Favorite Homeschool Resources {Middle School Language Arts}

Welcome to Favorite Homeschool Resources—a series sharing our best-loved secular books and workbooks. You can view all the posts in the series so far here.

As a homeschool momma and lover of words, I love choosing language arts books with the Agents. Following are several homeschool resources for middle school language arts we recommend.

{Note: If you would like to peruse all the books we use by category {as well as what the Agents are reading for fun this year} check out our Goodreads account.}

A row of colorful books on a bookshelf at the top and bottom. Text reads: Favorite homeschool resources, middle school language arts.

This post contains affiliate links. I receive a small commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase. I only recommend products and services I have personally used and enjoyed. For more information read my complete disclaimer here.

Middle School Language Arts Books We Love

Everything You Need To Ace English Language Arts in One Big Fat Notebook: The Complete Middle School Study Guide

As I mentioned in our list of favorite middle school math resources, this entire series has been a huge hit. The language arts book covers grammar, usage, fiction, nonfiction, and writing; and includes quizzes and reading lists.

Grammar: Write Here, Write Now
Punctuation: The Write Stuff  
Creative Writing: The Plot Thickens  

We love Basher Books! Each concept is introduced by a different character or group of characters {e.g., in Punctuation the Divide and Conquer Crew covers parentheses, dashes, hyphens ellipses, colons, and semicolons}. The chapters are relatively short, but you could also easily just read one page a day {in order, or not}.

Painless Grammar
Painless Writing

As with painless math, these make great reference books. We tried including them in our read-aloud time, but unlike the Basher books they were not particularly conducive to going through page by page. Still, great books to have around when you need to double-check a particular grammar rule or brush up on your writing mechanics.

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook

Found this at the library randomly one day—we were not looking for a book like this at all—and the Senior Agents ended up loving it and re-reading it a few times each before it went back. Written by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, it is more motivation and inspiration for the writing life than how-to details. {Think Bird by Bird for your tween/teen.}

More Language Arts Books We {Still} Love

When I wrote about how to homeschool multiple ages together I addressed choosing excellent resources regardless of reading level. 

When teaching multiple grade levels sometimes your book choices won’t be a perfect fit for everyone. It is okay if what you are reading is “too simple” for your oldest and “too much” for your youngest. If you read a variety of books—and a lot of them—it will balance out. And sometimes you just want to re-read some fun titles because it’s your homeschool and you don’t need to follow arbitrary rules.

That’s how we feel about these next several selections. Your mileage may vary with how your own middle schoolers view including these “young” titles. Mine personally find them more sweet and nostalgic than groan-worthy. {Also, I still have one student in elementary, so it works for us.}

A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What Is a Noun?  
To Root, To Toot, To Parachute: What Is a Verb?
Feet and Puppies, Thieves and Guppies: What Are Irregular Plurals?  
How Much Can a Bare Bear Bear? What Are Homonyms and Homophones?

These are just a few examples of the Words are CATegorical series by Brian P. Cleary, which provide an introduction to the parts of speech and basic grammar concepts. They are all roughly 30 pages and have lots of illustrations with only a sentence or so on each two-page spread. Simple enough for early elementary yet my middle schoolers still find them entertaining {and quaint}.

He also writes The Punctuation Station, a fun journey of animals trying to find their way to the correct train with the help of savvy punctuation marks.

When teaching multiple grade levels sometimes your book choices won’t be a perfect fit for everyone. It is okay if what you are reading is “too simple” for your oldest and “too much” for your youngest. Click To Tweet

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!
The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes!  
Twenty-Odd Ducks: Why, Every Punctuation Mark Counts! 
Eats MORE, Shoots & Leaves: Why, All Punctuation Marks Matter! 

Lynne Truss writes these cool punctuation books, which illustrate quite comically just how important punctuation can be, and what happens when you get it wrong. They are all an easy, one-sitting read aimed at grades 1 through 4, but can provide a fun review for older students as well. 

{Yes, it’s the same Lynne Truss who wrote the “grown up” version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.}

Happy Endings: A Story About Suffixes 
Nouns and Verbs Have a Field Day 
Punctuation Takes a Vacation 
Silent Letters Loud and Clear 

Robin Pulver takes a humorous look at the English language in these books {just a sampling here}, which cover parts of speech, spelling, and punctuation. Several chronicle the adventures of Mr. Wright’s {right} class, in which a group of elementary students come to appreciate just how important good grammar is. Others include Miss Doover {do over}. Like the Lynne Truss books, these are aimed at elementary students, but appropriate {if not silly} for older students as well.

Look At My Book: How Kids Can Write & Illustrate Terrific Books 

Of all the creative writing books we’ve tried, the Agents like this one by Loreen Leedy the best. It includes step-by-step guidelines for young wannabe authors to plan, draft, edit, and illustrate their own works. Even now that they are older, they still return to the simple yet concrete guidelines this text provides.

Old-fashioned ink pen writing pointed at a lined notebook page with a few indecipherable words written. Text reads: middle school language arts resources your students will love.

Middle School Language Arts Workbooks We Love

I’ll be honest: We’ve never found a complete curriculum of homeschool resources for middle school language arts we felt strongly about. Or even one that covered just mechanics or just writing.

{I know what you’re thinking, and nope not even that one. Or that one. Or even the one pretty much every homeschooler I have ever known raves about.}

However, we still need something specific for practicing skills, and we love a good workbook, so . . . we have found the following to be great for getting in written language arts practice without committing to a curriculum. 

As with others we have come across, you will find that many do not go past sixth grade {again disappointing my workbook-adoring children}.

Brain Quest Workbook Grade 6 

Brain Quest also covers math, science, and social studies, and provide an excellent overall review for the school year. In the language arts section specifically, the sixth grade version includes spelling and vocabulary; literature comprehension; research and analysis; writing; pronouns and punctuation; and metaphor and meaning.

Language Arts: Grade 6 
Reading Skills: Grade 6 
Writing Skills: Grade 6 
Spelling Skills: Grade 6 

Flash Kids Harcourt Family Learning offers tons of specific practice in multiple areas. You can chose to have them all in rotation at the same time or focus on one topic/workbook.

{Note: While I have seen a few similar titles for grades 7 and 8, they appear to be much older editions and not as readily available, which is why I have only linked the grade 6 workbooks here.}

Spectrum Language Arts Grade 6 
Spectrum Reading Grade 6 
Spectrum Writing Grade 6 
Spectrum Spelling Grade 6 
Spectrum Vocabulary Grade 6 

{Spelling and Vocabulary stop at grade 6.}

Spectrum Language Arts Grade 7 
Spectrum Reading Grade 7 
Spectrum Writing Grade 7 

Spectrum Language Arts Grade 8 
Spectrum Reading Grade 8 
Spectrum Writing Grade 8 

We love that the Spectrum workbooks includes several options for later grades. Because of this it has quickly become one of our favorite go-to series for written work.

Have you and your students read any of these homeschool resources for middle school language arts? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! And don’t forget to check out the other posts in our favorite homeschool resources series.

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Homeschooling Update {December}

December was not nearly as chaotic as November, although I do feel like it rushed right on by. Looking forward to a productive and organized new year, in our homeschooling and beyond. 

We are still in the midst of numerous home improvement projects—and still unpacking from the move—so I am personally feeling a bit unsettled. Hoping that by January’s update we will be feeling much more together and be ready to share photos of our new spaces.

Two evergreen trees with lights; one slightly blurred. Text reads: December secular homeschooling update.

Homeschool Antics

While not intentionally, we seemed to slow our homeschooling schedule a bit between Thanksgiving and the New Year. We have never been much for taking a lot of time off around holidays, but this year we dealt with more obstacles than usual this time of year {e.g., contractors working in the house during the day, not having everything we need unpacked, not getting settled into a “new house” routine soon enough}.

Moving forward, though, I want to be back on track with our typical {albeit flexible} schedule by the end of January. Even though we homeschool year round I still feel like the start of the new year is a good time to pause and evaluate. 

We have plans to get together with some local homeschoolers next week, so I am hoping the Agents can make some connections as well. 


Holiday Traveling

We spent a few days between Christmas and New Year’s visiting relatives out-of-state—as always, mostly nice but definitely exhausting. 

The cat showed his displeasure with being boarded at the cat hotel by hissing at me excessively upon our return. I was not particularly impressed with the place we chose; I think the next time we travel we will look for someone who can come to our home a few times to feed and check on him. 

{Our previous aloof cats would have been fine for up to a week without us, but this high-maintenance one needs fresh wet food every day due to his lack of teeth.}

Blogging {and Other} Ambitions

In addition to my usual grandiose plans for the new year—you know you have them, too—I will be incorporating a number of blogging goals into future posts. I hope you will follow along throughout the year and share some of your intentions as well. We’re all in this together.

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Indoor Activities for Kids of All Ages

In November we moved from San Diego to Virginia Beach. While Virginia does not have the weather extremes of say, upstate New York {where we spent three very snowy winters} it is most definitely not southern California. We clearly needed to increase our repertoire of indoor activities for kids.

Suddenly we face colder temperatures {brrr} and more rain in a month than we saw in the previous two-plus years. 

Needless to say we have spent a lot more time indoors, and truthfully we are still getting used to the whole idea of “outside time” not being a realistic daily goal.

So what keeps us busy during all that inside togetherness? Well, homeschooling, of course. But in reality that only takes about three hours a day, tops.

Following are some things the Agents do to keep themselves entertained on days when being outdoors is just not an option. They are currently 13, 11, and 9—but honestly this list of indoor activities for kids has not changed much since they were littles {although some things probably required more supervision/assistance back then}. 

Colored pencils in a circle formation with all sharpened points facing inward. Text reads: Indoor activities for kids of all ages.

This post contains affiliate links. I receive a small commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase. I only recommend products and services I have personally used and enjoyed. For more information read my complete disclaimer here.

Color

I don’t care how old you are, a new pack of colored pencils, markers, crayons, or gel pens will make your day. All of mine have finally reached the stage where they want “adult” coloring books with more complicated designs or more specific characters/interests, but coloring is still a favorite activity.

Make a Collage

We always recycle paper and cards and magazines around here, but before some of it makes it to the bin we re-use instead. All you need is construction paper or cardboard for the base and some scissors and glue. 

Build a Fort

Who doesn’t love the idea of hiding in or under a large box or blanket pulled over some chairs and hibernating for a bit?

I don’t care how old you are, a new pack of colored pencils, markers, crayons, or gel pens will make your day. Click To Tweet

Throw a Book Party

This is so much more fun than just suggesting your kids have some quiet reading time. Gather up some books {include old favorites that are a bit “young” for them to add nostalgia} and plop them down next to some pillows/blankets/bean bags. Snacks/fireplace/other ambiance optional.

Use a Magnifying Glass

We bought this inexpensive magnifying glass years ago to look at rocks one of the kids collected on a camping trip. Since then we have pulled it out many times to examine things around the house more closely.

Building blocks spelling out the word play with additional building blocks blurred in the background. Text reads: Indoor activities for kids of all ages, eleven ideas for days outside time is not an option.

Make Homemade Play Doh 

Spoiler alert: Play doh is still fun for tweens and teens. Try our well-loved recipe {using old crayons}.

Author a Book 

Next time you are at the Target dollar spot {which, come on, will be soon} grab a pack of blank books. They are the perfect size for a short story with pictures.

Start a Puzzle

The more pieces and more complicated the better. When finished use puzzle glue and a simple backing to create unique homeschool room decor. 

Write a Letter

Years ago the girls decided to write to David Attenborough telling him how much they enjoyed his documentaries. He replied and that letter is one of their most prized possessions. 


Get Crafty

I only have one kid who likes to sew, but everyone can enjoy some craft time with random material bits and tulle and buttons and fabric glue.

Snap Circuits

Okay, you know you bought one of these sets at some point. It is probably in a closet somewhere. Dig it out; they will love it. 

For more great ideas check out these posts: 

The Magic Gravity Escape: A Surprising Game for Kids
Indoor Fun That Never Gets Old-Learn & Play with Cranium Games
Winter Sensory Activities That Will Warm Your Little One
A Super Simple Kids’ Craft Activity for Bad Weather Days

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Favorite Homeschool Resources {Middle School Math}

Welcome to Favorite Homeschool Resources—a series sharing our best-loved secular books and workbooks. You can view all the posts in the series so far here.

One thing we have discovered—to our disappointment—is that many homeschool resources for middle school math tend to assume homeschoolers prefer video lessons. {Actually, I find this assumption to be prevalent with a lot of subjects, not just math.} Even some “text-based” programs have DVDs and online supplements to be used in conjunction. 

However, we tend to be book people, and so our favorite homeschool resources for middle school math reflect that. Following are several book series and workbook options we recommend.

A Different Kind of Math Book

I’ll be honest; these are not your typical textbook-style, teacher-led books. If you are looking for something that provides daily lesson plans and clear do this, then do that instructions, these may not be the resources for you. 

In many cases they are more math stories than math instruction. They also assume you already have a solid foundation of elementary school math. We enjoy them because they introduce math concepts in a more engaging way, and we don’t mind digging in and figuring out the specific how-to on our own. Truthfully we re-read some of them every school year just because they are fun—even after they seem a bit “young” for our current students. If that sounds like your jam, read on. 

A row of colorful books on a bookshelf at the top and bottom. Text reads: Favorite homeschool resources, middle school math.

This post contains affiliate links. I receive a small commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase. I only recommend products and services I have personally used and enjoyed. For more information read my complete disclaimer here.

Middle School Math Books We Love

Everything You Need To Ace Math In One Big Fat Notebook: The Complete Middle School Study Guide 

We absolutely love this entire series of books! Agent E worked her way through the math one for her sixth grade year. It provides an excellent review of basic concepts and a great foundation for getting started with algebra and geometry. 

I’ll be honest; these are not your typical textbook-style, teacher-led books. If you are looking for something that provides daily lesson plans and clear do this, then do that instructions, these may not be the resources for you.  Click To Tweet

Algebra and Geometry: Anything But Square!
Math: A Book You Can Count On 

The Basher Books have been long-time favorites around here. They are so much fun to read, and introduce complex ideas in a fun way. My only criticism is that if you don’t already have a passing knowledge of the terms used, some of the quirky phrasing might go over your head. 

Mathematicians Are People, Too: Stories From the Lives of Great Mathematicians {volume 1}
Mathematicians Are People, Too: Stories From the Lives of Great Mathematicians {volume 2}

We read these a few years back and really enjoyed learning more about the people behind the math. I always especially love digging into the contributions of the women who have traditionally been left out of the discussion. 

Painless Pre-Algebra
Painless Algebra 
Painless Geometry

Truth: We like this series, but not enough to own it . . . yet. They make terrific reference books, and come in handy if you can’t quite remember the right rule or formula and need a quick way to look it up. {They also have a great language arts series.}

More Math Books We {Still} Love

Sir Cumference and All the Kings Tens
Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi
Sir Cumference and the Off-the-Charts Dessert
Sir Cumference and the Roundabout Battle

These are just a few examples of what’s available in the series. Okay, so these aren’t 100% aimed at middle schoolers. But . . . we love them so much and have read all of them every year since Agent E was about second grade. Each story shares a different adventure {set in the world of knights and castles} that ultimately teaches a simple mathematical concept.

What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras?
Pythagoras and the Ratios

These are fictionalized versions of what Pythagoras might have been like as a mischievous youth, and super fun to read. Again, more geared toward slightly younger students, but favorites we keep coming back to even as the Agents grow.

Open math workbooks sits next to a wire-bound graph paper book and a mechanical pencil. Text reads: Middle school math resources your students will love.

Middle School Math Workbooks We Love

Of course we also need to practice the skills we read about. My students all love a good workbook. I know “worksheets” get a bad rap in homeschooling circles, but it is so convenient to have a nice, bound book of review problems arranged by topic or grade. These are some of our favorite written practice resources for middle school math.

Brain Quest Workbook Grade 6
Math Skills: Grade 6 {Flash Kids Harcourt Family Learning}
Math: Grade 6 {Skill Builders}

You will find that many workbook series only go up to sixth grade, which is kind of a bummer when you have homeschool kids who love workbooks, like mine do. These are a few that we loved for early middle school, but sadly they do not have seventh and eighth grade equivalents.

Algebra: Grades 6-8 {Skill Builders}
Geometry: Grades 6-8 {Skill Builders}

The Skill Builders series, however, does include algebra and geometry for this age/grade range. We like these for the extra practice; however, they are not very descriptive when it comes to actually explaining the process or how one arrives at the answer. I recommend these particular workbooks are best used for review.

Spectrum Math Grade 6
Spectrum Math Grade 7
Spectrum Math Grade 8
Spectrum Algebra Grades 6-8
Spectrum Geometry Grades 6-8

This series from Spectrum {which also includes language arts and science} is one of the few that includes options for seventh and eighth grades. In addition to the ones listed here, they also have workbooks for middle school math covering word problems, critical thinking, and statistics. 


Practice Makes Perfect Algebra 1
Practice Makes Perfect Geometry

We already loved the Spanish workbooks from this series, so we decided to check out the math ones as well. What I love most about these workbooks is that they give more detailed explanations of how to do the problems. Unlike many of the others, they are not just practice/review problems with limited context. Instead, it offers more of a textbook/workbook hybrid—perfect if you have a student who prefers reading about concepts and figuring them out rather than watching a video presentation. 

Have you tried any of these fabulous homeschool resources for middle school math? Let me know what you thought in the comments! And don’t forget to check out the other posts in our favorite homeschool resources series.

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How To Be a Nice Human

In our current {American} culture—where me-first attitudes and thinly veiled racism and sanctioned bullying have become commonplace—I frequently ponder how I can better prepare the Agents to be forces for good as they grow up. Here are some things I want them to know about how to be a nice human.

Line drawing of three human figures inside a heart shape. Text reads: How to be a nice human, a few points to consider.
  • Privilege is a thing. If you don’t understand it, learn. If you have it {spoiler alert: you do} acknowledge it. Then use it to help someone who doesn’t. 
  • You can care about more than one issue, problem, or group at a time. Compassion does not limit you to a dichotomy of caring about this at the expense of that. 
  • People always take precedence over symbols, rituals, or traditions. You can still respect the symbols, rituals, or traditions, but people always come first.
You can care about more than one issue, problem, or group at a time. Compassion does not limit you to a dichotomy of caring about this at the expense of that.  Click To Tweet
  • No one aspect of your personality defines you. Or anyone else. So don’t judge someone by the one thing you know about them.
  • If you think someone else deserves less than what you have because  . . . reasons . . . you might want to evaluate those reasons.

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Homeschooling Update {November}

November breezed right by in a whirlwind of packing, cleaning, traveling, hotel living, and unpacking. Of course homeschooling got done—as it always does—but what a reminder of how grateful we are to be able to engineer our days the way we can.

I cannot imagine having to toss register three kids for two new schools and get them caught up and adjusted and—oh, by the way—drive them to and from said schools from a hotel across town every day for two weeks into the mix. No thanks.

Cornucopia decorated with fall leaves and filled with various vegetables sits on a wooden table. Text reads: November secular homeschooling update.

The Move

Well, the biggest news for this month is that we completed our cross-country move from San Diego, CA to Virginia Beach, VA. We shipped our household goods {and cars} the first week of November, then flew out with five humans, four suitcases, and one feline on Friday, 8 November. Truly an all-day process—not to mention “losing” three hours with the time zone change—but we survived and have happily settled into being east coast residents once again.

We spent a total of fifteen days in two different hotels. Thankfully the Agents go with the flow with that sort of thing and did not completely disintegrate. We tried to get out and about and not go stir crazy, but it was cold and rainy most of the time, and then I ran over a nail and the car was out of commission for a bit. At least they can mostly entertain themselves and make things generally more survivable now than when they were all babes. 

The House

The house we moved into is actually not “new” to us—it is the same house Hubby and I lived in when we first married back in 2003, and where toddler Agents E and J lived until we moved to Naples, Italy in early 2010. {Agent A had never lived here; I was six weeks pregnant when we moved out.} 

However, after years of keeping it as a rental property, the house needed a lot of love. Luckily, my fabulous husband is good at all the things, and he has been making repairs, painting the entire inside, and generally creating a livable space again. We also replaced the carpeting upstairs, acquired a few new kitchen appliances, and will soon have new flooring downstairs as well. 

I feel like we usually have more things unpacked and put together at this point {we’ve been in the house for twelve days now} but we’re taking it a bit slower this time and making sure everything is the way we want it long-term. Still hoping to put up the tree and decorate this weekend and hopefully have the place looking like “home” by Christmas. {We will keep Christmas simple like we usually do.}

The Anniversary

While the move certainly took up a lot of our emotional bandwidth this month, I personally also passed a difficult anniversary. My dad died five years ago, a week before Thanksgiving 2014. Honestly, the time leading up to the holidays will never be the same again, always overshadowed. 

In reality it has been six years since I could have a real conversation with him, as he was pretty ill and out of it most of that entire last year. Contrary to popular platitudes, time does not make it easier, just different. 

For my friends who also miss someone this time of year, I get it. I have written about some of the ways I have processed everything as a non-religious person {because everyone always seems to want to bring the god angle into it} if you’d care to check it out.

The New Obsession

We always manage to find a new silly thing to obsess over, and during this particular moving adventure we discovered a new favorite show while having access to cable TV at the hotel. If you have not seen We Bare Bears on the Cartoon Network, we highly recommend. {It also has several—although not all—the episodes on Netflix.} 

Why this crazy little spectacle has become such a hit with the Agents, I do not know. However, I would be willing to bet that Bear merchandise will be dominating our Christmas shopping this year. 


The Homeschooling

Yes, we have been “doing” school through all of the craziness as well. We traveled with several books and workbooks, and also visited two new libraries while still living at the hotel. While I wouldn’t say we were up to 100% during this month, we did accomplish quite a bit given everything else going on. 

We have eased back into our loop rotation and will hopefully be back into more of a predictable routine for December. No doubt that will also include exploring the town, the zoo, the aquarium, and even more library branches. 

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Christmas, Simplified

When Agent E was about three and a half we watched a children’s Christmas special {I do not recall which one} that really pushed the whole “be good, Santa’s watching you, yay presents, reindeer fly around the world in one night” narrative. When it was over, she turned to me and scoffed, “That doesn’t really happen, does it? It’s all pretend, right? That can’t happen.” 

A skeptic from the get-go, that one.

So needless to say, we never did the Santa thing with the Agents. It just seemed like a lot of unnecessary work to be honest. We treat Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. the same as any other myths. They know they’re just stories that some people have fun with—but we choose not to. It’s not really a big deal to them.

Small craft project snowman sitting against a background of blurred snow. Text reads: Christmas simplified.

This post contains affiliate links. I receive a small commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase. I only recommend products and services I have personally used and enjoyed. For more information read my complete disclaimer here.

From the beginning we have chosen to simplify Christmas with our kids and it has worked out fine. I am here to tell you that you, too, can simplify Christmas. And it will turn out fine.

Truthfully I think the whole idea of “the holidays” has taken on a life of its own—and not in a good way. Social media in particular has drawn us into a vortex of blog posts and advertisements and Pinterest projects. We have forgotten that not participating is an option. 

But here’s the thing: You can forget about many of the extras you usually stress about this time of year and nothing bad will happen. The world will keep spinning and your kids will still be in awe and excited and joyful.

If you have been overwhelmed by many a holiday season, don’t try to change everything all at once. Think about the areas where you usually overindulge, and pick one or two to cut back on. Maybe this year you commit to a more reined in budget for gifts. You don’t have to make all homemade cookies. A few decorations can stay in storage. Start small and I guarantee you will not miss the excess.

So You Just Have No Christmas Cheer At All?

Ha, no. We just don’t get riled up about making things perfect or pleasing other people and we are totally chill with that.

You can forget about many of the extras you usually stress about this time of year and nothing bad will happen. The world will keep spinning and your kids will still be in awe and excited and joyful. Click To Tweet

It’s not that I personally grew up with no traditions; I did. We always had lots of gifts—from “Santa” of course—and tons of cookies and relatives visiting. On Christmas day we went to both grandmothers’ houses {one died when I was six, but I still remember that being our first stop}. Over the course of the week between Christmas and New Year’s we would have visitors almost every evening. They would ooh and aah at our presents and eat and chat. 

I guess I just never felt the need or the pressure to make this time of year “magical” for my own kids, because to them Christmas is just a fun celebration not worth getting too jazzy over. If they want magic, we go to Disney, LOL. 

Our nonchalance is probably also affected by the fact that we have rarely been living near family since the kids were born, so we cannot be sucked in to the holiday spiral of doing all the things because of preconceived expectations.


Truthfully, we do not really do anything special this time of year, and we are okay with that. Even when I still considered myself to be a Christian we did little more than attend a simple Christmas eve service and add a small nativity scene to our meager decorations.

We still like Christmas. We still celebrate Christmas. But we don’t let Christmas rule our lives for the last quarter of the year. 

{Don’t even get me started on Thanksgiving.}

Close up of wrapped presents. Text reads: Go ahead and simplify Christmas, it will work out just fine.

But What DO You Do This Time of Year?

We put up a tree, sometimes two {a “regular” tree and a small tabletop one in the front room or one of the bedrooms}. The rest of our decor is pretty minimal. We might make cookies at some point. Oh, and stop at Bath and Body Works to pick up fancy soaps so the sinks smell like peppermint or vanilla. We still buy presents for the Agents. But they know they are all from us. And they often pick them out themselves. 

It probably goes without saying that no creepy elves grace our home.

During December we often read about various mythologies, both religious and non-religious. A Solstice Tree for Jenny is one of our favorite books that approaches the holiday season from a secular perspective. We also enjoy The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson. 

Of course, we’ll re-read the story of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus as well. Agent J has never been impressed with the wise men and their choice of gifts. {She suggested they could have brought something useful, like some diapers or a nice meatloaf.}

We like to look into the history of the celebrations as well, and how they have changed over time. Two videos we enjoy watching are Adam Ruins Everything: The Drunken, Pagan History of Christmas and this one put together by Seth Andrews  {aka, The Thinking Atheist}.

Christmas eve we go to the movies and then get donuts. Then come home and open presents. And eat more donuts.

Are we doing it right?

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Homeschooling Update {October}

We usually do not take an official “fall break” in our homeschool for the same reasons we do not take summer break—it is just easier to chug along more or less continuously unless we have a specific reason for scheduling time off. 

The month of October, however, has been sort of a whirlwind of travel and organizing and moving plans, so we will likely take probably one full week off soon—possibly two—while we prepare to sell the house and relocate. 

Autumn leaves still on the branches with a sunny sky as the background. Text reads: October secular homeschooling update.

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We started the month with a trip to Hawaii—a first for Momma and the Agents, although hubby has been several times for work. Last week we took a cruise {Disney, of course} to Mexico as our final big travel on the west coast. 

Now we are pretty much in crunch mode for cleaning and planning and packing. School is still happening every day, but we are going through a bit of a slower period and mostly trying to get to a good stopping point in all of our subjects. Our library bookshelves look very empty compared to their usual. 

This is just how homeschooling looks for us right now. We have made it through many transitions and I do not stress about what we are getting done {or not getting done} because I know it will all balance out. Homeschooling year round means less pressure when life happens.


We plan to travel with a minimized collection of materials, and spend a lot of time checking out our new town. {Which is not technically new to all of us; hubby and I lived there from when we married until the Senior Agents were toddlers.} 

While getting a new library card will be high on our agenda, we will also travel with a few books. Since we will be in transition for most of November, we plan to include two favorites for this time of year: Mayflower 1620: A New Look At Pilgrim Voyage and 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving

By next month’s update post, we should be in our new home and somewhat settled and back into our groove. 

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Disney Cruise Tips For First Time Cruisers

We are fortunate to be able to travel frequently. One of our favorite ways to explore the world is via Disney cruise ship. Soon we will embark on our fifth such cruise, and I would like draw from our experience to offer some Disney cruise tips for first time cruisers.

Our very first Disney cruise was in 2011, with a five-year-old, three-year-old, and eight-month-old. We were definitely in a different place then. We cruised again in 2012, 2015, and 2018. This time around we will be traveling with a teen, a tween, and a big kid {a few days shy of nine}. So, I am writing this from the perspective of parent of older, more independent kids. Vacation planning for the days of diapers and strollers and breastfeeding toddlers is officially a distant memory. 

Following are a few suggestions for both before and during the cruise. I hope you find this advice useful when planning, and benefit from my experience of what to do {as well as what not to do} when you prepare for your first Disney cruise.

Line of deck chairs on a Disney cruise ship with skyline of city in the background. Text reads: Disney cruise tips for first time cruisers.

Pack by Activity {Not by Day}

We pack for a cruise a bit differently than usual, but still follow most of the same general packing tips. The difference with cruise packing, however, is you need to pack for what you are actually going to be doing, not necessarily the number of days you are going to be gone. 

Clearly you will want sufficient undergarments and socks, a swimsuit, pajamas, and toiletries. But as far as clothing, you want to think more about the activities you will participate in each day. Unless you have a particularly active port adventure planned, you will be able to hang up clothes and wear them again. So don’t feel like you need to have every single activity accounted for. 

For instance, I know we will be at the pool at least a couple of times, and so I will pack my “dress I wear over my swimsuit and easy to remove sandals” for that time. I often go up to the deck by myself right at sunrise to get a cup of coffee and some good photos, so I will need my “outfit I can throw on quickly without waking anyone up” so I can slip out the door. 

I really enjoy fancy night and so I need my “look at me being spiffy” dress. Dinner can be relatively formal or cruise casual, but I like to dress up at least a little. I usually pack three dresses {for a 7-night cruise} I can alternate wearing to the main dining rooms.

Less rarely will I be hanging around the ship in “regular” clothes {i.e., not on the way to coffee or the pool or dinner} so I can pack just two or three outfits {for a 7-night cruise} and re-wear. It gets chilly in the evenings {and in the restaurants} so I always pack a neutral-color sweater that goes with everything. Also, I take a pair of jeans in case I want to change after dinner. 

This particular cruise we’ll also be packing Halloween costumes and of course pirate gear. We don’t really go all out for either of these, but we do like to participate.

If all else fails and I woefully under-pack, there are washers and dryers on board. Really, as long as you can do laundry and have several pieces that work together, you will be fine. Bringing too little is a better problem to have than bringing too much. That may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: 

You will never wish you’d brought more things to deal with.

Shower Before Dinner {Even If It’s Mid-Afternoon}

The first seating for dinner is at 5:45. {We always request the earlier seating; the other option is 8:15 and way too late for our party.} So at around 4:30 we all head back to the room to shower/change. This means that we go to dinner feeling refreshed, and it also makes our evenings more relaxed, since there’s not late-night rush to get all the kids {and me, and Hubby} ready for bed. We can just brush our teeth and throw on our jammies and we’re set.

The hour or so before dinner also tends to be sort of a lull in activities and characters, so we don’t feel like we’re missing much. It’s also the perfect time for an in-room break so we can recharge for the rest of the night.

Bringing too little is a better problem to have than bringing too much. That may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: You will never wish you’d brought more things to deal with. Click To Tweet

Enjoy The Characters {But Prioritize Your Time}

Character meet and greets on the ships are the best. The lines are {usually} not ridiculously long, they take plenty of time with each group, and there is almost always a photographer with them. Depending on the cruise and time of year, you can see the same characters multiple times in different costumes. Some will require tickets {free, but you need timed tickets nonetheless}. Usually this is just the classic princesses and Anna/Elsa. 

While on board you can find out when and where the characters will be appearing via the free Disney Cruise Line Navigator App. You can connect to the ship’s wifi for free to use the app, and even text other members of your party.

As a first-timer, you will be drawn to and excited for the sail away party {recently re-branded as the sail-a-wave party}. I am here to give you a huge spoiler alert: It is not that interesting. The characters only come out briefly, and they are on a stage and not close enough to really interact with. I want to love this part of every cruise, I do. But every time we try to go and get a good view of it, I end up realizing I could have used that time to walk around taking photos of the cool architectural details or gone back to the stateroom to unpack.

Skip any event in the lobby atrium involving characters. Truthfully, these are basically the parades of the cruise ship. We always skip parades in the park because they are not worth the time investment. Essentially you try to get a “good” spot and then stand around while the crew members talk and try to be funny. Then you maybe get to see the characters for five minutes {from a distance} and then it’s over. Use this time to explore the ship or get a snack or claim a good deck chair. I think once we got a decent video of Agent A from a lobby “dance party” but we had to stand around for 20 minutes doing nothing to catch it at the right moment. 

The only exception to this rule is the Till We Meet Again gathering on the last night. Definitely go {in your pajamas if you must} and see all the characters one last time. Last trip, the kids and I saw 8 or 9 different characters {long enough to get a hug/photo} in 20-25 minutes. Then one by one they disappear up the steps “until we meet again” and I totally did not cry typing this sentence.

Pirate Captain Mickey in the atrium of the Disney Wonder cruise ship with a male and female passenger. Text at bottom of photo reads: Pirates of the Caribbean.
Captain Mickey is the best

Follow the Best Schedule for You {It’s Your Vacation}

On our last cruise, I felt very frazzled every evening. Dinner wasn’t over until 7:30, and the show started at 8:30, which of course we wanted to be a little early for to get good seats, and I felt like we wasted that time in between. By the time it was over and we made our way out of the theater it was 9:40 or later and I was done. It honestly never occurred to me that we could just simply not go to the nightly show. 

For some folks, especially first-timers, the shows are a must-do. I mean, they really are pretty good and certainly worth a view. However, because we’re frequent cruisers, we ended up going to one show we had seen before and one we had actually seen twice before, and I just feel in hindsight we would have enjoyed that time more elsewhere.

Others may feel this way about the sit-down rotational dining dinners; they’d rather grab a quick dinner on the deck or order room service rather than spending a lot of time getting ready for and eating a formal dinner. The point is, you can do whatever works for your party and not stress either way.

I think this next trip, instead of repeating the shows we’ve already seen, the kids would gladly spend an extra hour or two in the kid/tween clubs while Hubby and I catch a movie or grab a drink or simply sit up on the deck and relax. 

Account for “Extra” Costs {Don’t Let Them Surprise You}

One great thing about cruising is that {almost} everything is included once you are paid in full and you don’t have to worry about budgeting day to day. However, there are a few things you’ll want to be aware of. 

You can access the Internet, but it is pricey. If you sign up on day one, you can get a teeny tiny amount of online time for free. A second teeny tiny amount will cost you about $20. This might be enough to post a few photos or check e-mail two or three times. Splurge if you must, but also take advantage of the free wifi at the ports. The aforementioned Navigator app, however, will work anywhere you can access the ship’s wifi with no additional charges. 

Use the recommended tipping schedule for your servers. They really do go above and beyond and should be compensated accordingly. {We loved ours from our last cruise so much we put in a special request to have them again.} Even if you don’t eat all {or any} of your meals in the dining rooms, these folks are working hard all around the ship {in the quick-service restaurants and behind the scenes} all day. Gratuities are included when you purchase a drink at the bar, and with all spa treatments, but not included with room service or the adult-only restaurants. 


Pre-order the photo package before sailing. You can cancel it on board if you change your mind, but you save money by ordering ahead of time. The ship photographers have never disappointed us. Especially if you do a lot of character photos, it is totally worth the money. We had well over 200 photos from our last five-night sailing. This time I am not even going to bother pulling out my phone to take our own shots if a photographer is present. Instead I’ll take some more artistic/random shots around the ship just for fun.

Also keep in mind that while there is often an “assistant” on hand to take photos with your camera/phone, they will not turn out as well as the professional shot. The lighting/angle is just not the same, and they will not look as good. In addition, no personal camera/phone photos are taken on formal night; the lines for these shots are long and they need to keep things moving.

Shop for souvenirs on the first sea day, not the last. The selection is better and you won’t feel rushed to decide. Pick something you will actually use/love just as much at home. Last trip I picked up a Captain Mickey coffee mug, and trust me, it gets used frequently. Note that the gift shops are only open while the ship is at sea; they are closed during port visits. The only exception is the photography shop, which is open a few hours on the final morning for order pick-ups. 

I hope these tips and tricks will assist you in planning your first Disney cruise. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments. 

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How To Homeschool: Teaching Multiple Grade Levels Together

Welcome to How To Homeschool—a series addressing all aspects of secular homeschooling. You can view all the posts in the series so far here.

Anyone homeschooling more than one child will at some point face the issue of teaching multiple grade levels together. For the 2019-2020 homeschool year we have students in 8th, 6th, and 3rd grade. So, one preparing to wrap up middle school, one just beginning middle school, and the youngest right about the grade we start kicking expectations up a notch

In traditional public or private school, they would obviously be in different classes, and the older two would likely be in an entirely separate school. Here at The Oscar Darwin Homeschool for Happy Humans {yes; that is our official name}, however, we have no choice but to make a mixed-age “classroom” work.

Following are a few tips for teaching multiple grade levels together. I realize our students are not that far apart in age {currently 13, 11, and almost 9} so this may not work as well if you have, say, a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old. But we have used these ideas and you may find them helpful as well.

Sharpened colored pencils in order from light to dark form a semi-circle. Text reads: How to homeschool, teaching multiple grade levels together.

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Work Together, But Independently

I find it useful to have everyone doing the same kinds of things together, even if they work at different levels. For instance, all three students sit at the table and work on math and language arts simultaneously, using student-appropriate material at their own pace. 

This will give your homeschool more of an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse feel, which can greatly benefit everyone. It makes it easier to switch gears if everyone is doing written work as opposed to one student completing a reading assignment, one working on science experiment, and one solving math problems on the whiteboard. Often I sit with them and do my own “work” {blogging drafts and planning} at the same time. 

Here you can also enlist the help of your older students; they can help the younger ones if a problem arises while you offer one-on-one help to another sibling.

You Do Not Need To Stay At Grade Level

For the most part, it is totally fine if what you study does not follow typical grade level expectations. If chemistry fascinates your second grader, go for it. If your middle schooler wants to cover algebra and geometry in the same year, great. 

I used to be a huge fan of checking those “what do second graders need to know” and “which subjects are typically covered in sixth grade” kinds of websites and books. And, truth be told, sometimes I still do. 

However, these are all just suggestions and averages. While certain concepts do build on each other, there is no reason why you can’t mix it up. 

You probably remember from your own school experience there were specific subjects you learned in certain grades and that was just the way it was. But why? Obviously some areas need more order than others {I would not ask my third grader to factor polynomials} but most of it can be pretty arbitrary. 

For the most part, it is totally fine if what you study does not follow typical grade level expectations. Click To Tweet

Do we need to explore the life cycle of a butterfly in first grade? Do all fourth graders need to know their state history just exactly then? Did it matter what year you took biology versus physics? 

When you consider possibilities beyond “do this because you’re in this grade” teaching multiple grade levels together based on interest becomes much easier. 

Open book with two pages wrapped into the shape of a heart. Text reads: How to homeschool, teaching multiple grade levels together.

Choose Excellent Resources Regardless of Reading Level

When teaching multiple grade levels sometimes your book choices won’t be a perfect fit for everyone. It is okay if what you are reading is “too simple” for your oldest and “too much” for your youngest. If you read a variety of books—and a lot of them—it will balance out.

I touched on this a bit when I discussed exposure over mastery in 3 Things That Might Surprise You. I strongly believe sharing good ideas from quality resources is more important than translating everything into a teachable, testable moment.


For example, during  the Senior Agents’ 3rd and 5th grade years, we read Evolution: The Human Story by Dr. Alice Roberts. This is a great book, but it is not geared toward kids at all. It is extremely dense with information and graphics, and we had to take it very slow. We even skimmed parts. But, they loved it, and wanted to re-read parts of it a few years later, when more of it began to click for them.

As another example, since Agent E {now 8th grade} started 1st grade or so we have been reading the Words are Categorical series of books by Brian Cleary every year. This collection covers parts of speech and grammar in a whimsical way with lots of examples. It is definitely geared toward younger students and can be kind of silly and even cheesy. But, we can read them very quickly and they provide a great overview each year when we begin our grammar studies. 

Are you teaching multiple grade levels together? Do you have any additional advice to share? Next we will look more closely at creating a realistic homeschooling routine. I encourage you to check out the other posts in the How To Homeschool series as well. 

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