September 25, 2014

Cutting Back at Christmas: avoiding the budget blowout

Two things you want;
Two things to wear;
Two things for learning;
Two things to share.

I was tempted to write nothing more than the above little ditty, because it really does sum up what my hubby and I are planning to do in purchasing Christmas gifts for our boys this year.

I've been wracking my brain, trying to figure out a way to cut back on our gift-giving expenses.  It just all seems so extravagant, and we really don't have the funds to continue spending the way we have in past years.  Plus, there's a good chance we'll be adding a new member to our family this Christmas, and I know I'm going to want to spoil her.  My step-daughter will be welcoming a new baby girl, making me a Gramma for the first time at the tender age of 38.  Gosh!  I feel so old!  But, I digress.

Today, my mind wandered while I watched the minutes tick by, wishing I could be outdoors in the warm sunshine, since there aren't many such nice days left before the snow flies, and the idea hit me.  I'd heard similar ideas before.  Something along the lines of giving one thing they want, one thing they need, one thing to read, and.... I can't quite remember the fourth category.  As I pondered it, though, I realized that model doesn't really fit us.  My boys detest reading, so that would be a wasted gift.  And, they don't really need anything, either.  Which leaves one thing they wants, and one thing..... that I can't remember.

Yes, I know Christmas is not about the gifts, but gift-giving is a part of our family traditions, and both giving and receiving gifts is something we all enjoy.  I just can't imagine only giving my boys two gifts.  It would be a let-down, not only for them, but for me!  I love giving gifts to my kids!  I love the looks on their faces when they see what's inside the packaging!  I love the smiles and the hugs and the thank-yous.  Basically, I love making them happy, which I do all year long without gifts, but Christmas time just brings something more magical to it.

The only problem, then, is the cost of all that gift-giving.  We really stretch our budget, and, oftentimes, break it.  That's not something I want to face this year, because it causes stress at a time when we should be focusing on enjoying time with family and friends, and on the true meaning of Christmas, of course - the birth of Christ.

So, to try to avoid the stress, and to (hopefully) not break the bank, this year we'll be trying this new approach:

Two things you want;
Two things to wear;
Two things for learning;
Two things to share.

What do you do to avoid busting your budget at gift-giving times like Christmas?


September 17, 2014

Prioritizing Extracurriculars

The question came up a couple of times lately - what extracurricular activities do your kids take part in, and how do you prioritize them?

At first,  I just listed off the activities my boys are in.  But, after I saw the question again, I started to think more about it, and we actually do have a structure to the way in which we decide what (regularly scheduled) activities to participate in.

Faith.  Family.  Fellowship.

The motto of our home school is this:  God first.  Everything else falls in line.

To that end, the activities we choose first are those that help in building our faith.  Apart from attending church services on Sunday mornings, our boys are part of three other regularly scheduled activities sponsored by our church that occur during the public school year.  

First is what our church calls Wild Wednesdays.  You may have heard of Christian Religious Education, which is a program where public school students go to a local church during the last hour of school one day a week and are taught about the Christian religion  Wild Wednesdays is just that, but with a lot of fun activities thrown in, too.  My youngest son is in one of the Wild Wednesday groups, and my oldest is a group helper.

Next, the boys and their dad meet with other boys and their dads at our church one night each week for Christian Service Brigade, which is a program similar to boy scouts, but with a greater emphasis on Christian living, and is intended to build a strong bond between the boys and their male mentors.

Finally, as a family, we attend what our church calls Fab Fridays.  Once a month, we meet with other families from the community at our church for a night of fun.  Everything is family friendly and Christian oriented, but there's not usually a specific message or teaching.  It's just a night where we play games, eat snacks, make crafts, and generally have tons of fun!

After activities that strengthen our faith, we choose those that strengthen our family.  I already mentioned one above - Fab Fridays.  That falls into both the faith and family categories.  Currently, it's the only organized activity we're involved in as a family, but, if we have the opportunity to do something together (such as camping or field trips), we'll choose those things before choosing others (like sports or music lessons).

The third category we have for choosing extracurricular activities is for those that encourage fellowship.  In other words, everything else.  Sports, music lessons, technology, friends, summer camps, etc..  

Up until this summer, our boys have participated in our town's Little League program every year since they were 5 years old.  This year, my youngest chose to play soccer instead.  They made it to every game and every practice.... unless it fell on a night that one of our faith or family building activities was scheduled for.  Which usually meant they weren't starters on their teams, but that was just fine with us.  They still had fun and learned the sport as well as teamwork, but they also learned that God and family come first, which we feel is important for them to understand.

The last extracurricular activity the boys take part in regularly is piano lessons.  They travel with me when I go to work on Wednesdays and take their lessons from our Pastor's wife, who lives next door to my office.  Wednesdays, as you'll remember from earlier, is also the day for Wild Wednesdays, so after their piano lessons they simply walk across the parking lot from the parsonage to the church building, ready for Wild Wednesdays to begin.

So far, I've talked only about activities that we have scheduled on a regular basis.  Often, though, opportunities come up for the boys to get involved in an activity or program that takes place for a smaller chunk of time.

For example, in the summers, they attend our church's VBS program, which lasts just for one week.  They also attend both a summers sports camp and a summer Bible camp, each lasting for one week.  Last year, my oldest son performed in his first play with a local school that offered parts to area homeschoolers.  He had a couple practices each night for about 2 months, then two nights of the final performance.  Lastly, as a family, we take a few weekends each month in the summers to go camping (RVing, really) and to go on field trips (A.K.A., vacations).

We tend to work the temporary activities into and around our regularly scheduled ones and make some allowances for changes, depending on the activity.  For example, in order for my oldest to be eligible to perform in the play he was in, the director required each performer miss no more than two practices.  Because it was important to him, and because we anticipated it being a growth experience for him (and it was), we placed high priority on it for the two months it lasted.

I feel it's important to prioritize your child's extracurricular activities, or you can end up feeling overwhelmed and drowning in all you have to do.  Our schedule may look full and busy on paper (or computer screen), but when we know what our priorities are, we know when we can say no to something.  Being too busy can have a negative effect on both faith and family, and since those are the two most important priorities for us, it's easy to cut something out of the schedule to be sure we maintain our health in both those areas.

How do you prioritize your child's extracurriculars?  Do you have a system?  Or are you feeling overwhelmed?  Let's chat!

September 9, 2014

Great Curriculum Adventure II

I'm running just  teensy bit behind schedule this year, as far as purchasing curriculum is concerned.  Oh!  Wait!  We homeschool.  There is no schedule.  Silly me.  Okay, maybe I'm just feeling the crunch, because we've done no formal lessons since June, and it's nearly September.  I feel as though all the knowledge gained last year is seeping out of my boys' brains like water through a sieve the longer we go without lessons.  I think I was better prepared last year.

Let's jump into it, shall we?

Last year we used Bob Jones University Press' Math 5 for my 6th grader.  It was a success!  We rarely had to fight over math work.  But, we also only made it a little over half way through the book.  So, this year, we'll be sticking with BJU, but I also wanted to try out something about which I've heard rave reviews - Teaching Textbooks.  They are CD-ROM based lessons with a workbook to reinforce the lessons.  On first glance, the first half of Teaching Textbooks 7 seems to be review of what we did in BJU 5 last year, so we're going to do a mixture of BJU 5, BJU 6, and TT 7.  Should be interesting!

My younger son is still a math whiz.  Last year, we started multiplication, and you'd think he'd been doing it since birth.  Thank goodness!  Because I am horrible at math and was not looking forward to teaching this to him.  Last year we used Scott Foresman/Addison Wesley's Mathematics for grade 3.  We've used the Foresman/Wesley curriculum every year for him, and it seems to work well.  We'll be using this for as long as the pre-common core versions are available on eBay.  So, Foresman/Wesleyan Mathematics for grade 4 this year.

Last year I branched out and used several different resources for this subject, which you can check out in my Great Curriculum Adventure post from last year.  We ended up not fully completing several of those books, though, so we'll be continuing with them this year, as well as adding a few new ones to the mix.

For reading, we'll be finishing up the Reading Detective books, which turned out to be perfect for my boys.  They grew in their reading comprehension abilities by leaps and bounds last year with this curriculum.

Last year, for spelling, we used Bob Jones University Press's curriculum, which didn't end up being quite what I was looking for.  It was a lot of busy work.  So, this year, we're going to give Soaring with Spelling a try. I asked a bunch of other homeschooling moms for suggestions in this area, and Soaring with Spelling was a popular suggestion.  Hopefully, this will end my search for the perfect spelling program.

Penmanship.  This is such a struggle for both my boys.  Their handwriting is sloppy, and they hate having to write.  Last year, we tried A Reason for Handwriting.  It was good, but not quite what I was looking for.  I again asked a bunch of homeschooling moms for suggestions, and by and large, the number one suggestion was Handwriting without Tears.  It's definitely different than other programs I've looked at.  I'm hopeful it will be the one that makes my boys enjoy handwriting.

For grammar, we'll be continuing what we started last year - Grammar Minutes and The Language Mechanic.  I was happy with these, and the boys seemed to enjoy them.  No need to change what's working.

Writing.  Another subject where we'll continue what we started last year, because it worked, and the boys enjoyed it.  We're using Jump In: a workbook for reluctant and eager writers.  But we'll also be adding another aspect for my oldest - study skills.  I found the Victus Study Skills System DIY workbook.  It seems very intensive, but my son has zero concept of how to study, and I feel that's something important for him to learn if his future plans include attending college.  We shall see if this program is successful.

Last year, I found the Uncle Sam and You curriculum from the Notgrass company.  What I like about this is the student workbook that accompanies it.  Jam packed with fun activities to reinforce each lesson, it looked like it might make learning history fun.  Thankfully, the boys really enjoyed it.  But, we only made it about half way through the curriculum, so we'll be continuing it again this year.  

Also, my oldest is required to do Geography either this or next year.  Last year, I found a curriculum called 50 States and Where to Find Them, which was being offered for FREE for a limited time.  I jumped on it, knowing I could use it at some point.  That point has come, and we'll be using it this year.  I think the boys will like it, because it involves crossword puzzles and coloring pages.  It breaks the states down into small regions so the boys can learn them in bite sized pieces.  I have high hopes for this one!

Last year, we used Apologia's Exploring Creation with Astronomy, which we absolutely loved!  This year, the boys told me they wanted to use Apologia again, but they wanted to do the Chemistry and Physics curriculum this time.  I was all set to purchase it, but at the last minute, my oldest tole me he changed his mind.  Grr!!!  Okay, I can make this work.  Ha!  

My son decided he wanted to do an engineering type program.  He wanted to build machines.  So I did some research and found a really fantastic looking program.  Unfortunately, I misunderstood the pricing of it, and it ended up being far too expensive for us.  After much more research, I finally landed on K'nex Education's Exploring Machines curriculum.  Since it arrived at our house, the boys have been begging to start school!  What better way to do school than with toys?  It is an actual curriculum, though, so they'll be learning while they're having fun.  

Last year, we used Alpha Omega's Monarch Health Quest online curriculum.  What a wasted effort!  The curriculum itself was not bad, but my boys just cannot work together on a computer curriculum.  They distract each other, they fool around, they fight.  They nearly flunked the course.  Not because they couldn't do the work or understand the material, but because it was the wrong method of learning for them.

This year, we're using the good old fashioned textbook and workbook method.  I'll be reading the lessons aloud to both boys at the same time, and then they will be set loose to complete worksheets relating to the lessons.  I think this will work much better.  The curriculum we'll use is called Total Health: talking about life's changes by Susan Boe.  Another thing I am drawn to with this curriculum is its Biblical base.

This is always my favorite subject, but also the one I find most difficult to teach, which is odd, considering I studied art in college and was just shy of earning my B.A. in it.

Last year, we tried Art with a Purpose Artpacs by Myron and Rachel Weaver.  Disaster!  I don't know; I suppose these would work for someone, but they were just so dry and lacked any real lessons.  My boys and I were not impressed.  So, once again, on to something new.

We're trying two different books this year.  First, Creating Line Designs (book 4) by Randy Womack.  It's exactly what it says - creating line designs.  It's really a book full of connect-the-dot pages, but it teaches kids to follow directions, create a straight line, and use lines in creative ways.  Each page gets progressively more difficult. 

Our second book is a journal type book called Art, Doodle, Love.  It is filled with pretty, blank pages with different creativity prompts written on each.  I'm hoping this will inspire my boys to use their imaginations and realize they can create anything they want using any materials they want.  It's technically for women, but I took a look at it, and it will work just fine for my boys.  Sshhh!!! Don't tell them! 

Simplify.  That's the plan this year.  With our Bible curriculum, at least.  Last year we used Apologia's Who am I? curriculum, which was fantastic!  But, it was just a little too advanced for my boys.  So, I decided to make it much more simple this year.  

For my oldest, we'll use the Book of Fidgets: a jot & doodle journal for Christian youth.  It's filled with art and writing prompts that line up with various scripture passages and faith questions.  My boy is an artist, so this is perfect for him.

My youngest will use The Bible Doodle Book by Zonderkidz.  Each pages has a chapter from the Bible illustrated, but not completed, along with a prompt for completing the pages.  We'll read the scripture together, then he can get creative and complete the pages.

Nothing new here.  The boys take piano lessons during the public school year from a friend of ours.  They'll continue their lessons this year, too.

Last, but not least, Practical Arts is required for my oldest this year, so we'll do it for both boys.  Practical Arts, from what I understand, is basically Life Skills.  Things that we old folk used to call home economics, shop, technology, keyboarding... that sort of thing.  To that end, we'll be working on a few things - critical thinking, cooking/baking, typing, and skill building.  For critical thinking, we're using Word Winks and Perplexors.  Cooking/baking will be my boys and me in the kitchen, planning meals, shopping for ingredients, and putting the meals together.  For typing, I found a free typing tutor that I downloaded last year called Typing Instructor for Kids.  It resembles a video game, but teaches typing skills at the same time.  Finally, for skill building, we'll use the website  It lists numerous different skills, and within each skill are several projects to complete.  Upon completion of a certain number of projects, the child earns a patch.  It's similar to a Boy Scouts skill building program, but, as the name of the website suggests, we will do it ourselves.

That.  Was a lot.  But, really, it's not.  As I write this final paragraph, we've actually begun our second week of our fourth year homeschooling, and, so far, it's been our best year yet!  All of the curriculum I chose has proven to be perfect!  I'm hopeful it will continue to be so throughout the rest of the year.

What are your thoughts?  Have you used any of these resources?  If so, how did you like them?  Let me know what's on your mind in the comments.