Monday, December 15, 2014

Video Explaining DNA

Here's a good basic explanation of DNA.  We have found these Stated Clearly videos helpful as a supplement to our Thinkwell Biology course. Super did not approve of the dinosaur's choice of snack, however. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lazy Blog Post

We went places and did stuff!

Mesa Verde is one of our favorite places on the planet.

I love all things Southwest.

If you've never seen Newspaper Rock, it's worth the trip.

This was our first time to actually go into Monument Valley and do the park drive.

It's amazing how life can find ways to thrive in the desert.

It was a very quick trip--just a long weekend--but I'm thankful that there is so much beauty near us.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Middle/High School Room

When we decided to take our kids out of public school, we knew we would need a dedicated space for them to work.  Otherwise, as my husband said, "School stuff will take over the whole house!"


Six years later, we have a dedicated school room AND school stuff has taken over our whole house!  

Kids arrange the daily schedule

Still, it's nice to have a semi-organized work area.  It helps the kids stay focused and it does cut down on SOME of the clutter in the rest of our home.

Our basement is the official headquarters of the Super-Awesome School of Super-Awesomeness.  Meditation, discussions, read-alouds, and independent reading happen here:

Note the BOSU bouncer, an excellent helper for kids who need to MOVE while they think.  It's also helpful for my early-finisher: he can be active-but-quiet while his methodical (and much neater) sister completes her work!

Most of the book work and writing happens here:

Again, here is a solution to keep squirmy legs and feet busy so the mind can focus:

The stuff we use frequently is stored here.  Mom's shelf is on top, students' shelf is below.

Oh, darn!  Looks like I forgot to take a picture of my desk!

That's too bad because it's in absolutely (cough cough) PRISTINE condition going into the 2014-15 school year.   Wish you could see how neat and perfectly organized it is...oh, well, you'll just have to take my word for it! 

Linked to iHomeschool Network's NBTS Blog Hop:

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sticking to a daily schedule

Schedule, routine, time map...whatever you want to call them, I'm just no good at sticking to them!

Sometimes life gets in the way.  We have every intention to do what we call "book work," but then an opportunity to go somewhere or do something interesting comes up.  

Field trip to butterfly nursery!

Of course, that's one of the great advantages of homeschooling--schedule flexibility.

Sometimes a kid gets fascinated with something and we end up going down a bunch of rabbit trails that weren't part of the plan.  (Our never-ending unit study of WWII led us down lots of unexpected paths and that's why we've never been able to call it finished once and for all!)  

Nature study

Again, this is a great advantage of homeschooling.

But sometimes we get off schedule because we just can't seem to stick to one for more than a week or maybe two at the most.  

I'm an obsessive planner.  I love plans.  

Plans make me feel secure, but carved-in-stone plans make me feel claustrophobic. 

I love learning along with my kids and I love checking things off the plans I've worked so hard to prepare...but I'm simply not capable of doing the same subjects in the same order every day!

Peach cobbler and family read-aloud

For that reason, I just keep a subject list and we pick and choose from it, cafeteria style.  Here is our typical planned-but-not-carved-in-stone routine.

The ONLY things that never change:

Our "cafeteria-style" subject choices

 Stuff we do about four days a week, in whatever order 
the kids prefer: 


Daily(ish) proofreading sentence

Rotating subjects that we typically do daily for a week or so at a time:

Current Events

Super's latest masterpiece!

Other stuff we work around:
Music lessons and practice
Occasional tutoring
Our homeschool group's activities
Letting dogs in, letting dogs out, letting dogs in...

I'm NEVER a distraction during school! 

I don't write dates on my plans anymore.  I used to make files with math worksheets, graphic organizers, etc. for each school day, collated, stapled, and complete with a dated sticky note.  

Then, when we inevitably got off track, I would feel stressed that we were running behind.

Now I just use a couple of crate hanging files for whatever printed material we are using.  They are ready to go when we need them but there is no such thing as "behind" because we are getting it done at our own pace.

My ultra-complex filing system

I do make monthly goals.  By the end of August I'd like the kids to finish up their Hands-On Equations kit.  By the end of September it would be nice to have a couple of books crossed off the reading list.  And by December I'd love to see major improvement in a certain kid's handwriting...

And I have made a four-year-plan for Super now that she's at the high school level.  I want to make sure she meets our state's graduation requirements, is prepared for college, and has a good transcript for her college applications, so I think it's important to at least have a list of goals. 

Summer wildflowers

But if we spend a couple of weeks doing a big block of science and then do history for a week and then focus on grammar for a bit and then get really into a book and just read for three or four days...that's just fine.  We can go in the general direction of the plan even while straying from the details (and I can absolutely guarantee that we will stray from the details!) 

Under-desk solution for squirmy feet!

Scheduling, yes, but on our own terms.  Another great advantage of homeschooling.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Our "Book Work" for 2014-15

 I'm not sure which family member first used the term "book work" but that's what we call our formal academics around here.  We do lots of experiential learning as well, but when we sit down at a desk or table and get serious about putting specific information in our brains, we call it "book work."

So here is the basic outline of our 7th and 9th grade "book work" this year...


We always start the day with a poem.  I've already posted about my initial poetry choices here, but I'll add that Teaching Grammar with Perfect Poems for Middle School was a good resource last year.  We got about halfway through it so we'll finish it up this year.


Hands-On Equations workbook, disc, and manipulatives
My kids typically want to do math early in the day.  To wake up their brains, I give them a challenge problem, and they either work together on the dry-erase board or independently in their math notebooks.  I get the challenge problems from our old Singapore word problem workbooks, Math Starters, or a fun book called Perfectly Perilous Math.  There are tons of resources for challenge problems out there, and I'll bet I've used nearly all of them at some point! 

We have a few lessons to finish in Hands-On Equations before moving on to Saxon Algebra I.  We typically do a Hands-On lesson or two, then a review lesson from their old Saxon 7/6 or 8/7 books, and then a practice packet.  I make the packets in advance (I have 21 ready to go!) but not too far in advance so I can customize them based on what the kids need to review.

The practice packets are five or six pages and typically contain a Hands-On worksheet, practice pages from Saxon or Singapore workbooks, worksheets I've found online, and at least one logic grid from Mindware Perplexors.   

Mindware Perplexors logic puzzles

 Grammar and Punctuation

Last year we worked our way through the very silly and fun A Sentence A Day.  This year the kids will learn some interesting history facts from their daily proofreading sentence.  I'll just make a copy of the sentence from Take Five Minutes: A History Fact A Day For Editing and the kids will tape or glue it in their notebooks and then write the sentence correctly underneath. 


Literature and Writing

This year we are using Oak Meadow's Introduction to Literature and Composition I.  They have recently reorganized their curriculum and I'm not sure if this specific course still exists, but it includes To Kill a Mockingbird, A Wizard of EarthseaAnimal Farm, and Our Town, plus grammar lessons from The Least You Should Know About English.  The course manual suggests discussion questions and writing assignments, and we also use the Notice and Note method whenever we are reading literature.

Notice and Note signposts for close reading

By the way, I can't recommend Notice and Note highly enough--it's a fantastic way to help young readers move beyond the basics of characters and plot and get into the deeper themes of literature.  Come to think of it, Notice and Note strategies are worth a blog post of their own...I'll get right on that! ;-)

After I wrote my post about our literature choices for 7th and 9th, the kids requested two more books, and I added three more, so we are going to be doing lots of great reading this year!


My science-loving kids have already started their Biology I course from Thinkwell.  The lectures and course notes are great.  The quizzes, on the other hand, are kind of confusing--they appear to be written by someone who didn't actually watch the lectures.  After some frustrating experiences with poorly-worded questions, the kids decided to just watch the lectures and study the notes, and I'll make unit tests based on the course notes.  


Vocabulary graphic organizer from

I believe the ideal way to develop a good vocabulary is from reading and from hearing scholarly speech.  However, it never hurts to build on that foundation!  In addition to collecting any unfamiliar words they come across while reading, the kids can choose interesting words from SAT vocabulary books for their vocabulary study.  They really like using graphic organizers for new words.  


Philosophy is a favorite subject around here.  We have read about two-thirds of Philosophy for Kids, and the kids have enjoyed it so much, I ordered The Examined Life so we can continue discussing Deep Questions!  Philosophy is a good subject to do before or during lunch because the questions always spark a lively conversation.


We have been working our way through the wonderful A History of Us series for several years.  I really like the author's approachable writing style, all the great maps and graphics, and the short-but-detailed chapters.  We typically read and discuss two or three chapters a week.  If a topic really fascinates the kids (our never-ending unit on WWII comes to mind) we do some supplemental reading and maybe a mind-map or other hands-on project.

Thinking Skills

I'm adding a new subject to our routine this year: thinking skills.  After reading Making Thinking Visible this summer, I really wanted to try some of the "thinking routines" described in the book.  (One example of a thinking routine is called "See-Think-Wonder."  After silently observing an object or a work of art for a few minutes, students are asked "What does this object/image make you wonder?  What questions come to mind?")  Trying out would be an interesting transition activity to try once or twice a week.  It's an experiment, but it should be fun, and I'm sure it will spark some interesting conversations at the very least!

What's the story here?  What does this image make you wonder about?

Foreign Language

My 9th grader will continue her German studies.  She started with German in 10 Minutes a Day two years ago, and last year she took a German course at our local community college.  This year will be her first year to work with a private tutor, so we'll see how that goes.

My 7th grader decided to switch to Greek this year.  He'll start with Pimsleur Greek and Your First 100 Words in Greek.

Written Conversations/Journaling

We usually end our "book work" days with a journal entry.  Last year, I found this really cool idea in a book called Written Conversations.  The night before, I write a brief letter to each kid in their journal, always including a personal question or two, and then they answer my questions in writing.  These journals are not graded or corrected in any way--they are just an opportunity to put thoughts and opinions on paper with zero judgment.  

So that's pretty much the gist of how we'll be spending our school days this year.  Of course there will also be music lessons, handwriting practice, note-taking practice, volunteer work, travel, museum visits, camping, geocaching, and activities with our local homeschooling group.  We're looking forward to a great year of learning together!

This post is linked to the 6th Annual Not Back to School Blog Hop!  Stop by to see what my homeschooling blog buddies are doing in 2014-15!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Literature List for 7th/9th

My kids love books, but they approach them in very different ways.

 Typical random pile-o-books at the Sparklee household

Super enjoys fiction, especially stories with animals as characters.  Her early independent reading started with Thornton Burgess animal stories, Bill Wallace books and the Akimbo series by Alexander McCall Smith.  Later she blazed through the Warriors and Seekers series and even started writing her own animal adventure stories.

At the moment she is reading the Wildwood series, which is penned by Colin Meloy, the lead singer of the Decemberists.  How cool is that?  She really enjoys this series--sometimes I have to insist that she stop reading and go to bed!  

Dude is more of a just-the-facts-ma'am reader.  While he will happily listen to me read fiction for hours (and in fact is always the first to suggest a family read-aloud session) when he picks up a book on his own, it's going to be nonfiction.  

 One of Dude's favorites

Dude has always preferred nonfiction to fiction, and these days he prefers to get his information from electronic sources.  He's a wellspring of facts that you didn't even know you didn't know, mostly from YouTube channels like Vsauce, Minutephysics, and Mental Floss.

Finishing these to wrap up last year's WWII Unit Study

I'm thrilled that he loves collecting arcane knowledge, and I know videos can be very educational but...

There is something about really getting into a book--a real, paper-and-ink book--that just can't be replaced by any technology.

And I believe there is immense value in reading fiction, too.  Not just any fiction, but fiction that deals with big themes, fiction that makes you think, fiction that teaches important lessons about life.

I think it's reasonable for a 7th grader to read at least a novel a month, and that's the goal I'm setting for Dude.  He'll be keeping an independent reading journal for his own choices and doing a variety of projects based on the books I assign to him.

One of our many packed bookshelves

There's no shortage of great YA literature.  The hard part is choosing what to read and when.  So here is our tentative book list for the 2014-15 school year:


Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle
Chomp by Carl Hiaasen 
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Animal Farm by George Orwell
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 Requested by the kids because they loved Chains

The last three books on the list are part of Oak Meadow's 9th grade Intro to Literature and Composition curriculum.  We are using Oak Meadow for the base of Super's high school English, with some supplemental reading and writing projects.

 This is a new one for me, highly recommended by Dad

Dude will read from the same book list, with the possible addition of the Artemis Fowl series for his independent reading.

As always, we will open our school day with a poem, but this year I won't be choosing all the poems.  I want the kids to take turns choosing their own favorites to share.  

 Trying to overcome my "fear" of poetry

I've always loved poetry but I'm also a little intimidated by it, so I've chosen some fun and approachable sources for this year's poetry reading.


all the small poems and fourteen more by Valerie Worth
Pug and Other Animal Poems by Valerie Worth
Poetry Speaks: Who I Am edited by Elise Paschen
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
Ubiquitous by Joyce Sidman
The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear 

 Valerie Worth and Mary Oliver, accessible and not a bit scary

We'll read nonfiction related to Super's Thinkwell Biology I course and whatever history topic the kids decide to jump into.  (We're about halfway through Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, but we're reading it in small doses because the kids find it so sad.)  I'll also save interesting news and opinion pieces from a variety of sources, and I just subscribed to Cicada and Dig so hopefully the kids will find those interesting as well. 

I'm sure we will add to and edit our reading lists as we discover great new literature during the year.  We are looking forward to lots of great reading!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Big Picture, Small Picture

If you slow down...

...and stop and look...

...and really pay attention... never know...

...what you might see.