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Monthly Meal Planning

This post isn’t exactly about homeschooling, but as all homeschoolers have to eat and most homeschooling parents have to cook, I think it’s worth mentioning.

For starters, I must admit that I do not love cooking. In fact, I consider it to be pretty much a necessary evil. The worst part for me is actually planning meals–coming up with ideas for what to cook again and again. Not planning, though, is even worse. It means multiple trips to the store, extra expense, or too many unhealthy meals. In the past, we have tried the various monthly cooking methods a few times, but we aren’t big casserole eaters, the monthly cooking is a real marathon, and it didn’t seem like it saved as much time as one would think, so I wanted something different.

For the last year, I have been using an online service called Plan to Eat, and I think it’s brilliant. It combines the ability to add recipes from anywhere with a calendar, and it automatically makes your grocery list based on the meals you drag into the calendar. I have loved using it, but I’m also always trying to find ways to save money, and while the program is definitely worth what it costs, it does cost something. So as the renewal date was approaching, I was trying to figure out how to do my own version of Plan to Eat.

For many of you, I’m sure you thought of something like this a long time ago, but for me, this is one of those things where I wonder why I didn’t come up with this years ago. I’m just in the second week, but it’s working really well so far.

Here’s what I did. I got a pretty notebook, and I made dividers for 4 weeks. In order to find the balance between the need for protein and the need for frugality, our basic plan looks like this:

  • Monday -something with beef
  • Tuesday – (mega-lesson day around here) something easy and frozen to pop in the oven
  • Wednesday – something with chicken
  • Thursday – something with pasta or eggs
  • Friday – something with fish
  • Saturday – some sort of soup
  • Sunday – I know this is weird, but instead of the traditional big Sunday dinner, we have either smoothies or popcorn and family movie night.

Next, I made a calendar in Excel and chose recipes that most everyone likes most of the time using the general daily plan as a guide. In other words, I found 4 beef recipes, and used one each week on Mondays, etc. I only repeated one recipe in the 4 weeks so there would be a nice variety. I planned the vegetables and starches to go with each meal and tried to avoid too much repetition there as well, though salad, rice, and baked potatoes are frequent flyers to be sure. Next, I printed out all the recipes and put them in order behind their weekly dividers and in order by day.

Last but definitely not least, I took the recipes and made a check-off grocery list with every ingredient needed for the recipes for that week along with all the other stuff we usually buy. I tried to recall the order of aisles in the two stores I usually go to so I could start at one end and go to the other without back tracking much. That took a long time, but the goal is to make it so I don’t have to reference the recipes ever again before I go shopping. Instead, when I get ready to go shopping, I go over the list and check off everything we need to buy. In the shopping list, I used one color for the foods from recipes and another color for pantry items and household goods. All the kids who are old enough know to add anything we run out of or need to the grocery list on Cozi, so I can just add those things to the paper list as well. After that, I went ahead and printed several copies of each week’s grocery list and put them in the notebook so I wouldn’t have to find the file and print it every time.

The grocery list is a bit of a work in progress as I notice things I forgot to include, but overall it’s working really well. It’s nice to just look at the meal plan and get cooking instead of trying to decide what to make over and over again. I do have to remember to take things out of the freezer a few days in advance, but that sure beats having to plan the week’s meals every week. And if something comes up that necessitates changing the night’s meal, I can just move it to the next day, especially since a couple days of the week are food that stay in the freezer or the pantry until it’s time to make them, so those can just be skipped until the following week or even the following month if need be.

If you love to cook and try new recipes, this is probably not the best way to go, but if you find yourself making the same things over and over anyway and you’d like to save time for other things, it might be worth a try. Anything that helps save a bit of time in the life of a busy homeschooling parent gets an A+ in my book. 😉





school's out

If you are one of the many homeschooling families who takes the summer off, you’re almost there, and so are we! I’ve seen lots of fellow homeschoolers on Facebook discussing how ready they are for the end of the school year, and I’m right there with them. We’re in the final countdown, and I can’t wait for our college kids to come home, to have more time for my fiber arts business, for gardening, and for getting through the final trimester with the baby I am carrying who is due in July. (Yep, we actually have kids in college and another baby on the way.)

You all know how much I love lists for homeschooling, and a few years ago I started making an end-of-the-year list for the last few weeks of homeschooling. I found it helped the kids to push through the last few weeks if they could see everything they had left, so we switched from our regular Excel spreadsheet lists (here) to a list I make for each child based on what they have left. Last year I made the mistake of switching to the end-of-year list too early, when we had about 6 weeks to go. The problem was the lists were just too big to provide the incentive and didn’t help much. In fact, they might have discouraged certain children from getting done as soon as they would have otherwise. I have found that 2 to 3 weeks works well for us.

This year, I actually planned to do this in advance. I planned out 34 weeks of regular homeschooling and left the last 2 weeks as weeks to finish whatever was left. I will admit that part of my incentive for doing so had to do with the limits of an Excel spreadsheet. Did you know that an Excel spreadsheet is only wide enough for 34 or 35 weeks’ worth? I didn’t know it had limits until I started planning this way!

Anyway, when we get to the end of week 34 this year, which is 3 weeks from now as I write this, I will look at each child’s list and see what he or she still has to finish. I will make each of them a checklist with a separate checkbox for each lesson remaining in each subject area.

In the case of my son who is a junior in high school, he still has a long way to go to finish precalculus, so the list will include a checkbox for each lesson remaining in his precalculus book. He finished literature ahead of time (staying up until midnight because he couldn’t put the book down–is this good or bad?), so there won’t be any literature on his list. He will probably have an extra chapter of history and a couple lessons left in economics and a whole lot of spelling because that is the item that has most frequently been forgotten when he is heading out the door to his part-time job. I have to decide whether to have him finish out spelling this year or just let it roll over to next year. Not sure yet.

With my daughter who is finishing 8th grade, she needs to finish Season 2 of Analytical Grammar and has a long way to go. She also has to finish the One Year Adventure Novel and has a ways to go with that, but she should be on schedule to finish all her other subjects by the last week of our regular schedule, so her end-of-year schedule will have a lot of just a few subjects, which might prove challenging as there is only so much grammar one can do in a day. I may actually add something new and different just to give her a way to cycle through her different subjects without feeling overwhelmed–a break subject, which for her could be piano practice or another good novel or maybe some time for artwork.

With my son who is finishing 5th grade, the stakes aren’t so high. He just finished a chapter of Math Mammoth this week, and rather than having him go on to the next chapter which he wouldn’t be able to finish in the time remaining, I talked to him about it, and together we decided he could switch to Life of Fred Fractions through the end of the year. That will definitely run into the end-of-year 2 weeks, but it’s so much fun that that’s okay. He lost his science book for several weeks, and I finally gave up looking for it and ordered another one, so he’s a few weeks behind on that. Otherwise, he is in good shape. His trouble is that he tends to get bored easily if he’s the only one done, which happens a lot, so I’ll have to think about how to help with that.

Anyway, you get the idea. I find that the end-of-year checklist helps when we’re all ready to be done. Each child chooses which subjects to do on which day, and I’m available to help with the Mom-intensive subjects and whatever else is needed. Usually they count up all their check-mark spaces and figure out how many items they need to do each day to be done on time. If they finish early, they’re done. If they finish late, well, they finish late. This year, though, because I would like as much time as possible between the end of homeschooling and the new baby making his appearance, I really hope no one finishes late!

100 dollar billsOur oldest daughter is often reminded of the fact that she is our guinea pig, but this may be the most guinea-pig experience of all. I’m writing this so that others can gain from our experience and avoid making the mistake we made.

She graduated from homeschooled high school last May. Rather than heading straight to a university, she wanted to spend some time discerning the possibility of a religious vocation. She has since gone on several come-and-see retreats with various communities and is still pondering whether God is calling her to a convent, but at this point, she has determined that her best next step is a Catholic university.

She did all of this with my husband’s and my complete support, but at the same time, I said that while discerning she should either get a job or take classes at the community college. In the end, she did both. She got a job working at our local Catholic school as a preschool aide, and she signed up for the general education certificate from the local community college and has been taking classes toward that. In fact, the community college cost nothing since she got a scholarship and financial aid–or so it seemed.

As soon as she started applying to universities, we discovered a problem. Maybe you already knew this, but by virtue of taking even one single community college class after graduating from high school, colleges now see her as a transfer student. Somehow I had it in my head that as long as she stayed below 30 credit hours and thus retained her status as a freshman, that would not be the case. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and it was a very expensive mistake. Because colleges see her as a transfer student, she is no longer eligible for the biggest scholarships offered by colleges–the ones they give freshman–and she is also no longer eligible for many private scholarships because those are largely targeted at freshmen as well. She has been offered a substantial scholarship at the university where she is planning to go next year, but it is considerably less than she would have gotten as a freshman.

In spite of all this, the year has proven fruitful in many ways. She is going to university more sure that that is what she wants, she has learned to juggle college classes and a fairly demanding job at the same time, and she has gained confidence from doing superb work in all her community college classes and getting A’s to match the work she has done. And she might even have a few credits to transfer to the 4-year university.

I suspect that all of these factors will help her to do very well at the 4-year Catholic liberal arts university where she is planning to go next year. Nonetheless, if I had it to do over again or if another one of our children chooses to take a gap year for whatever reason, we will know NOT to have him or her take classes at the community college unless circumstances are very different.

Spring Break!

Spring break begins for us today. Hurray! This year, my oldest daughter’s job and the college where the three oldest are taking classes have coinciding spring breaks, so naturally we are taking our break now too, and I’m so glad it did. The weather is scheduled to be lovely (sorry to all of you who are buried under snow), the garden is growing, there is lots of fiber for me to spin into yarn, and we all just really needed a break! I just hope that the week after spring break won’t be too hard. Do you find it difficult to get back to work after a break?

I just wanted to share a planning tip I found here:

Marcy talks about how she uses Evernote both to plan the next year’s courses for her children and also as a record of what was actually done.

I keep trying to make Evernote work for me but have yet to figure out its value. This might do it!

NM students testingIn just a couple more weeks, we will find out if our 17-year-old son was able to go from National Merit Scholar semifinalist to finalist. Regardless, we’re so proud of him. It has been a lot of work for both of us actually, but it comes with the possibility of a small scholarship from the National Merit folks and as much as full tuition or a full-ride (tuition plus room and board) from some universities.

The process is pretty involved and took a lot to understand what was needed, and there’s a lot I wish we had known before we started, so I thought I would spend the rest of this post giving a rundown on how the whole thing works so that other homeschoolers can go into it with more knowledge than we had.

I believe it’s safe to say that the National Merit Scholar program is the biggest merit scholarship program in the country. The first step is to take the PSAT as a junior. No, wait. The first step is to study for the PSAT or just study for the SAT as the PSAT is a shorter and somewhat easier version of the SAT. Taking it as just a practice as a sophomore is actually a good idea, especially if standardized tests are not part of your children’s life, but it only “counts” for the scholarship program when it is taken as a junior. The goal of the test is twofold: An opportunity to get a feel for the SAT and the entrance into the National Merit Scholarship contest. If a student does really well–about the top 1% in one’s state–then he gets a letter saying he is being considered for the semifinalist step.

So here are the steps I would suggest for the whole process:

  1. You can sign up to take the PSAT at your local high school. Our high school started the sign-up process in August. Unlike the SAT, you cannot sign up on the College Board website. There’s a $17 fee to take the test. They will give you a study booklet when you sign up.
  2. If your child is taking it as a sophomore just to get a feel for the test, I suggest just using the study booklet.
  3. If your child is taking it as a junior, go ahead and get the College Board’s bluebook here. Rather than studying one thing for the PSAT and another for the SAT, this will give him a jumpstart on studying for the SAT, which he will probably take in the spring anyway. There are lots of other books out there on the SAT, but after trying a couple others like Barron’s and Princeton’s we found that this really was the best one. Be careful, though. As of the spring of 2016, they’re going to change the SAT significantly. I’m not sure when the change to the PSAT will take place or if it will, but if you’re close to that time, see if there’s a newer Bluebook than the 2012 version that goes with the updated test.
  4. I suggest adding a practice test to your child’s list several times a week and just make it a regular part of homeschooling. Now, this is a massive book, but after getting a feel for how the test looks near the beginning of the book, the most important thing your child can do to score well on it is to take practice tests. Have him take a practice test from one section one day, and then the next day he can grade it and find out what happened on the ones he got wrong so that the next time he gets that type of question, he can get it right. Mostly focus on just doing and checking one section a day until a few weeks before the test.
  5. In the weeks preceding the test, have him take a couple complete PSAT tests all at once. I think half the difficulty of the PSAT and the SAT is the marathon of testing all at once for hours on ends. He should recreate the real test as closely as possible, including the breaks between subjects. If I recall correctly, there are 2 sections and then a 5-minute break.
  6. One more thing that might be an issue for homeschoolers–my son said the hardest part of the test for him was filling in all the demographic info at the top! He wasn’t used to the bubble-in stuff, and that took him a long time. I suggest practicing this at the same time as the full test. The Blue book has these at the beginning of the test.Also, make sure he knows the homeschool code to put in place of the high school code everyone else will be putting in the demographic information. He’ll have to memorize it or ask the proctor for it as he can’t have any paper with him.
  7. Also, for the last few days before the test, have him get up at the same time as he will for the test and eat good healthy foods. Salmon tops my list for brain food.
  8. This is just common sense, but have your child pack his backpack with everything he’ll need the day before. Make sure to include extras–an extra calculator, lots of sharp pencils, a water bottle, and some snacks. The calculator should be a scientific calculator or a graphing calculator, but it should be one that your child is very familiar with.
  9. Take the test.
  10. Relax.
  11. A couple months later, he’ll get the results of the test.
  12. If he took it as a junior and if he scored above a certain threshold, then the National Merit folks will let you know to expect further information from them for the next step the following September. This would be a good time to think about who to ask to write a letter of recommendation if your son or daughter does become a semifinalist. It’s actually more than a letter of recommendation. It’s also a statement certifying that he is an overall excellent student from an outsider. Ideally this will be someone who has taught your child other than you.
  13. Another thing to do at this point: If you don’t already have a transcript, start making one. You’ll need it to move from semifinalist to finalist.
  14. Regardless, the information that they send on test results is quite helpful for figuring out what to focus on when studying for the SAT.
  15. The following September, you’ll get a letter to let you know if your student moved on to the semifinalist level. That means he scored in the top 1% of all test takers in your state. The scores for that range from about 212 to 230 depending on the state, and if you add a zero to the end of that, it correlates to an SAT score, so if your son or daughter scored 214 on the PSAT, that’s like getting a 2140 on the SAT.
  16. If your student did become a semifinalist, there’s a lot of work to do. The due date is in early October to fulfill the requirements for becoming a finalist, and that’s where the big rewards are, though being able to say you are a semifinalist is also a big kudo for college applications.
  17. For the application for finalist, your student will have to write an essay similar to the types that are used on the Common App. In fact, depending on the topic, it may be possible to use the same essay for both, and since he’ll be polishing this again and again, that’s well worth it. Our son was able to use variations on the same essay for National Merit as well as for his Common App and for QuestBridge.
  18. He’ll need to list you as the principal of his school, and he’ll need that outside recommender as well. Make sure to get those done as soon as possible so the recommender has enough time and so you do too.
  19. As the “principal,” it will be your job to enter all the classes your student has taken along with the grades for them. Decide ahead of time if you want to include weighted grades or not. I said no and then regretted it. The standard method for weighting grades is to add another 0.5 points for an honors class and another 1 point for college classes. I’ll try to post about transcripts at some point. I definitely recommend starting on this as early as possible. It’s a little confusing (at least it was for me), and there’s a lot to do. The good news is that the folks at the National Merit Scholar office are very helpful and available by phone (but not by email, interestingly enough).
  20. Once all the steps are completed and submitted, there’s just one more–choosing your first-choice college. Whether or not your son or daughter becomes a NMS finalist may change where he goes to college. Interestingly, most of the really elite colleges don’t participate in this scholarship program. That doesn’t mean National Merit Scholars don’t go to those colleges, and it may still be a help in gaining admission to them, but they don’t give scholarship money. Most of them focus their financial dollars on financial aid for students whose parents are not wealthy. Most of the state colleges we have looked at do compete for National Merit Scholars by offering them big scholarships, and my alma mater, University of Dallas, offers a full tuition scholarship for finalists. Some colleges like Oklahoma State University and University of Texas at Dallas offer a full ride. That means that they cover not only tuition but room and board as well. There are lists about the internet that show what universities offer what, but the best way to find out for sure is by going to the university’s websites. The deadline for a first-choice college is March 1st, and this is really important. The university will only give you the scholarship if you listed them as your first choice.

That’s about it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a 20-point list on my blog before, but this should be enough to at least get you started in the right direction. If you have any questions or think I left something out, please let me know, and say a prayer that JP becomes a finalist!

I suspect there are a lot of people who would love to homeschool their children but decide against it because both parents have to work. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. Some situations make it easier than others. On the Well-Trained Mind forum, which is a tremendous place for good information of all sorts on excellent homeschooling, there are quite a few college professors who homeschool their children. That seems like the perfect combination to me since the number of hours actually spent in class is fairly small. Other situations where it is possible to combine homeschooling and work are jobs where one can work from home like I have. I work as a medical transcriptionist, and since I am an independent contractor, I can set my own hours just so long as all the work is done within 24 hours.

Whatever the situation, the trick to making it work is to help the children take responsibility for their own education to as large a degree as possible. Here are a few things that help with that:

  1. Give them lists for the week or day. This is probably the most important thing. They need to know what they have to get done in the day and when the are done.
  2. Give them the freedom to choose the order of their work. The older they are, the more freedom they should have in figuring out what to do when.
  3. Help them figure out how they work best. Do they do better with shorter subjects with breaks in between? Do they do better with fewer longer subjects each day? Right now, my 7th grader and I are experimenting with a block schedule because she tends to get distracted in between subjects but does well when she’s focused on one thing for a long time.
  4. Take homeschooling time VERY seriously. If you have young children, this may be just the time between 9 and 11 or 9 and 12, and the rest of the time is free for play dates, grocery shopping, and time in the park. If you have teenagers, the block of time is likely to be much longer, but if homeschooling is frequently interrupted for other parts of life, the children are less likely to take it seriously, and the same may be true for your in-laws. 🙂
  5. Find the best time for your work. If you have the option to work in the early morning or in the evening, that might be best, especially if you have small children who need constant supervision. I often get up quite early to get some work done before the rest of the household is awake, and then I save the rest of it for afternoons. That means I devote mornings to subjects that the children need me for, and I’m just available for help with homeschooling as needed in the afternoons, but I focus mostly on work during that time. That’s especially true with the baby. His afternoon nap time is precious work time for me.
  6. Another big part of making work and homeschooling function together has to do with chores. If you are considering this, it may be necessary for the children to do more chores than they would otherwise. Ultimately, I think that’s good for them, and the bigger your family is, the more important this is. There’s lots of information on chore charts and such around the internet, but I’ll try to post something on this soon.
  7. Last but not least is to try to make learning something positive and joyful to the extent that it can be done. Much of that will have to do with your attitude, and your attitude toward your own work will also rub off on theirs as well.

Meanwhile, happy juggling!

A great deal has occurred since I last wrote here. My mother passed away, so please keep her in your prayers if you would be so kind. We had a new baby boy after a 9-year gap due to some health problems of mine that have happily resolved. If that isn’t proof that NFP really does work, I don’t know what is!

My husband is working here in town as well as teaching theology classes online for a Catholic homeschooling organization. I am continuing to work as a medical transcriptionist and, obviously, to homeschool our children.

E, our eldest daughter has graduated from high school and is currently going to the local community college as well as working as a preschool aide at our local Catholic school. She is planning to head off to a Catholic university next year, but she did this because she wanted some time to discern her vocation first. It’s always hard to know as a homeschooler how the children are really doing since there is no one to compare them to, but she is doing very well in her college classes, especially the ones that involve writing.

JP, our eldest son, is a senior in homeschooled high school as well as a National Merit Semi-Finalist. We’ll know in a couple weeks if he is a finalist or not. He has a hard decision to make between a small faithful Catholic college and a bigger prestigious Catholic college that is rather lacking in fidelity. He has been accepted to both.

Our next oldest son, A, is a sophomore in high school and doing well. He devotes a lot of his time to Civil Air Patrol, which is an organization that I highly recommend for its abilities to foster leadership skills.

Our next oldest, M, is in 7th grade. She is busy with dance, loves to help me make fiber batts to spin yarn from, and enjoys literature and writing the best.

Our next son, J, is in 4th grade. Like A, he is very efficient and gets his work done quickly, leaving more time for Legos and soccer practice. He’s also very thoughtful and considerate of others.

The baby, D, is everyone’s delight. He’s 10 months old and very busy crawling and cruising and coming up with new words. Baby proofing after this long and with this many people and activities has been quite the challenge, but we’re getting there.

Happy feast of Mary the Mother of God, and happy New Year!  As a homeschool mom expecting a new baby, I decided that the best goal I could set for 2014 is to stop rushing.  I have a tendency to rush through the day because I have so much to accomplish in a day.  I need time for prayer, time for homeschooling, time for work as a medical transcriptionist, time for cleaning, and ideally a bit of time for spinning and weaving for my etsy shop, which I find so very relaxing and enjoyable. 

As rich and varied as my day is, I have a tendency to go as fast as possible because there’s just…so…much…to…do, and when the newest bunchkin is born in the next couple months, there will be so much more to do and so much less time to do it in, but I can’t wait!

My problem is that I tend to put the need to “do” ahead of the need to “be,” and as a child of God, a wife, and a mother (my most important roles), the being is really far more important.  If I put being ahead of doing, then I am in the right frame of mind to stop and snuggle a child who is having a hard time with her math lesson.  If I put being ahead of doing, then I remember that sometimes cookies are really more important than a clean kitchen.  And if I put being ahead of doing, then I can follow the example of our blessed Mother who “pondered these things in her heart” and thus live a more Christ-centered life.

I’m really not lecturing anyone here–just reminding myself of what my readers probably already know.

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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