COVID-19: Tips for Homeschooling Under Duress Part 2 – Curriculum

When I started this post series it was under the assumption that most students would be back in their regular classrooms within a couple of weeks. However, as things are progressing it’s seeming more likely that families are going to need more long term educational solutions than just a couple of weeks. With that in mind I thought I would chime in with some of my curriculum recommendations.

There are more different curriculum choices out there than you can even imagine and the process of deciding on a curriculum from scratch can be truly daunting. However, as most parents that are diving in right now aren’t necessarily looking for super long term solutions (just a couple of months rather than a full educational career) I thought I might chime in with some ideas for curriculum that is easily adaptable without too much hassle.

Most of my kids’ schoolwork is completed online which means that I am not actually the one teaching them. I know lots of parents have different feelings on using technology with kids. For me, this is a critical element of any curriculum that we use – that my kids can largely go through the work with little intervention on my part. Especially as many parents are working from home now while trying to get their kids through their schoolwork this seems extra critical. I will look over my kids’ schoolwork but the only actual teaching I do in a typical day is to do a 15 minute reading lesson with my kindergartner and once a week I will facilitate science and social studies – and none of those require any real prep on my part. I might work out problems on the whiteboard with my 3rd grader, or help my 5th grader through his grammar lesson – but I don’t actually prepare lessons or teach. While my older kids are working on school work I can mostly work on other household tasks, or entertain the 2 year old.

I’m also personally opposed to curriculum that has a lot of worksheets. Our first year of homeschooling we used K12.com which is a public-school-at-home curriculum – all free, and the actual curriculum was pretty good – but it was SO many worksheets. It killed my 1st grader’s love of learning and it was at least a year before I could even mention the idea of a worksheet without him melting into a puddle in a PTSD tantrum. I’ve heard the same from many others who have used K12. I will use worksheets but I’m very particular about the ones I use – it can’t just be to keep someone busy, it needs to have a really good purpose behind it.

Our Curriculum Picks

I use different curriculum for different subjects. I will break down below how I cover each different subject in our homeschool, as well as some resources that I’ve used in the past or ones that I’ve seen highly recommended. If you’re just looking for a specific subject I’ll link to the different subjects here –

All-in-One

Before I jump into my personal favorites though I should give a plug for Easy Peasy All-in-One Homeschool, The Good and the Beautiful, and Family School Online.

Easy Peasy is a free, complete homeschooling curriculum. You can go in, print out the assignments, and be off to go. They have workbooks that you can buy, and books that you could purchase if you don’t want to look for them at your local library. I know lots of people who have used their curriculum and love it for being easy to just open and do. It didn’t fit our personal style but I know lots of people love it. And did I mention that it’s FREE? Free is always a best seller 😉

The Good and the Beautiful is not free, but the curriculum is low priced and very modular so it’s not a huge investment like some other curriculum are. I’ve heard so many great things about how well their units integrate many different aspects of learning as well as incorporating a spiritual side of things. Lots of people LOVE it, but again, it didn’t fit our personal style so we haven’t used it ourselves.

Family School Online is FREE through the end of June! This is a faith based curriculum geared towards members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I haven’t used this curriculum before in large part because it’s usually fairly pricey. It is definitely a more hands-on curriculum than I usually go for as well, but the quality is excellent. Everyone who I’ve heard that has used it has been very happy with it!

As far as an all-in-one option that I’ve actually used – Time4Learning. I don’t currently use Time4Learning but I have in the past and I think it’s a great option if you want low effort, complete, online learning. For $19/month for your first student, and $15/month for additional students in your household you cover all of your basics – math, language arts, social studies and science. I wasn’t thrilled with the assessment process – I felt it was too easy for kids to keep progressing through many of the activities without mastering them. I also wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed with their social studies and science curriculum. They were fine, but nowhere near as involved as their reading and math, and not as high of production value. However I haven’t found any other single online curriculum that covers all the bases at such a low price so I felt I needed to start with that recommendation.

Math

We have used so many different Math curriculum through the years. Currently each of my kids each use a different math curriculum so I’ll try to break down those three, plus a great free option.

Khan Academy – Let’s start with the biggest selling feature – Khan Academy is FREE! I also really like their learning model. Khan Academy is all mastery-based learning. To move on you have to really prove that you understand the material. It’s easy to move at your own pace and the videos do a great job of explaining the material – albeit in a bit of a dry manner. Khan Academy also offers other classes in many subjects (all still free), but I’ve only used their math courses personally. Their math curriculum includes representation of same gender relationships. I’ve found that their courses can be a little bit difficult for kids to navigate and they’re not really easy to work with if you have a struggling reader. I actually like using Khan Academy for myself because it’s a great way for me to brush up on my math skills without much investment or time. One day I hope to make it to higher levels of math than I completed in school, but with 4 littles running around… it hasn’t made my top priority 😉

Beast Academy – This is my current favorite curriculum for Math! It costs $15/month for your first student and $7.50 for additional students – but there are discounts if you pay annually rather than monthly. Also right now they have a coupon code for $15 off a new subscription (i.e. a free month if you’re paying monthly!) – FLATTENTHECURVE. The program is set up with comic books that explain the concepts as well as short, engaging video lectures. I like this curriculum because it does a great job of teaching logic as well as math. It includes lots of great problem solving skills which I think is awesome for kids to learn. This is what my 11 year old is currently using and he’s loving it! My 3rd grader was too set in the curriculum he was using and wouldn’t really give this one a fair shake, but I think if I were starting him fresh this is what I would put him in too. It’s a little higher level though than my kindergartner is ready for – it’s geared for ages 8-12. They have a partner curriculum – Art of Problem Solving – that’s for grades 5-12. So if you have a student that’s grades 3-12 this is where I would start!

Teaching Textbooks – This is the curriculum my 8 year old prefers. It’s super straightforward – a short video lecture, a few practice problems and then 22 problems per lesson. There are quizzes sprinkled throughout. It’s not quite as “fun” as Beast Academy but it’s very clear and not dry. You have to purchase this curriculum by the level rather than having access to the whole curriculum for a subscription fee, but it’s only about $43/year for the lower levels up to $67/year for pre-calculus – so on a monthly basis you’re only looking at between $4-6/month which is a pretty good deal. They also offer FREE access to the first 15 lessons of any level, so you have a good chance to try it out before committing. Teaching Textbooks is taught on a spiral method – which means that they keep coming back to earlier concepts if you didn’t get them the first time which I really like. They also have the clearest grading system and the ability to reassign different work for your kids which I think is helpful. Their style is definitely the closest to a traditional school setting for better or worse – I don’t think it’s the most innovative, but it’s clear and easy to use. My 8 year old loves that he knows exactly what will be required of him. I have him go through the lecture and the problems on his own. When he’s done I will review with him any problems that he got wrong and we will discuss them. When he finishes a full level I save a copy of his gradebook and then I go through and delete all of the problems he got wrong (this takes forever because it’s a super manual process). Then I make him spend a few days going over each of the problems he got wrong until he gets them ALL right. That may sound like cheating, but I’m more interested in him learning all of the material before moving on than any grading system.

MathSeeds – If you have a student that’s K-2 this is my favorite curriculum for them. It is also paired with their ReadingEggs curriculum which I’ll talk about below. They offer a free trial but a subscription is only $59/year – or less if you hold out and wait for good coupon codes (they’ll start emailing them to you when your subscription expires) plus you can get even more money back if you use Honey. The activities are fun and easy to do. It’s all approached as a game so if you’re sneaky about it you might even be able to convince your kids that it’s not work at all 😉 I like that it won’t let your child move on until they master an activity – however sometimes my kindergartner gets frustrated when she’s stuck on an activity. I find that if I keep an eye on her we can get through things together though when she gets frustrated. The reporting isn’t as complete as I would like and it’s not as easy to send a kid back for a single concept or lesson, but for the age level and the price, I think it’s fantastic and I would highly recommend it.

Language Arts

Language Arts covers Reading Comprehension, Handwriting, and Language Mechanics. For my kids my goal is that we’re making progress in each of those three categories and I design their assignments to cover those categories. Language Mechanics covers a few different disciplines and in my mind the progression roughly goes Phonics -> Spelling -> Grammar -> Composition – but there’s a lot of overlap. I don’t really have a full curriculum that I follow for each of these but I will explain what I do to cover these subjects.

Reading Comprehension

This is probably the easiest one – READ! If your kids can’t yet read on their own, then read to them. If they can read provide them with great reading material and let them loose 🙂 I’m not very structured in how we do reading. I don’t assign particular books, there’s no worksheets or quizzes – I just want them reading and enjoying it. My oldest can’t be kept from reading so he has no requirements set on him. I have set him up with a GoodReads account and ask him to review his books and track them there. My 2nd son struggles with reading so I have him set a timer each day and he’s expected to read for 30 minutes – lately he’s been enjoying his dad’s old Boxcar Children books and the Magic Treehouse series. My kindergartner listens to a lot of audiobooks. I try to discuss books with my kids and we’ve set up a small book club with some other families so the kids can discuss their books with other kids – but that’s really it.

I have an Audible account and each of my children have an Echo Dot in their room. They all listen to books as they go to sleep at night, and sometimes throughout the day as they’re doing chores. My oldest has a Kindle Paperwhite and it is his most prized possession – we check out lots of digital books from the library and I’ve purchased him a lot of books with Prime shipping credits and off of sales through the years. We check out lots of books from the library and I buy books all the time. Reading is hardly considered a chore in our house, I feel like my job is to facilitate a love of reading and learning.

Handwriting

Handwriting Without Tears has been my favorite handwriting curriculum. I should follow it more closely than I do but I’ve mostly just had my kids fill out their workbooks. I set a timer for 15 minutes and expect them to work through whatever they get through in that time. I like making handwriting a timed thing rather than a completion thing because it doesn’t incentivize them to rush through and do sloppy work – if they get through 1 page or 25 pages they still have to write for 15 minutes, so they might as well do a good job 😉

Right now none of my kids are actually actively using their HWOT materials. My 11yo combines his handwriting practice with his grammar curriculum which I’ll talk about below. My 8yo is assigned to write a journal entry every day. His entries are to have the following things in them –

  • The date written out long hand (i.e. Thursday, March 19, 2020)
  • A brief report on the weather (he’s been struggling with associating months and seasons so this is his practice for that)
  • His 5 spelling words
  • A paragraph of free write that must be at least 30 words long (I have to be really specific with him so he doesn’t try to pass off crap work with me 😛 )
  • His full name written out

My kindergartner has very simple handwriting worksheets that I printed out for her. I googled “kindergarten handwriting worksheets” and I’ve printed different ones from different sources. She would probably be better off doing the HWOT workbooks, but this is working for us right now.

Language Mechanics

Reading Eggs is my favorite online tool for teaching language mechanics. It goes from preschool through about 6th grade and it has great phonics, spelling and grammar. It’s combined with the MathSeeds curriculum that I mentioned in the Math section, and it’s only $60 or less per year for the two programs which is a fantastic price! Plus you can add on extra students for even less. Right now only my kindergartner uses this, but I’ve used it with all of my kids in the past and I would use it again. The only reason my 8yo isn’t using it right now is that he gave me too much push back and I surrendered and got him Reading Kingdom instead. Reading Kingdom is $15/month and does not include a math curriculum (I’m realizing while writing this what a ding dong my 8yo is and how much extra his stubbornness is costing us in different curriculum… we might be having words 😛 ) but my son is making really great strides in his reading so it’s probably been worth it.

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons is one of my favorite resources if you have a child just beginning to learn to read. It’s only about $15 off of Amazon and it is SO easy to use. I recommend reading through the introduction before starting as it explains a lot of the methodology – but once you do that it is a no-prep reading lesson that is very effective! The lessons take about 15 minutes to get through and they’re really easy. I found though that sometimes the lessons get too hard suddenly. When we get to a point where we’re struggling too much with the lessons I will sometimes go back 5 or 10 lessons (or sometimes back to the beginning) and re-do the lessons we’ve already completed to build confidence and get more practice before moving on. You don’t need any other supplies to use this curriculum and it’s a one time purchase that you can use with multiple children. However I purchased these pointer fingers because reading is much more fun with ridiculously oversized pointer fingers 😛

Fix It Grammar has been great for my 11yo for working on his grammar and handwriting. At the beginning of the week we introduce a new concept that he will be working on for the week. Then each day he has a sentence that he’s supposed to correct using that new concept and each of the concepts from the previous units. Then he rewrites the sentence to practice his handwriting. At the end of the week he takes all 4 sentences and rewrites them into a clean copy. The sentences all connect together to make a story that goes through the whole book – so it’s fun each week to get a new part of the story.

Social Studies

The Tuttle Twins books have been my favorite resource for teaching civics/government/economics to my kids. Their books are fun to read and easy to understand. I have learned so much from them and my kids have impressed many people with the complex concepts that they’re able to discuss. Each week we will pick one of the books, read it, discuss it and then maybe do a couple pages from the workbook. They’re super easy lessons and they’re great! Right now you can get 35% off their combo pack with discount code COMBO – which includes all of their current books in the series as well as the pdf workboks. I’ve also purchased the audiobooks so that I don’t even have to be the one *reading* to my kids (I’m a pretty lazy homeschooler 😛 ). They also have a great economics curriculum that’s on sale right now for only $5/month – they will email you a new unit study each week which has a short lesson, activities and discussion questions. I’ve been doing this with our kids and I’ve been very impressed with them. I would probably start with the books to set a really good foundation before moving on to their Free Market Rules curriculum.

Story of the World is a really great history curriculum for kids. I like it because it ties in many different cultures and histories together. I also like that you start at the beginning and work your way through to modern times so everything feels continuous instead of chopped up. Again with these books I’ve purchased the audiobooks and I’ll have my kids listen to a chapter and then we’ll do a worksheet from the workbook and discuss. No prep beyond printing out the worksheets. There are other books that are recommended that you can purchase or check out from the library to enrich the study, but the books are pretty great as standalone material.

Both of these I think are great for all levels. I will have all 3 of my older kids – kindergarten – 5th grade – working through the curriculum and discussing it together. They all get different things out of it but there’s appropriate content for each different level.

Science

Kiwi Crates have been one of our favorite ways to do science. Each kit comes with reading material, lots of expansion activities and a few building projects. I have purchased a single subscription for my kids and we have fun building the kits together. I’ve been impressed with how much they pack into each kit and my kids have learned a lot. I can stretch a kit out over a full month if we do all of the activities but we have a lot of other places we go for science as well.

Mystery Science has a lot of great “open-and-go” science lessons. They have a limited number of free accounts that they give away each year, but even if you miss those it’s only $70/year for your whole household. We have a subscription but haven’t used it as much as we should – only because we cut off access to YouTube on my kids’ computers which made the site unusable 😛 But the lessons that I’ve done through there have really been great. I really need to get my kids back into Mystery Science!

We watch a lot of YouTube science videos and other science videos. I mentioned these in my first post but they’re worth repeating here –

  • Mark Rober – I can’t say enough good things about Mark Rober’s channel. He is by far and away my favorite YouTuber, everything he publishes is high quality and teaches complicated concepts in ways that make them seem simple.
  • Wow In The World – This podcast is SO much fun for kids! My almost 9 year old (he won’t accept being called 8 anymore) LOVES this show so much – he insists on listening to it almost every night and talks to me about what he learns all the time.
  • DIY Sci – Steve Spangler has long been a staple in the children’s science world. If you have Amazon Prime I highly recommend this series as well. My kids have learned so much from this and I’m always interested to hear what’s in their brains after watching these episodes!
  • Magic School Bus – If you didn’t watch Magic School Bus growing up I’m sad for you. These shows are fun, engaging and they teach kids a lot! The series is available on Netflix – along with a new remade series which I find every bit as enjoyable as the originals!
  • Smarter Every Day – Another great YouTube channel with lots of interesting things for kids – and adults too!

I feel like science is the easiest subject to get in. Kids are naturally curious and love learning about the world around them. Of course, my mom is a scientist so maybe I just inherited her love of science 😉

Technology

Technology can cover a huge range of things but I’ll limit my suggestions here to some of my favorite computers & programming curriculum as well as one more hands on product. I should note that I have worked as a computer programmer since 2004 so I have a little bit of experience in this area 😉

Kids Typing Bundle – if your kids are learning to type I think this is the way to go. You get two different programs for about $25 total, and you have access to them for all of your kids forever! The programs that are in the bundle are both fun and easy to use. There are free programs out there but I’ve never found anything that my kids have liked as much.

Tynker – if your kids are ready to get into programming I think Tynker is a great place to start. They teach programming and a lot of the courses are based around programs that kids already love like Minecraft! My kids have loved these courses. Plus, right now they’re offering FREE access during all of the school closures so you really don’t have anything to lose by trying them out!

CodeCombat is my favorite resource for teaching serious programming. It’s a game that kids play by programming their character to do different things. It’s free for the first couple of worlds – which is actually quite a lot of material before you’d need to pay. The game does involve swords and killing monsters so if that bothers you then this won’t be for you. None of the game play is graphic at all though so it’s not something that bothers me personally.

Snap Circuits are great if you’re looking for a more hands-on approach to technology. Their kits have lots of fun projects with electricity and building circuits. These are a great place to start if your kid has any interest in robotics or electricity. My kids have really had fun with their snap circuits kit!

Music

My kids have been enrolled in music lessons that are in person which obviously doesn’t work so well during the shutdowns. But I still feel like I need to put in a plug for Let’s Play Music. I’ve enrolled my 8yo and 6yo in their program and it’s been AMAZING. The only reason my 11yo hasn’t gone through the program is that he was too old for it by the time I found it. But my kids have learned so much great musical theory and had so much fun doing it. By the end of the 3 year program my 8yo was able to *compose* his own piano piece and perform it. I can’t say enough good things about their program.

During the shutdown we’re trying out Hoffman Academy which offers free online piano lessons for kids. I’ve heard great things about it from lots of people so we’ll see if those recommendations hold true in the next few weeks.

Art

I wish I could say I had good recommendations for art curriculum… but I don’t. For art we do a lot of coloring sheets or google for art projects. I should come up with something more concrete for art for my kids but it hasn’t been a priority for us.

Social Thinking

Social Thinking isn’t necessarily a subject explicitly covered in schools but I have some kids who struggle with behavior and social interactions. We have purchased the “Social Thinking and Me” book as well as the Thinksheets workbook. We read one chapter from the book together and then over the next several days my son will work through at least one thinksheet each day. When he finishes all of the thinksheets for the unit I will go over his thinksheets and we’ll discuss his answers. I feel like these have been so helpful for us – it helps teach my son and it’s given us all a shared vocabulary to talk about these behavioral problems.

Foreign Language

DuoLingo is a great FREE resource for learning a foreign language. None of my kids are currently actively using it but my 11yo has used it before, we’re just focusing on other things right now. My husband and I both use it though and I’ve been reasonably impressed with it. My dad also uses it and frequently tries to impress us with how many lingots he has (lingots are the in game currency… they aren’t good for much except bragging to other people about how may you have 😛 ). This curriculum also includes representation of same gender relationships. They do have a premium membership that’s you can purchase on a monthly basis if you don’t want to have ads interrupting your learning. I’ve really enjoyed making my foreign language practice a game!

Conclusion

Wow did you stick with me through all of that? Great job! Whatever you choose to do I would generally recommend starting out with the shortest subscription or a starter set of any new curriculum. You’ll notice that I have several recommendations for most subjects – that’s because we’ve changed curriculum several times and chosen different things for different kids. Even within the same family what works for one kid doesn’t work for another – and what works for me might not work for you! Pick one and give it a try for a couple weeks, and if it doesn’t work for you then try something else. You know your kids and you’ll figure it out. You got this!

How I built a library of over 550 audible books without breaking the bank

Maximizing Your Audible Account

How I built an Audible library with over 550 titles without breaking the bank

I’m a major book junkie. I’ve loved reading ever since I learned how to read. I remember as early as first grade staying up regularly until 1am reading quietly in my bed. However, I’ve found that as a mother it’s much more difficult to justify snuggling up in a chair all day with a book – for some reason my kids seem to require a bit more attention than that.  I missed the chance to expand my horizons without leaving my home, but couldn’t justify letting my house become a disaster and my kids run wild while I kept my nose stuck in a book.  

Luckily, I found a wonderful compromise – Audible.  With Audible I can enjoy fantastic audiobooks and still have my escape to other worlds while my hands and eyes can be busily occupied with laundry, dishes, cooking – or any of the other tasks of motherhood.  My husband is a similiar bibliophile but also found his reading taking a backseat. However, with audiobooks he’s been able to turn a monotonous commute into a small escape.  My kids have also really gotten into listening to books, especially at bedtime.  We have Amazon Echo Dots in each of their rooms and they are able to enjoy many wonderful books this way – although it sometimes tends to keep them up later than I would like.  I guess they must be like me after all 😉  To say that we are Audible fans in our household is an understatement – we LOVE Audible around here!

Anyways, over the years I’ve found lots of ways to get the most out of my Audible subscription.  I’ve built up a library of 557 books so far and have done it for surprisingly cheap.  I thought these tips and tricks might be useful to some of my readers, so here we go!

  1. Spring for the Platinum Annual Membership. I know this suggestion might not make sense for everyone but hear me out. Audible has a subscription service – you pay a certain amount of money to get a certain number of audio books on a monthly or yearly basis.  You can sign up to get one or two books a month and either pay for that many books for a year or per month.  The plans range from $14.95/month (for one book credit each month) to $229.50/year.  The platinum membership costs the most all at once, but it costs $5.39 less per book credit than the basic monthly plan.  In 16 months you would have paid the same amount going with a monthly plan but you would have 8 more books with a platinum plan than with the gold plan.  I think this is the hardest part to swallow is that large charge all at once, but I’ll give you some tricks for making that very worthwhile in my next few tips.  Whatever you decide, a membership is definitely the key to getting the most out of Audible but I’d highly recommend the Platinum membership.
  2. Share with a friend.  This is the trickiest tip to do properly, but it can really make that Platinum account make sense.  My husband and I actually have two separate audible accounts, even though we only have one membership.  What we do is have the membership in my name and whenever Eric wants a book that he doesn’t think I’d be interested in having in my library he purchases it on my account as a gift for himself.  He is then emailed a link that he can click on to add that book to his account.  So there are a few ways you could use this.  If you have a spouse, sibling or friend that you’re close enough with to share your Amazon password (and accompanying access to your credit card for purchases on Amazon/Audible) then you can split the cost and share that password.  I’ve also purchased books as gifts for siblings and friends and then had them send me money for it in return.  They get the book at the membership rate and I can more easily justify my Platinum membership 🙂
  3. Never use a credit to get a book that’s less than $9.50.  Ok, do I need to spell this one out for you?  If you credits are only $9.56 each please don’t use a credit to buy a book that you can get for less than that!  As a member you get discounts on the regular prices of books so make sure that you take advantage of those discounts!  Just be careful at checkout to uncheck the box for using a credit because if you have credits that will be the default value!  I’ll tell you later how I get those books for free a lot of the time 🙂
  4. Sign up for Daily Deal emails. Every day Audible discounts a book to $4.95 or less and emails anyone on their list to let them know what the Deal of the Day is.  I’ve gotten LOTS of great books this way!  If you were to try to buy most of these books on CDs it would cost you $30+ so to get the books for less than $5 is pretty awesome.  I probably only find a book that I’m interested in a couple times a month, but it’s well worth following for those couple times a month!
  5. Take advantage of coupon deals.  Frequently Audible will send their members “Buy 4 books get $10 credit” – this probably happens like twice a year.  I *always* take advantage of this!  If you have credits and a wish list it’s easy to pick out your next 4 reads and get a $10 credit.  I then use that credit to buy a few books that are either priced low or on sale.  It doesn’t get any better than free books!
  6. Maintain a Wish List. One of the greatest features about Audible is that if you keep your wish list filled with all the titles that you would like to get if one of them goes on sale they will highlight those books in their emails to you.  It also makes it easy when you’re looking for your next read to go to your wish list and find something queued up 🙂
  7. Browse 3-for-2 sales, $4.95 sales, etc.  Probably about once a month Audible will have a sale of “3 books for 2 credits” or “any of these books for $4.95”.  I always browse these and have found some of my favorite books this way and stretch my credits even farther!  There’s a strong possibility that last month I spent over $90 and bought 15 new books for my kids – but at $4 per title how could I pass it up??  I was able to justify it since I’ll submit the receipts to my kid’s homeschooling charter school 😉
  8. Check for WhisperSync titles. Seriously, even without a membership this is one of the greatest deals ever.  Sometimes the Kindle book will be free but because you “bought” it you’ll be able to get the audiobook for super cheap.  I’d recommend checking out this post on SlickDeals where you’ll find a bunch of books that you can get the Kindle edition for free and then buy the Audible edition for a couple dollars!  You can also check out this page on Amazon to find out what the audio upgrades cost for Kindle books you already own!
  9. Prime Shipping Credits.  To go along with the WhisperSync titles – if you have a Prime membership you will often be given the option at checkout to forego your 2 day shipping and instead be given a $1 credit that can be used on Kindle books.  I almost always will take that offer, then I take those Kindle credits and buy WhisperSync books that I want for free!  That makes the cheap audio addition an even better deal 😉
  10. Holiday Gift Books and Audible Originals Every month Audible has a selection of free books for members!  You can pick up to two of them and I’ve gotten some really fun listens that way.  Occasionally Audible will also give away books for free as gifts for different holidays.  I’ve gotten new books for 4th of July, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and other holidays.  They’re specific titles that might not be something that I would have chosen myself, but it’s been a great way to get me out of my comfort zone and reading something new – and you can’t beat free!

So there are my tips and tricks to get the most out of your Audible membership. If you’ve signed up now and need a good listen you should check out my book recommendations list – I made it specifically from my Audible listens that I’ve enjoyed.  Happy listening!

MyTechHigh Reimbursement Tracker

For the past 3 years I’ve been homeschooling my kids.  One of these days I’m going to blog the what, why and how of our homeschooling, but today I just want to share a resource that I put together to help other homeschoolers who use the same charter we do – MyTechHigh.  MyTechHigh has been the most amazing resource for our family.  They function as a provider through a charter school that helps facilitate home education.  The best part is they are very hands off – I’m required to provide course descriptions for my sons’ academic curriculum for the year, turn in weekly learning logs (2 sentences per subject of what they did that week), and either have my boys take the state tests or opt them out.  In exchange I can be reimbursed for their educational materials and classes between $600-1900 each year so long as I get my expenses approved and turn in my receipts on schedule.  What a deal!  They also provide additional academic resources, meet ups, events and field trips that we can take advantage of during the year.  It has been an amazing resource for our family.

The trickiest part in all of this is managing the receipts for reimbursement for my sons’ classes.  I’m given a certain budget for each class based on meeting certain criteria – $150 for custom built classes, $300 for 3rd party classes, math/english/science can be combined if they’re all custom built, but other expenses have to stay in their category, some expenses can only be reimbursed through the tech allowance, certain classes take money away from the allowance etc.  It gets to be kind of confusing to keep track of how much I’ve spent on each boy and each class.  So I came up with a Google Spreadsheet solution that makes the whole process nice and neat that I wanted to share with my fellow MyTechHigh parents in hopes that it will help make other people’s lives easier too 🙂

I’ll include below a step-by-step tutorial on how to use the spreadsheet, but if you want to go rogue and figure it out on your own you can open it up here.  Of course it’s probably also a good idea to open it up for yourself so you can follow along with my tutorial too 🙂  So to start off you’re going to want to make a copy of my spreadsheet for yourself – you can’t edit mine, that would kinda ruin it for everyone else 😉  To do this you go to File->Make a copy…

After you do that a box will pop up asking for a name for this document.  At first I was going to try to make this easy to use the same spreadsheet for multiple children, but it was complicated enough as it was.  You will need to make a separate copy for each MyTechHigh student you want to use this for – so name your spreadsheet accordingly!

Once you click OK your copy will pop up and you’re ready to begin filling it out.  I’ve tried to lock as many of the ranges that you shouldn’t be changing as possible so you don’t accidentally mess up something that you won’t be able to fix.  You will want to start by filling out the Student’s name and then checking whether they are a returning student and if they’re a kindergartner.  Don’t worry about the Reimbursement Sheet inputs for now, we’ll talk about those later.

You’ll notice as you enter in the fields that the numbers at the bottom will start to populate with your technology allowance.  This will also help generate some of the fields that will make sure you choose the right course types.  You’re now ready to start filling in your schedule.  For each period select which type of course your student has (Custom, 3rd Party, MTH Direct) and you can enter in your course description.  To the right of the course description I have a character counter too, just to help you when you’re writing your descriptions to make sure they’re the right length.  The course description isn’t necessary, but I like having it there so that as I’m looking at my expenses I can remember what I have in my course description to make sure that I’m submitting things that are going to fit within those parameters.  You can also just put vague notes as far as your curriculum there for your own reference.  It’s completely up to you, you can even leave it blank, it has just helped me in the past to remember what I’m actually planning to do.

When you select the course type you’ll notice that more numbers start to appear.  In the column labeled “MTH Funds” you will see your maximum allowance for that period based on the course type you selected.  The total tells you the maximum allowance based on the courses you have. Make sure you select whether you’re doing Science or History so that the information gets filled in properly as well.  Here’s what my son’s would look like with his schedule for this year –

The next part is the spending totals.  You don’t need to worry about changing anything there.  This section will update as you enter in your expenses and will tell you how much you have left to spend in each category.  The next section is where you will enter your actual expenses.  As you purchase items during the year enter a description of the item or items on your receipt, the total and then select the period description.  Don’t put an X mark next to the items until after you’ve submitted the receipt to MyTechHigh for reimbursement, you’ll see why in a minute.  Here’s what my son’s looked like for this year when I put in all of his expenses –

You might have noticed that even though I was over for his custom core and way over for his Tech class (we split that with his brother and submitted the same thing for both and asked for half the reimbursement for each boy) the total at the bottom of spending total is 0 – that’s because if you submit for too much they will only reimburse you for what you have allowance for.  Also, if you were over in some categories but had extra in others it would only calculate the extra in the others since you can’t borrow from different periods to make up for deficits in others.  You’ll also notice that I split his Let’s Play Music class tuition into two line items so that I could be reimbursed for $300 as his custom built elective and $180 from his technology allowance.  I would recommend as you input expenses on these sheets that you take pictures or save copies of your receipts in a single folder on your computer, phone or Google Drive so that you can easily find them when you’re ready to submit.

In and of itself I feel like this is a super handy way to keep track of what you’ve spent for each period and know what you have left to spend, but I decided to take it a step further.  This spreadsheet will also generate for you a cover sheet for submitting your expenses.  This makes it really easy for the folks at MyTechHigh to quickly review and approve your submission, as well as making it easy for you to know that you have all of the right receipts to submit!  If you go back to the top of the page and click on the box next to “Reimbursement Sheet to Generate” you’ll be given a dropdown box of all of the submission categories that you have.  Pick whichever one you would like to create a cover sheet for.  You can then enter any special notes that you might have about this period that they will need to know at MyTechHigh (for example, when I submitted my sons’ tech class this year I made a note on their cover sheet – “Please reimburse half of the total cost to each student.” – however usually I don’t put any additional notes.  Then you will want to open up the sheet called “Reimbursement Cover Sheet” by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.

This will open a completed reimbursement cover sheet for you which will include the student’s name, which course the submission is for, a list of all of the items and their costs, and the total amount you are requesting to be reimbursed.  You don’t need to do anything with this sheet except save it as a PDF, or copy the data into Word – whatever you want to do in order to submit it.  If you make multiple submissions you can have items previously submitted removed by placing an “x” next to the items that have been reimbursed on the expenses list on the first sheet.  When I go to submit I will save my cover sheet as a PDF and then use Adobe Acrobat Pro to combine that cover sheet with the uploaded receipts that match it so that I have a single pdf file to submit for each period.  You can do essentially the same thing by selecting all the text in the cover sheet spreadsheet and copying it into a Word document (or Google Docs or whatever your word processing software of choice is) and inputting your receipts on subsequent pages before saving as a PDF.  Here’s a sample of what that cover sheet would look like –

And that’s it!  Hopefully this helps you to better keep track of your MyTechHigh expenses and budget in the coming years!  I started thinking I’d just make a few quick modifications to what I had previously so that it would be useful for other people.  Instead it ended up taking me about 2 full days to get all of the pieces working, but I’m really happy with the result.  If you notice anything that I’ve missed please comment below so that I can get it fixed!  I think there might be some other things that I would need to take into consideration for high schoolers, but I don’t know what those are because my oldest is in 3rd grade.  If you want to use this for a high schooler and want to walk me through the variations I’d be happy to work in those variables.  If it is really useful to you consider making a donation to my site, or making a purchase through one of my affiliate links to help me keep this site going.  Happy Homeschooling 🙂

Here’s a link to the spreadsheet again, just so you don’t have to hunt through the article to find it – MyTechHigh Reimbursement Tracker.

Side note: Everything above is my 1st grader’s actual schedule and reimbursements for this past year.  Feel free to use the descriptions and purchase list for inspiration for your own child’s schedule.  I’m planning on posting reviews of some of the things that we’ve loved in the future but I’ll put in a plug for the one thing that we’ve REALLY loved this year which is our Kiwi Crate – it’s been SO much fun for all of my kids and they’ve learned a ton from them.  I thought I was going to like the Kiwi Crate but it’s been so much better than I’d expected.  If you use my referral link you get $10 off of your subscription 🙂

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup (and Other Adventures)

Recently I’ve seen lots of friends requesting favorite Instant Pot recipes.  I’m going to guess that many of my friends (like me) got an Instant Pot for Christmas and are still learning how to use it.  I always want to respond to my friends but my response (surprise, surprise) is longer than I really want to type out in a Facebook comment.  So tonight when I pulled out my Instant Pot to make my favorite chicken tortilla soup I decided that I would share that recipe (because it’s yummy) as well as some of my other adventures in Instant Pot-ing in hopes that it might help someone else find good uses for theirs! (skip to the bottom if you just want the chicken tortilla soup recipe)

So I sorta knew that I was getting an Instant Pot for Christmas because… it was the only thing I asked Eric for, and I even sent him an Amazon link to it when it was on sale.  It wasn’t a demand… but I hadn’t given him a lot of other ideas so it seemed like a likely guess 😉  I have a hard time coming up with things to give Eric for Christmas though because most of the things he wants are technology – and he knows what he wants better than I do.  So I make him put together an Amazon wish list, but since I don’t work outside the home it feels a little arbitrary to buy (or not buy) things from his list, with money he earned.  Just my own weird hang up.  Anyways, because of that I try to find things that I can give him for Christmas that really are more from me – gifts of the heart if you will.  This year I decided that something I could do for Eric that he couldn’t do for himself was find a recipe for his favorite soup that he would eat all the time on his mission in Taiwan, and the ingredients for it… that could be made in the Instant Pot 😉  So, here’s the recipe I came up with – https://www.tablefortwoblog.com/instant-pot-taiwanese-beef-noodle-soup/ .  It’s kinda like pho … But yummier   I was really glad that I came up with this as a Christmas present for Eric because it forced me to pull out the Instant Pot immediately and not let it languish in its box until I got the nerve up to pull it out 😉

Eric also got me this cookbook as a supplement to go with my Instant Pot!  So far I’ve made the chili and cornbread.  The chili was really good – and done super fast which was amazing.  The cornbread was fine, but nothing to rave about, and it was tricky finding a pan that fit inside the instant pot to make it in.  I’d probably skip using the Instant Pot for that.  I’d recommend the book, but I won’t share those recipes here since that’s someone else’s copyright.

I also used it to make tri-tip, and the kids have requested it frequently since (I mean, it’s tri tip, who can blame them).  I just put the frozen tri tip in with salt and pepper and ran the meat cycle twice and served with bbq sauce – SO good! I made fajitas once using this recipe – it was easy and yummy but there was a LOT more liquid than I expected that I didn’t want to drain because it had all the flavor.  I’ll probably try it again but try draining the tomatoes first or something to see if I can get up to pressure without so much liquid.  Finally I used my Instant Pot to make pulled BBQ chicken vaguely following these instructions – although really I just put as much chicken as I could reasonably fit in the instant pot with a bottle of BBQ sauce and used their cooking times, but it worked out great.

As far as basic things, I’ve used my instant pot to make rice and felt like it wasn’t any faster than my rice cooker, and the rice didn’t turn out as good (but I was cooking more rice than I probably should have been).  I think if I was cooking brown rice it might have been faster, but for regular white rice, I’ll stick to my rice cooker.  However I’ve used it to make hard boiled eggs and it was AWESOME!  I used these instructions and it was super easy and fast, and most importantly the eggs peeled SO cleanly and easily.  I’m a fan for sure.

So, there’s my full report so far of things I’ve made in my Instant Pot!  I’m sure there are many fun adventures ahead.  The thing I’ve found I like the Instant Pot for most is making slow cooker meals at the end of the day.  I’m really good at planning slow cooker meals, but I’m not always as good at actually putting everything in the crock pot at the beginning of the day… and when I realize at 2pm that I meant to do that in the morning… it’s a little late.  I like having the option to resurrect my plans just before dinner time 😉 

That’s basically how this chicken tortilla soup recipe came to be.  This is my favorite crock pot soup, but with the times adjusted for an Instant Pot.   I love this recipe because not only is it so yummy but the prep is really simple – dump several ingredients into the pot and let it go.  The only real “prep” is chopping up an onion and rinsing the black beans.  

Pretend there’s a can of enchilada sauce in there too… I forgot about it until after the picture was taken and didn’t have an extra can just for the picture, hopefully you have a good imagination 😉

I was going to post that my kids really like it too, but let’s face it, it’s not pizza so it’s not their favorite 😛  But they will generally eat it and enjoy it – especially if they can eat the tortilla chips.  Sam though was disappointed last night that it wasn’t fajitas and told me, “well it’s not my favorite, so you can’t expect me to eat it un-pickily”.  Danny was not excited about the soup either until he started to actually eat it, then he said, “Oh!  This isn’t that spicy soup (chili)?  I like this soup!”  They all ate a decent amount of soup and were pretty happy with it.  I asked the kids to pretend that they liked the soup and smile for me to take a picture… this was as close as we got in a few attempts 😛

Regardless of my kids’ reactions, I really like this soup and I’ve served it several times to other people with positive reviews.  If you’re looking for a good excuse to bust your Instant Pot out of its box give this a try!

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup
 
Recipe Type: Instant Pot
Cuisine: Mexican
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8 servings
Ingredients
  • 1-3 frozen chicken breasts
  • 1 (15 ounce) can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 (10 ounce) can enchilada sauce (red or green, both are yummy 🙂 )
  • 1 can black beans – drained & rinsed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 (4 ounce) can chopped green chile peppers
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 (10 ounce) package frozen corn
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • Optional garnishes: sour cream, avocado, cilantro, tortilla chips, shredded cheese
Instructions
  1. Put all ingredients except lime juice and garnishes in the Instant Pot
  2. Put on the Instant Pot lid set to “Sealing”. Push Pressure Cook and the plus button until it gets to 20 minutes (00:20). You can alternatively do this in a crock pot on low for 6-8 hour.
  3. When the timer goes off do a “quick release” (use a spoon to move the lid stopper from “Sealing” to “Venting”.
  4. When the steam stops remove chicken breasts and shred the meat. Return to the Instant Pot.
  5. Add lime juice, stir and serve with your chosen garnishes
  6. Enjoy 🙂
 

(This recipe adapted from AllRecipes.com)

Travelling Media with Kids

I’ve been asked several times how our family sets up tech in our van when we’re on long trips.  We’ve come up with a pretty awesome solution that keeps the kids very happy for the long trips, without fighting, and without spending a fortune.  

So what we’ve done is purchased Kindle Fire Tablets (http://amzn.to/2taMVqj) for each of our kids.  The Kindle Fires are relatively inexpensive (around $50 a piece) particularly when compared with say Apple iPads ($250 – on the low end).  It’s SO nice because each child has their own device and doesn’t have to cooperate with anyone else or watch what anyone else is watching.  Oh, and did I mention that the device they have is not *my* device, so I can still navigate/listen to my book/play Pokemon Go?  Everyone wins 🙂  We really like the kids cases that have the handles – they’re cheaper than the ones that Amazon manufactures, they’re more functional, and I think they protect the kindles better.  We haven’t had any problems with damage to our kindles inside these cases – except when our kids have poured sticky things in the ports (you can only do so much right?).  Here’s a link to one of the cases we’ve liked, but there are similar ones available through a lot of different sellers –  http://amzn.to/2v9Ugrm

The Fire tablets don’t hold a ton of media on them (although you can upgrade with micro SD cards very easily), but what we’ve done is purchase a portable hard drive that also acts as a wi-fi hotspot within the car – like this one by Seagate Media that will hold up to 2 Terabytes of movies – http://amzn.to/2taIOdQ!  We’ve put all of our movies on there and all the kids can access whatever movies/TV shows they want – and we don’t have to worry about whether they have *the* show they want already on their device.  It is also great if the boys want to play Minecraft together – they can use the wi-fi to play local games together (they don’t have internet access obviously, but we don’t let them play online anyways).

We’ve also gotten these headphones for our kids and been happy with them – http://amzn.to/2t0YgxH .  They’re comfortable and don’t have pieces on them that are easy to break.  Plus the kids look super adorable with animal headbands 😉  I’m not convinced that the volume goes up as high as they really need to overpower the road noises, but my younger two haven’t complained yet so for now we’ll keep doing what we’re doing 😉

So, that’s how we keep our kids occupied on long car rides.  We’ve set the rule in our household that the kids don’t get electronics for car rides that are under 30 minutes (you’d be surprised at just how many 29 minute car rides we’ve gone on 😉 ) and this whole set up was MUCH cheaper than installing a DVD player in our car – and we get a lot of use out of everything outside the car too!  I hope someone finds this useful!

Doing Hawaii Affordably

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My husband and I just returned from a 5 day 4 night trip to Hawaii and let me tell you – it was awesome.  It was the first real vacation we’d taken since our honeymoon 8 1/2 years ago.  We’d done overnight local getaways maybe 3 times and gone to family reunions/weddings/holidays and back to my parents’ house but not really a vacation where we’ve picked a place to go and activities and all that.  I’m pretty cheap so I always seem to look and think “well, but that’s a lot of money and instead we could… pay off more of our mortgage, or put it towards finishing our basement, or put it away for savings.”  Now that we’ve finally done it I can definitely say – it was well worth the money!  We did our entire trip (airfare, lodging, rental car, dining, activities, souvenirs – everything) for under $2500!  I think we scored some pretty awesome deals, so I thought I ought to pass along how I did it so that hopefully someone else can take advantage of the deals too!  We also analyzed our trip and found some things we thought we could have done differently (without compromising the experience) to save even more.  I think we could have kept our budget right around $2000 if we’d really needed to and still had a wonderful time!  Anyways, let me break down for you our expenses and how we did it 🙂

Airfare – $773

We flew with Allegiant Airlines and the airfare started at $135/person each way.  We were already at my parents house in California so we flew LAX-HNL.  Allegiant is a bare bones kind of airline, but for the price we were ok with that.  For the fare you get to take your own self and a personal item on the plane – no carry-on bags, no checked baggage.  Obviously for a 5 day trip we’d be hard-pressed to stick to just our backpacks!  If you were really desperate I’m sure you could layer your outfits and find a laundromat or something, but I don’t think that’s really worth it – at least not to me!  Instead we shelled out another $35 each way to have one checked bag that we shared which worked out splendidly for us.  We didn’t fork out any extra money to ensure that our seats were together (we checked in together so our seats were assigned together for both flights) or upgrade for extra leg room or add on any other bells and whistles 🙂  Our goal was for the flight to get our bodies and our very limited baggage to Hawaii.  It ended up costing us $193/person each way once we averaged in the cost of our checked bag and all of the taxes and fees, which was still pretty awesome!  I should note though – the legroom is pretty atrocious in the non-upgraded seats.  I’m 5’2″ – so not exactly a giant.  The picture below is of the space from my legs to the seat in front of me from the flight out –

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No, I’m not kidding, and yes I really am only 5’2″.  You can adjust the way you’re sitting so that you’re angled differently to make it work with longer legs – but if you have reasonably long legs I’d probably recommend shelling out for the extra leg room.  The seats do not recline at all.  Just don’t expect this to be an extraordinarily comfortable part of your trip.  But, they did get me and my husband and our bags from LAX to HNL without us having to mortgage our home so I’m not complaining 🙂

To pass the time on board we brought our travel pillows and bluetooth headphones.  I love my headphones, Eric gave them to me for Christmas and they’re amazing!  They’re super lightweight and comfortable and the battery lasts for a long time.  Plus they have really good noise cancelling, they were the perfect thing for the trip!  We didn’t have a way to split the audio (I haven’t yet been able to find a bluetooth audio splitter) so Eric watched movies on his tablet and I listened to my book.  Before our trip I decided to get the book Honolulu by Alan Brennert to get me in the mood for going to Hawaii.  It turned out to be a fantastic choice!  The book is about a Korean picture bride (mail-order bride) who comes to Hawaii and her life there.  It gave me such an interesting perspective on the history of Oahu and how it became like it is today.  It was fascinating.  I wouldn’t recommend it for young readers as there are sexual references (nothing explicit, but things I wouldn’t be very comfortable with my teenager reading) , but I would definitely recommend it to any adult readers who want a great story while learning more about Hawaii.  I also downloaded Moloka’i by Alan Brennert but I didn’t get to reading it during our trip, but I’ve read that it’s supposed to be even better than Honolulu.  My dad recommended Hawaii by James Michner but I was looking specifically for an audiobook and Hawaii wasn’t available on Audible.  If you want a really cheap trip to Hawaii I’d recommend downloading one of these books and letting yourself escape winter for less than $10 😉

 

Lodging – $410

So we cheated a little bit on our hotel.  A few years back Eric was travelling a decent amount and racked up some Marriott Rewards points.  We cashed those in for half of our stay at the Marriott Courtyard in Waikiki and we paid for the other half.  The rooms were tiny.  There was enough room for a bed with some nightstands, a TV on top of the dresser/desk and a super tiny bathroom with a small shower and zero counter space.  Which was fine, it gave us what we needed.  There are hotel deals that would get you a room in Hawaii for a similar price to what we paid even without the rewards points.  If you wanted to try a different experience there were some interesting listings on AirBNB that were really cheap too 🙂

Transportation – $387

This is where I think a lot of our budget could have been significantly reduced.  We got a rental car with our flight tickets.  Combining what we paid online with what we paid when we picked up the car (all the fun taxes and fees) it cost us $241 for our 5 day rental – or a little over $48/day.  That part wasn’t too bad.  Neither was the $25 we paid in gas for the week.  What was killer was the parking fees!  It cost us $35/night to park at our hotel in Waikiki!  That would have cost us $140 in parking alone!!!  We ended up using the parking at our hotel for two nights and then finding another parking lot that was about a half mile away that let us park for $20/night that we used for the other two nights.  But even at $20/night that still would have been $80 extra just for parking!  Even the $110 that we ended up paying in parking was well beyond what we really wanted to be paying.  There’s two different ways that we could have really reduced our costs on this front –

  1. If you’re staying in Waikiki it’s easy to get free or very cheap shuttles to pretty much anywhere that you want to go (especially with the Go Oahu card that I’ll talk about later).   We definitely could have skipped getting a rental car and just used the shuttles to get everywhere.  That would have reduced this whole budget to less than $50, or even $0 depending on how much you were willing to walk and what shuttles you chose.  However, we did like having a car just to be able to have the freedom to go where we wanted to go and the cost was worth it to us.  What we would have probably done is…
  2. Book our hotel away from Waikiki.  When we were booking our room we thought it was important to be down in Waikiki so that we’d have access to all of the things – it seemed closer to all of the attractions and just generally where we thought we wanted to be.  Looking at the North Shore seemed like it would be SO far away.  What we didn’t take into account is that the island is *really* small.  Even in traffic to go as far as you’d want to go from end to end of the island would take maybe an hour and a half.  If you’re not going to Waikiki for the night life and shopping and super commercial side of things (which we definitely were not) I’d highly recommend staying somewhere else on the island.  We stayed that the Marriott Courtyard in Waikiki – if instead we’d stayed at the Courtyard in Laie our parking would have been $10/night or in other words it would have saved us $100!  It’s more peaceful on the North Shore too, and it was closer to our favorite attraction (more on that later).  This was by far the most important change that we would have made in our trip.12419380_10102361868533499_5838310320358589731_o

All things considered though, we were happy with how we did our transportation.  Especially since when we arrived at the rental car pick up they upgraded us from an economy car to a full size car for free!  So instead of having a little Kia Rio type car, we were driving around in a Dodge Charger. While I’m still happy with the Toyota Corolla we drive at home, it was definitely fun to have a powerful car with some bells and whistles for the week 🙂

Activities – $475

This is my biggest awesome find (other than the airfare).  From Costco I got a 4 Day Go Oahu card for my husband and myself.  You can book other lengths for the card directly from the Smart Destinations website (the provider of the Go Oahu card), or save a little money and get a 3 Day Go Oahu card from Groupon.  At the time the Costco deal was the cheapest, but as of this writing I think the Groupon deal is probably best.  Ok, so here’s the deal with the Go Oahu card – for the duration of your card you can get into all 34 of their attractions for free!  Plus, when you get a card that is at least 3 days in length you can go on one day to one of their premium attractions.

So here’s what that means in layman terms, at least as far as our trip.  So as we were planning our trip we knew there were two places we really wanted to visit – the Polynesian Cultural Center & Pearl Harbor.  Without our Go Oahu card it was going to cost us $177/person for those attractions.  Our Go Oahu card only cost us $167 through Costco.  Basically it saved us $10 and then allowed us to go to 32 other places for FREE!

If we had planned out our trip better we really would have taken advantage of that card much more and gone to do the Dole plantation tour, and the tour of Iolani palace, and used it to get free snorkeling gear, and gone out on a catamaran ride, and rented paddle boards or kayaks, and done the guided Diamondhead tour… but we didn’t, so we really just saved the $10.  But hey!  We saved $10!

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Our absolute favorite thing from the trip was, hands down, the Polynesian Cultural Center.  We were so glad that we used the Go Oahu card to get the Ali’i Luau package, which got us into a really great luau and the show in the evening.  When we were planning we’d looked at the package and saw that we could get in at 12:30pm and that we wouldn’t get done with the show until 9:30pm and thought that would be WAY too long to be there.  So we decided that we’d make our way over to the PCC slowly and ended up starting our day there around 2:30pm.  This was the biggest mistake of our trip!  We so wished that we’d had those extra couple hours to look around and have time to go to all of the different stations.  We didn’t want a lot more time than that, but those extra couple hours would have really let us see all that the PCC had to offer.  All of the people there were so friendly and helpful to show us around and give us suggestions of where to go.  The presentations were informative and entertaining.  The luau had delicious food and great entertainment.  The evening show was absolutely spectacular and touching and just phenomenal.  I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed it.  We did this on the first full day of our trip and it really got us into the island culture and feel right off the bat.  It was so wonderful and we’re so glad that we went.

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Pearl Harbor was wonderful too, but in a totally different way.  Whereas we wished we’d had more time at the PCC we sort of wish we’d split our time at Pearl Harbor up.  We got there around 11:30 and by the time we left at 5pm we were over the whole thing.  We started with the audio tour of the Arizona Memorial and the site itself.  This was awesome.  I felt like I learned so much and really got into what we were doing.  The audio tour really helped us to go through the site in a meaningful way and feel like we got a real flavor for the events of that day.  After that we went over to the USS Bowfin – a retired WWII submarine and took that audio tour.  Following that we went into the submarine museum with yet another audio tour… at this point we were getting a little bit audio toured out and we just skipped around the museum and looked at a few things that were most interesting to us.  Finally we went over to the aviation museum where we skipped the audio tour entirely and just walked around and looked at the airplanes.  We think that if we’d instead done a little bit of Pearl Harbor over a few different days we could have enjoyed all of the audio tours and really gotten a great educational experience, but at the end of the day we were mostly just dazed and ready to do anything else except listen to another audio tour!

Aside from our Go Oahu card we also bought a LivingSocial deal for Parasailing for $66 for a tandem parasail.  This was really fun, and gave us a different perspective of the island and was a fun experience overall!  We shelled out another $30 for the boat operators to take pictures for us, plus left them with a tip, so in all it ended up costing us $106.  It was fun, but I think if we’d found the Go Oahu card first we would have skipped this in favor of going to some of the other attractions on our Go Oahu card instead.  We definitely would have just brought our cell phones and asked someone on the boat to snap a few pictures instead of paying for the “professional” pictures since most of them ended up being out of focus anyways 🙁  But it was still a really cool experience and a pretty reasonable price.  We enjoyed our time out on the boat as well as in the air.

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We also hiked to the top of Diamondhead one of the mornings while we were there.  That was a fun experience and gave us some good exercise!  Definitely make sure that you are well hydrated beforehand!  When we arrived there were rescue crews bringing a man off the trail who had passed out on the hike.  The hike isn’t very technical and not terribly long, but it’s pretty steep in some places and it definitely left me pretty winded!  But it was totally worth the view from the top.

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Food – $250

I’m sure we could have eaten for cheaper, but we ate *really* well while we were in Hawaii so we were ok with the cost.  Feel free to skip the rest of this section if you don’t want the play-by-play of our meals in Hawaii, but if you’re looking for recommendations of great places to eat – read on 🙂

The first thing we did on our trip though was a rookie mistake – we forgot to pack ourselves a lunch for the plane at home.  When we got to the airport we got a couple of sandwiches, 2 lemonades and a bag of chips… for $36!!  When we got on the plane we found out that we could have gotten a reasonable snack pack for $5 each.  Lesson learned: Even if you forget to pack a lunch, it’s cheaper to eat on the plane than to pay airport “convenience” premiums!

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When we got to the island we repented of our mistakes.  To save a little bit we started our trip by going to the ABC Store (kind of a high end 7-11) and picked up some blueberry bread, cut pineapple and mango juice for our first breakfast.  It might not have ended up saving us that much over just going to a restaurant, but since we were able to take that breakfast to the beach and watch the sunrise the first morning – totally worth it.  We then went to Walmart and picked up some breakfast foods for the rest of our stay (sweet rolls, bananas) and some snacks (granola bars, chex mix, beef jerky, gum) and a flat of 30 water bottles with some crystal light.  Those were great purchases that really helped us keep some of our costs down on our trip.  Especially the water bottles – they cost us $5 and meant that we had water to take into all of our attractions, we used them in restaurants and just generally to keep ourselves hydrated – for $0.17 per bottle!  We had quite a few left in the end that we left in our rental car – hopefully they got redistributed and not just thrown away!

Aside from our provisions we ate at some really awesome places.  Our first night we went to a place called Aloha Table.  I got a really delicious fried fish dish and Eric had a steak.  We also got an appetizer of edamame that we could have skipped, but we were so hungry by the time we got there that we didn’t think we wanted to wait for our main dishes – they came out only a couple minutes after we got our appetizer 😛  It cost us nearly $60, but it was an awesome first meal on the island.  SO delicious!  The presentation was good too 🙂

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The next day we went out in search of the famous Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.  Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s a food truck – it stays in the same place all the time.  It was $12/plate – cash only!  It was really good, although I personally enjoyed the rice more than the shrimp.  Eric and I both got the shrimp scampi.  The weird thing is that they cook the shrimp with the shell still on.  Removing the shell was a messy process, but the sad part was once you did… you’d removed the garlic and olive oil that they’d cooked the shrimp in too.  It was good shrimp, but it seemed kind of silly to go to the effort of making a scampi just to remove the flavored parts before eating it.

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That night we ate at the PCC Luau which was awesome as I’d already said.  All the more awesome because we wrapped that cost up in our Go Oahu card 😉  The next day after our Diamondhead hike we went to Pioneer Saloon at the recommendation of the Zomato app (this is where we got most of our food recommendations for the rest of the trip).  It was Eric’s very favorite meal of the whole trip!  When we went in the menu was massive and a little overwhelming!  We decided to go with the recommendations from the reviews on Zomato and we both got a ramen burger with everything (we were hungry after hiking Diamondhead!)  They cost us $9/each but they were well worth it!  The burgers were made with ramen noodles that had been cooked and then fried together to form a patty.  Then on top they had a fried egg, avocado, sprouts, sauteed onions and mushrooms, lettuce and tomato.  Oh, and the teriyaki patty too 🙂  It was SO delicious, and it really hit the spot after our hike.  There were certainly cheaper things on the menu but we were very happy with that experience.

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That night after our parasailing adventure we used Zomato again to find a Japanese noodle shop called Goma Tei Ramen.  I got the Chicken Tan Tan Noodles and Eric got the Curry Noodles and we got some gyoza (potstickers) to split.  We definitely did NOT need the potstickers to round out the meal – although they were very delicious.  The bowls that they brought were huge!  Eric definitely made the better choice in getting the curry noodles – his soup was really delicious.  Mine was a little lackluster.  I don’t think they flavored the chicken before putting it in the soup so it wasn’t great chicken.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.  Eric mentioned afterwards that I probably should have added some soy sauce to it which hadn’t occurred to me at the time.  It was a fun culinary experience and it ran us another $40.

Before going to Pearl Harbor on Thursday we stopped at Liliha Bakery at the recommendation of a local friend.  We got an onion pastry (sort of a savory croissant-ish thing?), a pizza roll and a malasada.  The pastries were good, nothing to write home about but good.  The malasada was unique but really sweet – we each ate a little bit and saved the rest for later.  We were told that the better malasadas are at Leonard’s Bakery, but we didn’t get a chance to track those down. We probably should have brought a little more food because we were really hungry at the end of going to Pearl Harbor, but our timing was weird – we stopped at the bakery at about 10:45 after already eating breakfast.  We weren’t quite hungry for lunch but we wanted to be ready for Pearl Harbor.  I think we could have bought a decent lunch there and then kept it in our car to eat after doing the tour and we would have probably been more happy overall.

After Pearl Harbor we went back to our trusty Zomato app and headed over to Dirty Lickin’s Chicken for some chicken wings.  We each got some breaded chicken strips and rice – and once again the rice was my favorite part 🙂  We got their combo meal which boasted corn and a salad – the corn was literally just cold canned corn and the salad was lettuce and ranch dressing.  The chicken itself was good, but kind of dry.  Our meal cost another $24.50, and while it was filling… it wasn’t necessarily our favorite spot.

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One thing I’d been told we absolutely had to do was go and get Hawaiian shaved ice.  We’d been given a recommended location but by the time we got there on Thursday it was closed.  So on Friday morning we searched out the nearby Waiola Shave Ice and for $4.50 we got this yummy treat.  It was really good, although we were eating it at a weird time of day for ice cream.  Before hopping on our flight back home we stopped at L&L Hawaiian.  Eric got the chicken katsu and I got the fried shrimp plate.  We got the regular sized plates and holy cow!  It was a TON of food!  We thought we’d get a reasonable amount but it was WAY more than we’d anticipated.  We each ate about half of our meal, and then we went over to the Walgreens and bought some sandwich baggies that we packaged the rest of the meal into for our flight home.  It wasn’t what we were planning on eating on our flight home but it worked out surprisingly well.  We even bagged up our rice and we were able to eat it straight out of the bag on the plane pretty easily, and the chicken and shrimp were surprisingly good.  Since we had been struggling to find a place to pick up a sandwich or something similar for our flight home, this was a super happy mistake to have had that leftover food and that it packed up so much better than we’d hoped!

Ok, I promise, that’s the end of my food travelogue 🙂

Souvenirs – $143.48

This is obviously is another place where we could have saved a decent amount of money.  I’m being a little generous in the term “souvenirs”.  In this case “souvenirs” also means – hairspray, hair gel, hair clips and sunscreen that we could have brought from home but forgot.  It also includes that I brought just one pair of shorts for Eric which he got dirty in the first hour of our first morning and we couldn’t wash them out in the sink.  Rather than being stuck in jeans for the whole trip we bought him a new pair of shorts, as well as a belt since we left his at my parents’ house.  We found leis for our kids at the ABC store for $1 and shell leis there for $1.50 each – so we bought one of each for each of our 3 kids.  We bought a little hair clip for Maeli with a hawaiian flower and some shark tooth necklaces for the boys.  We also bought some pineapple crunch chocolate for my brother and his girlfriend since they helped us plan the trip (she’s native Hawaiian, so she gave us some good recommendations 😉 ).  Finally for my parents we got them some chocolate covered macadamia nuts and a puzzle – we got the Maui one even though that’s not where we went because it looked more fun than the Waikiki puzzle or the Polynesian Cultural Center puzzle.  We also sent postcards to our kids, which they got a real kick out of.  Our actual souvenirs really cost closer to $50, but I didn’t know where else to categorize our other sundry purchases and since they mostly came home with us, they get to be souvenirs.

Conclusion

So that’s it!  That’s how we had a wonderful vacation for 5 days in Hawaii for under $2500.  When we got back the fitness tracker on my Pebble gave me a notification that said, “Do you feel really good?  You’ve been sleeping really well this week.  Keep up the good work!”  I thought, “No kidding I’ve been sleeping well this week – I’ve spent a week without my kids!  Don’t get used to this!”  It was a wonderful week, but it was really good to get back home to our kids 🙂  I hope that someone is able to use this information to plan their own affordable trip to Hawaii – or at least give you some good ideas of places to go!  Let me know in the comments if you go and what places and deals you liked!  Aloha!

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Dinner Chore Chart

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For those of you who know me personally this will not come as much of a shock, but here’s my confession for today – I am a terrible housekeeper.  I really do try to keep up with the house but it just doesn’t happen.  I am not someone who enjoys cleaning and trying to keep a house clean that still has three young children in it seems like a near impossible task.  However, I am trying.

My biggest pet peeve is keeping my kitchen clean.  It seems like the most critical room in the house to keep clean but three times a day everything’s being pulled out and despite my best efforts I am rarely on top of it.  The dishes are my greatest nemesis and it’s hard to keep everyone in the kitchen and helping me until the work is done.  So I’ve finally come up with a solution – meet the dinner time chore chart!

It’s really pretty basic, I’ve come up with 5 chores and each person in our  family will be assigned one chore for the week which we will change on Monday nights as part of our Family Home Evening and night time privileges will not be granted until that chore is done.  Anyways, I spent some time creating a cute chart and I wanted to share it with anyone who would like to use it.

All of the artwork came from Susan Fitch and you can find the original files for free on her site here and she graciously agreed to let me share these job charts with my readers using her artwork. You should check out her blog and Etsy shop, she has a lot of great things.  The background papers came from Shabby Princess’ free kit Celebrating.  The fonts are Pea Sweet Caroline and Pea Cookie’s Doodles from Kevin & Amanda’s Fonts for Peas.

Ok, so I have two different files that I’m providing here and you’ll have to decide which one you want.  The simple one is just a PDF which you can print out and write your family member names on the tags and be done.  However, I hate my handwriting, so I’m also providing the original Publisher files so you can customize the tags if you’d like.  To customize the tags you’ll just need to go to the tags pages and change the names to the names of your family members.  For mine I wanted pictures of the family members (since some of my kids are still pre-reading) so there are tags that have blank pictures on them but are formatted nicely.  To swap those out for pictures of your own family members all you have to do is right click on the picture, then find the picture you want to use from your computer.  The new picture will be dropped in to the same formatted space.  To re-center the picture I’ve found that I need to de-select the picture and then re-select it (I don’t know why, I just know that’s what happens) then under the Picture Tools->Format tab select Crop and you can now re-size and move the picture around within the frame.  But don’t worry, there are also simple picture-less tags that I’ve included so you can just fill them in.  You will need to make sure that you have the two fonts that I specified above installed on your computer to have the same result on your computer.  If anyone really really wants I could fill in the tags for you and send you a pdf of just the chart you want and your family’s names and pictures if you want to email me the names and pictures that you want.  You can email me through my contact page and I could provide that for a small fee – but I’d encourage you to be brave!  It’s not too hard!  You can do it!  (Assuming of course that you have a computer that can run Microsoft Publisher, and has it installed)

To create my final chore chart I printed the pages out on regular printer paper and then laminated it.  If you don’t own a laminator I’ve really liked the Purple Cows Hot & Cold Laminator that I have.  I got mine for pretty inexpensive from Costco and I think they have them there pretty regularly, but I’ve found that I can get the laminating pouches for a good deal from Amazon.  One trick I learned early on is that you have to be sure to cut out the little pieces you want to laminate (in this case the name tags) before laminating and then laminate them with enough space around the edges to not break the seal of the lamination.  I then used a bunch of these little sticky magnets on the back of the chore chart and on the back of each name tag.  The magnets aren’t super strong so I put two on each of the name tags and six on the back of the chore chart itself.  For now it’s hanging on my refrigerator but I’m planning on getting one of these magnetic boards from Ikea and hang it on my wall… as soon as I can get the kids in order to go (hahahahahah, yeah right).

Anyways, here are the two files.  Let me know if you like them and get any use out of them in your home!  It always makes me happy when someone finds the resources I post useful 🙂  And of course, don’t steal them and sell them or pass them off as your own.  That’s just not cool guys.  I hope this helps you get your kitchen routine more in order too!

Dinner chore charts – PDF version

Dinner chore charts – Publisher version

DadLibs: The Adventures of Super Dad

DadLibs: The Adventures of Super Dad - A FREE printable Father's Day Questionnaire

As Father’s Day approached this year I was excited to do something fun with my kids to give to their dad for Father’s Day. I *love* all the little questionnaires that you can find where you ask the kids questions about their mom or dad and then fill in the responses. The answers the kids give are hilarious and awesome. This past Mother’s Day my five year old did one in his preschool and one of his answers was that his mom “weighs medium”. It’s fun just to see what’s going on in those cute little heads of theirs!

As I was looking up which one I wanted to do this year I thought it would be really fun to put those answers into a little story, like a MadLibs. There wasn’t anything I could find quite like this and I finally decided that I had the skils to make one up myself.  The story is about the superhero Super Dad, because let’s be honest isn’t that who every kid thinks their dad is? The story is a little cheesy, but I thought it was a more fun way of doing the questionnaire than just the straight questions/answers.  I made it so that you could change “Dad” to be “Grandpa” or “Uncle” or even “Mom” or “Grandma” or whatever you might like!  Just be sure that if you make the story for a woman that you check the box that says your recipient is female so that all the pronouns are correct.  Also be sure to select the right gender for your child so their pronouns are correct as well 🙂

I’m a bit finicky about layouts (job hazard of working with some awesome designers) and I’ve never liked not having enough space in the questionnaires to write all of the child’s responses, or having to squish it in and look wonky. So I’ve made this into a little web application, you can fill in your child’s answers and it will put them right into the story without having to squish answers or use your very best handwriting. Yes, I’m finicky enough that I decided I’d rather spend a couple days writing the code to make it a web application than have to handwrite the answers in 🙂  Your child’s answers will be highlighted in blue so you can still tell which parts are the form story and which parts are your child’s responses.  If anyone would like a copy with just blank lines so you can handwrite your answers, let me know and I’ll put the effort into making a printable version too.

The background for the printable and for the banner graphic for this post I created using Julie Billingsley’s Masked Marvels digital scrapbooking kit. I contacted her for permission to use her designs for this project and she graciously obliged, thanks Julie!

You’ll have to enter in your answers to be able to see the story, but the background basically looks like the graphic at the top of this post, except that it’s portrait instead of landscape, and obviously the story is on the inside instead of the promotional text 🙂  Anyways, I’ve rambled long enough…

Click here to fill out your own DadLibs!

Oh, and if anyone has their own fill-in-the-blank story they would like to share feel free to send it to me and I should be able to create another similar page without too much trouble now that the heavy lifting is done 🙂  Any suggestions for improvements will definitely be considered so let me know if you have any ideas to make it better, and feel free to share this with your friends!

How to Keep Pinterest from Being a Time Suck

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We’ve all been there.  You’ve gone onto Pinterest to pull up a recipe, or get an idea for FHE… and 2 hours later you realize you’re still there, pinning a million ideas that you’ll never get around to doing.  Dinner’s still not made, you’re no closer to actually having an FHE lesson prepared and you wonder why you got on in the first place.

Pinterest is an awesome resource.  I’ve seen so many awesome tricks and tips for making my life easier and better, but I also know how easy it is to get sucked in for hours at a time without getting anything done.  I’ve come  up with a couple of techniques that I’ve started to use to help me make my Pinterest time productive rather than wasteful.

I think the best thing I’ve done is change my Pinterest bookmark from going to the Pinterest home page, to going directly to my personal boards page (i.e. http://pinterest.com/techiechic/ instead of http://pinterest.com).  That way when I’m logging on to find a recipe or idea that I’ve already posted I can go right to it rather than seeing a whole bunch of other brilliant ideas on my home page.  Also, if I am just logging in to find a good idea or browse for a little while, this encourages me to look at the things I’ve already pinned and actually DO one of those things instead of pinning 50 more things.  Why spend an hour pinning things when you could spend it actually starting to make that skirt, do that exercise, or clean your house?  It’s a good reminder to me that there are plenty of things I could be doing instead of trying to find more 🙂

The other thing I’ve done is set up a separate Pinterest board for recipes that I’ve already tried and one for recipes that I haven’t gotten around to yet.  This makes it easier for me to find the recipes that we already know and love instead of having to sift through the hundreds of recipes that are waiting for me to try.  It also makes it easier for me when someone asks for a recipe to be able to tell them – it’s on my Pinterest board of recipes I’ve tried – so they don’t have to sift through a million recipes either.  Plus, it lets my friends know that this recipe does have my personal stamp of approval and not just an enticing picture.  I always try to write my own reviews of those recipes as well, especially if I have tips for making it better.  I would recommend doing this for other projects as well, but I definitely use it most for recipes!

This last one may seem kind, but remember – your friends won’t know if you’re following them or not!  When I do surf my newsfeed on Pinterest I’ve found that there are a lot of things that my friends pin that I really don’t care about.  I’m already married so I don’t care what wedding dresses/cakes/flowers my single friends are saving, I’m not big on makeup so the latest nail painting tutorials don’t appeal to me, I’m not a photographer so I’m not looking for the best ways to pose my subjects.  When I see pins on my home page that are in a category that doesn’t appeal to me I simply click on the pin and unfollow that particular board – not the person, just that board.  It has made my browsing SO much more effective because I see fewer results that aren’t applicable to my life.  It saves me a lot of time not having to scroll through those ideas, and I really don’t think anyone is offended that I’m not following their makeup board anymore 🙂

That’s all I have for now.  What about you?  Does anyone else have great tips for using Pinterest wisely?

Angry Birds FHE

As I was playing on Pinterest a few months ago I came across an idea for a Family Home Evening lesson using Angry Birds as a way to teach children to control their emotions.  Since I have little children and a smartphone, Angry Birds is obviously something that gets played A LOT in our household and I knew this would be a hit.  I found the lesson on The Home Teacher and her original lesson plan is here.  She has also taken the time to put together some awesome resources, including a follow up post with more birds and lots of printables including posters and workbook pages.  The whole thing is awesome and I was excited to do it for my boys for FHE.

For Christmas this last year my sister-in-law gave us a flannel board and a bunch of flannel board stories for FHE.  Sam now thinks of FHE as a flannel board story time so I knew the lesson would go best if I were to make the Angry Birds into something that would go on our flannel board.  So I took all of the bird images and put them in a single page format so I could print them onto an iron on transfer.  The lesson that night was a little scattered because I was working off of my memory of what I had read in the blog posts.  As part of a project I’m working on right now I decided to write out a concise, easy-to-use FHE outline that had all the main ideas from The Home Teacher’s blog posts as well as an assigned opening and closing song, a shortened link for an idea to make your own version of an Angry Birds game using paint, cans and a dodgeball, and a treat suggestion.  Basically I wanted to make it so you could print out the outline and have an almost zero-prep FHE lesson.

Anyways, I finished that off and decided to share the fruits of my labors here.  I’ve included the outline, the single page formatted visuals and the visuals reversed (for iron-on transfer).  If you aren’t using the lesson on a flannel board or some other small format I really suggest The Home Teacher’s posters as they have a lot more detail and are just plain prettier.  I also highly recommend reading through her blog posts on the lesson as they explain her ideas in a lot more detail (my main goal was to make the lesson plan fit on one page front and back so I had to pare it down a lot).

This has become Sam’s favorite FHE lesson, whenever we pull out the binder he asks us to do the Angry Birds lesson again.  Not just because it’s a fun topic though, he really knows what we have each of the birds representing and names the birds by their lesson names when he’s playing the game too!  I hope you enjoy this as much as we have!

I just want to say thanks again to Keri at The Home Teacher for all the effort she put into putting this lesson together in the first place, and for the permission to share it again here!