Thursday, February 28, 2013


 It's been a bit of a rough week at my house. My 5 year old is challenging me at every turn, trying to see who's really in charge. (Hint: It's not him, despite his best efforts.) My younger two are bickering incessantly, it seems. My husband will be out of town all next week, which means things never run quite as smoothly. I'm not looking forward to that at all, particularly in light of the current attitudes among the short people.

And yet, I'm reminded to be grateful for every moment, even the ones that are less fun. A mother lost her son to cancer yesterday. A friend's 11 year old daughter is recovering from a stroke. Another friend's twin sister is recovering from a heart attack. My heart breaks for each of them, and as I lift them each in prayer, God reminds me how very blessed I am.

As I type, I'm watching all three of my children as they color pictures together while laying on the floor in my living room. They're not sitting in school, away from me, staring at a chalk board. My crazy dog is snuggled up with me on the couch, and I can hear my cat snoring. Even on the worst days, I love this life. I love these people God has loaned me.

I don't have any profound words to share. I just wanted to profess my thanks for the many, many wonderful things in my life - the things that God brings to my attention, as well as the things I take for granted every day. As my friend Dy says, "Kiss those babies!" I want to remember to appreciate every single moment with these beautiful bits of creation, because I cannot know what will happen tomorrow, or even 5 minutes from now.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
I Thessalonians 5:16-18

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

REVIEW - College Common Sense

I have a confession to make: I try to pretend that my children aren't growing up. I *like* having them around. I don't want to be one of those women who is at a loss when their children are grown and gone, but I wonder sometimes if I'm headed in that direction. I get a little panicky when I think about it, so I try not to do that. :-) In the last few months, though, I have heard the Holy Spirit starting to speak in that still, small voice. He's bringing things like College Common Sense to my attention, reminding me that pretending my children will never grow up will not make it so, encouraging me to get my head out of the sand and focus on important things.

When the opportunity came up to review the Going to College and Paying for it Online Video and Workbook, I didn't really want to take it. I'd prefer to believe I don't have to worry about college for my children just yet. The reality is, though, that my oldest will be in 8th grade next year, so it would be a good idea to start thinking about it and gathering information. 

Denise Ames is the author and creator of this program, and she comes with several years' experience in a university financial aid office. Her goal is to educate students and their parents about the financial aid process, choosing the right college, and ways to finance a college education beyond federal financial aid. She offers a free monthly newsletter, as well as free lesson plans via email, full of great information and ideas. The lessons are broken down into activities for parents, seniors in high school planning to attend college in the upcoming fall, high school students, middle school students, and elementary students. Additionally, you can purchase her Going to College and Paying for it workbook and DVD for $50, or sign up for 12 months' access to the online workbook and videos for $25. For the purpose of this review, I was given access to the online video and workbook. The program can work for all ages, but I think junior high and high school students will get the most benefit from it. It would most certainly be best to start before your senior year in high school!

First, I printed off the workbook files for myself, so I had a copy in front of me. Then, I proceeded to work my way through the videos. I felt a bit overwhelmed at first - there is a LOT of information to process! However, she presents it all clearly and sequentially, giving specific steps to follow, which helped me feel much more knowledgeable and confident. Then, I had the girls create notebooks as she directed, proceeded to work through the activities she gave us in the weekly lesson plans. 

For example, in Week 1, she told us about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website, where if you are a high school senior, you should get a PIN number (both the student and the parents do this), and fill out the application for federal financial aid online. We didn't do this yet, but there is also a link to the "FAFSA4caster," which allows anyone to put in their current information and see what their expected family contribution, or EFC, would be if they were applying for college in the fall. It's great information to have, because even though the numbers could change over the next few years, at least you have a starting point for planning.

Another great suggestion was to have my kids practice taking a timed test. There are tricks to them, and it's a good time to get them familiar with how they work. As homeschooled students, they don't really have timed tests. I did give my girls a timed math test, and it brought forth much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Apparently we need to do them more often, which will require much exercise in patience for me.

She describes lots of ways to go about gathering information for each child, and says it's never too early to start - she's seen a scholarship given to a child as young as 6! Even if college is a few years (or many years) away, there is something you can do to increase your knowledge about what your child wants to do and how to get them there.

One great idea is the "All About Me" notebook. Your student takes a spiral notebook, nothing fancy, and uses it to write down things they like to do, things they don't like to do, volunteer experience, etc. It's a place to collect their thoughts about their interests, dreams, and goals to help them figure out what kinds of scholarships might be a good fit and which college might be best for them. This caused a great deal of stress for my girls, who seemed to be intimidated by it. I believe it will be an invaluable tool for them once they are used to the idea, and I'm glad we started it now. It will be interesting to see how they refine their interests and goals over the next few years.

When I applied for college, I was clueless. I was the oldest in my family, so no one had been through the process before. I knew nothing about scholarships or financial aid, and depended solely on what came through my university's financial aid office. I found that my family's income was enough money that I didn't qualify for much aid, but not enough that we could just fork over the cash, so I ended up with a lot of debt. I've watched the cost of attending college skyrocket over the years, and know that it is more important than ever to plan ahead as much as possible. College Common Sense offers an excellent way to start the path to college - reminding all of us that it begins MUCH earlier than January of senior year in high school! I hope you will check out the website and DVD/workbook. It's an invaluable resource.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

REVIEW: Wet, Dry, Try App for Handwriting Without Tears

I live in a family that loves technology. Since my husband is a computer guy, we have a lot of nifty tech devices. As is often the case, my children know how to use these things so much better than I do! My five year old, in particular, thinks it's big fun when he's allowed to use "his" iPad. 

We've been trying to do some school work with him this year, but he's been resistant - particularly when it comes to handwriting. Does he sound like a typical boy, or what? 

Enter the Wet- Dry-Try app, from the creators of Handwriting Without Tears handwriting curriculum! For the purpose of this review, I received a download code for the app for the iTunes store, regularly $4.99. It works with all versions of the iPad, even our old "first generation" one. The app is also available for Android devices from Google Play. It's aimed at Pre-K and kindergarten aged children, and could also be used with older children for remediation. 

There are two choices for how you'd like to use the app: "Pick and Practice," which allows you to choose whichever letter you'd like, and "HWT's Winning Order," following the order in the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum. There are three levels of difficulty for each letter. Once the student achieves 3 stars for a letter, they earn a "letter card." Children seem to like to collect cards, don't they? I know Isaac does!

Isaac had a LOT of fun with this. We used the "Pick and Practice option." I had him do the letter of the week from our K curriculum first, and then allowed him to try any other letters he wished. The app mimics the Handwriting Without Tears chalkboard activity, in which the student has a small chalkboard, a wet sponge, a paper towel, and a piece of chalk. First, the "personal instructor" (or, as I like to think of the voice, the Invisible Person) inside the app demonstrates how to form the letter correctly by writing it with the chalk on the virtual chalkboard. Then, the student uses their finger to make the letter shape with the wet sponge icon, then with the paper towel icon, and finally writes it themselves with the chalk icon. In the app, you trace with your finger each time, and the screen shows the sponge, the paper towel and the chalk on each successive turn. Once the student completes the letter successfully three times (wet, dry & try), they get a star, which Isaac thought was pretty cool. He also had me try, and was ever so proud when I achieved a star for my letter-making. :-)

When he first started using the program, I thought it might be a little too sensitive to error. I watched him try to make a capital "B," for example, several times, unsuccessfully. However, he did learn to pay closer attention and be more careful, and eventually he got it right. It was good for him to have to work at it a bit. I read in the FAQ section on the website that "After testing, [they] landed on the degree of sensitivity that is most helpful in preparing children to write well." Look at that! They agreed with me. Oh, wait. Maybe that should be the other way around . . .

I like that the personal instructor encourages the student. If they make an error, it says something like, "Let's give that another try." When you get it right, it says something like, "Great!" or "Cool beans!"  It might sound a little silly to me, but Isaac responds well to the encouragement. Sometimes, Isaac's teacher forgets to be encouraging and might indulge in more frustrated sighing than is strictly necessary. Ahem. The Invisible Person In The App is very nice, all the time. Her voice is pleasant to hear, also. That's important. Isaac talks all. the. time. I don't know if I could listen to him chattering and handle a grating voice coming from an invisible person.

This is a great app. Isaac enjoys it, and it teaches correct letter formation, which he needs to practice. He can't practice reversals or starting his letters in the wrong place with this app, like he can with pencil and paper. He argues far less with the Invisible Person than he does with me, and he doesn't seem to get frustrated at having to start over. I also love that he gets the practice of the chalkboard activity without using an actual chalkboard. Chalk is so messy, and as we do a lot of school on the couch, I much prefer the iPad option.

I've been considering cutting back on "school" with Isaac to math and handwriting, and after using this app, Handwriting Without Tears is one of my top handwriting choices. Even if I don't end up purchasing the curriculum, the app is great for painless handwriting practice.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Review Crew!

Monday, February 11, 2013

(re)Learning Hard Lessons

The last two weeks have been a little rough at our house. Around Christmas, we learned that one of our cats, Twink, was in the beginning stages of kidney failure. He'd been losing weight for over a year, but this was the first time anything showed up during his annual exam to indicate a problem. Our vet had him start taking a probiotic, which seemed to be helping, so I decided to pretend that he would be fine and thought very little about it. About two weeks ago, I noticed that his lips and nose were white instead of pink, which is never a good sign. I took him back to the doctor, and he said that his numbers (which indicate the level of bad stuff in his blood) had gone up quite a bit, and had me leave him there for IV fluids for 3 days. He felt better after that, but within two days, his symptoms had returned - he was pale again, and his breath smelled like urine (that had been going on for a long time, I just didn't know what it meant - that his kidneys were not filtering waste out of his blood, so I could smell it on his breath).

I decided to ask our vet from Raleigh for a second opinion, and she encouraged me to ask for an ultrasound of his kidneys. We had that done Friday, and the results were not good. Without going into gory detail, he's reached the end stages of his illness. After discussing it briefly with our old veterinarian, she agreed that he would likely not survive the surgery and we should make quality of life decisions for him now. We know his remaining time with us will be short.

It's hard to have the kids at home with me right now. In many ways, I would prefer to shield them from seeing me cry and having to talk to different people about what we're going to do about this cat we all love so much. However, I think they've learned some good things from all of this.

They have learned that having a pet is a huge responsibility, and at some point, it is a painful one. We've all had a hard time watching this loving, active cat decline until he's hiding away in a corner, just trying to get through each day.

They've seen me be an advocate for my pet's health, asking for more information than my current vet was offering, challenging some of his assumptions when they didn't sit well with me. I'm glad I did; he's much worse off than we'd thought, and without the ultrasound, we'd still be trying to figure out what was going on, probably trying to treat him with things that wouldn't help and would only cause him more distress.

They know that it is okay to grieve, and in fact, that it is important to do so. My girls are being very sweet to me, because they know this is my special pet who's dying. I cry a lot; I can't help it. Sometimes they hug me, and sometimes they cry with me. We're not pretending everything is fine. I'm finding it difficult to get on with our regular things, like school, so we're taking it easy today.

They are learning to be grateful for the gift of this little animal, this tiny piece of God's creation, one of His many gifts to us, even though our time with him has been cut short. I want them to remember to be grateful in all things. It's hard, today, to feel grateful, but we remind ourselves that we do give thanks for the love and laughter we've shared thanks to this sweet boy.

My public service information for pet owners:

1. If you pet starts losing weight, and there have been no changes in diet or activity level, something is wrong. Don't listen to your vet if they want to appreciate the weight loss in a formerly plump pet. Ask them to figure it out.

2. Once any animal (or person's) kidneys are bad enough that numbers show up in blood work, their kidneys are already functioning at less than 25%. I did not know that. I thought it was an important piece of information. The time left was so much shorter than I thought.

3. If your pet's head smells like urine, it means their kidneys are not filtering the toxins from their blood properly. Time to go to the vet. Twink's head smelled like urine for a long time and I didn't know why. It didn't occur to me until far too late that I should ask the vet.

That's all I can think of for now. As my friend Dy says, kiss those babies, and I will add, hug those pets.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

REVIEW: Apologia Anatomy & Physiology

When the chance to review Apologia Educational MinistriesExploring Creation with Human Anatomy and Physiology curriculum arose, I was intrigued. We haven't used any of their books before, but I have heard many good things about them from homeschooling friends. We use Charlotte Mason's principles in our homeschool, and I had heard that the Apologia books would work well with the approach while providing the structure of a textbook.

Apologia's textbooks are quite different from anything I ever read in school, and are written to the student in a narrative style, rather than simply presenting facts. The books are written with Charlotte Mason's philosophy in mind, incorporating narration and notebooking activities. The Young Explorer series, directed at elementary students, follows the days of creation in its topics: astronomy, botany, flying creatures, swimming creatures, land animals, and finally, human beings. Apologia is a Christian company, with lots of resources available in addition to their science products.

The publisher offers the following items with this curriculum: the  Human Anatomy & Physiology textbook, $39.00; Anatomy Notebooking Journal, 4-6,  Anatomy Junior Notebooking Journal, K-3, $24.00; and the Human Anatomy & Physiology MP3 Audio CD,  $29.00.  There is an optional Blood Typing Kit, good for one student, available for $14.00.

For the purpose of this review, I received a copy of the Human Anatomy and Physiology textbook, regular Anatomy Notebooking Journal, and MP3 audio CD. I did purchase an extra Notebooking Journal so my girls would each have one. The Young Explorers series is generally for children in grades K-6, but Apologia does recommend Anatomy & Physiology for upper elementary students, 4th-6th.

The textbook is a nice hardcover, which I love. There are 14 lessons, and they are designed to be done over two weeks each. The topics covered are:

1. Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
2. The Skeletal System
3. The Muscular System
4. The Digestive and Renal Systems
5. Health and Nutrition
6. The Respiratory System
7.  Life in the Blood
8.  The Cardiovascular System
9.  The Nervous and Endocrine Systems
10. The Nervous System Extended
11. Your Senses
12. The Integumentary System
13. The Lymphatic and Immune Systems
14. Growth and Development

The notebooking journals come spiral-bound, which works well for writing and drawing in them. They also contain the schedule, directing them to narrate what they read, which makes sure we discuss their readings. The schedule also has all activities clearly listed, so you know if there is an experiment to do, etc. There are lots of fun activities: drawing, crossword puzzles, mini-books (like you'd use in a lap book, but they go in the journal) and - EXPERIMENTS! See below to check out some of the fun we had.

Because the CD contains an MP3 audio book, you need an MP3-compatible CD player, or you can play it in your computer. For a PC, there is an auto-run program. On a Mac, you double-click on the CD icon and then double-click on the MP3 file you'd like to hear. I love having an audio book to go along with the text. One of my girls gets headaches from reading (we're working on finding a solution for that), so having the option available for her to listen to her assigned pages is wonderful.

We enjoyed doing the projects together. First, we learned how to mummify an apple, to show us what happens when you mummify an organ. We made a mixture of salt and baking soda, and put one peeled apple into that, and left the other one open to the air. We looked at them a week later, and see what happened? The smaller, darker one on the left is the mummified apple, and the one on the right is our control apple.

Then, we learned about cells, and all those nifty organelles that live and work inside them. This time we got to make our own model cells with Jell-O and candy.  It was a good time to review the function of each organelle, and remind us what they looked like as we compared them to the candy we used to represent them in the Jell-O.

The best part was, once they were finished, they got to each all that delicious (?) candy and Jell-O. I believe that was Isaac's favorite part. 

My girls, who are 11 and 12, have learned a lot during our time with this curriculum. Apologia's book is well done for its intended age group of older elementary, 4th-6th grade. It's written to the student, so they have the schedule and can read on their own. I would love to be able to read everything with them snuggled up on the couch with me, but with a very busy 5-year-old boy in the mix, that doesn't happen as much as I'd like. I was able to utilize the CD to keep up with what they were reading. I found the notebooking journal to be a valuable addition, because it keeps all their work in one place. We've had some difficulty keeping track of our studies in binders during previous studies. I've been able to have the girls read on their own, narrate to me, and then have us all meet at the table or in the kitchen for the activities, since Isaac enjoys being a part of those as well. 

If you're looking for a gentle, easy-to-follow science curriculum, I recommend taking a look at Apologia. I will be looking at some of the earlier books for use with Isaac, when we start more formal school with him next year.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Eyes Have It!

The kids and I went to the eye doctor this week. Usually, this is not a significant event in our lives, but this time there were several surprises.

Isaac, who is 5, needs glasses. Apparently, he has quite an astigmatism in one eye. This could explain why school has been such a struggle this year. Thinking back, he does try to write with his face up close to the paper, like I do when I am not wearing my glasses, but it wasn't until the day before our appointment that I had an inkling of his near-sightedness. He was thrilled to choose his frames, and almost immediately identified a bright blue pair. Of course, he had to try on as many kid frames as he could reach, he didn't break anything, and it did serve to keep him occupied while we completed the order. I feel a little guilty for not noticing that he couldn't see. I feel I should have expected it, given our family eye history. The very nice young woman who fitted our glasses told me that children often don't know they can't well, because they don't know any differently. I am sure she's right, but I still wish I'd been paying more attention. It also makes me more than a little sad to put those big beautiful eyes behind glasses, but I'm thrilled that he will be able to see better now. These are supposed to be "boy-proof" frames. He's not the first little boy to wear glasses, to I'm sure manufacturers know how to make them so they last longer than 5 minutes. We will see!

The girls had appointments together on another day. Abbie has worn glasses for 3 years, and Emma has never needed them. According to the eye doctor, Abbie should NOT need glasses at all, and Emma does! He was pretty confused to see Abbie with glasses on.

Abbie was quite distraught when she was told she didn't really need her glasses. She gets a lot of headaches, and she says her glasses help. Also, she doesn't want to "look different," she told me. I think she has a fair amount of her identity wrapped up in wearing glasses. Most kids would be delighted not to need them, but not my girl. We did get her a new pair, since she's grown quite a bit since she got her old ones, and they look pretty rough. The optometrist also recommended a pair of very low strength reading glasses, +.25. He thought they might help with her headaches, since they often come on when she's reading. Those are not easy to find, and I may have to order them online. If you've seen some, please let me know where!

Emma, who does need glasses, insists that she doesn't want any. She said it will be too much responsibility and she's sure she will lose them. The doctor said she doesn't need them badly enough to insist she wear them, but she should prepare herself, because she will need them in a year or two, almost certainly by the time she starts driving. I'm going to pretend he didn't say that. I'm fine with glasses, but I refuse to think about her driving yet. God is really challenging my place in the land of denial lately!

Why is this worth blogging about? I don't know. Lots of unexpected things happened at our house this week, so perhaps this is a bigger deal than it would otherwise have been. My children certainly keep me on my toes and make life interesting!