planning a relaxed homeschool year

Official plan: SURVIVE.

We’re entering our 5th year of homeschooling this year. That’s crazy to think about on so many levels. I never dreamed we would be a homeschooling family. But here we are 5 years in, loving it, and still going strong. When planning for the new school year rolls around I usually get excited. Excited for fresh starts, new school supplies, and a beautiful, blank planner.

This year is a little different.

This year we have a baby on board.

Who never sleeps. Ever.

Mama is majorly sleep deprived.

And Mr. Thistle travels more now than he ever has for work. So, I’ve been nervous about how to get it all done. I haven’t even had much time to plan. We start next week and I’m just now getting some of my plans on paper (in pencil of course, because let’s be real, you know a lot of it is going to get erased). Normally, I would’ve spent weeks on planning, poring over catalogs and blogs and instagram and had our entire year mapped out and ready to go by now. But, even if I’d had the time to sit down and plan out an entire year of curriculum like I used to do, it’s not likely that the baby will be on board with all of it and it would end up a jumbled mess as I tried to shuffle things around on the calendar.

Nope. That would just make me even more anxious.

So, this year, I’m going full-homeschooler. I’m finally embracing (through much encouragement from my husband and my Instagram gal pals) the wonderfully flexible nature of homeschool. I’ve dipped my toe in the unschooling waters, flirted with Charlotte Mason ideals, and experimented with life schooling over the years. But this year? This year I’m diving right in with the “the baby is the lesson” camp. I mean, I’m a fan of all of those philosophies and methods so why haven’t I fully embraced them before now? I blame my k-12 public school experience for my tendency to try to recreate “school at home” a lot of times. That, and the fact that I don’t have a lot of real life homeschool support outside of our core family to reassure me that baking counts as school. There’s nothing wrong with the “school at home” method, it’s just that it’s not conducive to our lifestyle or the kids’ learning styles. The boys learn so well through hands-on, play-based, experiential learning. And we really love the philosophies of John Holt, Ken Robinson, Charlotte Mason and others who encourage child-led learning and a rich diet of good literature and living books.

So, we’re doing it. This year I’m going to try to let go and take a more relaxed approach (BAHAHAHA. Says the woman whose never relaxed a day in her life. I’m pretty much Monica Gellar.) I’ve talked to the boys in depth over the summer to find out where their interests lie. I’ve experimented with a few things to really draw out their passions (i.e. an online animation course for kids that I plan to write a review about soon). And I’ve tapped into our home library for unit studies to fit those passions and fill in any gaps.

So, this year will look very different from the other years. It’ll be a full but much more relaxed approach (she says confidently). It will take a lot of mindfulness on my part to trust the method and not freak out that I haven’t “controlled” every detail of our school days in my trusty planner. It’s not haphazard though. Let me be clear about that. We value a full education. But my mindset of what constitutes learning and how I schedule it is changing. What counts as school has evolved in our home since I first signed on for this homeschool gig. Every year I get a little better at not caring what everybody thinks. I get a little better at honing in on what is good and right for our family. And I think this year I’m finally ready to just be comfortable with it. Or I’m being forced by a cute little baby to get comfortable with it. Either way, I’m finding that this homeschool business teaches me a lot about myself and my parenting and what God wants to do in my heart and our home. What a wonderful opportunity a baby is providing for growth in each of us! (Remind me of that when I have glue in my hair, spit up on my shirt, the baby is screaming, it’s 4 p.m. and I haven’t planned anything for dinner, missed lunch, and all we’ve accomplished is a pseudo art lesson wherein I tell the boys to “just go draw something for heaven’s sake and quit being bored!”) 

So, here’s what we’ll be focusing on:

  • Government – I’m not wasting such a high profile election year. There’s some really good material to work with and the boys have strong opinions so we’re going with it.
  • Bible
  • Math
  • Writing
  • Nature Study (including our Wild Explorers Club assignments)
  • Field Trips (after hockey season ends in February)
  • Cooking (one day per week)
  • Character (often combined with Bible)
  • Anatomy (2016)
  • Oceans (2017)
  • Early American History
  • ALL things art (illustration, animation, Bob Ross)
  • Mastering poker (yes, poker)
  • Reading, reading, and more reading

Now, that might look like a lot, and it is for some. But, a lot of it won’t even use a curriculum and will overlap with other studies. For instance, both boys want to dive deeper into a bodies unit study so we’ll hit the bodies exhibit in Atlanta. Field trip, check. Anatomy lesson, check. Our character study guide uses picture books so it’s super easy to implement and will often overlap with our bible lessons. Our only official curricula are writing and math for Owen and reading and math for Oliver. And truthfully, Oliver is halfway through his reading curriculum already and I don’t anticipate it lasting us through the end of the school year since he decided to surprise us all and start reading ALL THE THINGS over the summer. Side note: he read most of the words out of the third grade “word of the day” jar  the other day much to our amazement. Why? Because his dad told him if he tried he could have 3 oreo cookies. So he tried and he KILLED IT! The kid who just last year in kindergarten, when asked what sound the letter G made, responded with “bleesh.” Help me, Rhonda.


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Uh oh.

Get ready for a whole lot of disclaimers before I tell you Why I’m not using oils from “The Big Two” essential oil companies.

Why I'm not using oils from "The Big Two" essential oil companies

1. This isn’t the time to defend your oil.

It’s not that I don’t value discussion and debate. But the internet is already very cluttered with this type of blog post that usually ends with a boat load of comments that inevitably become more confusing for the reader and don’t further the discussion past “but it’s a pure oil” or “my oil is purer than yours” and it just gets nasty. So, please save your arguments for why you believe your oil is better for another post. If you want to discuss it further I would love to via email. But I feel like this post is better served without that rhetoric.

Yeesh. I’m only one paragraph in and it already sounds so aggressive, doesn’t it?! That’s the thing about this oil debate. It gets super personal. It IS super personal. And people are passionate about their beloved brand. But let’s agree to keep an open mind for a few thousand words, ok? Just a few thousand.

2. I’m a fan of multi-level marketing

I’m not against multi-level marketing (MLM) at all. It has been my experience that the MLM companies I’ve bought from over the years have provided me with products that have performed as promised. I have Tupperware in my cabinet and Mary Kay in my cosmetics bag. I’m in no way against MLM. And I’m not against representing “The Big Two.” I have very dear friends who are reps for both sides and we are able to discuss how wonderful oils are, share recipes, and swap stories without issue.

3. Research is my favorite past time. I’m a total research junkie.

I’m no slouch in the research department and I’m not new to the essential oils scene either. I’m not writing this post after trying them out for a week or reading something Sally Sue said on instagram that one time about how great they are. I’ve delayed writing this post for a long time specifically because I wanted to make sure I had done my research before joining the conversation. I geek out on evidence-based research and studies in medical journals. I’ll try to keep it light for those of you who are bored to death with that sort of information (ahem, those of you who have actual lives) but I feel a responsibility to bring a bit more “science” into it past what a corporation’s website tells us or what we heard at a company’s expo or conference or webinar. So, feel free to follow the links at the end if you’d like to read some studies from a few medical journals. I think they’re fascinating. I’ve been quietly conducting my own (albeit informal) research and talking with “The Big Two” directly to draw my conclusions.

4. No, I can’t tell you which companies I spoke with.

While I feel like I now have definitive answers to my questions from big name companies in this game, I cannot post my email correspondence with them for you to read on this blog. There are copyright and defamation issues that might arise if I did. That muddies the waters for the reader a bit because you have to draw your own conclusions about who said what and to what degree. But, in a sense, I think it also speaks volumes about the level of transparency of these companies and the degree to which they are willing to further the conversation.

4. I don’t think my oils are better than yours.

In no way do I claim that “The Big Two” are not providing good oils. I am of the camp that believes any kale is better than no kale at all. While I recognize the importance of organic, therapeutic grade, sustainably grown, etc., let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water when choosing which oil is healthier for us. This post is meant to further the discussion on transparency not debate who is more “pure.” More on that in a bit.

5. I’m not a doctor. Duh.

Material on this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice in any way. The inclusion of any link does not imply my endorsement of the linked site or its affiliates, or any information, content, products, services, advertising or other materials presented on or through such web sites. I am not responsible for the availability, accuracy, or any information, content, products or services accessible from such sites.  DO NOT DISREGARD MEDICAL ADVICE OR DELAY SEEKING MEDICAL CARE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE READ ON OR ACCESSED THROUGH THIS WEBSITE.

Oof. That was a bit cumbersome to get through I’m sure. Let’s dive in.

Where I stand…..

I love oils. But I’m not brand loyal. And especially not to “The Big Two” as we shall refer to them from here on out. I have a couple of companies that I love but it’s taken me years of research to finally lock down a few favorites.

Here’s the thing that I think is the most important point in this whole post to remember and I will hang all my arguments from it:

Essential oils are a drug and should be treated with the same respect and care as other pharmaceuticals. 

I think the common misconception is that if it is easy to acquire then it must be safe. I think this same mistake is made with caffeine, herbs, even vitamins. Vitamins are over-the-counter and good for you, right? Perhaps. But used inappropriately they can cause or contribute to a host of other issues. You can literally overdose on Vitamin D. You probably won’t. But you could. And if you did you might experience a whole slew of symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and even kidney failure in severe cases. Of course, we’re used to seeing warnings like this for things like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. But because things like vitamins and herbal supplements aren’t regulated by a governing body we are expected to do our own leg work and educate ourselves in the proper doses and usage for our particular needs. The same goes for essential oils, hydrosols, herbs, and other alternative therapies. Just because they’re plant-derived or a company trademarks theirs as the only “truly pure” oil on the market doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t still be treated with respect and care. Because they can have a profound impact on our bodies. There are plenty of pure, plant-derived substances that can kill us if not used properly. The “pure” argument alone was not enough for me to commit to one of “The Big Two.”

Problem #1

I needed more than a “purity” claim to commit. There’s a lot of information floating around out there and often I have not found it to be backed up with science in conversation. While I admit that this might be kind of awkward for regular conversation and maybe even a buzzkill, it would still be nice to see it happening more online.  I wholeheartedly believe in the efficacy of essential oils and have found the science I was looking for to back it up but it wasn’t through a MLM consultant and instead on my own time through certified aromatherapists and people outside of the MLM world. That’s not to say that there aren’t consultants out there who know their stuff. I’m sure most do. My point is that, for me, it’s a slippery slope primarily because we are dealing with a drug. On the one hand, I think it is great that anyone can sign up as a consultant and sell these oils. Because, without that I might not have been exposed to them. On the other hand, when we’re dealing with people’s health I think it could be dangerous to have someone “sell” them to their neighbor down the street without really looking past the research from the company they’re making money FOR. There are a lot of factors to consider when recommending an oil to someone (i.e. age, medical conditions, drug interactions, etc.). It’s not like selling a tupperware container or some eyeliner to your friend.

“The Big Two” both sell blended oil products that are very popular among moms with kids because of their anti-germ and anti-congestion properties. But some of the very popular blends often contain eucalyptus or rosemary oil, both of which contain the chemical compound 1,8-cineole which has been shown to slow respiration in some children. The argument I’ve heard over and over again is that “I’ve been using it with my kids for years and never had a problem” or “The research says that reactions only occurred in studies where an excessive dose was given.”  When there are oils that provide the same anti-germ and anti-congestion properties that do not contain 1,8-cineole, why risk it?

Can you see how confusing it all becomes? There is a lot of responsibility on the consumer as well as the consultant to try to provide unbiased, research-based evidence when possible. How does the consumer know that the consultant is properly educated? I love hearing other people’s recipes and experiences with the product. But I want to know WHY it worked for them. Not just that it did. When the consultant points to claims from the company they work for without third-party results to back it up how can the consumer be sure they have the best information?

Ahhh. Therein lies the rub.

Problem #2

So, after many years of reading and researching I decided to cut out the middle man and go straight to the source. A month ago I contacted “The Big Two” and asked my most pressing question first by phone and then by email (as directed by the phone representatives who had no idea what GC/MS testing was….one representative said she wasn’t sure what I meant by “third party testing”):

“Do you provide third party lab results and MSDS sheets to consumers?”

Since both companies make a point to promote their extensive testing on their website I thought this would be an easy request. I mean, what’s the point of conducting extensive testing on your product if no one ever sees the results? How does that benefit the consumer?

One company still has not responded beyond an automated “we received your message” email. And the other initially responded with another chorus of “we partner with expert growers and chemists and use the highest quality oils” that I’ve already heard played out in every comment, forum, and MLM blog. The company went on to say that they do not provide third party lab results for their oils because of the “proprietary nature” of the product. I can see how a blend or a value-added product like toothpaste or lotion could be proprietary. But I cannot understand what could be so proprietary about a single oil like, for example, peppermint oil. Shouldn’t it just contain one ingredient….peppermint oil? If it contained anything else wouldn’t that no longer make it a “pure” oil as they claim? What could be in the oil that made it so unique to their company that they couldn’t share it with the consumers who so enthusiastically promote their product, for fear that a rival company might try to duplicate it?

I suspected I already knew some possible answers to this. Let’s keep using single ingredient peppermint oil as our example. Either the oil contains something else besides peppermint oil and, as such, should be considered an “adulterated oil” or a “blend” of some sort. Or, the oil was derived from a country that might not be so great for marketing (i.e. China). Or, the oil isn’t as potent as consumers believe it to be.

You see, I already knew that the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer tests that “The Big Two” conduct in-house and through their chosen third party labs would reveal a lot. That’s why I initially asked to have access to them. GC/MS testing is an “additive-revealing” technique. In simpler terms, the GC portion provides a fingerprint of sorts for the oil being tested and the MS portion can show potency and possible adulterants. If a company touts itself as “the purest” wouldn’t it make sense to prove it? Why hide the results of that purity from consumers?

I emailed again and asked for clarification on the proprietary issue. And I was told again that the results were not made available because the tests revealed proprietary information that might be used by other companies to duplicate products.  And, that the Safety Data Sheets I also asked for were only made available to healthcare facilities and required a long list of documents that must be presented first, including a business license.

Heh? Come again? A business license?!

Meanwhile, there are other essential oil companies who will provide batch specific GC/MS third party lab results upon request and even one that I’ve found where you can view the actual GC/MS test for your oil online by simply entering the unique batch number found on the bottom of your bottle.

That might not matter to many people. But it speaks volumes to me. With that knowledge I can then make an informed decision about the purity and the efficacy of the oils I’m purchasing. I might have to take the results to my own lab to have them deciphered or I might have to brush up on some science. But, by making that information available to me they have given me more power over choosing the best product for me and my family than “The Big Two” are willing to do. And, unlike “The Big Two”, making those lab results available shows me they have nothing to hide.

Withholding GC/MC test results is a deal breaker for me. Until “The Big Two” can provide that kind of information and transparency, none of their claims of purity made through their website or their promotional materials or their consultants/brand reps makes a hill of beans to me. It can be the purest oil in the world but I need to see the proof.

My hope is that this post won’t be alienating or offensive to anyone who loves and believes in their oil. What I’d like to see is a discussion happening that encourages those big companies to release that information and become a little more transparent. They’ve helped spur on a movement that is empowering people to take their health into their own hands and they’ve made oils a little more “mainstream” which I think is great. They’ve encouraged this amazing community of essential oil advocates that I love being a part of. But I’d love to see them offer an outstanding level of transparency alongside the encouraging community and pretty packaging. And I’d love to see more discussion surrounding essential oil toxicity and safe use of essential oils.

And because I know some of you probably read through this whole thing waiting on me to recommend a company, let me address that:

I won’t recommend any companies in this post because I don’t want to look like I’m promoting one over the other. I do not work for an essential oil company or sell them. If you’d like to find out who I like feel free to poke around on instagram and maybe we’ll bump into each other and discuss. 😉

Links for further research

Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense

Essential Oils and Their Constituents as Anticancer Agents: A Mechanistic View

How to Choose High Quality Essential Oils

Physician Data Query cancer information summary for health professionals (comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the use of aromatherapy and essential oils in the treatment of people with cancer).    **Lots of links to further research and studies in this one**

University of Maryland Medical Center (aromatherapy)

Essential Oils Never to Buy

Children and Essential Oils

Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt sees rise in children ingesting essential oils

Essential Oils: Poisonous when Misused

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We’ll be entering our 5th year of homeschooling this September and I’ve been through a lot of products over the years. Blogging has afforded me many opportunities for exploring various curricula. I love to try out new products and methods. But there have been a few products that have blown me away and I can’t imagine growing out of them any time soon, if ever. I’ve talked about our very favorite math before. Today is all about learning to read and write with Institute for Excellence in Writing.

I don’t know about you guys, but teaching the kids to read was my biggest fear when we embarked on our homeschooling adventure. I imagined it would be my Everest.  I don’t really remember being formally taught to read so I couldn’t imagine teaching someone else. A friend introduced us to the Primary Arts of Language: Reading curriculum from IEW when we were entering our first grade year. She warned me that there would be a lot of prep work on the front end if I decided to have everything ready to go for the entire year. She knew that was probably how I would approach it. And it was. It took me two full days to print out the material and cut out and put together all of the folder games. But once everything was set up I just had to turn a page everyday in my teacher’s manual and get to work.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit though. Lets discuss how PAL works first.

PAL uses a play-based approach to learning.

From “letter stories” to folder games to stickers, this curriculum engages the child in a fun way that holds their interest through what can sometimes be a frustrating time for them. Learning to read is a big deal.  PAL encourages and rewards the child through fun, engaging lessons that are easy for the parent to implement. I often laugh with my friend over those folder games. When I was putting them together we both remarked that we weren’t sure about them. We just didn’t see what the big deal was over these games.

Oh man, those folder games made us eat crow for years. There’s something magical in those plain Jane manila folders that works. They’ve been through two kids and I still can’t believe the success we’ve had with the games. Right now we’re not even technically doing school. But it’s 6,000 degrees in Georgia and nobody wants to be outside in the humidity and everybody is bored. Enter folder games. If the kids have exhausted every bit of creativity they can summon and they’ve maxed out on screen time and mom doesn’t have one more craft left in her, I can turn to those folder games. The big kids help the little kids play all the folder games and we get a nice reset from the summer crazies.

Institute for Excellence in Writing

The Phonetic Farm portion of this curriculum is so cute. I’m a sucker for visually appealing homeschool products. There are so many poorly designed homeschool products out there. I know that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I’ve used “pretty” curriculum before that petered out far too prematurely in the school year because it just wasn’t built on a strong scope and sequence so I know looks aren’t everything. But the Phonetic Farm and its corresponding stickers are super cute AND built on sound methods. At the end of most lessons, the child receives a sticker with “helper sounds” on it to place on their Phonetic Farm folder. And then, you get to “visit the farm” each day, which is essentially reviewing the helper sounds…which is sneaky school….which is my favorite way to do school. Mwahahaha.

Does it teach sight words or phonics first?



Students are introduced to reading through a blended sound-sight approach of phonics and whole words. I know there’s a lot of debate over using phonics or sight words to teach reading. I am of the school that says the English language is bonkers with all it’s rule-breaking and is extremely confusing and frustrating to teach to the very literal child who is ALL ABOUT THE RULES (ahem, my child). So, it makes sense to me (and my kids) to teach as much as I can using phonics and supplement the rest with sight words. For me, PAL is the best of both worlds.

It’s great for different learning styles.

Our boys were born on the same day, 3 years apart. They might share a birthday but they are worlds apart in their learning styles. One is a very visual learner and does not do well with auditory instructions alone. He needs to see it because sometimes he just can’t hear it. (Which is misleading, really. His hearing is fine. His processing is the problem.)  The phonetic farm has been our saving grace for him.

Our other boy is very much a kinesthetic/tactile learner. While my visual learnergets to “see” the sounds on the phonetic farm, my tactile learner gets to “do” the learning through the folder games. One of the games is even called “Action Charades” and introduces verbs like run, swim, jump, skip, etc. He’s learning to read by doing.

Win, win.

100% money back guarantee

I love, love, love IEW. But you might not. And investing in homeschool products can get costly if you have to change it up in the middle of the year. What if it doesn’t work for your student? What if you just don’t like teaching it? I’ve been there. There have been times when a product should’ve worked for us. But no matter how much I wanted to love it, it just wasn’t right for us in real life. No problem. IEW offers a 100% unconditional, money back guarantee, with no time limit. The IEW representative at the homeschool convention told me, “You could run it through the dishwasher and Mr. Pudewa would probably take it back.” I can get behind that kind of confidence and accountability from a company.

We’ve used other products from IEW in the past that we also loved:

Primary Arts of Language: Writing

Fix it! Grammar: The Nose Tree

And, new to us for our 2016-2017 school year, we’ll be using:

Teaching Writing: Structure and Style

Bible Heroes Writing Lessons

I’ll come back after we’ve been using them for a bit and let you know how it’s going. Based on our track record with IEW, I’m not worried.

And, because I’ve raved over IEW in excess at this point, let me just point you to a few places where you can listen to Andrew Pudewa and really get a feel for what he’s all about:

The Art of Language Podcast

Read-Aloud Revival #01: Reading Aloud to Older Kids, a Conversation with Andrew Pudewa

Teaching Boys and Other Kids Who Would Rather Be Playing in Forts



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“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”

-G.K. Chesterton-

There are two very hard things about motherhood that surprised me. One was how heavy mom guilt is from day one. Not doing enough, not feeling good enough, worry that I’ve totally screwed them up. The other is how insane monotony can make me if I can’t learn to look at it all through fresh lenses every morning.

The dishes are dirty again everyday. The laundry piles up the minute I declare I am the champion of the laundry pile. Every day the kids want to eat. And they need me to make it for them. How rude. I can count on the baby to need me the moment I carve out 2 whole seconds to pee. The bills are due again. Floors need vacuuming … oh wait, vacuum is broken, and trash needs hauling off.

None of that is glamorous. And yet it happens regularly.

But there is much to be thankful for in it if I never tire of looking at it all with a fresh lens every morning.

The kids need me but they’re compassionate, loving little humans who also ask me if I need anything many times throughout the day. They’re perfect gentlemen and they’ll make some lady very happy one day. Success.

The never-ending laundry pile has provided never-ending opportunities for the boys to learn how to sort, treat stains, wash, dry, fold, and put away laundry. As well as the importance of not changing clothes 65 times per day. Again I say, they’ll make some lady very happy.

Dirty dishes mean we have food to eat.

Changing one more diaper and making one more bottle are the trade off for spending quality time with the sweetest little girl who thinks I hung the moon.

Good ol’ Chesterton set me straight this morning.

Thank goodness God doesn’t say, “Yeah, well, I’m tired of making the sun rise everyday. I’ve been doing that everyday and I’m just bored with it, ya know? Gonna try something else because seeing that thing come up every morning is really just draining me. Plus, no one ever says thank you for it.” Thank goodness He doesn’t say, “Well, if you’ve seen one daisy, you’ve seen ’em all” or “I gave you rain last week, what more do you want from me?!”

I need to plaster this bit from Chesterton to my forehead and read it every morning lest I forget to look around me at the beautiful bits that require the monotony.

Here’s to “doing it again.” And again, and again.

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