We Have a Winner!

Congratulations to Rachel D., the winner of the Youth Digital Mod Design 1 Giveaway!

Thanks to all who participated.  I wish everyone could have won!

For those who did not win, it looks like Youth Digital is running a 20% discount on either (or both) of their Amazon offerings:  Mod Design 1 or 3D Animation 1 with coupon code “YDPLU20”.

They are already listed at $199.99.  If you take the additional 20% off by adding the coupon code, each course comes down to $159.99.  Not bad!

If you do take the 3D Animation course, I’d love to hear about it.  We bought the App Design 1 (which, sadly, is not on discount) course for Molly, which she will be starting after Christmas.



Whether it is online or off, I hope you all build something really great this year!





Curriculum Ideas for the Overwhelmed Homeschooler – Part 2 – ELA

This post is the second in a series in which I am responding to a reader who sent me this note:

I wanted to ask you what core curriculum you are using for Molly this year for 3rd grade specifically for Math and ELA. Also, my other child will be starting a bit of Preschool-Kindergarten work. Any recommendations for that age level for learning letters, number etc.? There is SO much out there for, which is a great thing. I am finding it overwhelming at this point, though, to narrow it down. Your recommendations in the past were great. Thanks for your continued help and support.

Feeling a Bit Overwhelmed

Hello again, Overwhelmed!  I hope my last post on math helped you.

Here’s the good news as far as ELA (English Language Arts) goes.  As a Homeschooler, your child already has a ton of the most important resource needed for Language Arts: time.

In my opinion, if you want your child to be literate, she needs to read.  And she needs to write.  A lot.

Maybe it’s because I am more confident when it comes to the liberal arts or maybe it’s just that I have had the luxury of stepping outside the insane Common Core bubble, but I have never really worried that my kids would learn how to read, write, or express themselves rationally.

Remember, ELA is primarily a Common Core term, as it is used to define the standards for getting public school students “ready to succeed in college, career, and life”.  As such, they are learning goals, whatever that means for millions of unique students.  As I mentioned in my math post, I “don’t trust completion (or lack of completion) of a certain level of a curriculum as the last word on competency.”

Even with my doctorate and a great love of reading, writing, grammar, and research, I’d rather poke my own eye out with a fork than than try to parse out how to meet these 66 pages of COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS FOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS AND LITERACY IN HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES, SCIENCE AND TECHNICAL SUBJECTS.  If that’s what you are looking for, you can stop reading now.

Also, there are many who believe that simply reading, writing, talking and interacting with others will teach a child what they need to know to communicate effectively.  You can read more about that here and here.  If you believe that, you can also stop here.

While I admire the Unschooling philosophy and think about it often, I think I am still not completely de-schooled.  If you read this blog at all, you know I worry that, without the guidance of formal lessons, my children won’t master a subject or skill comprehensively.

We don’t use a text book per se, but I do use a bunch of resources for helping the kids to learn how to communicate.

Here, broken down by specific skill-set areas, are some of the resources we use(d) for getting our kids to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively.  They all overlap so you might find one more useful for a specific skill than another.  Mix and Match.


For this post, I define “phonics” as the system of relationships between letters and sounds. Whether it is knowing that the letter B has the sound of /b/ or how to pronounce the digraphs ch, sh, or th, it’s phonics.  If you can do that, you can chunk a word, which makes reading and writing a lot easier.

For the early years, the Leapfrog:  Letter Factory and Leapfrog: Talking Words Factory  videos cannot be beat.  They are a wonderful introduction to phonics.  Here you can buy a box set with flashcards.

Endless Alphabet, which I’ve written about before here,  is an App that we have used with great success for all three kids when they were between the ages of 2 and 6.

We also loved the LeapFrog Fridge phonics Magnetic Letter Set and LeapFrog Letter Factory Phonics and Numbers.

We also use Starfall for the early years.

Once my kids were ready to sit and do workbooks, we turned to Explode the Code, which has worked really well, especially for Joseph.



We read a lot.  Together, at story time at the library, on our own and with any friend or family member who will read or listen.

We read every night with our kids before bed.  And I have always kept piles of books on the floor, which looks messy, but which are also irresistible to little kids.   Whether they are reading the  book, browsing the book, or eating the book, I don’t care.  I just want them to feel comfortable around books!

Back when we lived in Michigan, very far from our families, I had grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles read stories on camera so I could play the videos for my kids.  My kids loved them!  Not only did my kids love listening to the books, they loved seeing their favorite people every day, even when we were 1000 miles away!


My kids learn a lot of vocabulary just by talking with us!  We do not use any major text, but in reading and writing and talking with us, my kids are always asking what a word means or how to spell it.  For the younger ones I tell them.  For Molly, I make her look it up.  A dictionary is a good friend.  It is outdated today, when you can look up any word on line or in an App but my Dad kept this copy of The OED in his office and to this day, I have such fond memories of using the magnifying glass to find the word I was looking for.  I wish I had his copy.


I’ll buy it right now…


I’ll admit it.  I have an emotional attachment to Latin.  My Dad, an elementary school teacher for almost 30 years, loved language and made Latin a part of his curriculum every year.  Although I was never in his class, I was his sounding board and testing ground for many of the games and projects he used in his class, even after I left town to go away to school.  I have a lot of happy memories of all those word games with my Dad.

Aside from those happy memories, I think Latin is important mostly because it builds vocabulary and grammar. If you know just one Latin root word, you can chunk all sorts of English vocabulary words.

So, knowing Latin makes understanding English vocabulary easier.

As 55% of all English words are derived from Latin (90% of those over two syllables are Latin-based) and about 80% of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese words are from Latin, Latin is all around us!  Latin matters.

Once every week or so we do a few pages out of Getting Started with Latin: Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers and Self-Taught Students of Any Age.  The kids love it and it reminds us to look for roots out in the world.

Molly also keeps Scholastic Vocabulary Packets Greek and Latin Roots  with her other books and every so often does a page or two.


One of the best parts of homeschooling is checking workbooks. I hope Joseph is in a band called “Awesome-osity” some day!

 If you don’t want to do workbooks but still want a reminder to think about words, try a 365 New Words-A-Year 2015 Page-A-Day Calendar.

You can also check out a Pinterest Board like this one for fun ideas on words.

Here also is a quick reference guide on word roots.  It is free and shows you just how many roots there are!


Even though I was pretty successful in school, I did not take it seriously until I hit college.  I just tried to pass tests and get A’s.  Actual understanding didn’t matter.  I just knew I needed to jump through hoops because that was what was expected and that was what everyone else was doing.

We homeschool because we don’t want that to happen with our kids.  We want them to seek information because they are interested in it and we want them to have the ability to grapple with it, understand it, and make informed decisions with it.  That is one of the best tools we could give them in their toolbox for life.

How do you measure understanding?  Tests.  Asking questions.  Watching your kids work.  Reviewing their work.  Being with them and talking to them.  That is how we do it.  I am really baffled by the need to test kids so much because I can tell you where my kids are at just by watching and interacting with them.  They do well on standardized tests but more than their understanding, I think those tests tell how well they take tests!

One of my favorite ways to have fun with comprehension is public speaking.

For public speaking, the Writing with Ease series cannot be beat.  Written by one of my homeschooling favorites, Susan Wise Bauer (with Peter Buffington) Writing with Ease alternates between having the student do copywork and/or dictation on one page and then listen to a passage from a piece of literature and answer questions aloud in full sentences on the next.  Its emphasis on reading comprehension and public speaking is invaluable.  I can see the gears in my childrens’ heads working as they think through their answers.

We have also really enjoyed participating in “Book Wars” with a local homeschooling group this semester.  Two other moms came up with idea:  once a month any kids interested show up at a local coffee shop and take turns presenting reasons why the book that they read that month should win for best book.  After everyone has a turn, each child is asked a few questions.  Then there is a blind vote and the winner wins a prize, which is usually some yummy baked goods.  Speaking in front of strangers is hard and thinking on your feet is even harder but Book Wars has made it fun.  Plus, we’ve gotten some great book recommendations through the group. Even if you don’t have a homeschooling group, you could just have your child present a book to you out loud.  It doesn’t matter if it is a chapter book, a picture book, or a comic book!  It is a non-threatening way to work on these skills.


Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.  You cannot communicate clearly without it.

Along with Writing with Ease, we have found Evan-Moor’s Grammar and Punctuation series easy to use and informative.

This year we have gotten in the habit of using “Daily” workbooks because it allows us to work on each subject a little bit each day.  Evan-Moor’s Daily Language Review series has been a great addition to the two mentioned above.

This post is not meant to be comprehensive but I hope it gives you an idea of some resources you can use for each skill set you may be interested in.

I am still planning to post a piece on resources for Pre-school and Kindergarten work.  And I am working on a post of resources for critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills.

If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Youth Digital Mod Design 1 Course GIVEAWAY!

The Holiday season is upon us!  I am beyond excited to share one of my favorite homeschooling experiences of 2014 with you! All of my children love Minecraft.  When Molly started asking me to buy mods for her at the beginning of the year, I told her that if she wanted a mod, she would have to make one herself.  As I looked for how to make that happen, I stumbled upon Youth Digital.  Soon thereafter, Molly was lucky enough to take Youth Digital’s Mod Design 1 course.  I have written about our experience with Youth Digital here and here.  I am pleased to say that while completing of this course, Molly has made her very own Orange Bucky Mod!  Plus, in addition to learning Java, Molly learned an exceptional amount of patience and self-discipline with this course.  Invaluable!

January 2, 2010 171

Back in the day, just hanging out, eating pizzelles, with Orange Bucky, before he became a Mod.

Youth Digital represents all that I’d like in a learning experience for my kids:  they are passionate and enthusiastic about sharing their expertise in a funny and understandable way.  Moreover, their customer service is phenomenal.  We will definitely be taking additional courses when the time is right.

In the meantime, I am giving away the $250 course that Molly took and loved and actually learned Java with this year (thank you, Youth Digital for sponsoring it!).

Get entered to win Mod Design 1 by clicking on the Rafflecopter link on the right side of my blog (the one that says “a Rafflecopter giveaway”).

If you win, you will be emailed a voucher for the course that you will be responsible for redeeming for your completely FREE course from Youth Digital.

I will be drawing the winner on 12/12/2014.  If you win, you’ll be contacted by email.  If I do not get a response within 48-hours, I will draw another winner. Good Luck to everyone!

You can also purchase the course on Youth Digital’s website here or at 20% off at Amazon here.

I have not been compensated for this giveaway.  As I mentioned in my first post about Mod Design 1, I contacted Youth Digital to ask if they would be willing to let us try it out in return for a review on my blog.  They haven’t asked for any additional reviews, nor did they have any control over any content I have published.  I just think this has been a great find and want to share it with you.

Molly’s Mid-Way Update on Youth Digital’s Mod Design 1

We are about halfway through Mod Design 1, which I wrote about starting here.

As I wrote in my first post, Youth Digital promises this course will teach kids to program their own Mod (an alteration of the program code of a video game in order to make it operate in a manner different from its original version).  In doing so, students also learn the fundamentals of Java Programming.  Yay!

As I also mentioned in my first post, Youth Digital gives students 365 days to finish a course, which has really made this whole course stress-free.  Molly really likes that she is in complete control over when she does the sections and how quickly she moves through each section.  She thinks it is especially cool that she can do them later at night (her best time of day), in her pajamas, wrapped in Bucky (her special blanket/BFF) with a Ninja-Turtle mask on, if she wants.

Time for coding class, Kiddo!

Time for coding class, Kiddo!

Here are our mid-way impressions:


  •  The videos are very entertaining.  There’s an appropriate amount of humor targeted to her age.
  •  The videos contain suggested times to pause and carry out coding tasks.  These are generally well placed – not too short or long a time between pauses.
  •  Molly has enjoyed the selected modding tasks.  They are small and thus, simple to do.
  •  The difficulty of the tasks seems appropriate so far.  The structure is well thought out, with each lesson building on the previous.

In sum, Mod Design 1 is a very practical, task-based, learning activity. It’s building Molly’s practical computer science skills, like being careful with typing and syntax (computers have no mercy for typos), cutting and pasting, window/graphical user interface management, mouse skills, etc. She is also becoming comfortable with basic coding concepts like using named variables and objects to define how things work.  She’s learning how to be creative, while also being careful with her coding.


  • The quizzes are occasionally too GIMP and keyboard-shortcut centric.
  • The templates have contained two coding errors so far.  These were straightforward to fix with adult help, but were frustrating for Molly alone.  She really doesn’t like to ask for help!  Back on the PRO side, though, Youth Digital offers excellent customer support.
  • The fact that Molly is already eying up App Design 1 and Game Design 1, reminds me that Youth Digital courses are, although worth it in our opinion, pricey.


So far, as billed, this is a “show me how, then I do it” class with little “20,000 foot view” discussion.  We like that.  It is actually teaching Molly Java.  If theoretical discussion of computer science fundamentals is what you’re looking for, another course might be better.  For learning the Java basics in a fun but structured way, this course is the way to go.

Wondering if this is an advertisement?  It is not.

I have not been compensated for this review.  As I mentioned in my first post about Mod Design 1, I contacted Youth Digital to ask if they would be willing to let us try it out in return for a review on my blog.  They haven’t asked for any additional reviews, nor did they have any control over either review.  I just think this has been a great find and want to share it with you.

4 Summer Reading Programs to Prevent “Summer Slide” or Just for Fun

Do you worry about summer slide? According to Reading is Fundamental, “children who do not read over the summer will lose more than two months of reading achievement. Summer reading loss is cumulative. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer will be 2 years behind their classmates.

We homeschool year-round because we don’t separate “learning” much from our daily life anymore, so we don’t worry about summer slide.  We do, however, change up our schedule about every 6  weeks or so.  Starting now, here are four summer reading challenges we plan to participate in.  The kids love charting their progress and “winning” prizes.  Join us!


Joseph, back when he couldn’t read, just listening.

1.  Read any 8 books, record them in a journal you print from their website, bring the journal to a Barnes and Noble store between May 20th and September 2nd, and Barnes and Noble will give you a free book.  Find more information here.

2.  For TD Bank members, they’ll will give K-5th graders $10 if you complete their  form (which you can get here), list 10 books your read, and bring it to a local TD Bank by August 31st.

3.  Kids who read any 8 books from the Pottery Barn Kids recommended list by July 31st will receive a free book at participating retail stores.  Our absolute favorite from their recommendations is What Sisters Do Best/What Brothers Do Best by Laura Numeroff and Lynn Munsinger, which is going for about 1 penny, used, right now on Amazon.  One penny!  We got it when JohnJohn was born and I find us coming back to it over and over because the kids just love flipping it around to read it forward and backward!

4.  Scholastic is trying to set a new world record for summer reading minutes.  Help them by reading and logging minutes between now and September 5th here.  You can win books and other prizes as you go.  Register here.


Youth Digital, Learning Java with Minecraft Isn’t Just for The Kids!

Like so many others, my children are obsessed with Minecraft.  They learned how to play the game on the Minecraft PE App (which is a lighter version of the game made for the iPad) but discovered the full version at their cousins’ house about a year ago. Since then the two of them have saved every penny they were given or earned so that they could buy their own computer to play on.


Homemade Minecraft Bank, circa 2013.

Some people think Minecraft, a sandbox game, is the ultimate educational tool. While I do worry about screentime, I also agree that Minecraft is an awesome vehicle for learning almost anything.

Here are just a few of the areas I’ve watched my 5 and 7-year-old develop in as players roaming freely through their virtual worlds:

  • reading
  • spelling
  • grammar and punctuation
  • keyboarding
  • math
  • problem solving
  • governance/citizenship
  • geography
  • telling time
  • engineering
  • science
  • art
  • goal setting
  • discipline
  • time management
  • conflict resolution

The reason Minecraft is such a powerful learning tool is that it offers so much freedom to players, limiting them, mostly, only by their imagination. They can pretty much build or create anything they wish using the tools that Minecraft gives them.

Is that you, Leonardo?

Is that you, Leonardo?
Pixel Art from Minecraft Pixel Art von Higgins

Minecraft does have limitations, though, and in January of this year, Molly found one of them.  She wanted to change the color of an item (her sword) to look like her beloved blanket, Bucky.  But she couldn’t.

Orange and Pink Bucky, from the olden days.

Pink Bear and Orange Bucky on the left, Molly, and Striped Bucky on the right.

As I scoured the internet for instructions on modifying the game that even I could understand, I came across Youth Digital, which offers online programming and computer classes for kids.  They offer a course called Mod Design 1, which promises to teach kids to program their own Mod (an alteration of a program code of a video game in order to make it operate in a manner different from its original version) from scratch.  In doing so, students also learn the fundamentals of Java Programming.

Molly could learn to change her game as she wished, all while learning to code?  At her own pace?  And Joe or I could sit along with her?  Sounds good to me!

The course costs $249.99.  It’s recommended for ages 8-14.  Without knowing more than what I found on their website and from a few brief reviews online (Youth Digital was only started in 2010), I was hesitant to spend that kind of money on my 7-year-old.

I contacted Youth Digital to ask if they would be willing to let us try it out in return for a review on my blog.  After checking me out and deciding we were a good fit, they said yes.

We started the course right away.

Added benefit - - learning to code in your pajamas, with Dad, at night after he gets home from work!

Added benefit – – learning to code in your pajamas, with Dad, at night after he gets home from work!

So far we’ve gone through all the introductory steps like installing software and defining “Java” and things like that, plus, Molly learned how to make her own sword and modify its “recipe” for it.  We still have a ways to go but here are our initial impressions:

  • Youth Digital gives students 365 days to finish a course, which is good, because we blew 35 of them immediately after we signed up in tending to my Mom in NY.  The ability to work at your own pace is critical to making learning fun and possible.  It’s awesome to have the flexibility that time allows.  Yay, Youth Digital for making this pretty stress-free!
  • It is best to designate one computer for this course, as it will have several downloads on it.  I had hoped to bring the course to NY but it was too hard.  It may have been easy if I knew anything about computers, but I don’t, so I was afraid to try.
  • I watched the introductory videos with all three kids and they literally laughed out loud at Justin as he ran across the screen.  They loved his style!  He made a lot of jokes and he constantly reminded us of how to get help if we needed it.
  • You do not need any previous programming experience for this course.  You can even follow the lessons if you are a computer cooler, like me.
  • This is real Java programming.  As such, it is challenging, even for a 39-year-old.
  • Molly says the explanations make it “very easy”.  I agree, although I did need to hear some of them more than once.  We just replayed the videos as needed.
  • The site is easy to navigate.
  • The course is divided into segments and each segment includes a video, task(s), and a quick quiz at the end.  Each segment has taken us about 30-45 minutes, mostly because we like to play around with the game.  Sometimes we do only one segment.  Others, 2 or 3.
  • The review questions at the end of each lesson are, according to Molly, “just right” in difficulty.
  • So far, and we are really just getting started, there are no negatives.  I do wonder though, why this is just targeted at kids.  Learning to code Java through playing and changing a game like Minecraft is a great way to teach adults too!

I will write additional updates as Molly works through the course.  Let me know if you have questions and I’ll try to get them answered!

Did Anyone Notice AmazonSmile? Just in Time for the Holidays!

I have been a loyal Amazon customer ever since we lived in the Midwest, when Target was about 2-hours away.  Those days of 300+ inches of snow, pregnancies and newborns made it a no-brainer!  I don’t shop there as much as I used to, but today, as I started my Christmas shopping, I noticed a new program called “AmazonSmile”.  How have I not heard of this before?


AmazonSmile is a website operated by Amazon that lets customers donate 0.5% of the price of eligible purchases to a charitable organization of their choice.

It costs you and the non-profit nothing, and it’s just like shopping on Amazon normally, but it donates every time you shop.

You can change your charity at any time and search for or suggest new ones too!  I found The Keweenaw Family Resource Center when I searched, a small non-profit very near and dear to my heart!

Snowball fight, Yooper Style.  Pregnant with Jospeh, I culd barely get back up after Molly threw her snow!

Molly’s first snowball fight, Yooper Style.
Pregnant with Joseph, I could barely get back up after Molly threw her snow!

Items that are eligible for the donations will be marked as such on their product pages.  Unfortunately for crazy Amazon shoppers like me, Subscribe-and-Save purchases and renewals don’t count.

The only drawback is that you have to access the site via smile.amazon.com.

Here is a link to the FAQ about AmazonSmile.

If you’re a charitable organization and would like to be listed as a recipient, start here.

Obviously, this is a great marketing move on Amazon’s part, but a donation is a donation.  I sure wish they had this when I was a professional fundraiser!  I know what a difference even a small donation can make.

As one commenter on another piece announcing the program wrote, “Thank you Amazon for taking my monies and now making me feel good about it.”

Professional Development for Homeschoolers

I saved you a seat!

I saved you a seat!

Add to my bucket list taking a course from Coursera, one of several educational technology companies offering massive open online courses (MOOCs).

If you don’t know what a MOOC is yet, you really should click on the link.   Although not perfect (what is?), they are revolutionizing education by giving hundreds of thousands of students from around the world access to free, high-quality academic content (a lot like Khan Academy but on the collegiate level).  And they highlight learning for learnings’ sake even though some courses just received college credit recommendations.  I am starting to wonder if the exorbitant cost of U.S. higher education will be worth it when my kids get to that age!

Coursera works with over 60 schools including Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania (and Yale, starting this month!) to offer courses on pretty much any topic you can imagine.   In addition to all the fun courses you can take on art or songwriting or basic writing, or law, or film history, students can now search for courses through the teacher professional development category.

Personally, I would start with Teaching Character and Creating a Positive Classroom, or Moralities of Everyday Life, or Evolution:  A Course for Educators presented by, interestingly, The American Museum of Natural History.

The timing and length of each class is different, as are the rules, so check them out individually.  If I only had more time in the day!

Apps for Homeschoolers

I get a lot of questions about how we use technology in our house.  We don’t have TV but we do use the iPad and the computer for videos and games.  And while we do put limits on time usage, we generally just try to do what makes sense.  No arbitrary rules.

I also get a lot of requests for Apps that we use.  Most recently, someone asked for a list “of apps that a real homeschooler like yourself uses”.  I thought that was sweet and funny.  So, starting today, I will try to share Apps worth your attention.

Here is an App worth your attention:


My 19-month-old knows more about the iPad than I do

Endless Alphabet is an interactive dictionary.   The player picks a word.  The word appears on the screen with its letters jumbled around it.  The player then drags each letter to the right position on the word with his finger.  As he does, the letter he touches makes its sound.  Once all the letters are in place, the word is defined with a short animation.

This is an especially useful App because all three of my kids benefit from it:  it teaches my 19-month-old letter shapes and sounds, my 5-year-old letter sounds and combinations, and my 6-year-old vocabulary.  Everybody wins!

The App is free but they do charge you $.99 to remove ads, which I think is worth it.  I do wish they just charged me that up front though.

If you have any recommendations, please let me know!

Why I am a…

Just trying to find our way

Just trying to find our way

Just because we’re secular homeschoolers doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about religion and faith.  We do.  How could we not?  Religion is all around us.  Plus, whenever possible, we tie in morals and ethics when talking with the kids, no matter what the subject, and Religion has a lot to say about those!

Moreover, my kids (probably like yours) are constantly asking “why”.  “Why” and “how”.  For the biggies (for example, what happens when we die) after sharing our own thoughts, we might also talk about one or more of the major worldviews’ opinion on the subject.   It depends on how the question is asked.  When we do, sometimes I refer to Patheos for perspective.

Although not necessarily useful for young children, I visit Patheos as a resource for credible and balanced information on religion and spirituality.  They offer an impressive amount of information from thoughtful and compelling writers, organized into the following “channels”:










Progressive Christian


Each week, they post dozens of new pieces on a wide variety of topics.

I particularly enjoyed their recent blogger challenge, in which writers answered the question “Why I am a …” in 200 words or less.   Patheos’ assorted contributors wrote summaries on why they each follow their chosen paths.  Check it out, and find something to inspire your family, here.