Friday, May 22, 2015

Signs of Spring: More peonies ... (episode 11)

All our different peony bushes are blooming now. The original red peonies are fading away, but the yucca are budding!
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

April E.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

ElCloud Graduation 2015: Take Two!

We had our second homeschool graduation this past Saturday. We've learned a few things since our first graduation ceremony.  We held the graduation in our church's fellowship hall again, which also doubles as a children's ministry area. We tried to remove some of the ministry decor, but we decorated around the rest of it.

(Quick confession: I only took about half these photos. My sister and my sister-in-law took the rest of them. We arrived with a dead camera battery, and we were also rather busy. A friend also took pictures of the people who were there, and we are thankful he shared them with us.)

This year, we skipped the rectangular tables and the rows of chairs which were supposed to separate the graduation ceremony area from the reception area. Instead we set up 12 round tables. (Well, actually we had help from church family to set up those tables. Thank you!) Our daughter and a friend planned out our table decorations which included framed quotes and a candle on some tables, framed senior pics and a candle on other tables, and balloon bouquets and a candle on the remaining tables.

I had bought a journal to double as a guest book and a graduation gift for 18 yo R. But she had the idea to buy these large paper letters from Hobby Lobby and paint them, then have the guests sign them. She plans to hang them on her bedroom wall. We also had the guests address their own thank you envelopes again, but this time we used a little yellow chalkboard to explain the process. She also had wallet-sized senior photos setting on this table for guests to take with them.

We learned we didn't need 2 large sheet cakes and 4 smaller cakes this time! (Go ahead, laugh at us.) We were planning on 2 large sheet cakes but then I found a graduation-cap shaped cake pan I wanted to use, as well. We only used half of each large sheet cake and didn't touch the graduation cap cake at all.

You might have guessed by now that our homeschool colors are blue and gold. There was a lot of blue and gold in the room. We also used the diploma style napkin scrolls wrapped around forks again. I'm not sure if we'll do that for future graduations. It's cute, but seems unnecessary in the end.

In addition to cake, my daughter wanted to have a cereal bar. We had four types of cereal and pitchers of milk on the table for guests. We also over-bought on cereal. But the kids will eat it all. No worries, there!

On our second refreshment table, we had mini-cheesecake bites, cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, and also an assortment of fruits and fruit dip. Our punch was blue (easy blue punch recipe) and we also had lemonade in another punch bowl for a bit of yellow at the table. In this picture, we hadn't mixed the blue punch yet.

Our "Honor the Grad" table included framed baby photos and senior photos once again. This time, instead of a yellow roses, R had selected some artificial flowers at Hobby Lobby for a blue and yellow bouquet. She has them in her room now.  She included some Dr. Suess block quotes from "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" and also her Up-inspired artwork she received for Christmas.  We had a baby scrapbook and her diploma laying on the table, as well.

To be completely honest, while I was at home trying to get cakes baked and decorated with Steve on Friday, R was setting up most of the reception area herself. When we arrived Saturday morning, we had some last-minute things like balloons to take care of, hanging the glitter "Congrats Grad" Banner we made 2 years ago and setting out food.

This time, we came prepared with a lunch plan for the family members helping us set up. But we still had to make a Wal-Mart run for some forgotten items, including PB&J for those who didn't like the BBQ shredded pork loin we'd brought. Next time, we need to figure out how to have the cheese and fruit pre-sliced if we do that again. And once again, we didn't have someone at the cake table when we finished the ceremony, and our family was all at the other end of the room.

Speaking of the actual graduation ceremony, this time we went with a very short, simple, relaxed ceremony at the very beginning. Steve welcomed everyone and gave his speech, then I had a short one for our daughter, as well. After that, Steve presented her diploma to her, and we moved on to the party. That is what R wanted for her graduation. She created a play list of music and a slideshow of pictures that played throughout the reception, but weren't shown during the actual graduation. It was a good day, though I'm thinking that 3 hours is about an hour too long for the reception.

What will we consider doing differently next time? We'll shorten the reception time, and have half the amount of food. Though we could probably get by with only one large sheet cake, I'm sure we'll have two cakes, although one may be the smaller graduation cap again. Speaking of cakes, my brother-in-law saved the day on one cake that fell apart coming out of the pan, and also on making the frosting perfectly smooth and easy to decorate on. I need to practice that smooth surface before the next graduation.

I'm learning that every graduation we do will be very different. C should graduate in two years and she's not sure she wants a blue and gold party. We'll have to see how she feels in 2 years. J has about 4 years to go and he's not sure he wants a party at all. I expect his will be very low-key. But that's fine. I want each celebration to be a reflection of that child's individual interests and personality.

This week, I went with R to college enrollment for next year. She plans to major in Business Administration. She's already starting her adventure!

(this picture courtesy of B. Steffen)

Good luck to our 2015 Graduate!
April E.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Crew Review: Exploring Ephesus DVD from Review

I may never make it to the Holy Land myself. With eight kids still at home, it could be years before we are able to afford an overseas trip, or be able to leave kids to take one. With that truth in mind, I am a sucker for documentaries about those areas, especially those that are actually coming from a Christian viewpoint. When was offered for a Crew review, I begged to be able to review Exploring Ephesus. Even though I was willing to review educational Christian DVDs for the kids, I was THRILLED that I actually received the DVD of Exploring Ephesus for myself. Review

My husband and I watched Exploring Ephesus in the living room one Sunday afternoon. It was completely family-safe, though it didn't hold the interest of most of our kids. They came and went, watching portions, but not focusing on it fully. Unfortunately, they also provided a lot of distractions as were trying to watch it. I re-watched Exploring Ephesus on my own, minus the kid-interruptions, and I noticed several new things I'd missed the first time. It really is incredibly full of information, culture, and history.

Exploring Ephesus takes its time showing you the remains of Ephesus and several other places.  It doesn't rush through a fast-paced, overlapping, montage of images. Instead, Dr. Mark Wilson and Dr. Andy Jackson literally walk you through the sites, explaining the purpose of different sites, as well as the culture and religion of the area in the Apostle Paul's time. When they are done talking about a location, the music plays softly as the camera pans slowly over the area, allowing you to fully absorb the atmosphere.

The movie includes a boat trip to Patmos, where the Apostle John was exiled and living in a cave. John spent many years serving in Ephesus, which is why it's included in this documentary. It was here on Patmos that John received his vision that is written in the Book of Revelation. At this location, Dr. Mark and Dr. Andy discuss the persecution of the early Christian church and the dispersion of the early Christians. This section could also be included in a Bible study of Revelations.

I love the maps explaining how the different locations fit in with the New Testament and Paul's missionary journeys. Dr. Mark and Dr. Andy also travel briefly to Laodicea to talk about the spread of the Christian faith through Asia, as well as showing us modern day Smyrna at the start of the movie. It helps to have a vision of modern day Turkey, as well as the historical sites.

Exploring Ephesus is 58 minutes long, and would make an excellent introduction to an adult or teen Bible study on Ephesians or the Pauline Epistles. Not only does it let you see Ephesus and Biblical Asia, but it is just full of information regarding the history of the early Christian church! I learned a lot about Ephesus and the unrest that was caused by the spread of Christianity in this pagan town. Even if you've read Acts 19 before, it seems so much more real (and scary) to hear them discuss the Artemis Riot while standing in the amphitheater.

I definitely recommend Exploring Ephesus for any teen or adult wanting a visual history of Ephesus and a greater understanding of the early Church, the spread of Christianity, and the letters of Paul and John. Although it won't necessarily hold the interest of younger children, it can be viewed as a family (or in a church) without worrying about the content at all. The camera-work is beautiful and the music is peaceful. I'm looking forward to viewing it again and again, with my teens, as we study church history.

Exploring Ephesus can be bought for $14.99 (currently $11.99) at You can also find lots of other Christian movies there, ranging from animated Bible movies, science documentaries, and feature films ... including Unbroken. Check out the other FishFlix DVDs the Schoolhouse Review Crew reviewed, and what other Crew members thought.

You can follow via facebook, twitter, pinterest, google+, and youtube.

April E. Review

Crew Disclaimer

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Crew Review: Homeschool Legacy's Weather On the Move Unit Study

Homeschool Legacy Review

We began our homeschooling career using unit studies, especially literature-based unit studies. Slowly, as our family grew and the ages of our children spanned many grades, I found myself struggling to keep up with the daily unit studies at multiple levels and we moved away from the unit study approach. However, it is still my favorite educational style.

I had never heard of Homeschool Legacy and their Once-A-Week Unit Studies until we had the opportunity to review them with the Schoolhouse Review Crew. The idea of an "Easy, No Prep Once-A-Week unit study" was very intriguing to me. That felt like something I could handle again. There were several topics that interested me, and that I thought would interest my elementary students. But, since we were heading into tornado season here in Kansas, I was hoping to review Weather On The Move. Although their unit studies are available as digital downloads, I received a paperback copy of the unit study.

Homeschool Legacy Review

When I received Weather On The Move, the first thing I did was sit down and look at their book list. I noticed that the suggestion was to provide some independent reading material for your older students on the subject that they would read throughout the week, as well as some read-aloud picture books for the younger students, and a family read-aloud of a classic. I was a little nervous about the family read-aloud because we are habitual failures at establishing that practice. Once I had a list of books I owned and a list to look for at the library, I headed to the library. I wasn't able to find all the books I wanted at our library. I was able to get some through our larger library system, and I also substituted some from other books on the library shelves. I checked out with a tote bag full of weather and astronomy books.

Homeschool Legacy Review

Sharon Gibson, the author of the Once-A-Week Unit Studies, suggests that you follow a schedule that has you doing your regular curriculum on Monday and Tuesday, but adding in your read-aloud novel and independent unit study reading. On Wednesday, you skip the regular curriculum and use the unit study with your children. That will begin with a family devotional, then move onto science lessons and experiments. Sometimes there are art, language, or history lessons for the week, as well. On Thursday you return to your daily studies and continue the unit study reading. Friday is for pared down studies (just the 3 R's)  and a field trip.  Not every week had a field trip suggestion, so on those days you could do all of your daily work. Of course, the study is flexible and you can make it work however you need to for your family. We decided to stick with her suggested schedule.

I soon discovered that no-prep isn't quite accurate. Besides needing to gather the books at the start of the unit study (or a couple times throughout if your library system has short check-out periods), I did need to look at the lesson ahead of time to be sure I had what I needed for the science experiments and activities. It worked best for me to look ahead on Wednesday (after finishing that lesson) and make a list of what I needed to get, because when I waited until the weekend to plan ahead, I often forgot. Other than that, it was pretty much a "pick up and teach" unit study.

Since my students range from Kindergarten through High School Sophomore, I dismissed my 8th through 12th grade students from the study. I decided to focus on just my K - 7th grade students, though the lesson is designed for 2nd - 12th grades, and I had to adapt it for my Kindergartener a bit. Mainly I just let him tag along where interested and let him wander off when interest was lost.

We had to change the unit study method a bit once we started. We used to use a literature-based history program that had weekly independent reading assignments. My kids were always struggling to complete their assignments ... and I was always pushing them to focus on their reading assignments. We had the same issue here. Nag, nag, nag.  So we tried having me pick just a few of the best books and read them aloud each day, which took away my "once-a-week" freedom. By the final weeks, as I was busier with graduation planning and we dropped the literature book (which had been really difficult with the younger kids' noise) and started reading only appropriate selections of the books ON the unit study day itself. When life is chaotic, we simplify as much as possible.

The science lessons and experiments are of excellent quality, with a good selection of hands-on activities and lessons. Observations and record-keeping will continue on for several days or weeks past the lesson, so don't tell your kids it's a once-a-week study or they'll want to skip out on the ongoing observations. Unfortunately, when I'm overwhelmed, I tend to revert to conversational, discussion teaching and skip the hands-on stuff. :-/ This was just a hard time to test out a unit study, with baseball gearing up, family visiting, and a graduation to plan. I didn't stick with the ongoing weather tracking very well. That's a reflection on me, more than the study, though.

Overall, I like the ideas of  a once-a-week unit study. It is more manageable to me than a daily unit study, even though I still struggled to complete the lessons toward the end due to family chaos and changes. If your kids are in American Heritage Girls or Boy Scouts, there are also badges that can be earned with this unit study, and the activities are marked for that. Although the Weather On The Move unit study does cover some history, it is primarily a science unit study. It would not replace all your subjects, just science. There are also history studies available from Homeschool Legacy.

At first my kids were glad to have the break from their usual science curriculum. The excitement didn't last long, though, because we were dealing with complete end-of-the-school-year exhaustion, spring fever, and a readiness to be DONE with schoolwork. I do think their enthusiasm would have lasted longer at a different time of year. I'm sure if I'd been more "together" and had been able to complete more of the hands-on activities it would have helped. The short length of the study is good. You study the topic for seven weeks, but then you get to move on to something else.

Weather on the Move is an excellent unit study for grades 2-12! For your elementary and early junior high students, it can stand alone as their science for the entire week. I wouldn't really use it as a sole science curriculum for 8th -12th grades, though it could supplement other science studies. It's a great way to simplify your subjects by combining elementary students into one study and only having to teach it once a week (other than reading and checking ongoing experiments.)

Homeschool Legacy makes their unit studies available as digital downloads or physical products. Weather On The Move is currently priced for $17.00 for the Grab-N-Go digital download, or $21.95 for a paperback book. Prices of their other unit studies vary, depending on the length of the study. They have a sale on their three bundled unit study packages, right now!

You can follow Homeschool Legacy on facebook, pinterest, or twitter.

April E.

Homeschool Legacy Review

Crew Disclaimer

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Signs of Spring: Graduation and Peonies at last! (episode 10)

Today is Graduation Day for our second homeschool student. (Which means you'll get pictures next week and a whole new graduation blog post.)

In the meantime, I finally have pictures of peonies in bloom!

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

Enjoy your weekend! We're busy and having fun at graduation!

April E.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Crew Review: S is for Smiling Sunrise Picture Book

Smiling Sunrise Review

When we received this alphabet book in the mail, my four year old was so excited. Finally, a review product for her! WordsBright is a new independent publishing company that focuses on fun, educational products. They sent us their very first publication, a brightly-colored, hardcover, rhyming picture book titled S is For Smiling Sunrise.  The book was written by Vick Wadhwa (a scientist, writer and entrepreneur) for his own child.

Smiling Sunrise Review

When we first opened S if For Smiling Sunrise, my daughter loved the bright-colored pages. Each letter has its own page, unlike some alphabet books where the letters share pages. The pages show both the upper-case and lower-case form of each letter, as well as a headline word that starts with that letter. Every page also has a four-line poem for the letter. It starts A is for ... and then has 3 more rhyming lines to explain the letter. If you're like me and always want to see a book before buying it, you can look inside the book yourself at this link.

The illustrations are medium-sized pictures with colorful borders around the page, and the poem is centered beneath the illustration. Most of the illustrations are graphics designed on the computer, though a few are photographs. This isn't my favorite form of illustration, but my daughter doesn't seem to mind at all. She loves the bright colors of each page.

WordsBright has created a helpful teacher's guide for both the Pre-K ages and the Kindergarten through 3rd grade ages. The guide has suggestions for different ways to engage your child with the book, other than just reading it. It includes suggested discussion questions as well as vocabulary-building tips. You can view the guides at the website (bottom right corner of the page), and download them if they are helpful to you. My daughter always wants to pore over each page of a book and discuss it before moving on anyway, so we didn't need the extra pointers. The fact that the poems are not a continuing story makes that process much easier than with some books.

S is For Smiling Sunrise also has a free mp3 song that sings the entire book. It has simple piano music and one adult singing the rhyming text of the book to a familiar tune. If you have older children, you will want to play the song when they are occupied elsewhere. You will get complaints about it from the older kids if you play it multiple times (ask me how I know). Although it would be tempting to let the mp3 then read the book for you, there are no page-turning signals, so you'd still need to sit with your child and help them move through the book. (You can find the free mp3 download at the bottom of this page.)

Although this isn't my favorite alphabet book, my four year old daughter enjoys it. She has asked to have it read to her multiple times. The bright pages appeal to her, and she enjoys the fact that each page stands alone. It is simple, but that helps keep the focus on teaching the letters and headline words rather than an ongoing story. The book is marked with a suggested retail price of $16.95 and there are several purchasing options listed on the WordsBright website.

You can keep up with Vick Wadhwa on facebook, and also sign up to receive updates on future WordsBright book releases by signing up here.

April E.

Wordsbright Review

Crew Disclaimer

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Crew Review: Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Online Course

Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Review

Beginning to homeschool can be intimidating. It's been years since we were starting our homeschool journey with preschool in 1999, but I can still remember the nervousness and fear I felt. I had found an online support group for the curriculum we'd chosen and they helped walk me through it all. Not everyone finds that support, though. Or they may be thrust into homeschooling suddenly as they pull children out of a school system that isn't working for their child. Where do you start, what do you  need, how do you do this homeschool thing?

Stephanie Walmsley, from Successful Homeschooling Made Easy, has created a 26 week e-course to help parents enjoy homeschooling. The Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Course is like a Homeschooling 101 course for parents. It provides a step-by-step approach to beginning your homeschool journey with structure and peace. Crew members received access to the 26 week e-course for this review, although we've only received ten of the lessons so far.

Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Review

When you purchase the Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Course ($10/month payments or $48.50 if paid in full at the start) you will receive 26 weekly PDF lessons in your email ... plus a few bonus emails! Clicking on the link in the email opens the pdf document in your web browser, where you can either read it or download it to your computer to be saved. I prefer to open it, save it, and then re-open it in Adobe Reader rather than my web browser. (For me, viewing pdf documents in the web browser tends to crash the browser.)

Stephanie's lessons include weekly steps to build upon as you establish your homeschool routine and curriculum. Each lesson also ends with assignments to apply to your homeschool that week and practice until the next lesson arrives. The very first lesson is full of encouragement as well as guidance in creating a schedule that works for your family. It also focuses on "The Literacy Hour" as the foundation of the homeschool day, with guidance for some basic steps to handling this basically without curriculum. It definitely comes from a Charlotte Mason direction.

The second lesson covers introducing mathematics to your homeschool schedule. Stephanie shares a lot of ideas for teaching math naturally to the younger ages, but she also encourages that you can homeschool upper math, even if it means seeking outside help. The lesson ends with guidelines for selecting the right math curriculum for your family. We also received a bonus email with math ideas that week!

Week three's lesson is titled "Welcome Home" and includes advice and stories from sixteen other homeschool moms. This lesson is helpful in that it has real-life stories from other moms of lessons they learned the hard way that are encouraging and helpful. I am always encouraged when I realize I am not alone in my struggles. And let's face it ... by week 3 of homeschooling you will be having some discouraging moments already as reality doesn't align with your ideal vision of homeschooling.

Other lessons in the first ten weeks also cover:
  • Fireproof Your Homeschool (tweaking your schedule and adding something fun)
  • Three Key Ingredients for Success (identifying your homeschool inspiration and goals)
  • Fulfill Your Dreams (taking time to nurture yourself and your hobbies)
  • Why Curriculum Doesn't Matter (understanding homeschool styles and discovering yours)
  • Let Go of the Good Things (minimizing outside activities)
  • Homeschool and Housework (the never-ending battle)
  • A Full Schedule (making changes to your schedule once it's full)

The sequential, building-block approach to these lessons is helpful and less overwhelming than sitting down to read a book where it all piles up at once. That is a huge plus for an overwhelmed homeschool parent, or even just a mom with young kids who needs to have an action plan to get started. Stephanie is always encouraging to the reader that you CAN do this and she tries to provide suggestions or ways to customize the plan to suit your family. She does put a lot of emphasis on understanding your motivation and your preferred teaching style, which is important for finding what works for your family.

However, I do have some concerns that Stephanie's lessons may give a new homeschooler the impression that there is only one way to homeschool. She has a strong bent toward Charlotte Mason education that is apparent in her lessons. (By the way, I love Charlotte Mason but I recognize that not everyone does.) The early lessons have a parent adding in art and music lessons weekly. While they do provide a fairly simple way to do that, it can still be overwhelming to someone with multiple young children (or a large family) trying to balance nap times and math lessons and the baby that wants to nurse. For some people, even the schedule could be daunting, if they're a very relaxed, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person. I've only read ten of the lessons. It's possible that a later lesson says, "Is something in this schedule not working for you? Feel free to chuck it!"

One thing I've learned over the years is that there are many ways to homeschool successfully, and that every family's homeschool will look different. Another thing I've learned is that I start every year with an ideal plan, and it always changes through the year. Often, I have to sacrifice my idealistic homeschool vision when faced with the reality of our everyday life. This doesn't mean I've failed. It means that every homeschool is unique and there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Most people will be able to read the Successful Homeschooling Made Easy lessons and be able to "take what they can use and leave the rest".  My only concern is for the few who try to legalistically follow every suggestion and find themselves overwhelmed and discouraged. I hope that the lesson full of real Mom's advice and some later lessons promote freedom to adapt the plan, because that is the beauty of homeschooling.

Overall, I do love the weekly lessons in Successful Homeschooling Made Easy, the stepping stone approach to planning your homeschool day, and Stephanie's helpful advice for fitting your homeschool into the rest of your life. I would have enjoyed this approach as a young homeschooler, rather than my approach of reading multiple books at once and being swamped with information. I will definitely recommend the course to new homeschool families, though I will also give the warning that they should feel free to adapt what they need to, and I will check back in with them later to see if they have any homeschool frustrations they need to discuss. After all, an e-course is awesome, but a listening ear is even better!

You can connect with Stephanie Walmsley on facebook!

April E.

Successful Homeschooling Made Easy Review

Crew Disclaimer