Fermenting Food with Fermentools

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Last year, I was able to review the Starter Kit from Fermentools, and it didn’t go so well. I was able to technically ferment some vegetables, but they weren’t a family favorite, taste-wise. This summer, I’ve been making a lot of coleslaw (the traditional kind, not fermented), and I wanted to give fermented coleslaw a try. I’ve had some “sour” coleslaw in restaurants with fish and chips. When I saw the recipe for fermented coleslaw on the Fermentools blog, I suspected that that tart flavor I’ve enjoyed in restaurants might be a fermented slaw. I wanted to try making it myself! For this reason, I asked for another opportunity to write a review for Fermentools.

Fermenting foods is a great way to incorporate good bacteria into your intestinal tract (necessary for optimal “gut health”), and it’s gained a lot of popularity over the past few years (never mind the fact that it’s been a traditional way of preserving food for over a century). If you like sour things, like pickles and sauerkraut, or fermented things, like wine, then good news for you: you already like fermented food! But if you buy these foods from the grocery store, you’re missing out on all the good bacteria that you get when you ferment your own food at home. This is because in the process of canning to make food shelf stable, all that heat kills the bacteria. Killing bad bacteria is a good thing, but killing the good bacteria… not so much.

The Fermentools Starter Kit comes with everything you need to turn any size wide-mouthed Mason jar into a fermenting vessel. Just add the jar and the food! The starter kit comes in a nice small box that will fit easily into a standard mailbox when you order it. Inside the box is a little cloth bag with all of the tools: a glass weight, an air lock, a special lid that fits a wide-mouthed jar, a rubber stopper, and a rubber ring. Also inside the box, but outside of the bag, is a bag of specially formulated Fermentools Himalayan pink salt and an instruction sheet with two recipes. Let’s talk about how to ferment food using the kit.

The first thing you do is to choose your recipe. As I mentioned before, I opted for coleslaw. This meant chopping up some cabbage, shredding carrots, and getting started. I used green cabbage only because it’s what I had on hand already, but you could easily do a mix of green and purple. For a quart sized jar, I used about half a large head of cabbage and two carrots.

Once my vegetables were chopped, I sprinkled a tablespoon of the pink salt from the kit over the top of the mix (it was still just laid out on my cutting board at this point). I mixed it altogether with my hands and then pressed it into the jar. With the jar filled up, I then made a brine solution. I didn’t have any distilled water at the time, so I used the method on the instruction sheet to dechlorinate some tap water by boiling it for ten minutes and then letting it cool. I cheated on the cooling and added some store-bought ice to speed up that process. In the future, I will just buy a gallon of distilled water and not worry about it, but I’d already chopped and salted the cabbage at this point, forgetting that fermenting requires non-chlorinated water.

Making the brine with Fermentools is super easy. The salt bag has everything you need to know to measure properly. If you look at the front of the bag, it tells you how much salt you need for a specific amount of water (not for the size of your jar, so be aware of that when you measure) in grams. Flip the bag over and you’ll see a grams-to-teaspoons/tablespoons chart. Simply add the salt to your water, stir to dissolve, and your brine is ready.

Back to my jar of coleslaw. It was packed down now, so I slowly poured the brine over the mixture. My recipe recommended placing a cabbage leaf over the top of the mixture, so I did that and then added the glass weight. The weight is perfectly sized to fit inside the Mason jar, and its job is to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine during the fermenting process, assuring that all of the food ferments – none is above the brine being left unfermented. From here, you add the special Fermentools lid (it has a hole in the top) and rubber gasket, then secure it with the ring that came with your jar. Pop the rubber stopper into that hole, then add your air lock to the rubber stopper. Fill the air lock halfway with water (there’s a line right on there so you don’t have to guess; I used brine in mine) and place your jar in a dark place to ferment for the time specified in your recipe. The fermenting process varies based on the food in your jar; my coleslaw recipe said about 5 days. I forgot about it, though, and it ended up going 8 days before I got back to it.

Now the big question… did the fermented coleslaw taste good? Yes! I was a bit leery to taste it at first, so I just had a little bit. The recipe said that when the fermenting was over, to mix it with a bit of mayonnaise to complete the recipe, so I did that. And it was really good! I will definitely be making more fermented coleslaw in the coming months. And it gave me the confidence in tasty fermented foods that I didn’t get last year, so I want to try some other options. I learned last year that it’s best not to attempt to make something that’s not what it’s supposed to be. For example, I confused “fermented asparagus” with “pickled asparagus” last year, and I was disappointed. But going in with the right mentality this year, I was much happier with the results. If you already know you like fermented food and want to make it yourself to preserve those good bacteria, or you’re interested in trying something new, then I definitely recommend the Fermentools Starter Kit.

One last thing before I wrap up today. Last year, I gave my Starter Kit to my mom because I didn’t expect to use it again after our family’s disappointment in the asparagus. She made some fermented garlic, and I have a short review from her too.

I used your fermenting process to ferment some garlic. It was very easy. All I had to do was put the stuff together and put it in the garage for three months. After that, I put it in the refrigerator and let it cool down because I like my stuff cool, and then I gave it a try. I thought it tasted really good. Your product was very fun to use and very easy.

Make sure to click through to the Homeschool Review Crew website, too, and see what other families fermented. I know I’m excited to read those reviews!


Opting for a GED

Ballet Boy, for many reasons that he and Will discussed, decided to pursue a GED (formally “Tests for General Educational Development”). The primary reason is that the two of them thought a “homeschool diploma” wouldn’t be taken seriously by people in the real world. Today, Ballet Boy and I want to talk a little bit about the GED process in our state.

A test on a desk with a teen's hand holding a pencil hovering above the page

Disclaimer: While it seems as though the basics are the same from state to state, do not take our words for facts nationwide. Always do your own research and choose the best path for you, as well as making sure you follow all the laws and guidelines in your specific state.

The GED is a series of four tests, designed to determine whether a student has enough knowledge to “be done” with their schooling without technically “graduating.” You have to be 18 in order to take the tests, and each one is administered separately, with their own fees ($38 each in our state; if a retest is required, the fee is slightly lower). The tests are available for in-person or online, though the price is slightly higher online starting September 1st (in most states). If you take the test in person, there is no practice testing required, but to do it online you must have passed a practice test within the last 60 days. Some states require that you live in the state to take their test, but not all of them do (ours doesn’t). Make sure to find out whether the state you wish to test in has residency requirements or not before you commit. Additionally, not all states offer the test (Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Tennessee, Maine, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, and West Virginia), so if you live in one of those states, you need to either take the test online or travel to a state that allows non-residents to test.

With those basics discusses, I will now pass the torch over to Ballet Boy.

The trick with being homeschooled is that it can be pretty difficult to keep track of things like credits. That hasn’t mattered before, but seeing as I’m 18 in October, graduating – or at least finishing – starts to be a necessity. We have done so many different curricula over the years through the Review Crew that it would be much too complicated to go through them all to count up the credits. Instead, I talked with my dad and together we decided that it would be a good idea for me to take the GED test instead of getting a traditional high school diploma. Since I’m not planning on going to college, this seemed like a reasonable way to wrap things up. 

The test itself is made up of four separate exams in a variety of subjects. These smaller tests are:

Science, Social Studies, Math (always math lol), and Language Arts. 

You need to be at least 18 (16 under very specific circumstances, such as being an emancipated minor) to take the test in my state and the fee is around $150 for the whole test. You are not required to take all four tests at the same time. To qualify for the GED you cannot be enrolled in school. The GED tests are scored on a 100-299 scale and scoring is as follows: 100-144-below passing; 145-164-high school equivalency score; 165-174-college-ready score; 175-200-college-ready + college credit score. And if you score 299 I’m pretty sure they ask you to be the president. 

They say you should plan on the prep taking three months to pass the test but they also say that 65% of students fail the test and have to take it again. I’m taking my time and checking all my boxes before I take the exams. The only subject that concerns me is math, so I’m going through a program called Triad Math (which, ironically enough started out as a review product) and brushing up on everything. I also have an ACT prep course that I’m starting, and there’s tons of help on YouTube to fill in all the gaps. So for anyone reading this who’s planning on taking the GED there is no one specific way to prep. Look at the subjects, work on what you’re not confident in till you are, and I’ll meet you on the other side 😉

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.

Ballet Boy

A Basic Sweater for Ballet Boy

Ballet Boy has very specific taste, in clothing especially. He’s developing a similar taste as Will (which makes sense) for the finer things in life. This is why the first sweater I made for him was a fancy one – lots of cables, seed stitch in between for texture, a gorgeous shawl collar. And as much as I love seeing that sweater, I did not like making it. It doesn’t even make sense that I didn’t like the process; it’s the kind of sweater most knitters live for – lots of interest, no boring “miles of stockinette.” To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t enjoy the process. I love the idea of making another one, but remembering how much I struggled with it, I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The sweater in progress. Obviously I have a ways to go still, but I’m struggling a bit with motivation right now. Probably because it’s so hot here in the Pacific Northwest. The last thing I want is a winter sweater in my lap all day.

So when he outgrew that one (don’t worry; we’ve kept it and Grasshopper will wear it one day), he and I brainstormed ideas for another sweater for him. He wasn’t super particular. He had just two criteria: it needed to be dark gray, and it needed to be a pullover. My kids are too nice to say it so bluntly, but they all have let me know in their own ways that I suck at plotting buttonholes! They all prefer pullovers because the buttons never quite fasten tidily when I make them a sweater.

So after looking over tons of patterns, we fell back on an old favorite: the Flax sweater. This pattern is one of the most popular on Ravelry, and for good reason. It’s free, it’s easy, and it comes in a huge variety of sizes (newborn – 3XL). You can literally make this sweater for anyone you know and it will fit them. The sweater is constructed top down, which means you’re working upside-down for most of it. The sleeves have just the tiniest bit of interest: a stripe of garter stitch along the top, from shoulder to wrist.

I’m using Hobby Lobby “I Love This Yarn!” in the color Dark Gray for the sweater. It’s a lovely heathered black-gray color, and it’s making the sweater turn out really prettily. The yarn is a bit heavy when it’s knit up, but that will assure that the sweater is quite warm for him this fall and winter. And we definitely picked the right pattern for this yarn. The heathering gives interest where the pattern leaves simplicity. But that plush garter stitch on the sleeves is just a very pleasant touch.

If you want to knit a sweater but you’ve never done it before, I can’t recommend the Flax sweater enough. Find it free on Ravelry (from Tin Can Knits’s “The Simple Collection”). There are tons of tutorials available to walk you through the process because it was designed to be a learner sweater. And if you’re new to knitting but aren’t quite sure you want to tackle a sweater yet, The Simple Collection has you covered anyway. It includes patterns for a scarf, a blanket, mittens that can be made regular or fingerless, a shawl, a hat, socks, a pullover, a cardigan, and a cowl. The pieces all “match” in that they have a bit of garter paneling somewhere on the item. This allows you to practice both your knits and your purls, whether you’re working on an “in the round” project or a flat one.

What do you want to knit first?


Cross Stitching

A couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to cross stitch something. I’m not entirely what prompted that, but I’m glad it did. I’ve been having quite a bit of fun creating my image.

The first thing I did was to go out and purchase a piece of Aida fabric. This is a precut piece of fabric that is punched with holes (imagine a very small, fabric instead of paper, version of a “boxes” game). The weave on the fabric is reasonably loose – you can easily see the threads. But at the same time, the fabric is stiff. To make your design, you create a series of little Xs, using the holes in the fabric as your guide.

If you don’t know how to read a cross stitch pattern, they seem like gibberish, so let me take a moment to explain it to you.

First, you have to understand embroidery thread. Embroidery thread comes in tiny skeins, and you have to re-wind it onto bobbins before you use it. Each one is reasonably short, so it only takes a minute or two to wind one. The thread is made up of six thin strands. For most forms of cross stitch and embroidery, you use two of those strands at a time. This means that you have to cut a length of thread off of your bobbin (usually 12-18 inches), and then peel apart two of the strands from the rest. Alternately, you can peel off just one strand and fold it in half (this is normally what I do). This allows you to cut your thread a bit longer because you’re just going to halve it. You don’t want to cut your thread too long because you risk easy knotting otherwise. Also, embroidery thread doesn’t have color names; it has color numbers. This makes it easier to find the exact colors you need for a specific pattern. There are two main brands of the thread that I know of, but almost all patterns only offer the color numbers for one of them: DMC.

Now that you know about the thread itself, we can move back to the patterns. On your pattern, you’ll see a key that’s not unlike a map legend. It shows all the different symbols used in the pattern, and next to each one is a color number and sometimes description of the color. This allows you to easily shop for the threads you need for your project. (You don’t have to take these colors as canon; I’ve frequently adjusted the colors based on what I already have on hand or in the event that the store is out of a color that’s required in the pattern.)

When you’ve gathered all of your supplies – the different threads, the Aida fabric, a needle (cross stitch needles are blunt because the fabric has holes already; this makes it a good past time to teach children), and a pair of scissors – you’re ready to stitch! You always start a cross stitch in the center and work your way out. This keeps your design centered on your fabric, which makes it easier to frame later. The pattern will guide you toward that center point with arrows on the edge. You just follow the arrows inward and choose the best match you see. Again, this isn’t a precise science. I normally narrow it down to 4 possible stitches and pick the one I want to start with.

As you might have guessed from what I’ve said thus far, each symbol represents one color of thread. You simply create the little X on your fabric using the appropriate color. I find it easiest to work in “chunks” of a single color and then move on to another color. Some people like to work in rows, keeping their color attached until they need it again. Neither way is right or wrong; like all crafts, so long as it looks right in the end – and you’re happy with it – then you did it right. One last tip, though: always mark off the stitches you’ve already created in thread. I can’t imagine a universe in which avoiding doing that would be beneficial, even for an experienced stitcher. You can either print out your pattern and mark off the stitches with a pencil, or work digitally and mark them off using some sort of highlighting tool in your PDF reader of choice (I use iBooks on my phone).

Now that you’ve (hopefully) got a basic idea of how to cross stitch, here’s my current project.

I don’t like dogs as a general rule, but Scotties have always been an exception to that rule! (At least as decor. I’m not sure I’d ever want a real dog, no matter how cute.)

Do you cross stitch? Do you like dogs?


Khan Academy for High School

My oldest son decided to go the GED route (which I’ve mentioned before). But I’m encouraging my second son, Scorpion, to pursue a homeschool diploma instead. He’ll be starting 9th grade in September, so we’re in full on planning mode now. In my internet searches, I found Khan Academy. I’ve heard of them before, but never really looked into them very much. But when I saw that they have an app, I knew that it just might be a good fit for my technology-loving, visual learner!

This post will likely feel a bit like a review, but it’s completely unsponsored. I just want to talk about our high school plan for Scorpion, to both share with you a potentially new curriculum as well as give us some accountability moving forward.

the app icon for khan academyI signed up for an account before I ever told him about the idea of using this program, and from there I was able to easily create a student account for him. I used the website to go over all the different options for classes, and then I assigned him the subjects I want him to take. We’re on summer break now, but he spent a couple of weeks in the app to get a good feel for it so that it would be smooth sailing when school starts in the fall. Here’s what he’ll be working on.

9th Grade Reading and Vocabulary

This course is still in beta mode, which means they’re potentially working out some kinks. It also redirects to the website because of that, rather than showing up right in the app. The course has three main components: Borders, Social Psychology, and The Apocalypse. Each of the sections follows the same basic outline, but with a different emphasis (fiction vs poetry vs informational text for example).


It’s no secret that I’m a grammar nerd. I live for good grammar, and it’s one of my favorite subjects to teach my kids. I even do professional copy editing for Will’s book design business. But I care more about making sure that commas are properly placed and shouldn’t be a semicolon instead, rather than keeping track of all the nuanced and advanced concepts of high school grammar. So I am more than happy to let Khan Academy take over the teaching here!

The Grammar course has 10 sections, and each one has between 600 and 1300 “mastery points.” Students work through all the different topics, earning their points to pass the class. It starts easy, with things your student should have learned in elementary school (nouns and verbs). By the end of the course, they’re into more complicated things like “syntax: sentences and clauses.” It even includes a style section at the very end of the course!

a screenshot showing the different courses my son will be taking this school year.

High School Biology

This course is also in beta mode, but it works in the app. At the time of this writing, it has two main sections: Matter and Energy in Ecosystems and Interactions in Ecosystems. Each of those sections, when you click through, has a fair number of lessons. Scorpion hasn’t delved very much into this course, but it looks to be a good balance between videos and digital worksheets.


I have a hard time remembering sometimes that my kids are not the same as me – or each other. Scorpion has always been better at reading and literature than math. He has always struggled with math, which is why he’s taking pre-algebra in ninth grade instead of seventh. (I know that sounds like a slight on him, and it’s not. It’s just that pre-algebra in seventh grade was the only reference point I had for the subject until recently because that’s when I took it.)

This class works pretty much identically to grammar, with mastery points. The difference, of course, is that the subject is numbers and not words. I’m excited for him to get a good grasp on these concepts this year!

US Government and Civics

This is another mastery points course. It has a fraction the number of mastery points available, so I think it’s a semester course. It covers everything needed for a good foundation in government: foundations of American democracy, interactions among branches of government, civil liberties and civil rights, citizenship, American political ideologies and beliefs, political participation, and more.

World History (1750-)

There were two or three world history courses on Khan Academy to choose from, so I let Scorpion choose what he wanted to do, and he picked 1750-modern times. Again, this course works on a points system. There are a total of 9 main headings, and each one moves through 3-6 subheadings.

Pixar in a Box

Animation is Scorpion’s passion. He has his own YouTube channel where he posts original animations he’s made. So for his elective this year, I found found this Pixar course for him to take. I’m excited to see how much he learns from the course, and especially to see how well he likes it once he gets into it. It will be neat to see how he takes what he learns in this course and applies it to his own animations over the course of the school year.

As I mentioned before, Scorpion has done just a little bit of the work so far, enough to get a feel for the program before we dive in fully next academic year. Here are his thoughts so far:

Khan Academy is an online learning platform for kids of all ages. So far I’ve been using it for a few weeks, and I’m loving it so far. It has a very user friendly interface, and easy to complete lessons. The lessons take about five minutes to complete and are fun and not too difficult. Khan Academy is a perfect choice for children and teenagers alike.

What’s your plan for homeschooling high school? I’d love to hear in the comments what you are doing/have done.


Turning a Closet into a Pantry

We live in a small place right now. The kitchen is especially small – not really big enough to store food for 7 people and the pots, pans, and dishes that I need for our family. In addition to the lack of storage area, the cupboards are a bit too high for me (I’m barely 5′ tall, especially without shoes). Between those two obstacles, I was quite frustrated with my kitchen, so my husband came up with a solution: we turned half of the coat closet into a pantry.

First, let me briefly describe the layout to our home. You come in the front door, which when open blocks off the view of the kitchen. To your immediate left is the coat closet. The kitchen is a galley kitchen, which means it’s open on both sides. One side opens to the foyer and the other to the dining room (which itself opens to the living room). So when the front door is closed, the kitchen is right next to the coat closet.

two shelves with a variety of jars of food on them.

Actually making the transformation was super simple. We first emptied out the closet (except for the shelf up above, which already housed primarily small kitchen appliances). My husband and teenagers then brought in two old bookshelves that we’ve had forever. They had been kept in our tiny outdoor storage unit, just waiting for a decision to be made on them. We’ve talked many times about getting rid of them, but never have for one reason or another. In this home, I’m so glad we’ve kept them! I cleaned the shelves really well and then covered the shelves with contact paper so they would match the other shelves and drawers that we covered when we first moved in. Then Will and the kids tucked the shelves into the closet. They fit perfectly, depth wise, and take up just over half of the closet width wise, so we still have room for coats and cleaning supplies (mop, broom, vacuum).

Knowing my youngest son as well as I do (he is the most difficult of all our children, by far), I nailed the shelves to the wall. I just knew that he would try to climb them – and he has, many times – so it was imperative that they not be able to tip over on him. With that done, we were able to “move in”!

a bookshelf full of foodIt took me a while to get used to the new pantry, so it was weird at first trying to figure out what to put where. But once I got used to the idea, things just really flowed and I was able to fill up the shelves almost like second nature. Now, I don’t even think about the actual kitchen cupboards anywhere when I get home from the grocery store. I put the really tall things on the top shelf – cereal boxes, my spice rack, and bottles of vegetable oil for example. Just below that, on the second shelf, I put the canned goods, organized by type (beans, vegetables, tomato products). The third shelf houses my baking supplies. I filled a mixing bowl with the small items like baking powder and soda, vanilla, cinnamon. Next to that are the bags of all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, and masa (corn flour for making tortillas). The next shelf down is my favorite one. It’s my “extra supplies” shelf. There live the things that we already have in the fridge, but that I often forget to buy more of. So when the fridge one runs out, I’m sure to have a spare on hand. Think mayo, mustard, ketchup, salad dressing, lemon juice, etc. Things we use frequently but not quickly. The very bottom shelf is where I keep the heavier items, like bags of popcorn and rice.

The second shelf is right next to the other one. Literally touching. It houses the things that don’t quite fit on the first shelf, food as well as non-food kitchen supplies like cookbooks. It doesn’t tend to be as full as the other one, but it’s still nice to have available for overflow.

Have you ever repurposed a “room” in your house?


Exploring Different Learning Styles (and how my kids learn best)

I have four school-age kids right now, and they each have different strengths. I want to take some time today to talk about each of them, specifically in the realm of how they learn and how I homeschool them based on those learning styles, in the hopes that this exploration might be helpful to someone else out there.

Ballet Boy (17 years old)

My oldest son took me a bit by surprise when he was starting school. My husband and I both have academic tendencies, so I expected our children to also veer that way naturally. Boy was I in for a shock! Ballet Boy didn’t really want anything to do with school, and looking back I’m not sure I blame him. All he knew was playing with Mom. He’d never been to daycare, so the sudden change from “little kid at home” to “you’re 5 now, it’s time for school” was a shock to his little system. And back then, I didn’t have half the knowledge I do now about different learning styles. I figured all kids would benefit from a traditional education. Because I went to public school, and only knew kids who also had, I had no idea there could be more to homeschooling than basic lists of things to accomplish. Due to my inexperience combined with my fear of homeschool not being “enough,” we got a stack of workbooks and I taught him the material. He filled out the answers, and we called it a day.

But he was miserable.

See, he wasn’t (and still isn’t) a traditional learner. My oldest son works best when he can hear the lessons rather than seeing them. He can listen to audio books and dramas and retain way more information than when he reads that same book. For this reason, things like Heirloom Audio productions make fantastic history resources for him. He did well with Apologia’s audio textbook for science when he was small.

If you have a child who struggles with reading, maybe try an audio approach instead. (And this is not me saying that reading isn’t important. I believe with all my heart that it is, and everyone should learn to read when they are young. But knowing that there are options besides just books is also helpful.)

Scorpion (14 years old)

My second child could not be more different than his older brother. When Ballet Boy started 1st grade when he was 7 (compulsory school age in our state was 7-18 back then; it’s 6-18 now), Scorpion wanted to do school too. He was only 4 at the time, but we decided to humor him and got some kindergarten workbooks (this was back when we still thought that was the best method for every child). He did really well with them. I didn’t even have to teach him to read. He just randomly picked it up when he was tiny. When he was 5 and Ballet Boy was 8, they were at roughly the same reading level. We had just finished the school year and signed the boys up for summer reading at the library. We told them that if they each read a chapter book, we would give them a monetary prize in addition to whatever they earned from the library. (But the goal wasn’t optional.) They both did it, but Scorpion managed it with a more difficult book than Ballet Boy.

When he was just 5 years old, he read Charlotte’s Web by himself.

Ever since then, he’s been a self starter who thrives with visual learning. He can read all the books in the world and retain everything he reads. Video lessons are great for him because he can see the visual aids and understand what’s being taught. And he’s a self starter. Now that he’s entering high school, I can give him a list (something he can see), and he will just work through it with very little intervention from me. So I recommend for the visual learners that you embrace that fully – give them things they can look at, read, and process on their own terms. You’ll likely have a very independent future student!

Grasshopper (9 years old)

Grasshopper gets a lot of face time on this blog, mostly because he’s at the age where there are so many cool things to teach him. He really loves school now, but it wasn’t always that way. See, when he was just starting, he struggled with reading. I thought it was going to be a repeat of Ballet Boy’s early years. And in many ways, it was. He didn’t read well until this past school year. He fought me many days, and always tried to get some sort of early reprieve from school or better yet, a day off for no reason.

But now that he’s older, I can see that he mostly thrives with one-on-one time. That’s not always possible, but often times it is. If I can distract the younger brothers for a bit of time (an episode of PJ Masks, or a game idea with their toys will usually do the trick!), I can give him 20 or 30 minutes of specialized time to focus on learning. We do a lot of his lessons this way, a little bit at a time, amongst the brothers also needing me. This also works with his attention span (and jealousy of the youngers getting to play while he works). Work a little, play with your brothers. Work a bit more, then play again. It makes the day a little bit longer, but not terribly so. And it gives him the individualized time he needs as well as periodic breaks to lessen the load.

Dragonfly (5 years old)

My fourth son is a lot like Scorpion. He’s desperate to learn, and while he also wants one-on-one time, he does really well with digital learning. Preschool apps (like Reading Eggs or LeapFrog) are totally his jam. He could do those all day long. He was born into a digital era, and he totally embraces it. Other than unlocking the iPad, he can do those types of lessons entirely on his own, which is both really helpful and a little bittersweet. Of course, I don’t let him do only digital things – he reads physical books and works with paper and pencil/crayon too – but it’s super convenient to have them available for him. And I don’t doubt for one minute that he’ll be able to switch to a computer pretty easily when he’s older and ready to take the next technological leap in his teen years and beyond.

What types of learning styles do you deal with in your homeschool?


Book Club: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen is one of my favorite authors. In fact, having read her 2015 novel At the Water’s Edge is what inspired me to start the book club series on my blog.

But that’s not what inspired me to read Water for Elephants the first time.

When I first heard of the book back in 2011, it was already five years old. But it was getting the movie treatment right in the midst of the Twilight craze, and back then I was a crazy Twilight fan. How are the two related, you wonder? The male lead in Twilight, Robert Pattinson, was one of the stars of Water for Elephants. Because he was slated to be in the film, I wanted to read the book and then see the movie when it came out. So I got it on Audible and listened to it while making cloth diapers for Grasshopper before he was born. And now I’ve just read it (really read it, not listened) for the first time. I also rewatched the movie (with Scorpion, who’d never seen it).

And I loved both. Such a great story!

the official "water for elephants" book cover. a man is walking into a circus tent, and the title of the book is overlaid atop the image.

The remainder of this post contains spoilers for the novel and movie Water for Elephants.

My plan for this post, at least in part, is to answer some of the book club questions from my e-book, but first I want to spend a little bit of time comparing the book and the movie.

The story is the same, but there are a few big differences. First, the Uncle Al character in the book didn’t make it to the film. Instead, movie-August encompasses both roles. I don’t think this took away from the story at all. In fact, as I was reading I found Uncle Al almost distracting because he didn’t really seem to add much (despite being the owner of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus). I liked having August take care of both roles. The fact that he was played by the amazing Christoph Waltz was just icing on the cake.

In the book, we hear from “Old Jacob” about every third chapter. In the film, he appears only at the very beginning at the very end. I think both ways actually work pretty well, but the film version just ekes out the win for me here. It feels more like Old Jacob is actually telling the story from start to finish in the film rather than fighting not to forget his past due to his old age in the book.

Here’s a good article describing more of the differences between the book and the film if you’re interested. But now, on to some book discussion questions.

In connection with Jacob’s formal dinner with August and Marlena in their stateroom, Jacob remarks, “August is gracious, charming, and mischievous.” To what extent is this an adequate characterization of August?

This seemed like a pivotal moment in the story to me. It marks the exact time that August first sees Jacob as something of an equal. But Jacob wasn’t fooled by August, at least not fully. He can spot the graciousness, the charm. But that mischievous nature is always there, just underneath the surface of August’s demeanor. You can never trust him, and in the end that proves more true than anyone realizes.

In his Carnival of the Animals, Ogden Nash wrote, “Elephants are useful friends.” In what ways is Rosie a “useful” friend?

I would love to have an elephant for a friend, wouldn’t you? They are my absolute favorite animal. And Rosie is a special elephant, for sure. She helps Jacob to survive the Benzini Brothers fiasco (and I don’t just mean the stampede at the end). She becomes his best friend, outside of Marlena, and personally I found it a lovely relationship – vet and animal. I’m not sure Jacob would have made it through the ordeal of August, Uncle Al, and his forbidden affair with Marlena (August’s wife) without her. That makes for a very useful character, I think.

After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing.” What is Jacob left “looking at,” and what makes it a “terrible thing”?

This goes back to the first question, doesn’t it? That mischievous nature of August’s, which slowly morphs and shifts to pure evil by the end of the novel. He’s able to perform when needed. He hates Rosie – that’s clear from the very beginning of their relationship – but through a careful recitation of words that Rosie can actually understand, he’s able to appear to care for her. And that difference – caring vs performing – is a very dangerous thing.

That’s all I’ve got for my book club today. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on Water for Elephants. Have you ever read the novel? Seen the film? What did you think?


Making Math Easy with CTCMath (review)

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Grasshopper had such a huge success when we used CTCMath last year that I happily agreed to review it again to keep his subscription going!

What is CTCMath? In its most basic form, CTCMath is a program that teaches all levels of math from Kindergarten through Calculus. The program is split up into grade levels, and from there, units and lessons. There are also a few games to help with speed facts. Grasshopper has been working on third grade curriculum, which includes times tables. To help him with his times tables, he has been playing the Times Tables Shoot ‘Em Up game in addition to doing 1-2 regular lessons per day.

Let’s talk first about the regular lessons. Each one consists of a short video (2-5 minutes long), followed by a 10-question digital worksheet. Students know right away whether they’ve gotten the answer right, which is really nice. In the parent account, you set the “pass grade” for each of your students. We have it set to the default 80%. This means that if my son gets 80% or better on his worksheet, the program allows him to move on to the next lesson. If he gets less than 80% (which he never does – he’s borderline in tears any time he gets less than 100%), then he is prompted to answer more questions to encourage further understanding of the topic. Because the lessons are prerecorded videos, a student can always go back and watch it again if they’re unclear on what to do. We’ve had to do that a time or two. It’s really that straightforward! Grasshopper can easily get a math lesson done in 10 minutes, including the video. That’s why he often does more than one lesson per school day. I’m sure they’re harder when you get into the more advanced maths, but we haven’t been there yet.

Times Tables Shoot ‘Em Up is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Answer the multiplication problem by shooting the correct answer. Before you begin, you can choose which times tables you want to practice, or do a mix. The answers are shown in a straight line across the screen in ascending order. The group moves slowly down the screen, and you need to answer all of the questions before they get to the bottom. Once you’ve made it through three rounds, the movement picks up considerably. Even Will and Ballet Boy took a shot at that level, and neither of them could get all the answers in the faster level despite knowing their times tables really well. The numbers just move too fast down the screen.

For more details, look at my 2020 review of CTCMath. You can also head over to the Homeschool Review Crew and see what other members think of this fantastic math program! As for us, Grasshopper is going to continue doing a couple of lessons a day through the summer, and then dive into 4th grade math in the fall.