Thursday, July 30, 2015

Looks Like Summer: Halfway there! (episode 8)

It's the end of July! Even though summer is technically still 1.5 months long, we all know the last hard part of summer is the month of August. The final 3 weeks in September are usually much easier to handle. We're halfway to fall!

School starts for us on August 10. I still have some planning, organizing, and general preparation to get done! Yikes!

In the meantime, here's what summer looks like this week for ElCloud Homeschool.





A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on


A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on

It's time to get creative with the rest of our summer pictures. Flowers are basically gone, baseball ended, fair is over, swim lessons are finished, and school is about to start.

April E.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Crew Review: UnLock Math Pre-Algebra Course



Unlock Math Review


UnLock Math is an online, video-based math curriculum for the upper grades. As members of the Schoolhouse Review Crew, we were asked to review the UnLock Pre-Algebra course. Since my 14 year old son has been working through Pre-Algebra and will be moving into Algebra 1 this fall, I had him test out the UnLock Pre-Algebra course. We were given a one year subscription for one child.

How UnLock Math Works

Each UnLock math lesson is taught first by Alesia Blackwood in a video, then reinforced with practice problems, stay sharp problems, and a quiz. The far right of this picture (below) shows how the lesson page is laid out. It's easy to follow the dotted lines from step-to-step. A student can complete all the steps of that lesson and be done for the day, or they can move forward and tackle a second lesson if they're interested. This is much nicer than some online math programs where you aren't sure if you've finished a lesson yet, or how long you should work before being done for the day.

Unlock Math Review

As far as planning out the school year, each unit (as shown on the left side of the image) has 5-10 lessons, plus quizzes and tests, and can be accomplished in 1-2 weeks. With 16 units, plus a midterm and final, it should take 32 -34 weeks to complete the course. We use a 36 week school year, so UnLock math is perfectly planned out for our school year.



The student dashboard shows them the units on the left side, their average grade, and their progress through the course. A progress report can be printed out for records, as well. In other words, the UnLock Pre-Algebra course is fully graded and planned out. As a parent, you only need to supervise that your student is actually USING the program, and check up on their grades.


Unlock Math Review
If a student is struggling in an area, he can review the lesson and then complete more practice problems. The software looks at the student's work in the previous practice problem session and issues new questions focusing on the areas that were missed last time. After the problems are graded, the student can click a button to "view details" which explains why each problem was right or wrong. That is one of my favorite features!

The videos by Alesia are short and interesting. The uncluttered white background helps the student to focus on the lesson. You can view several sample lesson videos, to see how well she explains the concepts and engages the student.

Because UnLock Math is an online subscription, any device that can access the internet can use the course. We are working on a Windows 8 laptop (and tablet) and had no problems using it. We did find that it worked better for us in Chrome than in Firefox, so we just switched to using that browser. We have satellite rural internet, and usually go through portions of the month with slower internet. For us, that meant there were some days with very cloudy weather or very slow internet when we couldn't get the videos to play well or the lessons to load properly. If you don't usually have problems viewing youtube videos, you shouldn't have issues with UnLock Math.

At this time, UnLock Math has a Pre-Algebra course for grades 7 and 8, and an Algebra 1 course for grades 8 and 9. But Algebra 2 is coming soon! The UnLock course pricing is $49 per month per student, or $299 per year per student, but there is a 50% sibling discount if purchased at the same time.

ElCloud Thoughts

UnLock Pre-Algebra is a well-taught course for the student. The concepts are explained well, and build upon each other naturally. I like that the practice problems can be worked through once if that is all that is needed, or that additional practice problems can be worked through if necessary. I love that the grading is out of my hands and that it so easily fits into our school year planning with a one-lesson-per-day approach.

My son doesn't exactly get excited about math. Ever. However, he didn't dislike UnLock Pre-Algebra. I think the video lesson was easier for him to comprehend than reading his math lesson in a textbook. It sunk in better for him that way. However, he needed more than one viewing and more than one set of practice problems most of the time. He worked through the lessons on his own, without help from me, once he got the hang of the program.

As a large family homeschooling on a single income, we prefer that our curriculum is reusable so we can pass it down to future students. If we had a student who was really struggling with understanding math, and needed this approach, we would invest in it for that particular child, but we can't do it for everyone each year. I'm thankful that there are options like UnLock Math for those who need it, and can afford it, though! There are so many more options available to homeschool families now than when we first started homeschooling.

Check out other UnLock Pre-Algebra reviews at the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog. You can also keep up with UnLock Math via social media:

April E.



UnLock Math Review

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High School Homeschooling: Electives and Jobs

High School Homeschool Electives and Jobs - ElCloud Homeschool Blog

High School Electives

Each of my children have chosen different electives for their homeschool high school career. We have decided to require certain subjects for our students, similar to the public schools, so that only leaves space for 1 or 2 electives each year. Their electives have reflected their interests. We are open to creative choices for electives, but we have not listed Life Skills as code for housework on our transcript. We want their transcript to be strong and helpful for entering college, if they choose to. We aren't just looking for easy filler electives.

Some of the electives we've included have been:
  • Ancient History
  • Art
  • Art History
  • Church History
  • Choir
  • Computer Programming
  • Fitness 2
  • Latin 
  • Medieval History
  • Music
  • Photography
  • Psychology
  • a fourth math
  • a 3rd science (Classical Astronomy, Chemistry 2, Advanced Biology)
When we're working toward planning an elective, we use a few different methods. For some of these subjects, I have a textbook or a series of books that can be used to study the subject. If we are using books that don't have tests included, I require writing assignments, final projects, or have written final exams myself in order to give them a grade. We don't count hours with this method, but require the books are read and then grade the tests or projects they complete to show their understanding and application of the information.

For some electives, we count number of hours spent on the subject. For instance, two of my daughters joined the community choir. But it only met once a week, plus some weekend concerts. One year of that wasn't enough for a credit. When they also joined the church worship team, it helped fill in hours. But they still sang in the community choir for more than a year in order to earn the one credit of choir. That was also true for my oldest daughter's Music credit, we counted her hours spent practicing guitar and piano and assigned a credit accordingly.

We also used the hours method for Fitness 1 and 2. We made a plan of acceptable activities that would count for fitness: workout DVDs, running, bike riding, playing sports. Then we required that they put in 45 minutes five times a week to earn their credit, or 4.5 hours per week, divided as they saw fit. We figured that most school P.E. sessions are 50-60 minutes long, but part of that time is taken with changing clothes, attendance, and instructions, so we settled on 45 minutes for our class length. Two of our daughters preferred using Jillian Michaels workouts for their P.E. class. One preferred using aerobic walking DVDs and bike riding. We have also included yoga and pilates in their fitness instruction. My son will be in 9th grade this year and he plans to use more kickboxing style workouts. I will also see what we can do to gain access to some weights for him.

I am sure that our list of electives will continue to grow as our students continue to enter high school. We haven't yet entered into the realm of hands-on or mechanical electives, but if one of our sons decides to fix up an old car then Auto Maintenance and Repair may enter our list of electives, counting hours and mastery for figuring their grade and credit. If the car runs, the skill was learned, right?

Work Study and Jobs

All of our high school students have also held jobs, though we haven't added that to their school transcripts. If they were working skilled jobs where they were apprenticing with someone else, or even working as a farm hand, we might consider adding it as work study for at least one year of school. So far that hasn't been our situation.

We do want them to work for several reasons:
  • to earn their own spending money as we don't do allowances
  • learning a good work ethic
  • learning to manage their time
  • learning to interact with others in our community
  • learning to budget and make decisions regarding saving and spending
  • saving up to buy their own car, laptop, etc.
  • practice for working through college
  • begin building their resume and experience for after graduation

We started with our oldest daughter working 7-10 hours each week as a library page. That job suited her well and was a blessing as others in our community had not yet been willing to hire a homeschooled teen. (The downside of a small community with few homeschoolers.) It provided her with some spending and gas money, though not a large savings. She continues to work while attending college and has worked full-time during summer and winter breaks to help pay for her college tuition.

The next daughter started with that same library job after our oldest left for college, but also added in dishwashing at a restaurant on weekend evenings. She then left the library and became a Sonic Carhop, working more like 20-30 hours per week. We required that she keep her grades up or cut back her hours. She's a college student now, and still working at Sonic, almost full-time. She has managed to save enough to buy herself a used car and is also living on her own.

Our current 9th and 11th grade students both work at the same restaurant on weekend evenings only. They'd like to add in other work, but it's difficult since we live in the country and they are not yet driving on their own. We have learned that jobs with longer work shifts, fewer times per week, are better for us than an hour or two each day, when you factor in the cost of gas and driving into town.
When our 11th grade daughter earns her driver's license this fall, she will probably look for another job, either as a replacement or for additional hours.

Shaping their Future

Each student, each family, each homeschool, each community is different. Every transcript and high school experience will be unique. But if you pray, seek out the opportunities available to you, and think creatively, you can successfully fill your student's transcript and future resume with good training and experience. Just remember that these electives, and any jobs they hold, are helping to shape their future.

Talk to your high school student, hear their heart, look at their skills, invest in their interests, and you will create a rich high school experience for them. Enjoy this time, as you watch them develop into a responsible, productive adult.


Homeschooling High School Blog Hop 2015

Read More on Electives in the High School Years



April E.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: Direct Hit

A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on
Direct Hit is the first book in a new series by Mike Hollow. Detective Inspector John Jago is The Blitz Detective. The series is set in London during World War II amidst the frequent bombings of the German Blitz. It was during one of those bombings that a body was found, and DI Jago was called to investigate it. Unfortunately, a bomb wipes out his evidence, but that doesn't keep him from finding the killer.

Direct Hit has a wide cast of characters, with multiple suspects as their lives all entwine with the dead business owner and Justice of the Peace. The scene frequently changes and although you don't know who the killer is, you see overlapping scenes which provide information to you before Jago has been able to discover it, though it's really just hints of information. The story took several surprising turns along the way, and though I did suspect the culprit of being involved, I was surprised by the motive. Occasionally, this change in scene and "players in the story" would confuse me. I had to check back once or twice on names to be sure I knew who was in this chapter.

Although I expected some romance to unfold as the story progressed, that was not to be. Perhaps there will be an evolving romance between Jago and Dorothy Appleton, the American journalist he's been assigned to escort around London. It was interesting to discover at the end that he had previously met and held feelings for Dorothy's older sister, but there was never any resolution to why Dorothy didn't want to tell Jago about her brother yet. I assume that story will come in a future book, which means this friendship is likely to continue throughout the series.

Mike Hollow has developed an excellent new series, with a very intriguing character in DI Jago. His growing friendships and trust with both his assistant Cradock and the journalist Dorothy are being carefully built. They are not being slapped together in a shallow way, but are very well-developed. The book was serious, engaging and surprising. The dialogue was very well-written and matters of faith, truth, philosophies, and personal beliefs are handled carefully. Jago isn't a Christian, and the book didn't wrap up "neatly" with him making a sudden conversion. He may never become a Christian in this series (I don't know) but the book was completely clean and safe to read.

I highly recommend Direct Hit and will be looking forward to the rest of The Blitz Detective series.

April E.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Direct Hit from Kregel Publications in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was received.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Crew Review: SimplyFun's Shape Whiz Game

Simply Fun Review

My children enjoy playing board games. Unfortunately, they enjoy it more than I do. My favorite games are faster paced, and if they happen to be educational, then it's a bonus! SimplyFun creates educational games for all ages. Children learn through play, and every homeschool mom needs an educational game or two to pull out on a difficult day. As members of the Schoolhouse Crew, we were asked to review Shape Whiz, a geometry card game for ages 10 and up. It's fast-paced, fun, and gets the kids' competitive juices flowing!


Simply Fun Review


This picture from SimplyFun shows how the game is set up. Each player receives a stack of cards (8 if you're playing it with only the easier blue cards, or 15 if you use the more difficult green cards as well). Then each player flips over 3 cards with shapes visible. At each round a yellow Whiz Card is placed in the center of the play area. Each player reads the card and finds a shape that matches it. You can pull one of your shapes, or someone else's. The first one to get a correct shape into the middle wins the round.

That's harder than it seems! I watched the kids play a few rounds and decided we needed to have a judge/umpire to be in charge of seeing who got their card in first. If you're in the midst of playing and trying to read your own cards, it's hard to know which card hit the center first sometimes. Then I joined in the game and found that even on the simpler round, it's a challenge! The teacher in me just wanted to keep helping the kids and most of the time I didn't even get a card into the middle. The kids were faster than I was. They weren't always right, but they were faster!

I like that the facts about each shape are on the back of the card. It eliminates fighting amongst the kids about whether a shape fits or not. I am glad that there are two sets of cards, so it can be played at a more difficult level and a simpler level. It helps to start with the blue cards when teaching the game to new players, no matter what age. Once everyone has the hang of the game, try adding in the green cards.



Even though the game clearly states it's for ages 10 and up, I had younger kids that wanted to join in. We played the blue cards only for them, but it was still obvious that the 10 and up rule is a good one! My 9 year old hadn't had enough geometry yet to really be able to play. It just resulted in tears. I also let the 6 year old play, thinking I would help him out. He had his own strategy. Grab a card (any card) and be the first to the center. It worked sometimes. He was correct a surprising amount of the time.

When we played the game with my 11 year old and teens, it was a different situation. The 11 year old took awhile to get the hang of it, but he was able to play. My teens were better able to handle the game, including the green cards, but it even served as a refresher and teaching tool for them. ShapeWhiz is perfect for the summer months, when their brains start to get dull and forget their math. We all enjoyed it, and it definitely brought out everyone's competitive-side.

You know those days when the kids are fighting you on school, or everyone's sick so you want to take it a little easier? That's the perfect time to pull out Shape Whiz and some other educational games. Have a game day and spend some time learning through play, while also enjoying family camaraderie. Let Mom be the fun teacher for awhile, instead of the workbook-pusher!

Don't forget to follow SimplyFun on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest. Click the banner below to read more Crew reviews of Shape Whiz and Expanders!


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Looks Like Summer: Hot Days and the County Fair (episode 7)

It's fair week! We started off the week having to finish our 4-H projects. Thankfully, God sent a few cool days so we could do some baking for Foods & Nutrition and not overheat the kitchen and my bedroom.

The kids did fairly well with their 4-H projects this year. There were lots of reds and blues on their craft projects and woodworking. They were a little disappointed not to get any purples on their crafts (purple means state fair quality). 16 year old C earned a blue on her reading poster and 9 year old L got her first purple ever on her reading poster.

The boys learned that they did well at the shooting sports fair shoot last month and will get some blue ribbons, purple ribbons, and even some junior champion ribbons for it later this week. The kids are all looking forward to the next 4H meeting when they're handed an envelope of cash based on their ribbon placings, though.

And now, the pictures ...



A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on


A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on




A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on


A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on

We couldn't take our chickens to the fair this year, due to the new bird flu they're worried about. No one is allowed to move their chickens anywhere, but we still enjoyed looking at all the other animals last night.

I'm sure next week's edition of Looks Like Summer will have a few more fair pictures in it. We're there every single night this week.

April E.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Crew Review: Project Passport The Middle Ages by Home School In The Woods

Home School in the Woods Review


Home School In The Woods Publishing is well-known for its hands-on, activity-based history curriculum. We have used some of their Lap-Paks in the past, so we were hoping we'd be able to review one of their Project Passport World History Studies with the Crew. Hooray for us! We were selected to review Project Passport World History Study: The Middle Ages.

TOS Review Crew - Home School In The Woods Project Passport The Middle Ages

What it is and How it Works: 

Project Passports are digital world history studies that you can either purchase as a digital download or on a cd-rom. Each study takes a hands-on, activity approach to exploring history, and is designed for third through eighth grade students. The files contain all the information you need to teach your children in the Guide Book, as well as all the files and illustrations you need to create the different projects. There is a lot of printing involved, so you will need frequent access to a computer and printer.

The Middle Ages study from Project Passport includes 25 stops (lessons) that you can take at your own pace. I wouldn't recommend trying to tackle one stop per day, as that would be a very rushed pace and I think you'd have to skip some activities to go through it in 5 weeks. If you went through it with 2 stops per week, you'd take 12.5 weeks and have a very thorough study with a relaxed pace as you work through the projects. This video from Home School In The Woods answers some helpful questions about Project Passports.


Our experience:

We received the download version of The Middle Ages' Project Passport ($33.95 for individual family use). It is also available on a CD-rom for $34.95, and there are options for school or co-op use  at a different price. I was able to download the zip file at home, even though we have rural internet. The "start" file opens an html document in Firefox. From there, as I click on different links, it opens up pdf files in firefox for me to view or print. I haven't had any issues maneuvering through the curriculum or printing the pdf files.

Speaking of printing, Project Passport studies require a lot of printing. Stops 1-5 ranged from 5 files to 60 files per stop - with a total of 107 files in those 5 lessons.So right after you download your zip file, you need to go buy more toner, more white paper, some colored paper, and probably some colored cardstock. Then you can either sit down and spend a day or two printing the entire study at once (one pdf file at a time) or you can just plan to tackle it for an hour each weekend, or a couple hours every two weeks.

The first two files at each stop are the Guide Book Text and the Travel Itinerary. The Guide Book includes the information you'll be learning about, and is the portion that I read aloud to my daughter. We printed it and placed it in my large notebook, as well. The Travel Itinerary are the instructions on how to print the project files for that stop, and how to use them. You need to pay close attention to the printing instructions. Some items are printed back-to-back, some on colored paper, some on card stock, some on white paper. I had to re-print a few items and I messed up my timeline (printing it on white paper instead of colored card stock.) I also cut our suitcase out wrong for the Travelogue.

We decided to take things slowly this summer and just do one stop per week. We read the Guide Book and then worked on the activities throughout the week. If it were the school year, we'd probably move faster or add in supplemental books to fill the week better. There are additional resources listed in the files to help with that.

Most of our activities in stops 1-5 involved coloring, then cutting and pasting items into our scrapbook of sights, or writing articles for the newspaper. My daughter doesn't like writing very much, so those assignments take longer than they should, with lots of guidance and encouragement from me. At stop 4, we listened to the first Audio Tour, which we enjoyed. It was about ten minutes long, which was a good length to cover the material without losing focus. We also had the opportunity to create a medieval wardrobe, but we didn't actually do those activities. We just talked about the clothing of the time. My 4th grade daughter enjoyed the 5 stops that we made, though my 6th grade son wasn't as excited about coloring and cutting out the different pictures for the timeline. 

A photo posted by April E (@elcloudapril) on

ElCloud Thoughts:

The Project Passport studies are perfect for third through eighth grade kids. The lessons have short reading assignments and lots of projects to help the material sink in. For homeschool families who live in states that require a portfolio of work, the Project Passport provides an excellent record of what they've studied, including writing assignments (short paragraphs) that require them to process the information and re-state it in their own words.

However, there is a lot of preparation required for these studies. The printing and preparing of different projects means Mom has to read ahead and plan ahead. You can't just pick it up and go. There are also crafts which require purchasing materials ahead of time, (for instance making the medieval wardrobe), unless you happen to have a large stash of craft supplies already. For me, and my larger family, I struggle with these types of studies. I can manage it better when it's a lapbook where we can do it in a shorter time-frame and it's mostly getting printed on plain white paper, then cut out and assembled. But I don't do well with a curriculum that has ongoing, weekly projects like this. It's just not my strength.

If you love hands-on, project-based learning ... and you have time to prepare each week ... then the Project Passport Middle Ages study is wonderful! Project Passports are also a fun option for schooling through the summer! They're affordably-priced, re-usable within the same family, and great for the kinesthetic and visual learners.

You can visit Home School In The Woods at their website, on facebook, twitter, pinterest, and google+.

April E.


Home School in the Woods Review

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