Wednesday, August 27, 2014

DIY Modifiable Canvas: When You Don't Want to Commit to Just One Design

Today, I'm over at Busy Being Jennifer talking about how to refresh a boring art piece without completely covering the original design.

I take a piece of art from this:


to this!


Find out how I did it at Jennifer's site! 

I'm going to start contributing there once a month, so look out for more crafty posts soon!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Healthy Snack Ideas: Super Simple Apple Chips Recipe


September, for me, is apple time. In Texas, there isn’t much to distinguish September from August, except perhaps a bit more rain and a temperature drop of about 5 degrees. But dropping from 103 to 98 degrees hardly feels like fall weather, which is why I feel a bit silly doing fall leaf crafts and decorating my house with pumpkins in September.

Thankfully, there are apples. Apples are the perfect transition from summer to fall. My girls love apples, and usually, when I buy five pounds of apples, they are gone in about two days. Josh sometimes purchases apple chips from the store for a healthier snack, but at around $3 for a mini-bag, that isn’t really something I want to buy on a regular basis.

So, why not try to make our own? The process of making apple chips is rather simple, and they make an easy, delicious, and healthy snack! Basically, making apple chips involves dehydrating the apples and allowing them to cook at a low temperature until they crisp up. Here is how we made our apple chips:

Homemade Apple Chips Recipe 

 Ingredients: 

 Apples (1 apple makes about one cookie sheet full)
Cinnamon
Aluminum foil
Baking sheet
Apple corer (optional, find one here)
Mandoline cutter (optional, find one here)
Sugar (optional)

Steps:

Line your baking sheet with foil to keep the apples from sticking to the sheet. If you don’t want any core pieces in your apple chips, use an apple corer to remove the center. Thicker apple slices have trouble getting crispy in the oven.

Line the apples in a single layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle them with cinnamon, or cinnamon and sugar.
Here Monkey is sprinkling on the cinnamon. 
Put the apples in the oven at 200 degrees. The cooking time will vary based on how thick your apples are. In general, the apples will need to cook for at least 3 hours. You may need to leave them in there for up to 5 hours. Flip the apples over about half-way through the cooking time. We left our knife-sliced, slightly thick apples cook for 4 hours and they came out great.

When the apples are dried and wavy, turn off the oven and allow the apples to cool in the oven for 1 to 2 hours. This will give them a crispier texture.

The process of making apple chips is an all-day process, but it is well worth the effort when you have a delicious, healthy snack!

Variations: 
Try using different spices on the apples, like clove, nutmeg, or chili powder for an interesting kick. Drizzling the apples with chocolate, caramel, or honey before baking will also give them a slightly different flavor. Experiment and find your favorite combo!

 Bringing It to School 

I like to make each experience cooking with Monkey as educational as possible. When we were making these apples, I had her guess at what we needed to do to get them to turn out right. At first, she said cook them at a high temperature for a short time (I guess she thought it would work like toast), so then we talked about how dehydration works. I also had her guess whether the apples should be cut thin or thick. It wasn’t an incredibly involved lesson, but any excuse to put critical thinking skills to work is an opportunity I’m going to take!

What is your favorite way to prepare apples?

More Cooking fun on Schooling a Monkey

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

12 School Room Organization Ideas


Our house is small, so we don’t have a dedicated school room. Usually, Monkey drifts between sofa, coffee table, and kitchen table to do her various subjects.

We have some dedicated storage to school books (like our school cubby), and we keep all school/craft supplies in a closet in my home office.

This year, we have to get extra creative because a friend of the family is coming to stay with us a while, so his stuff will have to be stored in our normal school storage areas.

I started the school room organization project today, and right now, this is what it looks like. 
Don't be fooled, it looks much worse in the closet. And this is after I organized it in the spring. 

In case you are in the midst of a re-organizing project as well, here are some helpful tips I’ve found along the way:

Making Use of What You Have

I don’t like to spend a lot on projects, and right now, we have an even smaller decorating budget than normal. That is why I’m getting creative and using as much stuff from around the house as I can for school room decorating.

Declutter (And repeat. And repeat again)

The first step is to eliminate all but the essentials. We have quite a bit of stuff that doesn’t have to be stored in that room, so I’m going to move it elsewhere. I’m also going to ditch anything that I know we won’t be using.

Know What to Store

It doesn’t really help to simply go out and buy a bunch of organizing items that you won’t know how to use. Think about what you need to store and how you want to store it before visiting any organization shops. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with storage options, but if you know what you need to store, then it becomes much easier to find the right storage items.

Shop the House for Storage

I know we’ll likely have to purchase a few storage items, but I want to use as much as I can from what we already have. Containers are easy to craft from small cardboard boxes, plastic containers, and baskets. Shelves are a little harder, but if you have a shelf that isn’t getting much use in another room, move it to where it can be used best! With a little ingenuity, you can significantly reduce how much you need to purchase.

Put it All Together

After you have your storage items, put everything away where you want it to go. One thing I’ve found that deep shelves are usually a bad idea when it comes to school supplies. It is easy to push stuff back and forget about it. Narrow shelves are ideal for showcasing what you have at a glance.

Don’t stack things on top of each other or put things in front of other supplies. This quickly leads to disorganization. Everything should be easy to get and, more importantly, easy to put back in its proper place. You don’t want to have to take out paper, pencils, sewing supplies, and play dough to get to your school books. That’s just a recipe for disaster! Trust me, I’ve done it.

DIY Decorating

Although decorating is the most fun step, don’t try to do it until you have everything organized. A lot of people choose to decorate their school room like a classroom, or with other educational resources, but I like to keep it a little less functional. :-)

Our theme will be travel, because I love how old maps and luggage looks.

You can find inspiration everywhere. One of my favorite places to look, however, is Etsy. One of the reasons I like Etsy is because most of those projects are handmade, which means they will be easier to reproduce than something you find at Crate and Barrel, for instance. Etsy shops often have creative projects that you might never have thought of, but that are quite easy to reproduce.

Of course, if you see something you absolutely love, you should buy it!

That is another one of my rules for decorating. Try to make what you can to keep things low-budget, but splurge on a few of your favorite items.

How do you know what to splurge on? I follow the rule of the 20-minute sweater.

In Gilmore Girls, the girls could not buy a piece of clothing unless they were still thinking about it 20 minutes later. I extend this rule to a 2-week period (longer for really big items). If it makes you just as happy and in-love 2 weeks later and it fits in your budget, then you can buy it.

School Room Organization Ideas

 Here are some ideas that have sparked my creativity. 

Travel Themed Office/School Room

I love the feeling of Restoration Hardware, and if we had an endless budget, all of the rooms in our house would be furnished from there. I really want to create a travel theme in our office/school room, because I think it looks awesome!

This is the kind of feeling I hope to re-create (which won't happen, but maybe I can create a semblance of it). 
Photo credit

School Room Organization 

Organization is essential in a shared space, and organizing is not my strongest suit. That is why I’m looking to organization experts for some school room ideas on how to organize.


Check out how organized and refreshing School Time Snippets school room looks!
Photo credit: School Time Snippets
My Joy Filled Life is killing it with those shelves!
Photo Via My Joy Filled Life
Check out these colorful shelves in the The Chaos and The Clutter school room!
Photo Via The Chaos and The Clutter

I love how school rooms can change over time. At first, the school room from This Reading Mama was perfect for tiny learners, but as her kids aged, she updated the room to fit current needs. I love how she uses a screen door to keep the kids from spilling the containers!
Serious Genius. Photo via This Reading Mama
Although Monkey and Bo share the same school space, if you have younger kids only, I absolutely love this preschool-themed school room from Alternative Learning.
Photo Credit: Alternative Learning
Just because your kids go to school at home doesn't mean they can't have lockers! I don't know where she found them, but Just a Night Owl uses real, legitimate lockers in her homeschool classroom
Just let that sink in. Real lockers. Can you handle the awesome? Photo via Just a Night Owl.

The Unlikely Homeschool may have my favorite storage solution yet! She hides most of her kid's school supplies in a china hutch! How amazing is that? 
Photo via The Unlikely Homeschool
So, what do you think of these organization ideas? Do you think I can transform our room? 

More Homeschooling Tips


*All photos used with permission. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Make Back to School fun for Homeschooling Families

I love the All Things with Purpose blog, so I was so excited when Sarah and Julia asked me to be a contributor for their new homeschooling site, Homeschool with Purpose!

I will be writing for them the second Monday every month, and my first post is live today!

The topic I chose was how to make make to school fun for homeschooling families.

Original photo credit.
Sometimes, back to school isn't quite as fun for our kids because they are home all day anyway. This makes it harder to figure out how to distinguish between the summer and school season- much less get kids excited about the return to hard work!

But, I've come up with 13 ideas that can make the start of school more fun for homeschool children (thanks to some awesome blogs around the web). With these ideas, it is easy to make school fun!

I'll tell you, before I wrote this post, I was feeling a little ho-hum about starting school again, but now, I am excited and ready to go!

Go check out how you can make homeschool back to school fun!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

12 Tips to Organize Homeschool Supplies in a Small Space

Original photo source.
We don’t have a lot of storage space for our homeschooling supplies. We have a simple bookshelf with a small cabinet which contains everything that Monkey uses on a regular basis and a small closet in our home office that contains everything else we use, like art supplies, pencils, extra paper, etc.

 Because we have such limited storage space, it is essential that we organize our homeschooling supplies!

I think a lot of homeschooling parents struggle with what to keep and what to get rid of year to year. If you invest a lot of time and money in something, it can be a challenge to admit it is time to let it go!

The first rule I use for deciding what to keep and what to give away uses the same process that I use for choosing new homeschooling curriculum.

Once I use that criteria, I also go through the following selection process to organize homeschool supplies in a small space:

Tips for Organizing Last Year’s Homeschool Curriculum and Books

Our whole floor  looked like this before the organizing began.
Use these tips to organize homeschool books and curriculum.

Get everything out: Lay everything you have out on a table and go through it piece by piece. This will make it easier to identify everything you have and see what is worth putting back.

Ask the following questions about each book:

Is it in good shape? I don’t want to keep beat-up supplies from year to year. Last year, Monkey or Bo spilled something on Monkey’s grammar book, so even though we didn’t finish it, it’s out!

Did we use it? I know the tendency of a homeschooling parent is to hoard supplies from year to year, but eventually, that leads to the accumulation of so much stuff that you could never use it all in three lifetimes. If you haven’t used it in two years, it is probably time to let it go.

Did student(s) like it? There are some things that I love as a parent and teacher, but for whatever reason, Monkey (and eventually Bo) doesn’t like it. It is not a good idea to continue to force a certain book on a child if they hate it. There are plenty of other ways to try to teach the same subject.

Does it meet our current educational goals? From year to year, your goals might change, which means that all of the Civil War history books you used last year will no longer be relevant. If you have a drastic topic change like this, keep only your very favorite books on the subject (one in each reading level works well) and get rid of the rest.

How long will I have to store it? This is a big one for me. Monkey was in 1st grade when Bo was born. There is a space of 6 grade levels between them. I don’t really have the space to store 6 years worth of stuff to wait for Bo to grow into it. Additionally, Bo may have a completely different learning style from Monkey. If you have to store curriculum for more than 2 years, it might be best to sell and re-buy later.

What is the item’s value? We have a few valuable books given to us by my Mother-in-law. These books we will not get rid of. Books with sentimental value you may also want to hang onto. The best solution for this kind of book is to store it in a safe location away from everyday books when not in use. 

Assign everyone a space: Each child should have their own shelf or location for all their school books. When I was a child, we varied between plastic tubs, school caddies, or our own personal shelf. Monkey has two cloth cubbies (some people call them cloth cubes) to store her books. This prevents books from getting lost and mixed up.

Tips for Organizing Last Year’s Homeschooling Projects

Use these tips for organizing homeschool projects.
When organized, Monkey's cubby looks like this. 

Full disclosure, I don’t have a lot of sentimental value that I attach to school projects. We also live in Texas, where you don’t have to keep record of progress from year to year. If you live in a state that requires proof of education, always follow the legal guidelines for your state!

Pick one project from each subject: I like to choose a highlight project from each subject. I pick the best science project, the best art drawing, the best math test, etc and put that in a folder to save.

Pick representations of progress:  You may choose to highlight projects that show the progress of each student. For example, I tend to save the art projects of Monkey at Bo when they start doing something new. I saved Monkey’s first drawing, one where she drew people, one where she filled in the entire page, etc. I also save things like books that they put together and anything else that shows a big change in skill level.

Photograph projects: Another way to save projects from year to year without having to actually fill up the attic with boxes is to take pictures of the best and place them in an album. I love how you can make a photo book from anything. Most sites offer coupons every few months so keep an eye out for those.

Tips for Organizing Last Year’s Homeschooling Supplies

Use these tips to organize homeschool supplies:

Ditch broken supplies: I hate keeping around broken pencils, markers that are out of ink, dried out play dough, and other damaged supplies. If it is damaged in any way, throw it out!

Ditch duplicates: Keep enough supplies so that every child has one of everything. You don’t need 300 of those paintbrushes that come with watercolor paints. Get rid of all the extras. You may be surprised at how much space you can create just by doing this. 

Clean up: At the end of every year, it seems like we are all out of pencils and other supplies, but usually, a good portion of them are simply lurking in other areas of the house. A general de-cluttering will reveal all kinds of supplies lying around. Before purchasing new supplies, “shop the house” first.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Overwhelmed by Curriculum Choices? 10 Things to Look for While Choosing Homeschooling Curriculum

Original photo source.
Since we've been talking a lot lately about picking homeschool curriculum for the upcoming year, today, I will share with you my method for choosing curriculum.

I like to know as much as possible about a curriculum beforehand because I have a highly specific idea of what I want.

Here are the steps I use to choose homeschooling curriculum and what to look for in a homeschool curriculum:

Step 1: Is It the Right Subject?

I've discussed how I don't always have my kids complete a full set of curriculum each year in the past, so if I know we're not going to be studying history that year, then I won't even look at history books. This saves a lot of time.

Step 2: Does It Cover What I Need?

I base what I want my children to study for the upcoming year based on last year's progress. For example, last year, Monkey struggled with money, so I know that this year, I want her to focus a lot on learning about money in math. This means that whatever curriculum I buy needs to focus on money- or if it doesn't then I will need a supplemental money book to use with her.

Step 3: Does It Fit Our Learning Style?

There are 101 ways to homeschool and many different program styles. Monkey gets overwhelmed with huge blocks of text or a page full of small math problems, so I know to avoid anything like that for her. Some kids prefer hands-on stuff, while others would prefer to fill out worksheets. Choose something based on the learning style of your children. Build your own bundle packages are great for creating a customized curriculum that matches a specific learning style.

Step 4: Will We Use It?

There are so many amazing books and programs out there for homeschooling, but it does nothing for us if we buy it and never use it. I know that I need a curriculum that doesn't require a lot of outside planning (we loved the Five In a Row series, but the planning was too time consuming, so we were forced to abandon it) and also is highly adaptable. This is one reason why we tend to avoid boxed curriculum like Sonlight.

As much as I love unit studies, they just don't work with our family structure right now, so we rarely purchase unit study sets.
Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition Sale - Up to 92% Off!

Step 5: Does It Provide Value?

I always look for curriculum that will expand and educate before all else. I will avoid anything written in an extremely simple style or that doesn't push the children to go beyond their current way of thinking to consider new thoughts and ideas. I avoid curriculum that over-simplifies concepts. I find a lot of science and history books fall into the too-simple category, so we avoid those.

Step 6: Does It Fit Our Religious/Moral Ideals?

A lot of homeschooling curriculum is written with a religious prospective, which is great if you believe exactly what the writers do, but with so many different varying theologies, it can become a little annoying to purchase a book that tells your child something you don't believe, or believe in a different way. Bible, character studies, and science are usually the big ones for providing alternative religious views, so I always check these carefully before purchase so I don't end up having to skip large chunks. If you are not religious at all, then you would want to avoid curriculum with a heavy religious focus.

Step 7: Is It Well-Written/ Professional?

There is a lot of curriculum out there that is amazing. There is also a lot out there that is terrible. I avoid curriculum that is poorly written, looks like it was thrown together, or has extremely ugly drawings. I also tend to avoid the plastic tab binding or anything in three-ring binders, but that is just a personal preference.

Step 8: Is It Boring?

Nothing is worse than trying to learn something through a boring textbook. When I was in high school, I had the most boring science textbooks, which is why I always thought I hated science. But when I grew up and started to study it on my own, I realized that I actually love science. If I had a less boring science book as a young person, I might have chosen a different degree in college or entered a different career field.

I believe every subject can be made to feel interesting for children. I believe it is especially important for science, computer, and writing subjects to feel fun, as those are essential subjects for all children.

Step 9: What is the Cost?

I tend to be a low-budget homeschooler right now, partially because we don't have tons of money to spend on school, but also partially because I don't believe each subject needs to cost $300. I have yet to see a curriculum that I believed was worth more than $80 or so per subject. Is some expensive curriculum worth it? I'm sure for some people and some subjects, yes (particularly as the children age), but for the lower grades, I don't see a need to spend so much. But again, this is a personal preference. I would advise anyone to set a budget and stick to it.

If you are looking for ways to save even more, check out my post on 11 resources for inexpensive homeschooling curriculum.

Step 10: Can It Be Used Again?

Homeschooling families usually have at least 2 children learning some of the same material together or in the future. I like the bundles built for family use and multiple children. Many curriculum brands make it easy to use with multiple children, either by offering additional child packs or providing tools to use the same core material for a variety of grades. I tend to choose this style of curriculum above the others.

What criteria do you use for choosing homeschooling curriculum? 

More Curriculum Resources


Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition Sale - Up to 92% Off!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Homeschool Curriculum Subjects for K-3: A Relaxed Approach Inspired by the Finnish School System


This month, I’m starting to put together my curriculum list for Monkey’s 3rd grade year. One of the things I love most about homeschooling is the flexibility that the parent has to choose subjects that the student loves and needs rather than always having to stick to strict curriculum chosen by the state.

Of course, there are some states where homeschooling families have to stick to an incredibly strict school curriculum (high involvement states), and some states require specific subjects be taught each year. I’ve heard of some states requiring music and art lessons, and Texas requires a “course in good citizenship,” which I am not sure if anyone actually knows what that means.

I am not advising anyone to ignore state regulations. Always follow the legal requirements for your state. But if you happen to live in a state wither fewer restrictions, you may find you like the looks of our modified subject list.
Original photo source.

Public School Curriculum Subjects for K-3

Most states offer the same basic subjects in public schools, with a few states and schools adding or subtracting subjects as determined by the school board. The most common subjects for K-3 include:

Kindergarten

  • Reading
  • History
  • Science
  • Writing
  • Math
  •  Art
  • Spelling

1st Grade

  • Geography
  • Social studies
  • Reading
  • History
  • Science
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Art
  • Spelling
  • Computer and typing

2nd Grade

  • Geography
  • Social studies
  • Reading
  • History
  • Science
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Language arts/grammar
  • Spelling
  • Art

3rd Grade

  • Geography
  • Spelling
  • Computer and typing
  • Social studies
  • Reading
  • History
  • Science
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Language arts/grammar
  • Electives including music, art, engineering, computer, and logic
I feel there is no problem in being flexible with the early grades since children have many, many chances to catch up along the way as they grow. 

I use the Finnish philosophy of education, which states that strict formal education is not required until the age of 7 (and by the age of 15, most Finnish kids out-perform other countries in academics). That leaves plenty of time for a child to develop socially, learn through playtime, and develop independence before really diving into academic pursuits.

Monkey has followed a more traditional American schedule and went through preschool, kindergarten, and first grade at the normal ages. But as far as Bo goes, I think I will be a lot more relaxed about her early schooling.
Original photo source.

Homeschool Curriculum Subjects for K-3: A Relaxed Approach

For the early grades, I believe the most important subjects are reading, writing, and math. Reading and writing are necessary for communication and independent learning. Math simply has a lot to it, and I think the more practice a child has in math the better.

For the other subjects, I have added two or so a year to really focus on then we sort of study the other subjects as they come up in conversation. This sort of eclectic style works well for us.

Here is my modified subject structure for K-3 for homeschooling families:

Kindergarten

  • Social skills
  • Independent tasks (tying a shoe, buttoning buttons, pouring a drink, etc)
  • Math
  • Letter sounds
  • Letter writing
  • Art

1st Grade

  • Math
  • Beginning reading
  • Short sentence writing
  • One focused subject like science, geography, history, or something else that interests the child
  • One fun elective like art, engineering, music, etc

2nd Grade

  • Math
  • Independent reading and supported reading
  • Spelling
  • Beginning grammar
  • Paragraph writing
  • Computer
  • One or two focused subjects like history, science, social studies, etc
  • One or two fun electives like art, music, cooking, foreign language, etc

3rd Grade

  • Math
  • Independent reading and read-aloud reading (child read)
  • Grammar
  • Short paper writing
  • Spelling
  • Computer
  • Two focused subjects
  • Two fun electives
Save 80% on K-3 Homeschooling Curriculum at the Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition Sale!

As you can see, each year, I add a bit more academics. I think it’s easier to sort of work them in slowly like that rather than overwhelm a 5 year-old with 8 subjects at once. In a few years, Monkey will be right along with traditionally-schooled children in terms of subject numbers. 

Starting slowly with fewer subjects also relieves some of the pressure off homeschooling moms who may get overwhelmed in those early years.

In addition to the focused subjects, I also believe in active learning everywhere. When Monkey asks about something, we try to learn about it in the moment. We spent a good deal of time this summer learning about clouds and weather since our summer has been so rainy this year. At the grocery store, I try to help her calculate how much something will cost or how many dimes or quarters she might need to pay for an item.

So, even though our formal school hours rarely extend beyond 3 hours a day, Monkey continues to learn throughout the day with whatever is piquing her interest at the time or whatever we are involved with at the time.

Because we follow such an unusual schooling structure, I find it difficult to find packaged curriculum that works for us. That is why I am excited to find build-your-own bundle curriculum that can be individualized to suit our needs.

Do you follow the traditional subject structure or are you more eclectic like we are? 

More Curriculum Resources


Want to win $100 toward curriculum? Enter the Build a Bundle Giveaway! (ends July 20)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

11 Excellent Places to Find Homeschool Curriculum for Less


It's no secret that homeschooling curriculum can get expensive. Some programs cost over $1000 per child. I certainly don't have that much money to spend on curriculum each year, and I bet many of you don't either.

Luckily, there are many great places to find homeschooling curriculum for less (it helps if you decide what you are looking for first). My favorite 11 inexpensive homeschool curriculum resources are below:

Used Bookfairs

When I was a child, we always went to the used book fair that our local homeschool group put on each year. Usually, the sale was in May, but some groups may have a summer sale. I have yet to go to any sales in Dallas, but I bet with so many homeschoolers around there would be some amazing choices! I really like these fairs because you can evaluate what you are getting before purchase. I dislike selecting curriculum based on the description alone.

Timberdoodle

Timberdoodle doesn't have as big sales as some of the other companies and resources on this list, but I love them anyway. Timberdoodle always tests all of the products that they sell before listing them on the site, and I feel like their overviews are more helpful and informative than most. Their bundle packages are also helpful for discovering what your child might need in his or her current grade.

Christian Book

Last year, I bought most of our stuff from ChristianBook when they were having a summer curriculum sale. Most of their new books average about 30 percent off retail, and you can get an even bigger discount on certain items and during sale time. Sign up for their newsletter or visit the site frequently for the best deals.

Build Your Bundle Sale

The Build Your Bundle Sale is new to me this year. From July 21-28, you can choose to select a pre-built bundle based on the age of children that you have (or one just for mom!) or you can choose to build your own bundle. Some items are up to 90% off retail value, and none are less than 60% off retail value! I'm going to be using this service to select some of Monkey's stuff for the year.

Secondhand Book Stores

You can't find a whole lot of "official" curriculum at a secondhand book store, but you can find a wealth of information on almost every topic. The last time Monkey and I visited a secondhand book shop, she picked out a fun cooking book and a book about deserts. These books are just as good for education as any official textbook! I also love secondhand books for finding affordable books to purchase.

Discount School Supply

Discount School Supply is a great place to find manipulates, activities, and other hands-on learning supplies for a bit less than you will find them priced elsewhere. It's similar to items you might find at a standard teacher store, just for a little lest! They are running a Back to School sale right now (and until September!) where you can get an additional 10% off your stock order with code BTS14.
This is how we read our books.

The Local Library

Rarely do you study a topic long enough to necessarily need to purchase a book about it. Our library allows renewals on books that have not been reserved, which means we can keep some books for an entire semester or year. The library offers so many books and learning tools for free, that you almost don't need to purchase any curriculum at all! The nicest thing about the modern library is that you can reserve what you want in advance and just pick it up in 20 seconds! No need to take an entire day to pick up the library books (although visiting the library was one of my favorite activities as a child).

eBay


eBay can be hit or miss, but it can be a wonderful resource for finding curriculum to fill in gaps from something used you purchased elsewhere. I also like to use eBay to find out-of-print curriculum and books. Watch out for high shipping charges on eBay when shopping for books.

Homeschool Buyers Co-Op

The Homeschool Buyers Co-Op is an online co-op where over 100,000 homeschooling families have connected to share curriculum with one another. With so many members, you can be sure to find what you are looking for at a great price! This is also a great place to sell items you no longer need or use.

Homeschool Classifieds

Homeschool Classifieds is sort of the Craigslist for the homeschooling community. There are usually over 30,000 curriculum listings at a time and it is easy to sell or buy directly from the site. It may not be the prettiest site around, but it gets the job done.

Rainbow Resource

Rainbow Resource is another excellent site for the purchase of discounted new curriculum. Last year, if we didn't buy it from Christian Books, we bought it from Rainbow Resource. The Rainbow Resource booth is always one of the most popular at the Arlington Homeschool Convention and Book Fair.

Where are your favorite places to buy curriculum for less? 

Monday, June 30, 2014

American Flag Surprise Cake Recipe with German Buttercream Frosting

This post contains affiliate links that may provide income that is used to help support this site. Thanks!

A trend I have seen a lot of recently is creating surprise cakes where the cake makes a fun shape when it is cut. Since the 4th of July is coming up, Monkey and I decided to make our own version of the American flag surprise cake. The actual cake shaping itself is simple, but if you make your cake from scratch, expect to spend a full day or 2 half days making it. But the results are well worth it. This cake and icing recipe are so delicious!

This cake uses a lot of rich ingredients, so you will only need to eat a little bit to feel full. This would be the perfect cake to serve at a large 4th of July gathering with 20-30 people!

American Flag Cake Recipe


I wanted to make this cake completely from scratch, so I used a modified version of the best white cake ever recipe from Add a Pinch. The only modifications I made were to completely eliminate the shortening, because I don’t believe in it. I used all butter. I also ended up using some powdered sugar instead of granulated because we ran out.

For the American flag cake, I doubled the base recipe.

If you plan to make this recipe, you will need:
  • Whole milk
  • 10 eggs
  • Buttermilk (we used Bulgarian full fat buttermilk and it was amazing)
  • 6 sticks of butter (or 48 ounces if your butter does not come in standard stick sizes. We usually buy Kerrygold which comes in 16 ounce sticks)
  • 6 cups of sugar
  • Paste food coloring in blue and red
  • Parchment paper
After mixing up your batter, you will divide the batter like this:

6 cups of batter in one bowl, dyed red.

4 cups of batter in one bowl, kept white.

4 cups of batter in one bowl, dyed blue.

We tried using vegetable dyes at first, to make this cake healthier, but the dye was not strong enough for such a large batch of batter. We found that using paste food coloring worked best.

Cut out parchment paper circles to line the bottom of the cake pans. This helps prevent the cake from sticking to the pan. When creating thin layers, parchment paper helps to keep them intact when handling them so much.

You will make the layers like this:

3 red layers using 2 cups of batter per layer.

2 white layers using 2 cups of batter per layer.

1 blue layer using all 4 cups of batter.

Cook the thin layers for about 20 minutes each at 350 and the thick blue layer for about 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees. Allow the cake to cool completely before removing from the pans. Stack the layers onto a freezer-safe plate using foil or parchment paper to separate the layers. Freeze the cake at least 2 hours before trying to cut the cake as outlined below. While the cakes freeze, you can make the German buttercream.

German Buttercream Recipe (with American imperial measurements)

I do not like typical frosting. I dislike the incredible sweetness and the vague powdered sugar taste. I’ve discovered that I love the texture and taste of German buttercream frosting. The only problem is, all the recipes I’ve found come with metric ingredients listed in grams and ounces. If you have a scale, this isn’t a problem, but I only have standard imperial measuring tools. Lucky for you, I’ve modified this amazing recipe for German buttercream frosting from Brave Tart for you so you can make it in America.

German Buttercream Ingredients with Imperial Measurements

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla
  • 1 ½ cups of sugar
  • 2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons of cornstarch (I’ve tried it with cornstarch and flour, and cornstarch is better if you have no allergies. The flour version leaves a slight flour taste in the custard. If you do use flour, use 3 tablespoons.)
  • 4 sticks of butter (if your butter is rich, you may be able to get away with 3 sticks). I’ve tried it both with unsalted and salted butter, and I am not sure which I prefer. The unsalted version is a little flatter in taste, but salted butter makes it taste more like butter. If you use salted butter, skip adding salt.
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt
Use a double boiler to heat the milk until it is simmering. Add the vanilla.

While the milk is heating, mix the rest of the ingredients except for the butter. Set the butter on the counter to cool to room temperature.

When the milk is hot, mix half of the milk into the egg mixture, then pour the egg mixture into the pan. Cook until the mixture thickens and starts to pop. It will have an oatmeal-like consistency. Cook for about 3 minutes after this point to remove the flour or cornstarch flavor. Stir constantly!

After the custard is thickened, remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. You can speed up the process by sticking it in the refrigerator or freezer for 30 minutes or so. Do not continue if the custard is hot or you will melt the butter. If you do melt the butter, the frosting is not ruined. You can just cool it down for 20-30 minutes in the refrigerator to harden the butter slightly.

Add the butter to the cooled custard mixture one small chunk at a time. Mix with an electric mixer until the consistency is thick and frosting-like. It will look closer to the texture of whipped mashed potatoes, rather than the glossy and somewhat pudding-like texture of store-bought frostings.

Assembling the American Flag Cake

Remove the frozen cake from the freezer. Make sure the red and white cakes are stacked in this order from bottom to top: Red, white, red, white, red.

Cut a 6-inch circle from paper or cardstock. You may need to alter the size of the circle slightly to get the correct proportions on your flag. I think our circle may have ended up around the 5 ½ inch size for a 9-inch cake.


Place the circle in the center of the blue cake and cut out the center using a sharp knife. Carefully pop out the center piece without breaking the outside layer. You may have to flip the cake over and cut from the back to make the cake easier to pop out.

Repeat the cutting process with one white and one red layer. This time, save the center pieces rather than the edge of the cake.

Place the red layer and the white layer inside the blue circle, with the white layer on the bottom and the red layer on the top. Try to get the two interior layers to the same height as the blue layer. I ended up having to trim some of our white cake layer to make it the correct height.
This was before I trimmed the hidden white layer to make the
red circle lay flat with the top of the blue layer.


Place the full red cake layer onto your serving plate. Spread a thin layer of frosting, then add the white layer. Repeat for the other red layer and then add the blue layer with the red and white center to the top.

Spread a thin layer frosting onto the cake to seal the crumbs in with a crumb coat. Add a thicker top layer to make it look pretty. German buttercream spreads beautifully and if you want to pipe it, it holds its shape pretty well, as long as the butter doesn’t get warm.

Decorate as desired, then cut into the cake and reveal your amazing flag!

Monkey wanted to decorate the top like a flag, so we used red and blue sugar to sprinkle on a flag design and added white edible pearls to make the stars on the flag. I also used the same cake bunting I used for Bo’s circus birthday cake to decorate the sides of the cake.

Simplified Version of the American Flag Surprise Cake

If you don’t want to go through all the trouble of making a from-scratch cake, you can use boxed cake and frosting. You will need 2 box cakes and 2 tubs of frosting. Follow the dyeing and assembly instructions outlined above.

Final Thoughts

This is probably the best white cake I have ever eaten. It is so good! However, it still has a white cake taste, which can get a little boring after a while. I think when I make it again, instead of using a vanilla frosting, I will add a little more flavor in the frosting, or use a combination of frosting and filling between the cake layers to add more dimension to the cake flavors. 

A Word on Buttercream Icing
If you refrigerate this icing, either before putting it on the cake or after, it will be hard. You will want to allow the icing to come to room temperature before serving. This will also prevent the cake from being hard. 

If you make this cake or German buttercream frosting, share your results with us on the Schooling a Monkey Facebook page or in the comments below! We would love to see them!

Friday, June 27, 2014

3 Completely Free Summer Art Programs in Dallas (and another $100 cash giveaway!)


Summer is definitely in full swing! We've had a lot of fun celebrating summer. This year has been amazing because it has yet to reach over 100 degrees, or even much over 95 degrees, which is so unusual for Texas! In fact, it has been so mild and rainy, we've only been to the pool a few times!

Last weekend, we were able to go to the Dallas Arts District Summer Block Party in celebration of the summer solstice. Three museums, The Crow Collection, The Dallas Museum of Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Center were open until midnight. The city closed down the block surrounding these museums, and the street was lined with (sadly overpriced) food vendors. 

Each museum had special activities just for kids, and Monkey and Bo had the best time visiting each kid-themed booth. I was impressed at how dedicated the museums were to helping children explore art. 

This was at the sculpture center. Live music and an outdoor movie!

We ended up exploring the Crow museum the most. This museum features Asian art with an impressive collection of ancient pottery and jade sculptures. There are also a few sculptures outdoors. Monkey's favorite was a giant gong that you were allowed to ring. 


Inside, there were a variety of art stations for children. Monkey was able to make a sun fan, a 3D paper cutting, a carriage from recycled materials (that was at the DMA), and draw her own version of a famous painting (it was a man on a horse. Josh was with her at this point while I explored the rest of the museum with Bo, so I didn't capture the details).

Each museum also had special activities set up, like bedtime stories, music, dancing, a live band, and even an outdoor movie. We didn't get to see too many of these exhibits, but we were able to watch some dancing dragons and watch some children play some giant Chinese drums. Monkey also had a lot of fun playing some ancient Asian street games.



I was seriously impressed by the entire event and each of the museums. As a regular feature, the DMA has an entire wing that is child-friendly, including an interactive art center for children aged 4 and up, and even a baby play center for the youngest visitors. They also had drawing seats set up in various parts of the museum so children (or adults, I guess) could sketch some of the art pieces. 

But just because you couldn't make it to this event doesn't mean you can't have fun at the museums this summer! The Dallas Museum of Art is offering all sorts of family summer fun that is completely free. Each 3rd Friday of the month during the summer, the museum is open until midnight. During the week, the DMA is also offering a variety of fun family programs, including:
  • Story time on Tuesdays in June and July at 1PM
  • Tours specifically for families at 2PM on Thursdays
  • Art camps running weekly until August 15

The Crow Museum also has fun summer programs for kids, including:
  • Adventure Asia club the first Saturday of each month featuring special programs just for kids. 
  • Family yoga sessions at Klyde Warren Park each Saturday and the first Saturday of the month inside the Crow Museum. 


If you live in Dallas, or are just passing through this summer, I highly recommend visiting the Arts District for amazing free fun! Even if you don't make it to any of the special events, admission to the DMA and Crow Collection is always free (except for special collections). The DMA blew me away with how large and impressive its collections were. There are 4 huge floors full of a variety of art (right now, there is a lot of pottery and furniture art in addition to traditional paintings and such). I'm pretty sad I waited so long before I visited! 

What are your favorite Dallas art activities?