A Summer Evaluation (Part II)- Money



By Ann Clay

(For Part I of our Homeschool Summer Evaluation, click here.)

Now let’s examine other things about our homeschool experience from this last year. How did you spend your money? Are you satisfied with how it went, or do you feel regret or a need for a change?


Let’s face it; homeschooling can be expensive. Not only does the cost of materials add up, but you may also be dealing with loss of income if you or your partner have given up all or some of paying employment.

First, take a good hard look at what you purchased this time last year. How much did you actually use? Consider how much good it did you and your family. Did you have to browbeat your kids into using it? Was using the material pleasurable and interesting? Or did you have to fight them every day? Take the time to write down how much different things cost you vs. how much learning happened with the materials.

Now, what can you do differently in the coming year? Remember, just because something worked before does not mean it will work again.

Don’t forget to include classes you signed up for, field trip expenses, subscription services you used (magazines, journals, kits, museum memberships, etc.).

Include the Kids!

Do ask your children to review the materials with you and ask them for feedback on how much they’d like to repeat any types of experiences they already tried.

It’s important to include the whole family in this evaluation. Keep it casual, but make clear to all involved that you really do want to know what parts they liked and which ones they didn’t. It can be quite revealing to ask children what they think. Even though she may have carped about it every day, your daughter may tell you that yes, she learned a lot from that particular math curriculum, and that she would like to try it again. Or your son, who may have enthused about the history course he took at a co-op, might now decide he’d like a year off from that particular group. Honor his request. He may have reasons he doesn’t necessarily want to express to you.

Other sources?

Now, think about other places to get the things you want this year. How much of what you bought before can be purchased used. This is a good time of year to post on your message boards, email lists, and Facebook pages what materials you’d like to obtain for the coming year. Perhaps you’d really like a good quality microscope, a musical instrument, or something as simple as test tubes. Let people know you’re seeking them out.

Check websites like Amazon.com, Textbooks.com, Alibris.com (and don’t restrict your search to these—there are many). One of the best sources for free and cheap lesson plans and activities is teacherspayteachers.com, where thousands of teachers have posted their own plans and activities.


We hope you have enjoyed this evaluation series. There are, of course, other things to consider, like usage of space in your home, outside classes and activities, even your style of homeschooling. But this is a place to start from!




A Summer Evaluation (Part I)


By Ann Clay

By now you’ve at least decided on your manner of showing evidence of progress, and most of us have completed the steps. Now you know (or soon will) how your child performed this past year. It’s comforting to have some feedback, isn’t it? You know where you need to spend more time and effort with your homeschooler, and it’s clear what the child has learned.

Why not do a further evaluation—of your homeschool itself. It’s a good idea to sit down and reflect on what you’ve accomplished, where you (think you) failed, which approaches seemed to work and which ones fell flat.

You’ll note that much of this examination is in the form of questions. There are no right answers! This is the time for you, the parent(s), to examine how you’ve met your own goals this year.


First, consider how you spent your time this past year. Time is precious. Can you believe how much they’ve grown and changed since last summer? Are you making the most of their growing time?

Do you feel completely spent at the end of the week/day/morning? Is the schedule too packed? On the other hand, is there not enough to do? Do the children wear you out because they need constant attention and entertainment? All of these are good questions to ask ourselves. There’s a definite balance that each family needs to find, and it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.

Consider you family’s values when it comes to spending time. Are you a go-getter parent who wants to cram in loads of experiences for your kids so they won’t miss anything? Perhaps your style is laid back, go-with-the-flow, learn-as-we-go easy. Are you somewhere in between? Take a good hard look at how you and your children have spent the time available during the ‘school’ year and see if it matches your value system. Then see if it’s working for your kids (even within a family, children have different needs). Do they feel a good kind of tired at the end of the day? Are they sleeping well? Or do you hear a lot of griping about how busy (or bored) they are?

List some things you think are worth their time. Here’s a start, but add your own and subtract items that don’t apply:

Unstructured time:

  • Daydreaming
  • Socializing with friends that they choose
  • Outdoor play
  • Having friends over/visiting friends

Life skills:

  • Building/designing/solving problems
  • Cooking/growing food
  • Learning to drive/ride bike/walk
  • Personal health habits and skills
  • Handling money, budgeting, earning
  • Fixing/repairing/maintaining their belongings and home


  • Math
  • Science experiences/experiments
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Reading content (other academic areas)
  • Field trips
  • Taking formal classes
  • Handwriting/cursive/keyboarding
  • History/geography/social sciences

Family time:

  • Game night
  • Traditions
  • Holidays and special days
  • Weekly planning together
  • Spending time with extended family
  • Meals together/cooking together

Other categories:

  • Physical activity (formal and informal)
  • Artistic expression
  • Screen time for fun
  • Screen time for learning
  • Spending time in nature

That list is pretty daunting, isn’t it? But it’s a reminder that there’s more to homeschooling than passing a test at the end of the year. Is too much (or not enough) time being spent on academics? Are things you value being neglected?  Are you over/under-scheduled?

Then there’s the issue of adult burnout. Are we spending too much time trying to stuff in all these experiences for our kids?

Spending too much time?

Finally, remember how important it is to schedule a non-structured amount of time every day, especially for our kids, but maybe we adults need it too. Jeanne Faulconer, who has successfully homeschooled three very different sons, says, “I had to schedule unscheduled time. Meaning, time at home with no agenda, no friends over, etc. The introverts and inventors in my family needed just plan unscheduled time.”

Read through the links and get thinking about how differently to use time next year.

Ideas of other ways to spend our children’s time:

100 Things All Kids Should Try

Kids Bucket List

Tween Indoor Activities

Teen Activities for Summer (but as homeschoolers, we can tackle this all year long)

Life Skills We All Need to Learn

Check back next month for Part II of our summer evaluation!


Keep the Learning Going During Summer Play!


By Ann Clay

Virginia’s steamy summer is just about to get under way.  What was a grim, dark, and wet spring has segued into a typically sultry June, and it’s time to wind down the learning in your homeschool.  Or is it?

Perhaps you’ve completed your end-of-year testing/evaluations, and your kids are anxious to sleep in and then drive you to distraction with their messiness, boredom, lack of direction, and need to chill. Probably you yourself are ready to chuck the structure of the school year and want some fun. With a little imagination and an internet connection, you and your young charges can fill this summer with fun, learning, and exploration.

Some homeschoolers don’t take a summer break. In my own family, I work so much at my paying job during the winter that things get a bit lax in the academic department when it’s cold. So it’s pretty typical for us to be working hard at least through June and early July. Other families call it quits as early as May 1st because the warm temperatures naturally slow them down.

Whatever your family trend, there are tons of ways to keep the learning going all summer without the kids even sensing your educational goals. Here’s a list of types of activities, each followed by one or two suggested websites to start looking for specifics. This is not intended to be comprehensive—it’s just to get the ideas flowing!

If you use Pinterest, start a board on summer activities using these links as a jumping off point. Or share these ideas with the family and ask for more suggestions. One way to involve everyone is to let each family member choose an activity each week. That way the whole family gets involved and can do something they love, while the others must try new things

Travel: Plan a big family vacation or just visit museums and other indoor outings (any place with air conditioning is high on my list).

No-cost Virginia attractions

No-cost Virginia outings

Beach it: For some, getting into the water or being on the beach is de rigueur. Find local swimming holes, hidden beaches, and avoid crowds.

Virginia beaches you may not have heard of

Stay home:  make your own backyard fun—build forts, make mud pies, make a mess.

Ideas for stay-at-home fun

Gardening:  A great way of keeping the learning going during the warmer months. Use containers or till a large area in the yard.

Gardening with children

Get crafty: Summer crafts are a sure thing, especially for those inevitable rainy days.

Indoor ideas

Hiking: Get into the great outdoors, head for the mountains, and find a challenging hike for the whole family.

Virginia’s best hikes

Got more ideas? Use the comments section to share your ideas.

VaHomeschoolers Voice Rewind- September 2008

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of Voice Magazine.  Don’t miss Parrish when she speaks at the 2016 VaHomeschoolers Conference & Resource Fair on April 1 & 2, 2016.


IMG_5495 (2)

Playful Learning

Parrish Mort, Cartersville

 Much can be learned in play that will afterwards be of use when the circumstances demand it.

—John Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic


We have all heard that “play is learning,” and as homeschoolers, we have the luxury of living this axiom through free and creative play or by playing games. In my family and in our co-op, games have always been a great way to learn or review any subject.

games for mathWhen my children were young, we often played games from Peggy Kaye’s series of books. A favorite game from her Games for Math was Grasshopper. On extra-large (5 x 8) colored index cards, I wrote the numbers 1 through 17, one number per card. We would lay the cards randomly on the floor all around the room, number side up. Then each child would go and stand on a card. Since my children are three and a half years apart, I always appreciated games that allowed for variations based on skill or knowledge, and Grasshopper was great in this way. I would begin by telling my oldest child something like, “find the number that is four more than the one you are standing on and walk like a crab to that card.” For my younger child, I might just tell her to find a specific number and to hop like a frog to that card. We would continue with lots of giggling and silliness until the oldest had done tons of addition and subtraction, the youngest had identified all the numbers, and they both had been transformed into snakes, kangaroos and any of an array of varied moving creatures. We laughed, and we learned.

Later we added educational board games to our homeschool days. Some were great (Bioviva® and Where in the World?®) and others were duds (Amazing Africa® where it is impossible to play unless you are already an expert on all the African countries). One that has been a lasting favorite for our family has been the Professor Noggins® series. The games in this collection are quiz style and are available in over 30 different varied topics, including Outer Space, Ancient Civilizations, Freshwater Life, Insects and Spiders, Countries of the World and Farm Animals. I highly recommend it as a supplement to history and science studies; there is a topic for most anything you could be studying.

Professor NogginEach game includes a set of 30 quiz cards and a three numbered die. On the front of each card is the topic of the questions for that card (example: from the Explorers set, a card topic is Navigation). On the back of each card are six questions—three under the title “easy” and three under “hard.” Having two levels of questions is one of the strengths of this game. Before you begin the game, each player can determine what level he or she will play. This makes it enjoyable and practical for a parent to play with a young child. But let me warn you: just because you are older doesn’t mean you are smarter or that you will know the answers. Many a child has delighted in my lack of knowledge on various subjects when playing Professor Noggins.®

Play is simple. A player rolls the die and that determines which question he or she will have to answer. The player to the right reads the question. It may be a true/false or multiple choice, or it may just be open-ended. If the answer given is correct, the player gets the card. If the answer is wrong, the card goes to the bottom of the pile to be played again later.

To add to the fun, there are brain buster questions (really hard ones) and Noggins’ Choice, which awards a player the opportunity to take a card from another player. The directions say the winner is the person who collects the most cards. I say everyone who plays wins because all the players learn so much.

I also have found games to be wonderful for more focused learning. At the end of a unit or series I am teaching in my co-op, I often create a Jeopardy®-type game. I write questions that act as a review for what we have studied, and the kids love it. Since I don’t believe in anyone being put on the spot and am not trying to test, I divide my students into teams. I even allow them to use their notes because I would much rather they look up something they can’t recall instead of forgoing an answer. And remember, Jeopardy is a game of speed, so they use notes only as a last resort. At the end of a game, I am always so impressed with how much knowledge the kids have acquired and retained and with how much fun and laughter the game has created.

I have adapted other games as well, such as Taboo,® which is also a team game. One player has to get teammates to say a word or phrase in one minute. The catch is that the player giving the clues can’t use designated related words. In my version, the words to guess on the cards would be some key figure, event or vocabulary word we have studied. For example, the phrase might be “Mayflower Compact,” and the list of banned words might include pilgrims, ship, month, powder, and agreement. This game forces students to really understand the topic and to stretch their vocabulary in their attempts to find new ways to express themselves without using the banned words. The game guarantees laughs because sometimes their attempts only make sense to themselves.

I have had many different types of students in my homeschool co-op classes over the years. Some have been more competitive, and some have been more reserved; some had a knack for the topic, and some weren’t really that interested in being there. But regardless of the student’s disposition, the games always seem to get everyone involved, laughing and appreciating what they know. So I stand by the statement: play is learning, and for my family, play is one of the best kinds of learning.

Parrish Mort is the former President and Executive Director of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers and mother to two wonderful young adults. For more great articles and ideas like this one, JOIN VaHomeschoolers and get Voice delivered right to your home as a membership benefit!

Biggest Children’s Book Festival on the East Coast Returns to Farmville, VA



By Lina Roberts


For as long as Juanita Giles can remember, her hometown public school system has struggled. And while her community may not be alone, with nearly half of all children in the United States living in low-income families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, her county is among the hardest hit.

“There isn’t a lot of money in [Prince Edward and Charlotte Counties],” said Giles, graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. “The education in public schools is subpar. And one in five adults is functionally illiterate. A lot of people here don’t even have adequate plumbing.”

But there’s one thing that makes her county different from the hundreds of others just like it across the South East. Juanita Giles decided to do something about it.

Four years, countless hours and more than $100,000 later, Giles has successfully spearheaded a monumental effort to launch and deliver the biggest children’s book festival on the East Coast for the second year in a row.

Brenda Chapman

Brenda Chapman

Open to the public at no charge from Oct. 16 to 17, the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, hosted by Longwood University in Farmville, VA, will feature more than two dozen unique workshops and lectures suitable for children ages preschool and up.

This year’s highlights include Brenda Chapman, Pixar feature film screenwriter for Brave and children’s author, in a panel discussion on “Why Fairytales Matter and Empowering Girls Through Literature” as well as the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner Jacqueline Woodson, Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander and several other prize-winning authors.

But why a book festival? Of all the endeavors Giles could have championed, why start there? To provide children with an immersive, inspiring and eye-opening experience.

“If kids aren’t reading by 4th grade, they are 78% more likely to drop out of high school,” said Giles, mother of three and founder of the Athens Film Festival in Athens, Georgia and Eleven Pictures, Ltd., a non-profit rural youth media initiative in Southside Virginia. “The festival has become such a success, even in just its first year. There isn’t a children’s book festival of any significant size anywhere on the East Coast.”

Until now.

Launched last year, after three years of fundraising, Director Juanita Giles welcomed more than 1,000 children to the festival and already has every 4th, 5th and 6th grader in Charlotte County signed up to attend this year. Additional attendees will travel from Norfolk, Richmond, Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Northern Virginia. Endorsed by Chaka Smart, VCU’s former basketball coach, Giles says the festival is designed to fill a hole in her local community as well as greater Virginia.

This festival is an opportunity to make the joy and freedom that comes with proficient reading accessible to those who don’t have many options otherwise. It’s an opportunity to remove stigmas surrounding reading, to open a world of literacy to those in need of positive role models and to, simply give children around the state the chance to interact with, learn from and be inspired by accomplished book authors looking to inspire another generation of writers and readers.

Some of the Children’s Book Festival workshops and discussions include:


Teri Kanefield


Civil Rights in Children’s Literature, a panel discussion of Teri Kanefield’s Girl from a Tar Paper School, based on the life of Barbara Johns who led the Moton School strike that eventually produced three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. This panel will address issues of race, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation and others that confront our children today and how children’s literature is an important tool in helping our children address and understand these issues.  Oct. 16 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm


London Ladd – Passion, Patience and Perserverance, London Ladd will show the many steps involved in making a picture book such as research, drawing sketches and creating artwork. Sketch books, original artwork and various visual aids will show children how he works. Students will also participate in portrait drawing.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade /  Oct. 17 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm


Ben Hatke

Ben Hatke – Three Secrets to Making Great Comics, Where do stories come from? How do you invent new characters? How do words and pictures work together? Why are stories magic? Can the right story change the world? A presentation that includes live drawing, masks, story card activities and more. Plus: The secret origin of Zita the Spacegirl…
Suitable for: Tweens / Oct. 17 11:30 am – 12:30 pm

Empowering Girls Through Books, Our panel discusses the pressure girls face from TV, magazines, on the playground and in class and how introducing them to powerful and confident female characters is one asset we have in raising strong girls.
Oct. 17 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm

Empowering Boys Through Books, Choosing books by gender can be an advantage when seeking to empower boys. It’s important to start early, but as boys progress through school, they are often shamed for reading. Our panel will address what boys need when they read and how to encourage them even as society discourages them.
Oct. 17 9:30 am – 10:30 am


Timothy Basil Ering

Timothy Basil Ering – Necks Out for Adventure! With slides, drawings and play, the illustrator of The Tale of Despereaux, presents an incredibly interactive and entertaining program.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 16 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm

Lamar Giles – Storystarters, Celebrated YA author Lamar Giles will help kids come up with story prompts, then create their own unique short story.
Suitable for: Young Adult / Oct. 16 9:30 am – 10:30 am

John Bemelmans Marciano – Making Up Madeline, John Marciano brings back his incredibly popular presentation, “Making Up Madeline.” Explore the world of the precocious French girl and help plan her next adventure.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 9:30 am – 10:30 am

Sophie Blackall

Sophie Blackall – Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, Before Winnie-the-Pooh, there was a real bear named Winnie. In 1914, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian on his way to tend horses in World War I, followed his heart and rescued a baby bear. He named her Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war. Harry Colebourn’s real-life great-granddaughter tells the true story of a remarkable friendship and an even more remarkable journey from the fields of Canada to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England…And finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made another new friend: a real boy named Christopher Robin. Here is the remarkable true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. Learn how Sophie Blackall conquered illustrating the world’s most famous bear.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm

The Historical Story: Teri Kanefield and London Ladd, Children gain a profound awareness and more personal understanding of the past when they identify with characters in a story and see historical events through their eyes. When historical information is presented in the form of a story, it resonates in a way that is not possible with nonfiction.  Author Teri Kanefield and illustrator London Ladd discuss what it takes to bring history to life for children.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade and Tweens / Oct. 17 11:30 am – 12:30 pm

Sarah Sullivan – Speaking Through a Mask: A Workshop on Creating Mask or persona Poems, Students imagine what it would be like to be a certain object, animal, insect, mythological beast, fairy tale character or fold hero and then write a poem of that “character.” Writing poems in the voice of another person, animal or thing helps boost creativity and develop empathy for others.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm

Anne Blankman and Lamar Giles – Thriller Fiction for Teens, Mysteries and thrillers are democratic – appealing to most people at some pointIt’s one genre that attracts a wide following. While adult mystery novels usually have detectives at work at solving mysteries, in teen novels it is often an average teen with an inquisitive nature–someone who is a true amateur, but not lacking in action and intensity.
Suitable for: Young Adult / Oct. 16 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm

For the detailed schedule, visit Virginia Children’s Book Festival.

This festival has been made possible through sponsors like: Longwood University, University of Richmond, Shaka and Maya Smart, Natural pHuel, Pam Butler of Mainly Clay, Anita Garland, CentraHealth, Shirley Blackwell, Navona Hart of Real Living Cornerstone, and many others. Additional donations and contributions are welcome and encouraged to help ensure the continued success of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. To learn how you can help, please contact Juanita Giles at 434.390.1962 or


VaHomeschoolers Voice Rewind- October 2011

Beginning this month, VaHomeschoolers will regularly feature a favorite article from one of our past Voice magazines.  From homeschool advice to curriculum reviews, field trip reports to creative ideas, Voice has something for every age and homeschooling style.  This month, an article from our Sept/Oct 2011 issue will inspire you to go outside with your kids and your camera to capture the natural beauty of summer!

 Amy- beetle

Give Nature Photography a Shot

Text & Photos by Amy Wilson, Woodbridge

I think it’s best to tell you right up front that I have absolutely no training or expertise in nature photography— none. I haven’t read a book about it, or studied handy tips on the Internet, or taken a class from a local nature center. I think these are all great ideas; I just haven’t done any of them. I don’t know why, but photography is one of those topics that tends to make my eyes glaze over (for the record, sports, the stock market, and partisan politics are some of the others). As soon as someone starts talking about f-stops, light meters, or depth of field, I find my gaze sliding right, left, or even to the ground— anywhere to give me something else to focus on (pun intended). This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that I don’t enjoy photography. I love taking pictures, particularly of nature; I just don’t like to be “taught” about it. Amy- rock

I think my kids feel this way about any number of topics. For my daughter, it’s art,  and for my son, it may well be math. They like to do these things, but they don’t want to be instructed in how to do them. I try to do my best to honor their feelings (it’s a lot easier with art than with math, as you might imagine). Being able to do so is one of the great advantages of homeschooling.

Sometimes enthusiasm and genuine interest can take us a lot further than teaching can. Enthusiasm keeps us working at something long enough to learn about it, even if that learning doesn’t follow the traditionally defined path for that subject. I’m writing his column about nature photography out of my passion for the subject, which I hope will serve to pique your interest to try it yourself and maybe even get your kids involved.

You might be someone who likes a methodical approach to a new topic. If, like me, you don’t want to be “taught” about photography, though you might like to try it, I encourage you to go right ahead. This column won’t teach you how to do nature photography. Instead, I hope it will show you why you might like to try it, and help you picture how it can fit into your homeschooling approach, no matter what age your kids are and no matter what homeschooling style your family uses.

Amy- turtle

Benefits of Nature Photography

Why is nature photography a topic of potential interest to homeschoolers? Even if you’re not a nature-y person like me, I think nature photography has some benefits in store for you and your kids. I think there is something special that happens when we put a camera between our viewing self and what we are viewing. The camera becomes a tool for seeing the world in a different way, and encourages us to notice things that we might not have noticed before. Trying to get an interesting shot pushes us to crouch down, look up, peer closely, and pay attention to things we would normally ignore. Photography gives us a way to view actively, to engage with our environment rather than simply passing through it.

Nature photography is a great way to combine left-brain and right-brain functions. It can encourage the analytical child to “let loose” a little bit and be creative, or it can give the right-brained child a  comfortable bridge to some more left-brained activities. Thinking in terms of images, looking around to find “a good shot,” can disengage the analytical part of the brain a little bit, and bring the creative “right brain” into play. For those of us who are very analytical, this is an excellent brain exercise; if you or your kids are more “right brained,” this can be a welcome break from so many areas of learning that seem “biased” toward left-brained folk. Processing the images after you have captured them can be a left-brained sort of activity if you like (researching and identifying plants or animals you have photographed, writing about them, or creating a PowerPoint presentation to share them with others). Or it, too, can be a creative endeavor if you prefer to try scrapbooking (with paper or digitally), digital photo art, or painting or drawing images inspired by your photos.

Amy- fungi

Nature photography is also a great way to encourage the more reluctant child (or adult) to try out nature studies. Having a defined project to do outdoors may make the experience more enjoyable, and the distance that the camera can place between the viewer and the viewed may be more comfortable for the child who might prefer to stay far away from bugs or mushrooms. A digital camera and some photo-editing software may be enough enticement to get even the most dedicated computer geek away from the screen for a little while, and can provide something new to play around with when he or she sits back down at the screen again.

Finally, nature photography is a handy anchor for a variety of learning activities across the curriculum. You could delve into art by  encouraging your child to choose a photo he or she has taken and create a drawing or painting. Expand on that by reading about John James Audubon and his work; Audubon worked from life, not from photos, but his goal was to create lifelike images—you and your kids could discuss whether photography is an improvement over paintings from life. You could touch on public policy and current events by watching a documentary about Ansel Adams; the National Park Service commissioned Adams to photograph America’s natural resource areas. Maybe this will spark a conversation about whether people are more likely to value and protect resources they know about and can see rather than those that are unknown, or whether it’s better to keep humans out of wilderness areas,  leaving them pristine.

Dip into science by making a pinhole camera and trying it out. From the fanciest digital SLR to the simplest pinhole project, the modern camera and all of its forbears were developed from the principles of the camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”); try researching the history of the camera. The working parts of every camera have some analogs in the anatomy of the human eye: for example, our eyes have lenses that focus and our retinas are like “film” or “paper” on which images are projected. Learning about cameras is natural lead-in to learning about the human eye. If it’s time for your regular eye exam, consider it a field trip and take advantage of the opportunity for your kids to ask lots of questions of their eye doctor! Make a model of the human eye, dissect a cow’s eye ordered from a biological science supply company, or take apart an old discarded film camera to see the working parts inside. Learning about cameras and the human eye is also a natural link to experimenting with prisms, magnifying glasses and other lenses.

Amy- Caterpillar

Getting Started

I said I wouldn’t teach you how to do nature photography with this column, but I do have three steps to get you started. Every good project has to have at least three easy steps. The first step is to get a camera. I can’t offer technical advice on what sort of camera is best for nature photography, but I can offer homeschooling-mom advice: whatever camera you already have (or can borrow) is the one to use. In fact, if you have an old, unused camera (film or digital), that may be the very best one, because you won’t worry quite as much about your kids dropping it in the drink when they’re trying to get that shot of a dragonfly on a reed in a pond. I did go out and get a new camera a few years ago. I chose a tiny little gadget, almost solely on the basis of its ability to fit in the back pocket of my jeans. For me, the most important thing was to get an affordable camera that I would actually take with me when I went places. I  never mess with the settings; it’s always on “auto,” and it does a good job for me that way. What’s right for me may not be best for you, however. You might love all the options that you get with lots of lenses (heck, you might even be willing to read the manual that comes with your camera!), or you might have a strong allegiance to film rather than digital. Any camera  that works for your family will be fine for doing nature photography.Amy- berries

I’m worried you might feel you’re not getting your money’s worth out of this column, but I will say this anyway: the second step is to start taking pictures. I’m really not trying to be facetious. Take the kids, take the camera, step out the door, have everyone take a good look around, and take some photos. It doesn’t matter what you take pictures of, especially not at first. Photograph what you love, what looks weird, what mystifies you, what is beautiful or disgusting. Take lots of pictures. Experiment with using the flash or turning it off; try getting up close to something small; take pictures at different times of day and in different kinds of light; try a landscape shot; if your camera has a zoom function, mess around with it. Don’t worry about being artsy or getting everything right; just take lots of pictures and see what you get. The experience of  really looking at the outdoors and the freedom to try out your camera and get comfortable with it are the first goals. Your images don’t even need to be particularly good in order to get  the benefits of nature photography.

Finally, don’t just leave those photos languishing in your camera. Download them to your computer or get them developed. Look them over, pick a few favorites, and share them. Encourage your kids to do something with them. They could start a nature photo album to document their outdoor adventures, or create a handwritten or digital nature journal or, perhaps with adult help, a blog. They could mail (or e-mail) them to Grandma with a note explaining what they saw this week. Send one to the local paper with a caption written by your child—it just might get published! Doing or creating something  with the images will add significantly to the benefits that they get from nature photography.

I hope I’ve inspired you to try doing some nature photography with your kids. To accompany this column, I’ve got some suggestions to help you get  started. So don’t wait—step outside and see what you find through the camera’s eye!


Amy- butterfly


If the idea of “being creative” sounds intimidating to you or your kids, or if the directive to start taking photos is just too loosey-goosey, try some specific projects. You could design a  project to fit in with your ongoing homeschool studies (for example, if your third-grader is studying photosynthesis, encourage him to photograph a variety of leaves and see if he can  actually see the stomata; if your high-schooler is reading Shakespeare, have her find a list of flower-related quotes from the Bard and try to take photos to illustrate them), or you could  try some of these ideas to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Pick a category, such as caterpillars, leaves, flowers, tree bark, clouds, birds or rocks, and photograph a “collection.”
  • Choose a specific area, such as a garden bed, a spot in the park, or even a particular shrub or log, and then take pictures of the entire space as well as close-ups of its features or the wildlife on or in it. Start with a wide view and get closer and closer.
  • Try a treasure hunt. Create a list of natural items or features for your child to “find” with the camera. This activity could highlight signs of the changing seasons, or, with help from you and a nature guide, it could be a method of learning to identify plants in the park (for example, you could try to find five different  plants to photograph and identify).
  • Taxonomy can be fascinating—see if you and your kids can find and photograph examples of all five main vertebrate classes (fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals), or see how many different kinds of arthropods you can find in the yard or outside the library. In the plant kingdom, try photographing angiosperms and gymnosperms and talk about the differences between them.
  • Try your hand at time lapse photography. Choose a view outdoors and take a photo in the exact same position at the exact same time every day for a month. Try this when the seasons are changing for extra fun! Or you could try this indoors, by planting a bean seed in a pot on a windowsill; take photos several times a day for a couple of weeks. If you have a child who is good with computers, maybe he or she can make the photos into a video.
  • Make your own nature guide to your yard.  Photograph as many different plants and animals as you can, and use the resources at your disposal (the Internet, nature guide books, the library, volunteers at a nearby nature center, etc.) to identify them and learn about them. Put them together into an album (or just a notebook) and voilà, a custom nature guide! If you prefer, narrow the focus to one topic, such as insects or trees, for a more manageable project, or consider this an ongoing process of creation and continue adding to your guide.
  • Get crafty! There are many Web sites that will allow you to upload your photos and create professional-quality greeting cards, calendars, and other products. I used Picaboo.com to create a calendar of my nature photos to give as Christmas  gifts last year. Grandparents and other relatives will love a calendar of photos taken by you and your kids! If you’d like to impress dubious relatives and show them how well your children are learning, the kids can write up descriptions of the plants and animals pictured, based on their own research, to be included in the calendar. Many homeschooling families enjoy logging these days to share their activities with family and friends and other homeschoolers. If your family enjoys electronic communication, nature photos can be a great addition to a homeschooling blog, or a basis for a blog in their own right. The blog could become an online nature journal, in which you and your children document your hikes, seasonal sights in your neighborhood, and more.

Want more great articles from Voice Magazine?  Become a VaHomeschoolers member and receive Voice in your mailbox six times year for FREE!  Join today!



Cade Martin: World Travels with Model UN


By Katie Slavnik

Casual dinnertime banter between Cade Martin, an 11th grader from Chesterfield, and his father, originally sprang from Cade’s natural interest in history. Over time, these conversations evolved to include lively discussions about many topics such as current events and world politics. This eventually led Cade to get involved in Model UN through his homeschool co-op, Richmond-based Athenian Academy.


What, exactly, is Model UN? For three years, Cade has taken a class created and sponsored by Joyce Rodgers that casts him as a delegate for a particular country.  He writes a paper that centers around what he learned about that country as well as its position on a chosen topic. Any topic or issue is fair game: environmental, political, social or economic. Before the conference begins, the position paper is drafted and submitted to the committee chairs.

 Cade Martin MUN Committee

Once Cade is at the UN Model conference, he spends about three hours during each session trying to devise workable solutions for the topics and issues that were chosen for the group before they arrived. Though the number of sessions can vary depending on the conference, most contain only two or three sessions and can be completed within a weekend.


Cade has won numerous awards including “Recognition for Excellence and Diplomacy” at the Model United Nations at William & Mary while representing Brazil, “Honorable Delegate” and “Best Position Paper” while representing Bahrain at Georgetown University’s Model Arab League and “Honorable Delegate” as a representative of Japan during the Model United Nations Conference at The Governor’s School.

Maggie Walker Congress-Honorable delegate

Don’t think that Cade and his fellow delegates are always engaged in such serious and weighty issues though! They are typical teens and love to have fun after their formal sessions are finished. They’ve done lots of zany things to help pass the time like dancing the Harlem shake or trying to figure out how they’d deal with a unicorn or zombie apocalypse. Raiding other committee sessions is also high on their list of entertaining things to do.


As a goal-oriented teen, Cade sees college in his future, and plans to study both international relations and history while also nurturing his new-found interest in sociology. Attending the Model UN conferences has provided a fantastic opportunity for the whole family to visit campuses to discover if he feels a connection with them. Cade notes that the Model UN experience seems to be particularly suited to him. He’s always been adept at writing as well as analyzing events and totally immerses himself in the country that he represents.


Cade suggests tapping into bestdelegate.com as a good source of information, tips and articles about Model UN for those interested in pursing this fascinating hobby. Other notable sources of information include BBC Country ProfilesUS State Department Background Notes and Library of Congress Country Studies.



Teens Heard, Parents Heard

Compiled by Pamela Schmidt, Bluemont and Karen Phaup, Beaverdam


Self-described author, educator, adventurer and entrepreneur Blake Boles was the keynote speaker at the 2015 VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair. Exuding a quiet, and unimposing first impression, he received resounding positive accolades from both the teen attendants and their parents. Such global enthusiasm is rare in most any venue.
Blake Boles’ mild mannered, unobtrusive attitude belies the homeschool super-hero he has become to many self-directed learners and those who are seeking validation for thinking outside the box.
Many who attended his sessions this year left more motivated than ever with a desire to share their information with others. This post is a continuation of an article published in our most recent Voice magazine titled, “Teens Heard, Parents Heard.”  The teen impressions are below, immediately followed by some parents’ favorite moments.  
For more information, please visit Blake Boles’ website






Comments below are in response to attendance at How to Talk to Anyone, a teens-only session presented by Blake Boles.


“Blake Boles was captivating because he had that perfect mix of shyness and self-confidence that made you want to listen to what he had to say. Initially, he seemed nervous about speaking to over 50 expectant-looking teens, but he soon warmed up, and had the whole room following his words, movements, and love for acronyms. The scenarios he created for examples were all thought up on the fly with suggestions from the audience, and he turned them all into learning experiences.” ~ Matthew Scherger

Matthew will be a high school senior, piecing together his education at home, the local high school, and community college, while working to bring his college plans to fruition.


“‘How to Talk to Anyone’ was informative and all together fun. Blake let us be ourselves but taught us some basic and really easy tools to use when meeting someone for the first time. It wasn’t just a session. It was a hands-on workshop where we took what he was teaching us and put it to use.” ~ Marie Mae Greenfield

Marie Mae plans on going to Danville Community College for American Sign Language and writing courses.


“I quite liked the acronyms he used to help us get a sense of what to do. He had us practice a few of the things with other people. I thought it was very organized, and his presentation was amazing. He called for volunteers, and I don’t know about everyone else, but he got me to feel involved, like he was talking with us as well as at us. I would definitely like to see this session again next year; I think anyone could benefit from it.” ~ Katie Nuwayser

Katie is a high school junior and divides her her focus between independent studies and community college classes with an ultimate goal of being a fiction writer. She currently hones her craft writing several online fan fiction series and stories. She has been homeschooled since the second grade.



“The main thoughts for his sessions I have are less about the material, and more on his presentation. Blake did an excellent job with group management. He did not demand respect from the teens, but earned it. [He] never had to raise his voice once, which was very impressive. One thing that made the teen session stand out more to me, was that it was a workshop instead of a presentation. It was engaging for everyone and he made it educational and entertaining.”  ~ Tyler Phaup

Tyler, a homeschool graduate,  is directing his own higher education through online learning and seeking out community mentorships by working several jobs. This Spring his focus has been working as Staff and Development Manager for Challenge Discovery, the ropes course at The University of Richmond, teaching STEM classes at Engineering for Kids, and operating his own business On Target Archery.



“He took all of the random and sometimes silly suggestions seriously (pet dog being cyber-bullied) and played along. I always appreciate when adults understand that sometimes (frequently) teenagers fidget and talk, and they don’t call the teens out, but continue to speak —intentionally not commenting on the interruptions. I think it commands a level of respect without having to yell at their students or get angry about interruptions. I thought that this presentation was easy to understand and helpful, with easy to accomplish tasks and requirements.” ~ Grey Gondella

Grey will be spending her second semester of college in Thailand this fall, living and working with survivors of sex trafficking while earning credits through Portland State University and Carpe Diem Education.


“Blake taught me how to introduce myself and carry on conversations in a way that is friendly, professional, and easy. I’ve never been good with eye contact or carrying on light conversation, but Blake’s session has stuck with me surprisingly well. I even got a chance to use it at the conference!” ~ Kaila Nathaniel

Kaila Nathaniel has been accepted to multiple colleges, and will be attending Virginia Tech in the fall. Her current plan is to major in physics.


 “I learned what posture actually does. I had always thought that it was more about presenting an appearance but learned that it is also about being able to breathe and not run out of breath while talking.” ~ Jason Elms

Jason plans to spend a year at the Northern Virginia Community College after graduating this year, then pursue a liberal-arts degree, most likely in history.


parents (1)


“Blake Bole’s energy is infectious. What a role model! Enthusiastic, empowering and filled with entrepreneurial spirit. If you have the will you have the way to self-educate at any level.”

Krystal D. McDonald, Chairman 2015 VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair



“My favorite part of his keynote was the concept of the Cage and the Key, something Blake learned as a teen while attending Deer Crossing Camp during the summer. This centered around attitude and as he said “It’s the self-directed learner’s most precious resource.” So for every cage, it’s important to find a key. I could so relate to that and I see how Tyler’s thinking already works in that way, whereas Ryan is more likely to give up if things get tough. So, I will be assisting Ryan to apply this technique in the future. Blake had a slide which displayed the cages and keys. Cages were thinking or saying “I can’t”, “I should”, “I don’t know”, “I wish”, “I hate” and “I have to”. Each of these short phrases have a corresponding key: So for the cage “I can’t”, the key is “I could if I”, for “I should”, the key is “I choose to”, the key for “I don’t know” is “I’ll find out”, if you’re trapped in the “I wish” cage, find the “I’ll make a plan” key, unlocking the cage “I hate” with the key “I prefer”, and instead of “I have to”, use the key “I get to”.”

“All of Blake’s sessions were inspirational for me, but what I considered to be most powerful wasn’t what was taking place up on the stage, but rather when Blake was among the conference attendees. His interactions with various teens came from a place of genuine interest and compassion. If he were talking with a teen, it didn’t matter what the noise level or how many other people were standing nearby in discussion, his attention was solely focused on that one person to which he was engaged in conversation. He was so respectful and I think the teens sensed his interest in what they had to say. He made it look so easy to establish a rapport with them.”

“Self-directed learning isn’t accomplished in a vacuum; it’s not a solo endeavor. By bringing Blake to our conference, it increased awareness for this alternative higher education option. But more importantly, in my mind, it allowed for our little VaHomeschoolers community to become closer and more supportive of each other as some of our young adults and teens begin to explore this as a viable option. It sparked an interest, lit a fire for some. For those already exposed to this concept, it provided reassurance and encouragement to continue down this path.”

“Another observation: Blake met the kids where they were. He accepted what they contributed unconditionally and I think that’s what created the atmosphere for sharing ideas, creating an open environment for learning, and a desire to pose questions to themselves and each other in order to expand on the possibilities for their futures.”

Karen Phaup, Beaverdam


“I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of Blake Boles before we lost Peter Gray as our keynote speaker. I have been reading Peter Gray’s articles for years and I was excited to hear him speak. When I heard the bad news that he couldn’t make it to the conference after all, I didn’t know I was in for a treat! It turns out Blake Boles is an unschooler and he focuses on teens and young adults. My kids, 13, 11 and 8 have always unschooled, so this was perfect timing for me. As my 13 year old daughter Rhiannon said, Blake Boles reinforces ideas we have, which is reassuring, as well as gives us new great ones. She attended his teens only session, which I thought was a wonderful opportunity for them. He seems to have a gift for talking to kids.

The keynote address, The Art of Self-Directed Learning, was reassuring, encouraging, exciting, and inspiring. I like how Blake said the parent role with our self-directed children is to say, “Let me show you your options.” That way we guide them rather than impose on them. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, tyranny for the good of the victims is the most oppressive. I laughed at the acronym he taught us, LMGTFY, meaning “let me google that for you.” I keep reading articles lately about how out of date school is in modern life, attempting to force-feed information when we’re already swimming in it and carry devices with which we can find answers to anything spontaneously. I think that goes for school-at-home as well. I was inspired by his stories of what self-directed learners have done, though I was so immersed in the talk I didn’t take good notes and can’t repeat the specifics.

Psychology of Self-Motivation was a little less exciting — more academic — than Blake’s keynote, but it was an interesting sort of visit to my past self. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, so I’m familiar with Maslow’s triangle and the basics of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But he applied it to our self-directed learning lives and it made so much sense. And again, I stopped taking notes when he mentioned that his slides would be available for download on his website, and I just listened.

Anyway, the session I was most eager to attend was the last, Better Than College. I already had been looking into alternatives. For one thing, as he very neatly detailed in his example of what else you could do with $20,000 for 9 months instead of spend a semester in college (including traveling, hosting an online portfolio of projects in your field of interest, and investing in a mutual fund that will bring you ahead of the game instead of leave you in debt afterwards) college costs have grown faster than anything else and so many graduates are in debt. Alternatives to college also make a lot of sense when you’ve already been unschooling all your lives as my kids have. It was interesting that he listed several occupations that do still need college educations (doctor, lawyer, academic) but suggests several poor reasons to make the choice as well: because it’s expected of you, you think it’s the only path, you want to get away from home.

But most practical, he provided us with a strategy. I think this inspired my daughter, who looked more awake during this session than she had all day. (It’s hard to perform at the talent show, sleep at home an hour away, and make it back to the conference at 8 a.m.!) And I said “us” because it’s not just young adults starting out who need to do this, but also anyone, like me, who is looking to start a new career after, for example, being a stay-at-home-mom for over a decade. The strategy steps are 1) give yourself assignments, 2) create value, 3) find support, and 4) create accountability. I do have a somewhat hard-to-read two pages of scribbled notes on all of this. And I’ve ordered his book.

This is different than what we grew up with in school, which is why it’s a little hard to trust the process, but self-directed learners are accomplishing innovative, creative, awesome things nowadays, and that’s important in our world today. I’m so excited to see the future.”

Michele Kendzie, Fredericksburg




Those Pesky Evidence of Progress Myths that Won’t Die

5084893671_8a625b9bcc_oAs the end of the school year draws closer, there is a lot of talk on local homeschool email lists and Facebook groups about the end of the year “evidence of progress” requirement (due August 1st). Inevitably, certain “myths” surrounding the process wind up making an appearance during these discussions.

Understanding what is and is not required by the law is one of the most important things that new (and old!) homeschoolers can do to empower themselves. The more that you are familiar with the law, the more comfortable you will feel, knowing that you have provided what is required.

VaHomeschoolers makes it extremely easy to become familiar with the law, providing not only explanations of the requirements, but also direct links so that you can read the law yourself. Our Comprehensive Guide to Homeschooling in Virginia is your one stop shop for any questions you might have.

And now for those myths…

Myth #1: You Don’t Need To Test for Kindergarten

Truth: Evidence of progress is based on age, not grade. You must provide evidence of progress for any child who has reached their 6th birthday as of September 30th at the beginning of the school year. This is an important distinction as you can “opt out” your child when he is 5 and then start him in Kindergarten when he is 6 which would mean that, in this scenario, you would be required to provide evidence of progress for Kindergarten.
Learn More: Kindergarten Options 


Myth #2: You Are Only Required by Law to Test for Math and Language Arts

Truth: There is nothing in the homeschool statute that specifies what subjects must be covered. Some nationally-normed achievement tests cover only math and language arts, while others include additional subjects. Parents may choose the test that is best for their child, as long as it is a nationally-normed achievement test.
Learn More: Evidence of Progress: Testing


Myth #3: You Need to Submit Test Scores to Advance Your Child to the Next Grade

Truth: Evidence of progress is required to comply with the requirements of the home instruction statute each year. The level at which you teach your child and how you teach your child is up to you. You do not need permission or approval to teach your child at the level you feel is appropriate.
Learn More: Evidence of Progress 


Myth #4: You Don’t Need to Test if You Start Homeschooling Late in the Year

Truth: You may begin homeschooling at any point during the school year. Virginia law requires you to file an NOI and submit testing or evaluation results, even if you only provide home instruction for a few days of the school year. You must test or evaluate, even if your child has already taken the SOL examinations (which are used to evaluate the effectiveness of the school).
Learn More: Beginning Homeschooling Mid-Year


Myth #5:  Testing is the only way to meet evidence of progress.

Truth: Homeschoolers don’t have to use testing at all. Parents can choose to use an evaluator who can write a letter about your child’s progress, or you can use grade reports from distance learning schools, correspondence schools or colleges.
Learn More: Evidence of Progress – Evaluation or Assessment


Did you know that VaHomeschoolers is run by volunteers? If you found this information useful, consider helping out by letting others know about it – forward this link to your email lists and Facebook groups or tell your friends about us! Or better yet, get involved! Check out our Help Wanted page for more information.



Elemental Fun with the Sassafras Twins

A Sassafras Science Adventure Series Review
by Krystal McDonald 

elemental science


My now 9 year old son and I discovered Paige Hudson’s and Johnny Congo’s “Sassafras Science Adventures” series last year at the VaHomeschoolers Conference. Hudson had a booth featuring her curriculum and Sassafras Science Adventure Books.

What a great find!  My son loves to hear about the Sassafras Twins Adventures.  This growing set of stories centers on a twin brother-sister pair, Blaine and Tracey, as they travel the globe using their Uncle Cecil’s invisible zip lines while they are simultaneously introduced to various areas of science.  The first Adventure is Zoology.  We started with this installment last summer for leisure family reading and as a great way to emphasize many of the things we learned in an unrelated biomes class we had already completed.  My son was hooked within the first chapter.  Every day he begged me to read more so he could see where the zip lines would next transport the twins and to learn about the new animals they would encounter.

Diego, my son, told everyone about the series. When prompted to give a review, he proudly stepped into the role of Sassafras advocate and emulated his best critic voice, “It is fun to read the book and write down facts you learn. Everything you do is based on a story line.  You get to study different subjects.  The only thing I don’t like much is the writing but that is because I don’t like to write.”

This past fall, we decided to make anatomy the focus of our at home science.  We decided to purchase the entire set: the book, logbook, activity guide and science kit for a quick and easy science curriculum.  We have enjoyed the continued travel around the globe and how Paige and Johnny have been able to weave anatomy into the story line. My son has been able to review anatomy, geography, writing and reading practice all through this curriculum.

But the fun isn’t over yet.  Up next for us: Botany!


Don’t miss Paige Hudson’s sessions at this year’s VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair

    • S1.5     Confessions of a Classical Educator in Science
    • S2.5     Inspiring Your Student to Love Science Through Living Books


 Click here to register: 



  2015 VaHomeschoolers Conference & Resource Fair





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