not. You're not going to get anything good, not long term anyway, from being a jerk.

Maybe it's parking. Your neighbor parked in front of your house, blocking your mailbox, and you feel the need to pay them back in kind and block THEM in. Or maybe you don't do a direct retaliation, but when the opportunity comes up to be neighborly, you opt out, choosing to make their life a little harder. Payback, you might think. Or maybe it's a stranger in a crowded lot, at the height of holiday shopping. They squeezed their car in next to yours, and now you can barely get your body inside. So you decide that if they decided to be a jerk parking, you can give them the ding on the door they so obviously deserve.

Maybe it's online. Yeah, people tend to be super jerky about big topics - politics or vaccines or (ironically) bullying, but sometimes it's the little ones, topics that no one should feel all that passionately about, that attract jerky behavior. It's the time of year when seemingly calm parenting groups get all flush with arguments about the Elf on the Shelf. If you go all in, or if you don't do it at all, chances are you've either been a jerk, or you've had to deal with one. You feel like it's ok to be a jerk online, because it's an obvious right/wrong, and the other side is probably being a jerk right back.

Interesting anecdotal evidence - it is almost always the anti-Elf parents, not the over the top ones, who are behaving like jerks. The judgy, superior, smug, doesn't matter whose feelings I hurt, even a preschooler is fair game, attitude, usually the domain of the "sanctimommy", is taken on in a big way by anti-Elfers. They will mock, they will post hundreds of anti-Elf memes, they will let it be known that they are making the obvious "right" choice, and they judge you hard if you don't join in with the mocking. They might be totally normal and judgement free from January to mid-November, but those last six weeks of the year they go full jerk. Yes, I know. Not everyone. But still, I've found far more jerky bullying from the anti-Elf contingent. 

Really, it could be anywhere, with anything. You feel stressed, you feel wronged, you feel like if you AREN'T a jerk, you'll be taken advantage of, so why not?

But here's the thing.

Even if it works for you in the short term - you feel like you got even, you feel like you got what you deserved, you feel like you proved yourself didn't really win.

Because people remember. 

Negative energy, put out into the world, will create more negative energy. Maybe it'll come to you directly, maybe it'll come to you indirectly, but jerky behavior invites more.

I have found that the most powerful "revenge" is turning it backwards.

Your neighbor blocked you in? Shovel their sidewalk when you're out doing yours.

Someone tries to start a fight online? Take a deep breath and scroll by. Or defend someone (in a non jerky way) who is being attacked.

Someone is rude to you? Be extra kind back to them.

No, it probably won't be Disney movie experience, where the jerk immediately apologizes and you become best friends. But jerky behavior can't thrive in an atmosphere of positivity.

So just don't be a jerk.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Tried and True, Something New

There are some parenting hacks that work so well for me that I see no need to mix it up.

Girls lusting after something in a store, and I can tell the begging is near? We take a picture and add it to their "wish list".

Arguing over turns? Set a timer.

I like that I've settled on solutions that work for us. I know how to keep my kids - mostly - running pretty smoothly.

But then, I've noticed that sometimes, mixing it up with something new is exactly what I need.

For example, I feel pretty confident with long drives. The girls are accustomed to 1-2 hour trips - we make them to visit family, we make them for homeschool field trips, we make them for dance. This is standard, and we're all pretty good at knowing exactly how to make the drive go smoothly. We know what to pack in the girls' bags, we know what snacks we'll need, we know how to handle rest stops.

But when something changes, I need to adjust. Maybe it's what time of day we're driving, maybe it's distance, maybe it's why we're traveling, but something needs to change to make the trip go smoothly.

We hit into this the other week. It was super early in the morning and we were driving the full length of the state. Just me and the girls, since it was for a dance thing (shocking, right?) It was the worst drive we'd made in ages. They bickered over chargers and who needed which cable more. They didn't have water. They didn't have anything they wanted to eat. They needed bathroom stop after bathroom stop (which was bizarre, considering the beverage situation). They were asking how long until we got there. They were just feeding off of each other, and I was completely unprepared and annoyed.

So, while they danced all day, I hit the local shop and I mixed it up. I got snacks. I got color coded cables. I even hit the dollar spot and got some new trinkets, which I packaged "blind bag" style to add excitement and novelty. I mapped out when I'd be willing to stop. When they climbed into the car that night, I filled them in on the changes, and, whether in spite of, or because of them, the ride home was easy, and they were happy.

Tried and true is the way to go, but when something changes things, don't fight. Time to go with something new.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Navigating New Waters

We're entering the tween years. Madison is growing up faster than I ever imagined.

Mostly, her personality is consistent with who she's always been. She's empathetic and compassionate, she's a good friend, she's cautious initially, but fearless once she feels comfortable.

But now she gets irritated more easily - her sister being the prime target, but I'm in that line of fire as well. She wells up and cries at music, movies, even discussions of emotional topics. Sometimes she doesn't understand WHY she's crying, and I want to singsong, "I know why!"

Her interest in boys has been peaked. She's not in school where she has a plethora of young men to choose from, and dance, as well as many of her other classes, tends to be female dominated, but she has focused her attention on one particular boy in her art class, who (hold me), has focused HIS attention on HER.

In fact, his little brother told Reagan that he does have a girlfriend, and that girlfriend is Madison.

(Man, gossip is adorable when it's innocent and whispered between siblings in the under 10 crew). 

Does that mean anything? Nope. They play together, with others, at the end of art class, and they usually sit NEAR, but not NEXT to each other at the art table. And she wants to get him a Christmas gift. Do they call each other? Arrange (play) dates? No. Not yet. It's the innocent, elementary school style "relationship", but's a change. And while I'm blinking and wrapping my head around reciprocated first crushes, Adam doesn't know WHAT to do with this information.

Although I know, logically, that it's still a few years away, based on the passage of time, I fully expect to blink and find myself bringing her for her learner's permit. Or looking at colleges. Or packing up her room.

It happened with nine. The halfway point of childhood. Eight year old Madison was all kid. A mature kid, sure, but ALL kid. Giggles and bubbles. Nine year old Madison has plenty of kid left. A kid who plays with American Girl dolls and builds with LEGOs, but also a girl who listens to music while she works, obsesses about her outfit each day (even though we mostly stay home), chats with her friends on the phone, and takes pictures with her Instax Polaroid.

She's riding the wave of the tween...little girl one moment, teenage wannabe the next. She's mature and responsible one moment, then getting distracted by her toys the next. She's giggles and emotional tears and then giggles again.

It's new waters, and I'm new at this too. Hopefully we'll navigate as a team.

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