May 20, 2015

Book Burst: Creative Writing

If your kids are anything like mine, putting a blank piece of paper and a pencil in front of them and asking them to make up a creative story or to write a report on a book they’ve read is like handing them a worm and asking them to eat it.  It’s torture for them.  And it brings tears and temper tantrums.  For that reason, I decided to come up with a new, fun way for my boys to both learn how to write a book report AND practice writing creative stories of their own.  Thus, Book Burst was born.  This exercise helped my boys enjoy writing, so I wanted to share it with you in hopes that your kids will benefit from it as well. 

Below are images of the Book Burst book report form.  The one on the left will take you to a jpeg image version (8.5x14 size), and the one on the right will take you to a Microsoft Word version, (8.5x14 size, but you can also choose 11x14) where you'll be able to edit the categories, if you'd like. 

Jpeg version
MS Word version
In this exercise, your child will choose and read a simple book.  We started with Golden Books.  As you and your child become more comfortable with this exercise, you can move on to more challenging books as you see fit.  This can easily be adapted for older kids, even into middle school, but choosing chapter books with a higher reading level.  But, for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll use Golden Books as our starting point.

Step 1:  Choose and read a book.

Step 2:  This is where the project got its name.  We’re going to “burst” the book open into its parts.  Go over the Book Burst page with your child.  You’ll notice 10 categories listed on each book spine. - title, characters, main character, setting, plot, six words, three important things, first sentence, last sentence, and moral of the story.

After reading the chosen book, your child will fill out the Book Burst page with information from his/her chosen book.  You’ll want to be sure your child understands what each category means.  I still occasionally need to remind my 12-year-old what setting, plot, and moral mean.  ‘Six words’ simply means for your child to write down six words from his/her chosen book that were new to him/her, or that he/she doesn’t remember the meaning of.  ‘Three important things’ is where your child will write three things that happened in the story that stood out as important.

Step 3:  Time to get creative!  We want our kids to be able to write stories of their own without it being a chore.  Using the Book Burst page as a prompt, your child will have all the building blocks for creating their new story.  

Using the characters, setting, six new words, and moral of the story that your child identified in the book he/she read, have them re-write the story into something completely different and new.  Be sure to emphasize that they're not just copying the story they read, and they're not just re-telling the story in their own words.  Instead, they're using the basic building blocks of that story to create a new story all their own (which is why they're not using the title, plot, three important things, or first/last sentences - these must all come from your child's imagination).

Turn the Pokey Little Puppy into a scary story.  Make the Little Engine that Could become a circus clown.  Introduce Brer Rabbit to Peter Cottontail.  Anything can happen!

If you think your kids need even more help with story writing creativity, check out my other creative writing project, Story in a Bag, where the kids begin with a few objects, build a book report outline with those objects, then write their story using the outline.  My boys loved Story in a Bag even more than Book Burst!  But both could be used together for a great creative writing project. 

Want to start even smaller and more simply?  Get your kids writing more creative sentences with Stretch-a-Sentence.  Start with "The dog", and end with "The chubby, mud-covered St. Bernard sat beside the white picket fence, staring at the lazy, hairless cat that lounged in the sunlight."  Turn it into an art project, too, but having your kids illustrate their finished product.  They'll love it!

Let me know what you think of these creative writing projects.  My kids thought they were fun, and their writing improved with each one.  I hope your kids have similar experiences.  Good luck!


May 3, 2015

Totally Worth the Wait Beef Stroganoff

Tonight for dinner I made the most delicious Beef Stroganoff I've ever had. 

I'm not a food blogger, but this was so good, I felt it just had to be shared. This Beef Stroganoff isn't quick, nor is it particularly simple to make.  But, I promise you, it's totally worth the effort!




1 lb. wide egg noodles
2 Tbsp. butter
2 large high-quality steaks
salt and pepper
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pints button mushrooms, stems removed, quartered
2 cups boiling water
3 tsp. Better than Boullion beef flavoring
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 Tbsp. flour
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/3 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp. parsley


Spray broiler pan with olive oil or non-stick spray.  Cut fat from steaks, then season with salt and pepper.  Place steaks on broiler pan, and place pan in broiler on lowest rack.  Broil steaks 4 minutes, flip, then broil 4 more minutes.  Check for doneness.  If steaks are too pink for your liking, broil 2 minutes at a time until desired doneness is reached.  Remove steaks from broiler and set aside.  Pour drippings from broiler pan into a small bowl and set aside.

In a large pot, melt butter.  Add mushrooms and sautee 20-30 minutes on medium-low heat until mushrooms are browned and shrunken.  Add reserved steak drippings.  Add onions and garlic.  Sautee an additional 10-15 minutes until onions are soft and begin to brown, stirring often.

In the meantime, combine water and beef flavoring and stir until combined.  Add 1/2 cup of the beef broth to the pot.  Let the mixture cook for an additional 5 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and flour until smooth.  Pour mixture into the pot and stir to combine.  Reduce heat and let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, slice the steak into approximately 1 inch by 1/2 inch pieces.  Add steak to the pot and stir to combine.  Stir in yogurt and sour cream until combined and let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season with additional pepper and parsley to taste.  

Serve over noodles.

There you have it.  Hopefully my instructions were clear.  Enjoy!

April 9, 2015

Quarterly Reports Revisited: simplifying the process

Almost 2 years ago, I began posting about how to homeschool in New York State, from submitting your Letter of Intent (LOI) to completing your Annual Assessment.  

This week, my own 3rd quarter report was due, but my family and I have been sick, and I just didn't have the energy to deal with it.  In my Quarterly Reports post, I shared a lengthy sample of how to write a quarterly report.  It's the way I've done it every year since we started homeschooling in 2011.  Until today.

In the name of expedience and stress reduction, I decided to simplify my quarterly report process this time around, so I revisited a sample provided by Angela of Cityschooling.

I like how short and simple it is, but I also felt the subject areas needed more detail in order to properly align with state regulations.  So I took the beginning of my lengthy reports and combined it with Cityschooling's shortened version, with just a little bit of added detail.  

It took all of 30 minutes to complete, compared to my usual several hours of going back through papers and textbook table of contents to figure out what we covered during the quarter.  I also decided to forgo the report card that I usually include with my quarterlies, since it is not required and just adds more work for me.

Below is what the end result looks like.  You're welcome to model your quarterlies after this, if you'd like, or stick with the longer report form I shared in my previous post.  Either way, I hope this helps you out.


Date:  April 10th, 2015

Student’s name:  Joe Smith

Quarter beginning and ending dates:  1/10/15 – 4/06/15

Hours of instruction this quarter:  250+

Joe is progressing at a satisfactory level or above in all subject matter.

We have had instruction in all the following areas, as per Section 100.10 of the Regulations of the New York State Commissioner of Education and Joe’s Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP): Arithmetic – long division, order of operations, writing fractions in higher terms and lowest terms, proper and improper fractions, equivalent fractions; Language Arts - spelling, penmanship, and reading; Social Studies – U.S. History and Geography, a study of the history of Sumo wrestling, and a study of the Louvre Art Museum; Science – mechanical advantage, load force and effort force, pulleys, a study of Geodes; Health/Safety – the ear, the eye, oral health, effects of drugs and alcohol; Music – weekly piano lessons including music history and theory; Visual Arts – line design, creativity prompts, introduction of grid drawing; Practical Arts – cooking and baking, household maintenance, introduction to building construction and electrical work; Physical Education, and Bible.

We have covered at least 80% of the planned material for this quarter.

Joe had ONE absence from instruction this quarter due to illness.

Mrs. Josephine Smith

Which method do you prefer?  Long or short?  Do you have a different method you like better?

March 20, 2015

FREE Simple Homeschool Planner 2015-16

It's the time of year amongst homeschoolers when parents are beginning to plan out the upcoming school year and searching for the perfect planner to help them get organized.

Last year, I was in the same boat.  But I couldn't find a planner anywhere that fit what I wanted.  So, I created my own, and shared it with all of you lovelies!

It worked perfectly for us, so I decided to go ahead and update it for the coming school year.  Same simple planner, new year.

Here's how it works:  

All pages are in PDF form, in hopes that the font I chose will remain intact whether you have it installed on your computer or not.  But, if it doesn't, I'm also including the ZIP file of the font that you can download, if you want.  Everything will work fine without it, though.

First, the cover page, which you can see in this image.  

Next, a full academic year (July 1st through June 30th) calendar page.  Here you can mark off planned days off, vacations, and holidays.  It's a year in review page.

Finally, monthly pages by subject, which is where you will fill in your lesson plans for each day.  One month per page.  When you print these, you can choose to either print them back to back (aka, duplex printing), or you can just print one month per page, which is what I prefer, so that when the pages are bound, the binding is always on the left side of the page I'm using.  

The subjects are color coded, but, to save on ink, you can print them monochrome.  Also, you'll notice there are only 5 days per week on the monthly pages.  They are Monday through Friday weeks.  I know, many of us school on the weekends, too, but I found the 5 day week planner to be most efficient for me.

After all pages are printed,  match up the month of July 2014 pages for each subject (putting them in whatever order you like), then match up August, and place them behind July, then September, and so on.

The subjects included in this planner are Math, English, History, Science, Health, and Bible.  There's also a calendar with no subject heading, which you can print as many times as you like to use for any other subjects you need a planner for.  Also, each subject's calendar is a separate file, so if you aren't teaching Health, for example, you can skip printing those pages.

The simplest way to bind your pages is with a 3-hole punch and a 3-ring binder.  You'll need a 1" to 1 1/2" binder.  I prefer the ones with the clear plastic cover where you can slide your cover page in the top opening.

Done!  Now you can start planning your days.

Let me know if you like this, if my instructions were clear, and if you have any suggestions.  Also, feel free to share the link with your homeschooling friends.  But, please, be sure to give credit where credit is due.  The link below will take you to Google Drive, where you can view and print the planner.   

Free Simple Homeschool Planner


March 17, 2015

A Homeschool Mom Apologizes: 10 things public schoolers believe - Part I

People who don't homeschool seem to not really know anything about homeschooling apart from the stereotypes perpetuated by social media memes and random (rare) news stories of psychopathic homeschool parents who locked their kids in a closet and starved them to death.

Many people think pocket protectors, social awkwardness, and parental abuse and neglect are the sum total of what homeschooling is.

And so, as a homeschooling momma, I feel I need to apologize on behalf of all the other homeschooling parents like me, to you, the public schooling parents who think we are doing our children a disservice.

I'm sorry my kids are different, maybe even a little weird.
Actually, this is one of those "sorry; not sorry" moments.  I'm sorry many of you feel that being different is necessarily a bad thing.  I'm not sorry that my kids don't conform to societal norms.  Frankly, I see that as a good thing.   I don't want my kids to keep up with the Joneses.  I want them to think for themselves, to follow after their own interests, and to not worry about the latest trends and fashions.  I want them to grow into much more deep and complex people than that.  

Just today, talking with my 12-year-old son about playing on the local playground, I asked him if that was something "cool" for kids his age to do.  He responded, "I don't care if it is.  I'm not trying to be cool.  I just want to be myself."

So, if my kids build the Eiffel Tower out of Legos and continue to think girls have cooties while other kids are texting on their smart phones and going to school dances where they make out with their girl/boyfriends, I will smile with pride and tell my kids what a good job they're doing.  And buy them more Legos.

I'm sorry you feel you couldn't do it.
Because, you could.  If it's really something you felt led to do, you could.  You'd figure it out.  But, when you say you couldn't do it, that's not really what you mean, is it?  More likely, what you mean is that you don't really know or understand what homeschooling is all about, and you don't know how you would go about it.  Or, what you mean is that it's not something you've ever felt you or your kids are led to do, so you've never given it any thought.

It's unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  That's okay.  We understand.  We've been where you are. 

But there are single mothers who homeschool effectively while working two or more jobs, completing online degrees, and raising multiple children.  Maybe some day you'll want to learn more about it.  Maybe not.  But believe me when I tell you - yes, you could do it.  We're living proof!

I'm sorry you think a child should be in the public school system in order to be properly "socialized".
What is it, exactly, that you mean by "socialization"?  I suspect you mean social interaction with other kids their own age.  I suspect you mean, "How will your kids learn to make friends?"  Or, "How will your kids learn to interact appropriately with people outside your own home?"  More specifically, I think you mean that without peer interaction within a public school setting, homeschooled kids will be socially awkward.  Weird.  At the same time, though, I think you mean, "How will your kids play sports, and don't you feel as though you're depriving them of important moments in the life of typical students - like pep rallies, and the prom?"

My knee-jerk reaction is to ask how often in your own daily life you find yourself sitting at a desk quietly for nearly 8 hours a day amongst 30 people your same age where you're only allowed to interact with them for a total of about 1 hour of those 8.  Is that what you call socialization?  Of course, that's slightly exaggerated, but only slightly.

My more rational response is this:  

If socialization is the way in which a child learns to interact with the outside world beyond their own home and immediate family, then I promise you we are meeting - and probably exceeding - your expectations.

Most homeschoolers I know have so much going on in their schedules that it makes me exhausted just to hear about it.  And, yes, there are also some homeschoolers who fit the stereotype of never leaving the house and  living in a bubble all their lives.  Those, however, are the exception, not the norm.  My family falls somewhere between the two extremes.  Here's what our typical schedule looks like:

On Sundays, we attend church.  This isn't just sitting in a pew and listening to a Bible lecture.  My 10-year-old joins in the children's church program.  He is with about 30 other kids ranging in age from 4 to 11.  They hear a Bible lesson, they sing songs, they play games, they make crafts, and more.  They are not restricted from interacting with each other, as kids are in a classroom setting.  My 12-year-old is too old for children's church, so he volunteers as an assistant with the younger kids.  He helps teach the Bible lessons and helps to keep the kids from getting too wild.  It amazes me how many little kids find him at other times throughout the week and run up to give him a hug.  The adult teachers of the children's program rave about how good he is with the kids and how helpful he is to the teachers.

On Tuesdays, we attend a local homeschool cooperative group.  A simple way to describe it is set up in a similar way that public school is.  Parents teach numerous different subjects, and the kids are broken down into age groupings.  They choose which subjects they want to learn.  There are class periods each day, so they get to take 3 classes.  During their classes, they are grouped with kids their same ages (give or take a couple years), and they sit at tables and listen to the teacher, similar to public school.  Before and after classes, however, all the kids - from age 0 to 12th grade, and all their parents - play together in the gymnasium, have lunch together, work on projects together, and are responsible for cleaning up the building before they leave - together.

On Wednesdays, both boys take piano lessons.  This requires them to interact with an adult one-on-one.  Once a month, though, the piano teacher holds a joint workshop for all her 20 students where they all get together to listen to a seasoned musician play for them as well as just hanging out with kids and adults who share their interest in piano.  Twice a year, they take part in a recital, performing in front of all the other students and their families.

After their piano lessons on Wednesdays, they participate in our church's after school religious education program, which we call Wild Wednesday.  About 50 kids from the local public school get out of school early and meet at our church where they learn a Bible lesson and how to apply it to their daily lives.  They sing songs, do crafts, and play games.  My 10-year-old takes part as a student along with the other kids ranging in age from 1st grade to 5th grade.  My 12-year-old is, again, too old to participate, so he works as a volunteer, assisting the Children's Pastor with anything she needs, and, again, being a role model to the younger kids.

On Thursdays evenings, both boys with their dad attend a program called Christian Service Brigade, which is similar to Boy Scouts, but is specifically Christian oriented.  They interact with other boys (and their dads) between the ages of 7 and 12 where they learn hands-on life skills as well as how to apply that week's Bible lesson to their lives.  Despite its name, not all the kids who attend are Christians.  So my boys have had to learn to get along with some rough around the edges kids.

On Fridays, once a month, our whole family attends what is called Fab Friday at our church.  It's a family oriented event with a different theme each month, and the purpose is simply family-friendly fun.  We have movie nights, talent shows, pizza and games nights, cookie decorating, sometimes we go bowling or roller skating, and once a year the kids have an overnighter.  My boys get to interact with people ranging in age from 0 to 100+.  They play foosball with fourth graders and puzzles with parents, and they look forward to it every month.

This schedule is just a normal week.  During the warmer months, my boys attend a summer Bible camp and a basketball camp.  My youngest plays summer soccer.  We go camping with friends and family.  And year-round, they invite friends from the neighborhood over for biking, or go-carting, or sledding, depending on the weather.

This is not atypical of homeschooling families.  Most have similar schedules.  You tell me:  are my homeschooled kids lacking in socialization?  Sure, they may never go to a prom, but honestly, if that's the measure of a successfully socialized kid, well.... I'm happy to keep my kids weirdly unsocialized

Photo credit:  Thomas Hawk
Meme credit:  used with permission by Hip Homeschool Moms
Do any of these resonate with you?  If you're a homeschooler, do you hear them often from non-homeschoolers?  If you're a public schooler, have you ever thought these things?