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One day my daughters began to cut out snowflakes and soon we had a paper blizzard.

Now snowflakes, airy white shapes of magical beauty, hang everywhere.

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If you wish to fill your home with them too, you can make your own free-form snowflakes, as we did for a while, or you can use patterns.

The best ones we found are on this Italian site, but you don’t need to read the language to use the 24 stunning snowflake patterns.

You can also try a three-dimensional snowflake.  They look complicated but last Sunday Miss 12 showed her best friend how to make one no time flat.

Online AP English Language and Composition with Alexandra McGee

AP  English

Sometimes our teens progress to the point where we homeschool moms need outside support.  Miss 17, who has penned several novels, whose comments are popular on national news sites, and who reads much more than I do, needs more advanced teaching in reading and writing nonfiction than I can provide.

We are very grateful to have found English, As You Like It, a series of English courses taught online by Alexandra McGee, M.A.  Miss 17 is taking Alexandra’s Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, a university level course that could replace first year English if she takes the Advanced Placement test.

So, why not take a dual-enrollment course at college or university instead?  Well, there are three reasons:

  1. All the course work is done online, so we do not have to drive to the university.  For most families, dual-enrollment tuition and transportation costs, to say nothing of parking fees and time, would easily pay for this online course.
  2. The student-to-teacher ratio is much better for this course than it would be in a first year university course, and each student gets personalized attention.
  3. However, the main reason we prefer this course to a dual enrollment course at a secular institution is that Alexandra McGee is a Christian. She uses her teaching talents to equip students to understand challenging material and to communicate effectively in an environment where Christianity is respected, whereas at most universities the Christian worldview is either mocked or ignored.  A Christian teacher can model wisdom in dealing with difficult subject matter so that our teens can focus on learning to read and write at an advanced level instead of floundering while trying to both learn and deal with anti-Christian instruction.

This AP English Language and Composition course is exciting and challenging.  Its goal is expressed as follows:

“The student will learn close reading of texts, discussion and writing skills that will include the study of idea, argument, language, rhetorical devices, and the use of logos, ethos and pathos for persuasive writing.”

Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Huh?”  So what does this mean, and how does the course work practically?

In practical terms, this means a lot of heavy analysis of reading material (from Plato, Lewis and Galatians to Orwell and the New York Times) and viewing material (from TED talks to Star Wars to interviews).  It also involves a lot of writing of different kinds.  Miss 17 has a writing assignment every week, and on the one week off so far, she wrote a practice AP exam that included 3 essays.  She also has to read or watch assigned selections, write about them, and be prepared to discuss them in class or answer questions.  In this way she is also being taught the concepts mentioned in the course goal above.

On Thursday mornings at 8AM, Miss 17 is in the basement, often wrapped in a blanket, to meet online with her teacher (in California) and her fellow students (in Tunisia).  Initially they used Google hangouts but now they have switched to Canvas which seems more user-friendly.  The night before, or even early that morning, Miss 17 submitted the week’s assignment and by class time Alexandra has usually marked it.  Now for three hours, with a few breaks, she listens, chats, takes notes, and learns.  In a typical class, Alexandra introduces the day’s learning concepts and then the class watches a short video, discusses how the concepts apply, does a short in-class assignment, and talks about the completed homework.  Alexandra is planning some changes in class structure as the course is transferred to Canvas.

Miss 17 spends at least 8 hours a week on this course, including the reading, the analysis, the three hour class, and the assignments.

Now, as expected, this has not been all roses.  We have had some technical issues on our side with slow internet; once Alexandra had computer trouble.  These issues were quickly and easily resolved. There has been uncertainty about the meaning of assignments, but a quick email from Miss 17 to her teacher has always clarified those issues.  And, naturally, feelings of being overwhelmed are an integral part of any difficult course.

Alexandra McGee, English teacher

Naturally, it is important to know who the teacher is.  Alexandra McGee has several degrees and many years of experience teaching, both as a homeschool mom in a foreign country and as a formal teacher in homeschool coops, various traditional schools, and online.  She loves to explore ideas in theology and philosophy, and as such is an ideal teacher for this course.  She focuses on teaching the students rather than just getting through the material, and adjusts the course to the students’ interests.  In fact, she asked the students what their favorite books and movies were while fine-tuning her course plans. As this is an AP course, it is important to know that Alexandra’s course has been accredited by the College Board and that she has been specifically trained to design and teach it.  You can read more about Alexandra here, and learn about her philosophy of teaching here.

I’m thrilled by how this course is working out.  Although Miss 17 was a good writer before this course, she can now express her ideas much more clearly because she has practiced organizing her thoughts…and that, of course, clarifies them.  She has learned more about in-depth analysis of non-fiction writing, videos, and media reports.

Her writing also improved significantly in time for the SAT, and an improved SAT score is a factor to consider when deciding whether or not to invest in this course.

Note, this is an expensive course, but one should view it as an investment rather than an expense.  As mentioned above, Miss 17’s SAT score was positively impacted, and that can result in scholarships that far outweigh the price of this course.  Furthermore, there is a 50% tuition reduction for missionary families.

Alexandra is now opening registration to this course for those students who want only one intense semester –12 weeks–of preparation for the AP test.  They will begin studying with her in February.    Because class size is limited to 15 students, anyone who is interested should contact Alexandra soon.  To enroll or for more information, contact Alexandra McGee.

Disclosure:  We have free access to this course in order to be able to review it.  Now that I’ve seen how it is benefiting Miss 17, I would gladly have paid for it because I expect it to increase Miss 17’s scholarship offers due both to her better SAT score and to the higher quality course that I can include in her transcript.

This post is linked to Works for Me Wednesdays, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Homeschoolers and The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson

Practical wisdom for our schools and lives.

I love personal development books.  They remind me of the importance of thinking about how I live and of examining whether or not what I do meets my goals of loving God and those around me.  I almost always finish such a book inspired and with one or two small practical changes to implement in my life.

And, of course, there are always ways to apply such small changes to our homeschool as well.

The thesis of The Slight Edge  by Jeff Olson is that it’s the small things in life, the ones that are easy to do and easy not to do, that make a huge difference in the long run.  In an easy-to-read style Olson discusses this concept from many angles and then makes it intensely practical for the reader.  He also shares his own story from beach bum to successful businessman.

The one small habit Olson recommends as a basis for everything else is to read 10 pages of an inspiring book every day, and The Slight Edge ends with a long list of his favorites.  Unfortunately the Bible is not on this list although it is, of course, the first and best book for anyone to read.

Even so, almost all of Olson’s advice, being based on real life, resonates with Christian principles.  He especially encourages integrity although, again, his goal is success in life, not obeying and honoring God.   He also emphasizes that good habits are crucial and lists 7 important ones.  (Charlotte Mason’s ideas about habit seem to pop up everywhere!)

So, what are some slight edge habits we can use in our homeschools?  In other words, what little, easy daily activities will make a huge difference for our children in the long run, both academically and in life itself?  Here are some we work on:

  • Read the Bible every day
  • Memorize or review something every day
  • Read quality books every day
  • Minimize screen time every day
  • Exercise every day
  • Live intentionally every day
  • Show gratitude every day

Again, these are meant to be simple activities.  If we turn them into a complicated burden, that often prevents us from actually doing them.  However, if we manage to actually do them, we will be giving our children a slight edge that can, in the long run, transform their lives.

But Olson’s ideas are not only for homeschools and child-raising.  They can make a huge difference in our personal lives as well.  And, yes, of course, I know we all know this; it’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded.

As I read The Slight Edge, I noticed 6 simple but life-building habits that have been important to me for years—perhaps due to the inspiring reading I’ve enjoyed all my life:

  • Read the Bible and other good books.
  • Express gratitude to God and people.
  • Walk 10,000 steps a day and exercise several times a week.
  • Use my time intentionally.
  • Emphasize whole foods.
  • Apply the 80/20 rule whenever possible.

These are all easy to do, and easy not to do, and they have all made an incredible difference in my life…when I do them.  I now list these goals at the bottom of each day of my homemade planner, just to remind myself.  The important thing is that they only make a difference when I do them.  And that, I think, is the point of this book.

If you want to

  • gain some practical insight into how little habits can make a huge difference,
  • benefit your children in simple ways,
  • understand Charlotte Mason’s habit training from a new perspective, or
  • examine your own life,

you would enjoy this book.  You can even let your older children read it.

But, whether you read it or not, remember its main point:  there is great benefit in regularly doing those little positive things that are so easy to forget.  This is true for our homeschools and families as well as ourselves as we seek to glorify God in all we do.

This is yet another book in the in the 2014 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Works for Me Wednesdays, Booknificent Thursdays, Raising Homemakers, Finishing Strong, Mom to Mom Monday, R&R WednesdaysMom to Mom Monday, Missional Weekend, and  Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library and have given my honest opinion.

Giving Thanks with Gifts

Ten Thousand Villages gifts

We in Canada and the US have the wonderful custom of devoting one autumn day to giving thanks for all the good things God has given us.  Of course, this day should set the tone for our whole lives, especially since we are so blessed, materially, in comparison with the rest of the world.

One of the things that strikes me about stories of people in third world countries is how thankful they are for their blessings even though they have so little.  And, although they struggle for daily food and shelter, they are often so generous with what they have.

As North America heads into the frenzy of Christmas shopping, it may be worth considering how we can translate the ideals of our Thanksgivings into this season of materialism. 

Ten Thousand Villages Gfits

One way is to purchase fair trade gifts, gifts that bring fair wages to the third world artisans who crafted them.

My favorite fair trade company has always been Ten Thousand Villages.  This wonderful store sells all kinds of gifts, from clothing to home décor to Christmas ornaments, and even chocolate.  They sell inexpensive knick-knacks like the ornaments pictured here and pricey one-of-a-kind works of craftsmanship from countries throughout the world.

This is the second year that I have been surprised by a gift from Ten Thousand Villages in recognition of my reviewing efforts with Graf Martin Communications.  And that leads me to give thanks:

  • Thank you, my dear readers, for reading and sometimes even commenting.  Without you and your friendship, this blog would be nothing and my life would be much poorer.
  • Thank you, Ten Thousand Villages for your important ministry to artisans throughout the world.  You have built bridges of compassion between cultures and given many artisans an income.  And thank you for the sweet decorations and knick-knacks you sent.  Our family especially loves the two stones, Love and Joy.

Ten Thousand Villages Love and Joy

  • Thank you, Graf-Martin Communications, for your diligent work in promoting Christian books and resources and also for honoring me in this special way.
  • And, above all, thank you dear Lord for giving me the opportunity to blog and review, which is such a wonderful way to connect with people, to encourage them, and to share information about helpful resources.

Dear friends, as you do your Christmas shopping this year, I encourage you to check out fair trade stores for a gift that gives twice.  To locate a Ten Thousand Villages store near you or to browse and shop online, visit their Canadian or American websites.

I wrote about Ten Thousand Villages last year, too.  The lovely paisley stole I got then still keeps me warm almost every time I venture into the cold.

Disclosure:  As a top reviewer with Graf-Martin, I was given the gifts pictured above with no obligation to write about them.  However, I love Ten Thousand Villages and want to let other people know how they can give Christmas gifts to their loved ones while supporting artisans in poorer countries.

This post is linked to Works for Me Wednesdays, Raising HomemakersMom to Mom Monday, Missional Weekend, and R&R Wednesdays.

Reading Week

Reading week's first 30 library books.  A few went immediately into the return pile--you can probably pick them out.

Reading Week’s first 30 library books. A few went immediately into the return pile–you can probably pick them out.

“Tomorrow Reading Week starts,”  Miss 12 sighed happily Sunday night.  Reading Week, an annual tradition, is one of the joys of our homeschool.  We long for it, dream of it, plan for it, and now, finally, it is here.

With over 200 books expected from inter-branch loan in our huge city-wide library system, our house will be awash in books and we’ll drop most schoolwork for a glorious week of reading.  Even though health issues make it difficult for one of the children to read, I’m hoping we found good books for everyone.

Whenever I mention reading week, people have so many questions.  Here’s a repost from two years ago that answers them:

What’s Reading Week?  Well, one week a year we take time off from formal schoolwork and spend an entire week reading.   Yes, we still feed the chickens, go for walks, eat, and sleep.  We even manage some music practice.  But, mostly, we read.

What do we read?  Whatever we’re interested in.  This year we have all the Bill Peet picture books out again; that seems to be an annual tradition that we all love.  Miss 12 has a pile of Nate Wilson books to explore, I want to reread some gluten-free living books, Freddy the Pig has come back once again to entertain us all, and we’ve ordered all the David Macaulay DVD’s and books (Cathedral, Castle, Motel of the Mysteries, etc.) that the library has.

But why?  Is there a reason we do this?  Obviously, there’s nostalgia, like our annual Bill Peet indulgence.  And there’s is learning, like the books about Van Gogh and about writer’s groups.  There is pure enjoyment, like Peter Speier’s wordless picture books and Don Aslett’s hilarious dejunking books.  And there is excitement, as in the one Asterix collection allowed this week, as well as Beowulf and The Cricket on the Hearth.

The other reason is quite practical.  We live close to a tiny country library in a city-wide system of huge libraries.  Our library is often on the endangered list, quite literally, and as homeschoolers we depend on it.  So, years ago, we began our Reading Week to coincide with our library’s annual counting week.  I suppose it’s actually Save the Library Week.

It’s the week we order more books than usual, visit the library every day, and pull a lot of books from the shelves.  We also request a lot of books from other branches.  Usually we have 50 or so books requested; now we have just over 200.  Usually we have less than 80 books out; now we have 179.  Our reading week helps the library’s statistics, and our librarians are grateful to (and proud of) ‘their’ homeschoolers.

And the final big question:  Will we ever read them all?  No.  There are already three books in our return box, one of them full of blasphemy on the only page I checked.  We don’t need that.   But we will read most of them.  Our children are amazingly fast readers, and I’m no slouch at whizzing through a book either.   A lot of the books will be enjoyed from cover to cover.  On the other hand, I won’t read every recipe in every gluten-free cookbook.   I’ll skim through the writer’s circle books to choose the best ones for setting up a homeschool teen writer’s group, and study those in great detail.  And Freddy the Pig will be read, reread, and chuckled over.

There are, of course, a few more niggling practical matters:

Where do we store all those books?  In rows and piles in front of our bookshelves.

How do we keep track of them?  Very carefully, according to our usual system for avoiding library fees.

Doesn’t it make a mess in our house?  Yes, and after a month I’m always thrilled that most of the books are gone.

Are we invalidating the library statistics?  No.  As you can see from the numbers above, we’re taking more books out than usual, but not that many more in terms of a library’s output.  Just enough to make the librarians love us, not enough to make them hate us.

We love Reading Week.  Great books, no schoolwork, special snacks, and the opportunity to really delve into one author’s works are all wonderful treats.  We have learned, though, that we must keep a bit of a normal routine of mealtimes, chores, and outside time or everyone will become grumpy in a few days.  It’s true that reading can be over-done.

But my homeschooled kids know my weak point and love to point out, “You learn from reading, Mom!”   Implying that therefore it’s all OK, and, really, it is, because it’s as much of a break for mom as for the kids.

If you’ve never enjoyed a Reading Week, try one.  You might be starting an annual tradition.

For more inspiration, check out my posts about previous Reading Weeks.

This post is linked to Saturday Reviews, Works for Me Wednesdays, Booknificent Thursdays, Raising Homemakers, Finishing Strong and Trivium Tuesdays.

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