"I never let school interfere with my education." ~ Mark Twain"
"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." ~ Anonymous

George Washington: A Father for All Time

Brass bookends

We revere George Washington as a great military and political leader and “father of our country”. However, not much is mentioned about his stepson, whom he raised, John Parke Custis, and understandably so, as the young man just didn’t seem to have the genes of leadership and accomplishment in him. He played around and largely squandered his educational years and dropped out of college, despite George’s constant attempts to inspire him to apply and better himself. They say hindsight is 20/20. Can you imagine what John Custis might think now if he could see, from the perspective of history, who he was so fortunate to be related to, and what opportunity he missed?

John Custis did get himself elected to the Virginia General Assembly in 1778, but it seems George was not impressed with his legislative showing. The latter wrote: “I do not suppose that so young a senator as you are, so little versed in political disquisition, can yet have much influence in a popular assembly, composed of various talents and different views, but it is in your power to be punctual in attendance.”

Sadly, Custis died of illness at the age of 27, leaving a wife and four living children (out of seven born to them). But to his credit, he showed great maturity by showing respect for his stepfather by writing to him in 1776: “It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I can not sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir; Few have experience’d such Care and Attention from real Parents as I have done. He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one.” And in 1781, six months before his own death, Custis named his youngest son George Washington Parke Custis. A fitting tribute indeed.

Time for Cabin Fever Busters

Winter CabinI’m guessing that I probably speak for a lot of homeschoolers when I say that January is probably our slowest month of the year. All the fun holiday activities of the last couple months, including the anticipation since the beginning of the school year, have suddenly slammed to a halt. It’s miserably cold; the sun goes down early; and there’s just not much going on. That’s when we start having what we call Cabin Fever Busters.

Most of the time, this just involves taking our schoolwork to the library for a change of scenery. And if the library isn’t already one of your favorite locations…that’s just horrifically sad. After a couple of hours of doing school, plus some time getting lost amongst library books, we head to a favorite fast food place for lunch. We don’t do that real often, so it’s a treat when we do.

Following lunch we might add in a fun activity. When the boys were little it was sometimes the indoor playground at the fast food restaurant, or Chuck E. Cheese’s. Nowadays it might be the nearby sledding hill or a matinee movie. Possibilities abound, depending on your own creativity and interests.

It really takes so little effort and money to take boring, claustrophobic days up a notch while still accomplishing schoolwork. We always look forward to our January Cabin Fever Busters.

Our Family’s Required Reading List

Old library chair

In the last few months I regaled you with recommended read-aloud lists categorized by age. I said that those titles were only a few of the many excellent ones out there. I’d like to add to them now by posting our “required reading” list. These are all books either required by the language arts curriculum that we used, or were required by me because I felt they were important to read.

Because there are so many worthy books and not enough time, we only studied excerpts from some of the high school books and read some others straight through. But here they are, labeled by the grade in which they were read.

3rd Grade:

The White Stallion by Elizabeth Shub

Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans

Meet George Washington by Joan Heilbroner

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh

4th Grade:

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Wilbur and Orville Wright:  Young Fliers by Augusta Stevenson

Benjamin Franklin:  Young Printer by Augusta Stevenson

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Favorite Poems Old and New by Helen Ferris

5th Grade:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Meet Addy by Connie Porter

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

6th Grade:

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

7th Grade:

The Star of Light by Patricia St. John

Adam and His Kin by Ruth Beechick

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

8th Grade:

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

When the Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts by Mike Beno

We Pulled Together…And Won by Deb Mulvey

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh

9th Grade:

Holt Anthology of Science Fiction

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

10th Grade:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

11th Grade:

The Train-of-Thought Writing Method:  Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning

Writers by Kathi Macias

Of Plymouth Plantation:  Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650 by

William Bradford

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Stephen Crane

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

12th Grade:

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Emma by Jane Austen

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The 5,000-Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen

The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury

The Jackrabbit Factor by Leslie Householder

The Homeschool Lunch Lady

Easy Peasy Pizza

Often lunch at our house is microwaveable frozen dinners, chicken nuggets, spaghetti-O’s, and such. Don’t try to tell me that public school lunches are more healthy! But I am not going to cook at lunchtime and again at dinner. But it really is possible to break away from the usual without too much effort, so here’s some things that have been popular lunch offerings for us.

Mini Pizzas

Using the recipe found here, you can make several mini pizzas that can be frozen ahead, then popped in the oven and cooked just like a freezer pizza from the store.


Between two flour tortillas you can put grated cheddar cheese and whatever leftover meat you have, or canned chicken or turkey, chopped green onions (optional), and then heat both sides in a non-stick pan tilled browned. Cut into six wedges and serve.

Egg Drop Soup

Heat two cups of chicken broth (or use chicken bouillon with water), add a quarter teaspoon each of garlic powder and ginger, an 1/8 teaspoon of pepper, and a teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in a little water. When it’s hot, add a beaten egg and stir slowly and steadily till the cooked egg makes ribbons in the soup. Serve with chopped green onions if desired. A tummy warmer for a winter day.

Mac & cheese add-ins

The box mac & cheese, don’t be afraid of it. It’s good if you add a can of ham, a can of green beans, and if desired, a spoonful of French onion dip.

And must…have…dessert.

3-2-1 Cake

Mix one box of cake mix, any flavor, with a box of angel food cake mix. Store in a covered container in the pantry. When you want a serving, measure out 3 tablespoons of mix, 2 tablespoons of water, mix and cook for 1 minute in the microwave. It can be served plain or topped with frosting, fruit, and/or whipped cream. It’s as easy as 1,2,3.


Make a batch of pop-up rolls and serve them with a big spoonful of fruit cocktail and a dollop of whipped cream.

Bon appetit, homeschoolers!

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Music, Art, Foreign Language

George Frideric Handel

As homeschoolers, we like to cover all bases, go beyond reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. As a creative family, we value the arts and consider it vitally important to include them in our curriculum. Thus, we’ve used some resources I’d love to share.

Music: The boys both had music lessons with private instructors for a few years. At home, we learned a lot about composers through the ages from Meet the Great Composers, Books 1 and 2. Each lesson provided a short biography, activity, and piece of music from each composer on the accompanying CD. We also read Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, which was an informative book about the inspiration behind the great composers’ work.

Art: In elementary school we did lots of art projects, many of them using a book called Discovering Great Artists. Each lesson discussed a particular artist, taught his/her technique, and then provided an art project using their method, such as lying down beneath a table and painting on a paper taped underneath the table to represent Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Fun stuff right there. In junior high, we used Understanding Art (a mega expensive school textbook which we found dirt cheap on eBay.) It was a very complete study of art through the ages and around the world.

Foreign Language: This is a little bit tougher of a subject for homeschool and many who want to tackle it may want outside lessons. However, there are self-guided resources to use at home. Most are quite expensive. One that was more affordable (and we bought it cheaper used, as we did many of our school books) was Power-Glide, now called Powerspeak. My older son got a pretty good basis in Spanish using this.

As you can see, there are resources out there for every homeschooler’s needs and so much to choose from. Don’t be deterred. The search is half the fun!

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Social Studies Pt. 2

So as promised, I will give some recommendations for social studies resources, things that really facilitated learning for us. As tomorrow marks the 126th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, I will begin with American history and government resources. I used several things available from the National Center for Constitutional Studies, namely the I Love America parts 1 and 2 for young children, and the American Government and Constitution Study Course. I have only good things to say about both of them. They were some of my favorite resources in all of our homeschool and were more memorable to my kids, (in a good way!) than other things. We also kept on hand The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History. It’s always good to have the primary sources close by to refer to.

I mentioned in my last post the value of eyewitness accounts to history. Two outstanding books we read were When the Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts about the Great Depression, and We Pulled Together…and Won about World War II, both filled with fascinating short stories and anecdotes from the people who lived through those times.

You Decide! Applying the Bill of Rights to Real Cases provided a good study of court cases involving the Bill of Rights. The student is placed in the role of judge and they have to take the facts given, study the amendment involved in the case, and make their own decision and back it up with argument. Then they get to find out what the court really decided.

For economics, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy by Richard Maybury and the accompanying Bluestocking Guide provided a good, clear, understandable study of that subject.

We wanted to study our own state during seventh grade, and most states require such a study. For this, I designed a study myself using websites, books, DVDs, field trips, and several hands-on experiments and art projects. The kids had a booklet in which they could check off assignments and projects and earn treats, with the final reward being a field trip to the state Capitol building when the legislature was in session.

Historical Wall TimelineOne of the most valuable things we ever did and of which I’m most proud, all through their years of schooling, 1st through 12th grades, was to maintain historical timelines. They are indispensable to a good study of history. For instance, Mozart was composing music at the same time the American Revolutionary War was happening, but you never study those two things together, so timelines give you a sense of the world as a whole at any given time. I keep up a large timeline covering an entire wall, running from 5000 B.C. to the present, and color coded according to different types of history, such as political, religious, exploration, scientific discovery, inventions, and cultural events. Then each of the boys had their own sketchbook in which they put the events as they studied them, and including a small quarter-sized picture drawn in colored pencil to go with each entry.Historical Timelines Book

Some favorite geography resources: Children Just Like Mea fun look into the lives of ordinary children all over the world, and Trail Guide to World Geography which includes a most enjoyable study of the Jules Verne classic Around the World in 80 Days. So fun to make an adventure part of your learning.

And speaking of adventure, we are often armchair travelers and have enjoyed some very inspiring documentaries and films to supplement our studies. Some of the most impressionable to us were History Channel’s The Story of Us, the Ken Burns’ documentaries Lewis & Clark and the Journey of the Corps of Discovery, and Baseball. Others that bear mentioning are the old James Stewart film The Spirit of St. Lewis, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which we never tire of watching, and Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln.

Have fun doing your own exploring. It can be fun for adults and kids alike!



Homeschool Curriculum Series: Social Studies

Book and candle

Next up in the curriculum recommendations, social studies, which includes history, my other favorite subject. History is not focused on so much these days. I was disappointed to learn that it isn’t even included on the big, important ACT test. But a knowledge of history is vital to Americans. History is where you learn the average length of time the world’s civilizations have endured, and where we are currently on that time clock. It’s where you learn from the past about what works and what doesn’t so you don’t make the same mistakes as a society. But it can also be one of the driest subjects to children. The teacher must have a fire for the subject herself and then be able to transmit that excitement to her students.

Take a page from my own childhood experience. I entered sixth grade very excited to have my first encounter with world history, but it quickly became an overwhelming bore, what with dozens of end-of-chapter questions that had to be answered in complete sentences, hundreds of vocabulary words, memorization of meaningless facts.  History did not come alive for me at all, and I actually made a D, yes, a D in history, my only one ever, and only because of so many incomplete assignments.  That class effectively killed my budding love of history for the next 10 years.The real Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

So we do history differently in our homeschool. Yes, there are still assignments, and I do like my children to be familiar with a few key dates (Columbus-1492, Civil War-1861-1865, etc.) But my goal has been to really bring out the importance of history and its effects on all of our lives, as well as to inspire with the curious and innovative spirits of so many historical figures. Both of my kids have indicated that they “get it”, and one has even stated that he likes history. A beautiful moment!

So for our “spine”, as it’s called (the main resource you use as an overview of history), we used some A Beka books. This is just your basic, “This happened, followed by this happening, etc.”, not always fascinating by itself, but I like the boys to get the big picture of the history of the world to date. The supplemental resources we’ve used are really where it’s at, where you get the words of people who say, “I was there and this is what it was like.” In that vein we read lots of books and watched lots of documentaries and films.

George Frideric HandelI think I will have to expand this into another post, but just to start you out, here’s a couple resources. The Childhood of Famous Americans series is a collection of biographies, geared towards the 8-12-year-old age group, that shows how some key figures got to be who they were. And this site, Teach With Movies, has a gargantuan list of recommendations for movies that can be used to illuminate certain historical periods and events. They include appropriate age recommendations. Till next time…

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Language Arts

Antique booksNow we come to one of my favorite subjects, the written word. As with all subjects, there are too many excellent choices, but here’s what’s worked well for us. The first books my boys used was a series called Explode the Code, which includes three primers and then eight workbooks, all consumable, teaching all the letters and phonics. A great start for reading.

In third grade I started them on Learning Language Arts Through Literature. The company makes the course for first through eighth grades, and then two courses for high school, one each covering American and English literature. We only used it for third through eighth grades. It uses good children’s classics, both complete books and excerpts, to teach grammar, spelling, vocabulary, reading, and writing. There are sections on poetry, research, reports, and study skills in each course as well.

We supplemented LLATL with Easy Grammar, which makes grammar easy by teaching students to identify and eliminate prepositional phrases, which then helps them to easily find and identify all the other parts of the sentence. Very thorough. An intense grammar drill of only about 10 minutes a day gave them a good command of grammar.

The boys learned their Latin and Greek roots by using…card games! Rummy Roots and More Roots each teach a lengthy list of roots and their meanings through four levels of play. When all four levels have been mastered, players know enough to decipher 2000 words without using a dictionary.

In high school we used a couple of A Beka’s literature books, but also just studied classic books on our own for both American and English literature studies. Two writing books I particularly thought were good are the Train of Thought Writing Method and Wordsmith Craftsman. The latter provides a good basis for college essay writing. I also insisted on a read-through of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

I made a couple of my own supplements. One was Daily Diagrams, 180 sentences from classic literature for them to diagram, one each day. And to help them get practice in library research, I made a library treasure hunt that used riddles, codes, and puzzle pieces. They did some of it each week at the library, and when finished, earned a new book of their choice. The material is specific to our family and our local library, so it’s not something others can use, but maybe it can give you ideas to do something similar on your own.

And don’t forget read-alouds for all ages! You can never hear too many good stories.



Homeschool Curriculum Series: Science/Health

Science has been an interesting subject to my boys. Our main books we use throughout most of the grades is A Beka books. In junior high we used their Science in Action book to guide us through a complete science fair project, including a research report, experiment, and display which was entered into a science fair.

The boys kept Nature Notebooks in which they wrote about various plants, animals, rocks, astronomy, copied quotes, pasted photographs and small specimens, and drew and painted pictures.

We’ve done many labs using a borrowed microscope and buying dissection specimens and supplies from Home Science Tools, and watching more labs via YouTube.

In high school we switched to Apologia for chemistry and physics. They are written especially for homeschoolers in an easy conversational style. Mom doesn’t have to know everything about science to teach it.

For an especially fun supplement, we use the Holt Anthology of Science Fiction, which includes short stories categorized by the field of science they involve. There are discussion questions and activities at the end of each story.

For health, we again used many of A Beka’s books. They have books for every grade, but we only did health every other year. For little kids, Proper Manners and Health Habits, written by Mennonites was helpful for teaching manners. And for older kids Growing Up: Gospel Answers About Maturation and Sex is a most complete and respectful book in teaching that subject.  We believe it’s the parents’ job to teach about the subject of sex, and I appreciated having such a valuable resource for that.

Science can be a fun subject for homeschoolers. We enjoyed using a weather kit from Real Science Made Easy during the summer. They make several kits for different types of science. And for old time’s sake, we got some DVDs of 1950s school films from the Bell Laboratory Science Series. Good times right there!

By the way, I do NOT buy all these things new. I have saved hundreds of dollars over the years by finding deals on good, used copies of curriculum. I’ve always been happy with what I’ve found.




Homeschool Curriculum Series: Math

We’ve had the privilege of learning from some very good resources in our homeschool, and I thought I’d like to share some ofSchool books them. As new homeschoolers soon discover, there is so much to choose from that finding resources is never a problem, but trying to choose something can be downright intimidating. I would not attempt to say that our choices are the best; there are just too many excellent choices out there to use them all, but here’s some that have worked well for us.

First up, math. Our main curriculum throughout the kids’ school years has been Saxon Math. We skipped the kindergarten set and started them on the first grade course when they were four, which worked great. We followed Saxon’s books all the way through, except skipping Saxon 87 and going straight to Algebra 1/2. (I heard 87 was sort of just repetition, and we didn’t have any problem going straight to Algebra.) My oldest got through Algebra 1 and 2, Advanced Mathematics, and Calculus by partway into 11th grade. The youngest starts Advanced Mathematics this year in ninth grade. I like Saxon because, early on, I learned some good mental math skills I’d never known before and they’ve helped me ever since, and I feel like my kids got a good command of math.

I saw a book once called Grocery Cart Math, and while we didn’t use it, it gave me an idea and I put together a few of my own math investigations which the boys had to do during trips to the grocery store, just practical things like comparing prices and amounts, determining which thing is a better buy, hidden costs, sales and coupons.

Geometric Constructions from Castle Heights Press was a fun math supplement in that it used stories and riddles to teach constructions. Paper and pencil, a protractor, and a compass were all that were needed. I don’t find it readily available now, but I’m sure many similar books exist.

One thing Saxon didn’t have was a consumer math text. We used A Beka’s Consumer Mathematics, which taught some good, practical things about credit, banking, insurance, budgeting, taxes, financial planning, etc.

In your search for curriculum, you may want to refer to Cathy Duffy Reviews, a comprehensive breakdown of curriculum choices. She’ll tell you everything you need to know to make good choices.



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