Tuesday, January 7, 2014

January is the new September. It is.

We're on Christmas break right now. We ended school at home on Wednesday, December 18th; the 19th and 20th were our last co-op days. We return to co-op this Thursday and resume school at home next Monday. As I always do on Christmas break, I'm using this time to tweak our schedule and curriculum as needed.

My friend Tiffany will tell you I frequently say "January is the new September". This is the perfect time to make changes to your homeschool. Got curriculum that just isn't working? Ditch it now. Are you absolutely, thoroughly wiped out at the end of the school? It may be time to revamp your schedule. Worried because your school year started slow, picked up a little steam but began sputtering again around the holidays? Take a few days to chart the next semester. Preparation may be the boost you need.

By now, you should know if a curriculum or text is working--for both you and your student. The best instruction for your child will be the one that perfectly joins his learning style to your teaching ability. That should be the main criteria. If a 20 year old text you picked up at a thrift store works better than the new book you've seen reviewed on a dozen homeschool sites, the thrift store tome is the one you use.

I've seen parents reluctant to part with a curriculum because it cost a small fortune and they fear discarding it will be a waste of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slogging onward with no success not only represents a waste of money, but a waste of time--as the child won't retain the material and you will end up re-teaching the subject later. Trust me, I know.

A few years ago, it seemed everyone was jumping on the Latin foreign language bandwagon. We did, too. A certain curriculum was declared the best thing going and several of my friends purchased it and we followed suite.

It was awful. I don't mean it was a good curriculum that just didn't work for us, I mean it was truly awful. When my girls (the oldest was in middle school at the time) began picking out errors on the DVD, I dropped it. I wasn't concerned that the text, workbook and DVD combined cost nearly $100. My girls dreaded that class and we ended up skipping foreign language for a while as I researched other options.

I found another Latin program and we began in February of the following year. By the time the school term ended in June, the girls had made a lot of progress. The reason? When you find the right curriculum you will make up the lost time.  (By the way, the program we switched to was Visual Latin. Get a free trial at the website).

We worked across the summer to catch up and started the second session in September of the next school year.

Sometimes you may need to switch a curriculum for other reasons. We used Mystery of History for a time. My girls loved it, so did I. I learned things from that text I didn't learn in school. The timeline: brilliant. The multi-level teaching schematic: awesome.

Problem was, I didn't have time for the prep and supplementary work it required. I'm a freelance writer and at the time, I was on assignment with two periodicals. We switched to a textbook for the next year. My older daughter took an online class that combined literature with history and has fulfilled those credit requirements. Grace has told me she'd like to return to Mystery of History when she begins high school in two years and we will.

I'm happy with the curriculum we're currently using. I've mentioned them here.

Our schedule may change this time around. The 16 year old is job-hunting. Her dad and I have agreed she can work a few hours on two days: Thursdays and Saturdays. We may need to move her Thursday classes earlier in the week.

What I'm doing this week is reviewing each book, marking the table of contents with the changes I need to make, searching online resources (Khan Academy, YouTube, PBS, et al) for information that will supplement what they are learning. I'm making sure I've got Beth's work graded and keeping an eye on her transcript. I keep all of this information in my planner, which is really a multi-subject spiral notebook. Classy, I know.

Those books you bought that no longer work for you--sell them. There are websites aplenty where homeschooling parents buy and sell both new and used curriculum. I've purchased and sold on If you live in the Hampton Roads area, drop by the Moore Expressions homeschool store in Virginia Beach. Cherrie and staff are more than willing to point you in the right direction curriculum-wise and offer assistance with other homeschooling issues. Find them here.

Take some to review your school and be brave enough to make the changes needed to ensure your student's success. Let's finish this school year strong.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Homemade hand soap

If you're like me, you're concerned about both the cost and the ingredients of some personal and household cleaning products. The ingredient list on shampoos, make-up and lotions are way long with odd sounding, harmful chemicals. Not good.

The thought that everything that I put on my skin is actually absorbed into my body makes me a bit nervous. Same thing with the products we use to clean our homes. My eyes water at the mention of Pine Sol. My mother-in-law uses it to clean. I think her ratio is a gallon of Pine Sol to two tablespoons of water. ONE WHIFF and I get a horrific, hours-long headache. I'm not exaggerating. I dropped by on one of her cleaning-day Thursdays, caught a whiff, immediately left but still spent the rest of the day in bed with my head pounding. Ugh.

I've discovered you can make your own personal and household cleaning products that work just as well  as what you purchase in stores. The cost savings are huge- often pennies on the dollar. When you factor in the safety, going the DIY route makes perfect sense.

I've made my own laundry detergent for a couple of years but I'm saving that for another post. Today we're discussing liquid hand soap- the kind you keep on the bathroom sink. It seemed like I was constantly buying the stuff. Well, no more. 

Start here:

Begin with a bar of soap. I don't like the perfumes and dyes used in most soap, so I use Ivory. You can always add a few drops of essential oil at the end if you prefer a scent. A castile soap can also be used. Some of those are already scented. Grate the soap. I used the side of grater with the large slicers. If you don't have a grater, use a knife with a large/sharp enough blade for a thin chop. The soap has to melt and the thinner the slice, the quicker that part of the job. NOTE: This is the grater I use when making laundry detergent. You'll need a separate one for cooking.
This is what you'll end up with:
Add four cups of water to a large pot and bring it to a low boil. Reduce the heat and slowly stir in the grated soap. Stir regularly for about five or six minutes. It'll look like nothing at all is happening. Try not to fall asleep.
As soon as all the soap flakes are dissolved, remove the pan from the stove. It won't look like soap at all. It actually looks like the cloudy dishwater after a load of dishes, just without the bits of food you didn't scrape off the plate. There may or may not be a bubble or two trying to form. You'll actually read over this post thinking you've skipped a step. You haven't. This is now mine looked:

Remove the pan from the heat. I covered mine, reminded the kids not to toss it out, and distracted myself with the half million other things I had going on at the moment.
Half an hour later, it was a bit more cloudy but still thin. I checked it occasionally; seemed nothing was happening. I wondered if I'd need to throw this out and begin again. I watched part of a movie then went to bed. This is what I found the next day: 
It was thick, white and gel-like, but couldn't be poured into a soap dispenser. I put the pan back on the stove with minimal heat--I used the #2 setting.
I slowly poured in water- about half a cup, while stirring the glob. One minute in, I got this:
The consistency was right, but there were still lumps. Another quarter cup or so of water and more stirring. It was breaking down nicely. Notice that I've removed it from the heat at this point.
Bubbles!  More stirring, a bit more water before the lumps were gone and it could be poured.
I got my funnel and jars.
I poured some in my bathroom decanter and the rest into an empty plastic bottle that I'll keep in the cabinet for refill. This is where you'll add scent if desired. I stirred in two drops of castile soap before I starting pouring. This stuff is natural and has a nice smell. It's also potent- a little will do a lot. Use your own judgement when it comes to essential oils but remember a little goes a long way.
That old orange juice bottle holds 56 ounces, the decanter holds 8. For less than $1 (the Ivory soap came in a bundle of three and cost $1.99), I have half a gallon of hand soap.
 On my bathroom cleaning days when I straightening out the cabinet, I make sure to give the big bottle a shake.
Two things: There's a chance the soap wouldn't have gotten thick/lumpy had I not gone to bed before pouring. It could also mean that I should add a more water in the beginning.  I'll try both the next time. Still, I'm satisfied with my first attempt. It's been three days and it still works like a charm.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Entryway redux & intro to Use What You Have Monday

I started the entryway redo just before the holidays. Here is the summary of part one with a reminder of the end result:

That post represented the largest part of the makeover, which will be completed in four sections.

Today we're discussing part two. You can't see it in this picture, but the ceiling light fixture was an old, 70's style round glass globe that had to be unscrewed in order to replace the light bulb. I did not like it. I did not like it at all.

I also didn't have pockets deep enough to change out the ugliness.  All manner of  DIY lighting projects have been popping up in blogs and on Pinterest for a while now- from repurposed lamp shades to homemade covers made from embroidery hoops, bird cages, and mason jars--the possibilities are just about endless. I knew if I set my mind to it, I could come up with a low-cost solution.

In the end, my project came in at zero dollars and zero cents. That's right: not a single penny.
I cut the bottom of out small wicker wastebasket I already had. I didn't even have to paint it;  it was already blue. 

 I was going to complicate matters and use small screws to affix to the wall, but in the end decided construction adhesive was the way to go.  Genius, right? The basket is so small and lightweight that it won't cause a lot of damage should I decide to change it out. I put a little construction adhesive on the edge of the basket, then I held it in place for a few minutes and she was done. I love how it complements the space.

Some light covering tutorials give instructions for covering the bottom of the piece, so that you don't look up and see the light bulb. Lightweight plexiglass cut to size is the usual answer. I skipped that here, as I did with the upgraded light in the dining room. The standard bulbs will be replaced with  with compact fluorescents, which will give off a softer light and are most cost efficient. They're a lot easier on the eye and I won't mind seeing them when I look up.

I used a generic brand of a Liquid Nails equivalent. You'll always find paint, adhesive caulk and salsa in this house.   Stay tuned for part 3.  Hopefully, I'll have the stairs painted by then. (We're still rocking that primer.....)

This in our inaugural post in 'Use What You Have Monday'--low or no cost upgrades using what you already have on hand. Feel free to add your re-do.  Please link directly back to your post, and post projects that are less than three weeks old. Looking forward to seeing your work!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

2013-2014 curriculum

Today I'm sharing what my girls are studying this school year. In keeping with the theme of this blog (and how I choose to live in general), we've not spent a dime more than is necessary. 

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: it doesn't take a boatload of money to properly educate children. If you've got the time and patience to research, a library card, computer access and a nearby thrift store with great books or a homeschool book store, you have all you need for an effective, low-cost curriculum.

If you're considering homeschool as an option, or if you're already teaching at home, be careful of the curriculum bandwagon that equates popularity with proficiency. It drives the cost of curriculum through the roof.

For example, there is a certain computer math curriculum that is all the rage right now.  It cost more than $100 for each grade level, so if you have two kids, you've spent over $200 smacks on math alone.

My problem: math hasn't changed. No matter how many bells and whistles you add to the mix, there is only one way to learn math: memorization of basic facts then learning the formulas. That's it. And you can learn that free online or with a library book or for next to nothing with a pre-owned or less than popular text. If you prefer to teach online or use a website to supplement, there is Kahn Academy, IXL, and a host of other sites to help. Just google.

Know that the cost of a text can have very little bearing on its effectiveness. Though we assume the opposite to be true, there are pricey books that are rubbish and inexpensive books that seem heaven-sent. Personally, I prefer older books, especially history books.

I've gotten the girls' input on occasion. I took Grace with me to our local homeschool bookstore to choose her science book.  I got Beth's o.k. on the free online psychology class after we both found the book she was using a bit boring. (Thank heavens it cost only $2.00).

Though I don't spend any more than I have to, I have decided that should I find a curriculum or text that cost megabucks, I would purchase it if it were the only thing I felt would work. So far that hasn't happened and I've got nearly twenty years under my belt.

Our homeschool days begin the same on Monday through Thursday:  half hour of Bible reading followed by current events. We attend a co-op on Fridays.

The Bible reading is personal. The girls aren't tested and I don't require scripture memorization. (We have an actual topical Bible study later in the week.) We do this because the girls need to read the Word on their own.  I know the Holy Spirit is leading this 'class'. On more than one occasion, we've been studying another subject altogether and one of the girls will mention a scripture or lesson she learned or that was illuminated during that private time.

This is our first year studying current events. Our young people have more knowledge at their fingertips now than at any time but that potential must be harnessed, otherwise peer and social network interaction will stuff them full of the latest boy band or video game.

I teach at our co-op and am still surprised when my students can name every member of One Direction or list the intricacies of Minecraft but can't name our Vice President. And these are juniors and seniors who'll soon navigate the world on their own. Frightening.

 We want our kids prepared spiritually, intellectually and socially.  We use CNN Student News for current events. It's today's news from around the world given in 10 minutes bites. Each broadcast has a lesson plan with vocabulary, study and discussion questions. We've had great discussions during this time, and they're occasionally assigned a research paper. Because we co-op on Fridays, we watch the Monday through Thursday reports. In order to test their long-term memory and their note-taking skills, each Monday starts with a test of the prior week's information before beginning that day's lesson. 

We DVR each program, but you can sign up at the website and watch it online as well.  Now my girls know Naill, Harry and the guys AND can explain the recent government shut-down.

The girls also study Latin together. We struggled through a popular Latin curriculum but it didn't work for us. We now use Visual Latin. The girls love it. The dvd program is a half hour lesson followed by five or six worksheets. We use the DVD on Tuesdays, then I make up follow up work on Thursdays.

Because Bethany is older, we've added  Hans Orberg's Lingva Latina to her study. Written entirely in Latin, it supplements Visual Latin's program nicely. In fact, Dwayne- the Visual Latin instructor, recommends it and gives a schedule that aligns the chapters of books. Beth is required to read a chapter or two daily while I check her via Google Translate.

Bethany's 11th grade curriculum:
Geometry (Harold Jacobs. Free- library)           
Biology  (Abeka.  $20 text & teacher's book, used)          
Psychology  (Free- online: Carnegie Mellon University)

Bethany also takes a few classes at the co-op: 
    Shakespeare (Free- library book & lecture)
    Economics  (Thomas Sowell. $25 new)

Bethany's total: $45

Grace's 7th grade curriculum:
Fundamentals of Math  (Bob Jones. $1)
Physical Science (Prentice Hall   $12.00)
Enjoyment of Music  (Forney and Machlis   $2.50)

Grace's co-op classes:
   Government (no book cost.Teacher worksheets) 
   Grammar  (Easy Grammar $10)
   Geography ($5 atlas. Teacher developed curriculum)
   Math Games  (no book cost. Reinforces facts)
   Worship band  (no cost. Gracie already owns violin)

Grace's total: $30.50
 Beth's total:    45.00
Visual Latin    40.00 (for 30 lessons)
Latin Reader     5.00

TOTAL:      $120.50

What I've paid for two students some homeschool moms spend on one subject for a single child. Again, if you can justify spending that kind of money, go for it. But if you're like most homeschool families, funds are tight as you've sacrificed an income (or least part of an income) so that the children could be taught at home.

Don't think your child's education will suffer because you lack deep pockets. If you take the time to research and plan, you can save money and brain cells when purchasing curriculum. Feel free to drop me a line if you have questions or need help.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Decorate for free? You bet!

The adage 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' really resonates with me. I've been known to grab discarded household items off the curb. Don't judge.

I found two window frames at the site of a remodel. I brought them home and put them on the wall in my bedroom. I was going to sand and paint them, but decided I liked  them the way they were.

The one by the sitting area has the Father's Day and birthday cards from Bethany and Grace to their dad.

 This one is on my side of the room. I got that cute sign from Wal-Mart.

I mentioned in an earlier post the shutters I found on the side of the road that I used in my kitchen. This picture was taken a while ago, when I was in my Tuscany/Olde World decorating stage. The kitchen looks totally different now and I've since thrown these shutters out. Maybe somebody got them off the curb.....

If you haven't heard of Freecycle, you're in for a treat.

Freecyle is an online Yahoo email group that allows people to share items they no longer need with others. It's the ultimate in recycling. Clothes, sofas, books, and the like are posted on the site. Interested parties will contact you by separate email to arrange pickup. No money changes hands. All items are free.

 Items may be transferred in the safety of a public place, such as a parking lot.  Most common is the porch pick-up, where potential new owners send a private email informing what time/date they can retrieve the item from the current owner's porch.

I can't decide what I like best about Freecycle: the reduction of waste, the free treasures you find or the chance to pass on an item that still has some life but no longer works for you.

Sign up for Freecycle here. You can get started as soon as you choose your state and city.

When I was going through the aforementioned Tuscany/Olde World decorating phase, I really wanted upholstered chairs at my dining room table. I found two wing chairs listed on Freecycle. I kept them for two years. When I re-did that room, I placed the chairs on Freecycle and they were picked up within hours.

Freecycle does have a downside. No-shows are frustrating. I've actually thrown items out because a person who promised to stop by didn't. A few times they were picked up from the curb. 

You never know what you'll find on Freecycle. If you've got the imagination, you can use it to your decorating advantage. Someone posted a few empty frames and I snapped them up.

 I used the first one in the master bath. I didn't add a mirror or picture. I used it to frame a plate instead.

 I added another frame over the linen bureau on my husband's side of the bedroom. Same set-up: the frame is framing a candle holder.

You're ignoring the dust on top of the dresser, right? Thanks.

The last frame in the set was reserved for the dining room. It has a gold metallic finish. It's used to frame a smaller red mirror.

Free decorating? It can be done.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Bench Love

I mentioned in a previous post how much I love benches. I've got several. They're different but share one similarity: each started its life as a coffee table. True story.

The first bench is in our living room. That's my baby girl Gracie working on her geography in homeschool.

I love that detail in the middle of the table. All I did here was paint the legs black.

There are two coffee table-turned benches in the dining room.  The one at the table was originally wood that I painted black and had hubby add wheels to.
I painted the bench years ago, before I knew about priming wood before painting. A newbie error that I've never got around to correcting. We had a friend over for dinner once who thought that I'd painted the bench then sanded a portion off to give it that weathered look. Yeah, let's go with that.

This table turned bench will be our focus today. It was also wood painted black, but with flat paint instead of semi-gloss as that's all I had at the time. It's home to a pillow and cat bed, both of which are in abundance at Casa Nichols.

I got a wild hair tonight and decided to cover it with the wall hanging that lost its home after the entry-way makeover. The colors work in the room and it's nearly the perfect size.

Thanks for your help, Simon.
I plan to finish it off with batting and upholstery tacks. A quick tip: if you need upholstery tacks and your funds are low, skip the fabric store. I got these at Lowe's for around $2 a pack and each pack contains 25 tacks. Various finishes and styles are available. I chose an antiqued finish.
This bench re-do is part of a larger project: I also plan to re-upholster the head chairs at the dining room table. I'll post pictures when I'm done with the entire project. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ten things that will kill your homeschool

10 Reasons Homeschooling Can Fail

Homeschooling is a wonderful blessing, but homeschooling is not an easy road.  There have been plenty of people who have started and stopped for a variety of reasons.  Here are some reasons that homeschooling can fail and how you can avoid them.

1.  No Support – Homeschooling is not easy.  Perhaps you are trying to homeschool without the support of your spouse, perhaps it’s your parents or your in-laws, swimming upstream is tough and frankly it can wear you out!

 2.  Isolated -  Not knowing another “IRL” (In Real Life) homeschooling family or at least another homeschooling mom can make life challenging.  On-line connections are wonderful and have been such a blessing to me, but never getting to hang out face to  face with another friend who shares your same lifestyle can be tough.

3.  Too Busy -  Having the days and the weeks filled up for every child doesn’t leave much time for much book learning, or much time down time for mom or the child.  That can lead to burn out quick.  It’s okay for kids to have “nothing” to do once in a while.

 4.  Trying to do School at Home – Trying to recreate public school at home not only isn’t going to work very well, frankly it’s not that much fun.  So, leave your hair net for the real lunch ladies and carve your own course.

5.  No Structure, No Organization – Just because you don’t have bells ringing every 45 minutes and your kids don’t have to raise your hands to go to the bathroom, doesn’t mean that structure and organization aren’t necessary.  Particularly if you are a mom of many, having a routine is essential.

6.  Not Paying Attention to How A Child Learns – Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole is going to leave you banging your head on the table.  Take some time to figure out how your child best learns and proceed accordingly, it will make all the difference.

7.  Unrealistic Expectations – Homeschooling has gotten some good and well deserved attention over the years for some of the students who have done exceptionally well.  We all aren’t homeschooling little Einsteins.  That’s okay.  Our goal should be to help educate our children to their fullest potential, whatever that may be.

8.  Not Giving it Enough Time – Bailing too early.  A semester, perhaps even one year may not be enough time to see if homeschooling is a good fit or not.  Most likely it will take longer for your family to find a good rhythm.

9.  Switching Curriculum Constantly – Purchasing new curriculum constantly is not only a financial drain, it’s a drain to the teacher and the students.  It takes extra brain power to get the feeling of a new curriculum.  If you are constantly stopping and starting, you are never giving yourself or your students the opportunity to really dig in.  Here’s a little secret: there is no perfect curriculum!

 10.  It’s Run it’s Course -  This is definitely not a “failure.” Life holds different seasons for all of us, and maybe at some point homeschooling has run it’s course for one or more of our children.  Life circumstance change, children change, we change.  It’s okay to acknowledge that what was once working well is no longer working.  Homeschooling allows for so much flexibility, that means starting and stopping as well.

Jen blogs about adoption and homeschooling at her blog  Forever, For Always, No Matter What

She wrote this article for her friends at The Homeschool Classroom