Smart Phones Make Field Trips More Powerful

Field trips have the power to open new worlds to our children. Art and music come alive when students are able to see and hear classic works in person. Science and history become more than just facts when students engage in active learning. No matter where the field trip is, experiencing  something can offer an entirely new understanding.

Are you ever challenged to find great field trip destinations?  Thanks to Google’s free FIELDtrip app, you won’t have any problems discovering nearby hidden gems.

Find new places to explore and learn more about those places with a little help from your smart phone.

Google Helps You Explore the World and Your Own Backyard

Thanks to the hikers and explorers who’ve strapped cameras to their backs, we get to see places digitally that we may never see in person. You may be familiar with Google Maps to learn about faraway places, like the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon.  You can even add a whole new level of exposure to these places as you explore the surrounding areas using Street View.

And while Google Earth offers some wonderful learning lessons for your littles, what’s nearby is a bit easier and that’s where FIELDtrip comes in. Thanks to local experts teaming up with Google, you can learn more about the area you call home than ever before. Explore your neighborhood like never before. This app works with such ease that kids may even end up wanting to use it without any instructional inspiration.

The app allows you to select topics of interest, which include:

  • Architecture
  • Historic places and events
  • Lifestyle
  • Cool and unique
  • Art and museums
  • Foods, drinks, and fun

You simply select the topics you’re interested in exploring and the app does the rest. Information cards pop onto the screen automatically when you walk near one of the sites listed in the app. Thanks to this function, virtual field trips become worlds to explore, trips to plan, and adventures to take.

Take a FIELDtrip Walk and Discover New Places

One of the exciting features of this app is how it will open your eyes to things you never noticed in your own neighborhood and city. Take your smartphone with you when you go for a walk and watch the information cards pop up, helping you discover new and unique places to visit. You may also find historic buildings and monuments you didn’t know existed.

During planned field trips, use the app and you’ll be amazed at the additional information it provides. If you pass a place you want to visit but don’t have time at the moment, you can mark it as a favorite and return to it later.

See More Than Just the Main Tourist Attractions

This app is also an excellent way to add active learning to vacations. Simply pull up the FIELDtrip map and let the cards show you what’s nearby that you might want to check out. Soon you and your family will have a new appreciation for the each new city you visit.

Suppose, for example, that you and your family saved for a trip to Orlando, Florida, but you don’t want to just visit the theme parks. While you’re in town, you could visit the Wells’ Built Hotel, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and used during segregation as a home for African-American performers. The FIELDtrip card on the hotel gives additional information on the hotel and links to other open buildings around the city if your children are interested in seeing other examples of historic architecture.

Using Tech for Good

Technology like this can provide homeschool families with remarkable tools to assist in the learning process. The ability to successfully use technology is also an important life skill to ensure students are prepared for when they enter higher education or a full-time job. In either of those settings, technology will be a constant.

By seamlessly weaving apps such as FIELDtrip into lesson plans and into the kind of active learning that children enjoy, homeschool parent-teachers have the opportunity to use virtual field trips to teach, not only about the world around them, but about the technology that is vital to the future.

Sarah Pike is a college writing instructor and freelance editor. She’s a fan of book clubs, researching the intersections of health and technology, and finding the best coffee shop in any city she visits. You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahzpike.



Easy Elementary Science Experiments

Most of you know by now that I’m the author of the NaturExplorers series of science curriculum.  That means, yes, we do much of our science in the field – literally.

While we can cover A LOT of science through nature study, there are some topics that are just learned better through indoor experimentation and text lessons.  I’m thinking specifically of topics like electricity, magnetism – you know, things that you just don’t encounter very often in nature.

Science kits save me time and frustration during the elementary years.

You probably also know by now that I’m not much of a textbook/workbook kind of teacher.  In the past, when my older two were in the elementary grades, we did science unit studies for those topics that didn’t fit well with nature study.  These were so much fun as the three of us worked together!

My big kids are in high school now.  Eli (2nd grade) doesn’t have a partner in learning like my other two did with each other.  While we still do science unit studies, they look completely different than those of my big kids.  It’s just not as fun to “go all out” without learning partners.  His units are much more relaxed and often just unfold as we go along.

We still use A LOT of living literature and living non-fiction books to guide our learning.  But unlike the big kids, we now use a lot of technology to enhance our understanding, too – like YouTube videos, for instance.  And since it’s just him, I let his interests guide us in our studies so much more than I used to with the big kids.

Now for the tell-on-myself-a-little part of this post.  Since I’m less planned than I used to be with science units, we don’t always get down and dirty with good, old-fashioned experiments.  But…I’ve found some tricks that have taken my science experiment guilt away.  Completely.

Easy Elementary Science Experiments

Elementary science experiments are easy using inexpensive prepared kits.

(There are affiliate links in this post.  While I received this kit for free, I only recommend it because it worked.)

I love using prepared science kits.  After going through The Science Kit by DK Publishing from start to finish this year, I have no worries that we didn’t do enough experimental learning.  The best part, I really had to pre-plan almost nothing!

Besides supplies that are easy to find around the house, The Science Kit came with everything needed to complete around 50 elementary level experiments.  And, while he and I worked through the experiments together, the full-color, step-by-step flip-book was easy enough for him to use by himself.

Elementary science experiments are easy using inexpensive prepared kits.

I would let him pick and choose lessons from the experiment flip-book (which stands on its own for easy reading during experimentation.)  Once we finished an experiment, we would simply place a check mark on the page showing it had been completed.

A book, Explore Science, came with the kit and provided another 50 or so experiments with more detailed explanations about the topics.  Since some of the topics went along with the experiments from the flip-book, I would often go right into Explore Science after Eli finished a flip-book experiment.  The experiments and explanations found in Explore Science were less Eli-led and more mom-led – mostly because there was more reading to do with more materials to gather.

Elementary science experiments are easy using inexpensive prepared kits.

Once we completed the entire kit (flip-book experiments and experiments from Explore Science), we had around 100 experiments under our belts!  That sounds like it might have taken a lot of time, but it really didn’t.  Since many of the experiments only take minutes, we could do several in a day.  In all, we spent about a month bebopping daily through the kit.

I’ve used science kits for years and years.  I even put them on Christmas and birthday wish lists because the kids love the kits for fun as much as I love them for education.  Here are a few of my favorites…

Tell me how you make sure to make science experiments happen in your homeschool.

Homeschooling Middle School

I love homeschooling middle school students.  They are so ready to dive deep into learning because they finally have the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic down.  On the other hand, they are still completely open to creative lessons.  You can just do SO much with this age group!

In our eclectically Charlotte Mason homeschool, I would say the middle school years tend to be our most eclectic compared to K-5 and even high school.  I think it’s because I just enjoy mixing it up.  Partly for variety, partly because there are so many cool ways to learn, partly because I want to keep my kids on their toes in learning since I surely won’t be their one and only teacher in life, and partly because I want to begin gauging how they will best learn during the high school years.

The middle school years are some of my favorite to homeschool!  This mega-post shows you how I do it.

(This post contains links to my curriculum.)

What, then, do our middle school years look like?

No matter the style, you will always find us using lots of living literature.  Always.  Another consistent is our weekly nature study.  It’s just too important to drop.  Other than good books and nature study, you might find us deep in a unit study with project-based learning, working through a hands-on textbook, working through a traditional textbook, taking online classes, or taking real life classes outside of our home.

Even though many of those things don’t seem like they would jive with the Charlotte Mason style, we still maintain so many of the CM foundations that I don’t ever consider ourselves to be completely off track.  For instance, we still stick to short lessons as much as possible.  We also continue with weekly or bimonthly artist study, handicrafts and life skill training.  And, we still work on living math activities at least once or twice per week, among other things.

How do we fit it all in?  Even in middle school, we typically follow a weekly schedule where our Friday’s (or another day of the week) are set aside for nature study, artist study, handicrafts and the like.  It’s no fun for any of us to push hard day in and day out on the same things, so we take one day each week “off” from the unit study/textbook/etc. to do other subjects that are important to us.

To help you get a better picture of middle school in our home, I’ve pulled together all my posts that were written when at least one of my children was in 6th, 7th or 8th grade.

Homeschooling Middle School Posts

These are wonderful materials for homeschooling middle school students!

My Top Picks for Middle School Curriculum – While we’ve used oh, so many resources over the years, this is a list of my very favorites.

Living Literature

Living books rock.  An incredible amount of learning happens in the pages of good books.  Enough said.

Living literature rocks. A LOT of learning happens between the pages of a good book!

Living Literature For All Subjects – Not all of the lists on this page are specifically for middle school students, but many, many of them are.  Enjoy!


Middle school is the time I get serious about teaching formal writing.  While we use some writing curricula, we also still have a lot of fun.  These easy lessons use picture books to train writing styles.

Using Picture Books to Teach Narrative Writing

Using Picture Books to Demonstrate Persuasive Writing

Using Picture Books to Teach Literary Techniques

Here are some creative writing assignment ideas.

Writing Newsletters: A Technology Connection

Keeping a Field Trip Journal

Unit Studies

Unit studies allow us to get a lot of concentrated learning into a reasonable chunk of time.  When we also incorporate project-based learning into the units, my children are allowed to dive into their own interests and capitalize on their learning strengths.  These are super-important skills as I begin the process of turning the reigns of learning over to my children.

Here are some of our unit studies which made the biggest impact in learning and enjoyment.

Middle Ages

Early American Explorers

Native Americans

Colonial History

Slavery and the Civil War

Westward Expansion

Human Body

Project-based learning is a great tool when homeschooling middle school!

Project-Based Learning: What You Need To Know – If you aren’t familiar with the concept of project-based learning, this post will quickly get you up to speed.

Nature Study

A big part of our science learning in middle school still come from weekly nature walks.  Y’all.  Nature walks are an amazing way to learn.  Think of the outdoors as your no-prep science lab!  And, kids in middle school are the perfect age to really begin to make scientific connections, dig deep in research and even develop nature experiments.  I’m telling you, nature study is. a. big. deal.  Don’t leave all your scientific learning to textbooks at this age (or ever!)

Rock middle school science with nature study.  NaturExplorers studies give you all the learning activity ideas you need. I wrote the NaturExplorers series to make real, deep nature study a no-brainer for you.  I hope you find them helpful!  Below are some middle school specific posts about how I’ve used NaturExplorers activities in our own homeschool.

Charlotte Mason Was Right About Nature Study

Chromatography with Leaves

Fossil Walk

Spider Hunt

The Study of a Twig

Keeping Nature Study While Also Using Apologia Texts

NaturExplorers lessons dive deep in nature study. 10 FREE NaturExplorers Lessons – Scroll down just a bit on this page to find links to TEN FREE NaturExplorers lessons!

Living Math

Living math is real.  It’s meaningful.  It has a purpose.  It uses higher order thinking skills.  It’s fun.  While the math textbook is important in middle school, so are living math lessons.  Here are a few examples of living math lessons perfect for the middle school years.

Math and Science with Candy

Paper Airplane Graphing

Pumpkin Math

Economics in the Homeschool  (Yes, officially a social studies subject, but lots of math is included!)

Need ideas for living math lessons? There are more than 100 here!

100+ Living Math Activities for All Ages – This is a mega-post of living math lessons from all over the web.  Scroll down a bit for the middle school specific learning activities.


I lump logic in with living math on a normal basis because of all the problem solving skills it requires.  However, to be sure you don’t miss them, I’m pulling out some of my favorite middle school appropriate logic activities here.  Logic. is. very. important.  Don’t skip it!

Logic in the Homeschool

Logic and Critical Thinking Co-op Class

Taxonomy with Dry Beans

Creative Learning

My middle school children still like to have fun in school – and so do I.  Here are several examples of our creative learning.

Games are a very important tool for learning in our homeschool!Games for Homeschooling – We love games.  Seriously, we play them all the time.  I never cease to be amazed at the amount of learning that happens during game time!

Geography for All Seasons

Guitar Lessons with or Without a Teacher

Science Friday

Sick Day (or Week) Schooling

Teaching Values Using The Pilgrim’s Progress

Teaching Values Using The Sneetches

Why Timelines Matter and Finding the Style That Works for You

Textbooks & Classes

Yes, we actually do use some traditional textbooks, hands-on textbooks, online classes and outside classes.  Honestly, I don’t blog about those things very often because they don’t always make for interesting posts.  Here are a few, though.

Christian Kids Explore Chemistry

Chronological American History

Mango Languages

U.S. Government Lapbook

Co-op Classes for Older Students

Co-op Class Ideas for Older Children – I find that supplemental co-op classes at this age really need to be worthwhile or you begin to lose families.  This post shares some creative ideas.

Service Learning

It’s important to learn how to serve others at any age.  With each new year of age, though, we try to take service up a notch.  Here are some of the ways we’ve found to serve our community.

Teaching Values Through Service and Leadership Projects

Homeschool Service Projects

Organizing for Independent Learning

Before I end the post, I thought it might be important to mention that I really push hard toward independent learning in the middle school years.  My children begin taking more responsibility in planning, choosing curriculum and keeping up with their lessons.  This is a slow process, but so worth it when high school rolls around and I have almost completely independent students!  Here are two examples of how I begin to turn over responsibilities in middle school (and beyond.)

Our Weekly Lesson Notebooks

Homeschooling with A Plan in Place

Do you have an unorganized learner?  Me, too.

Organizing the Unorganized Learner – As you can imagine, this post has been one of my all-time most visited.  Organizing our children – their supplies, their lessons, etc. is a major step in helping them to acquire that independence in learning!

And so, that wraps up this mega-post about homeschooling middle school in the Our Journey Westward household.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Oh, one more thing.  I may or may not always update this post with additional middle school related posts that I write.  You will, however, find everything related to middle school homeschooling from my blog and others on my Homeschooling Middle School Pinterest Board!  Be sure to click “follow” to keep up with the board.

Cindy West's Middle School Pinterest Board

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Guitar Lessons With or Without a Teacher

I can teach music theory.  I can teach voice.  I can teach at least a little piano.  I cannot teach guitar.  And, when you can’t find a steady guitar teacher, that makes life hard on a kid who really wants to learn the instrument.

My Caleb has been learning to play the guitar for a few years now, but we haven’t always had a teacher.  The teachers he has had have rocked (literally) and have each taken him to a new level.  But, the dry spells between teachers are frustrating for him.

How my son learned to play guitar whether a teacher was available or not.

 (This post contains affiliate links.)

When a kid is really interested in something, though, he learns pretty quickly how to make things happen.  In this case, he decided to take lessons into his own hands – which makes this momma super-proud of his perseverance!

With the help of technology and a few dollars spent here and there, Caleb has learned to take himself to new levels.  I thought I’d share with you today exactly what he’s been doing.  And, how I’ve been quietly watching and noting the progress toward a student-led high school course for the transcript.

Basic Music Theory

Essentials of Music TheoryIn between teachers the first time, Caleb wanted to understand a bit about reading music.  I was very happy to supply him with the Essentials of Music Theory, Book 1.

While I had to help here and there, he completed the book on his own for the most part.  It was nice having a piano in the house to help him understand the theory, but it wouldn’t have been necessary.


Basic Guitar Theory

Guitar Fretboard WorkbookAlso during that first break between teachers, he continued practicing guitar using the Mel Bay Guitar Chords book that his teacher had assigned.  This led to his decision that a workbook in guitar theory would probably be useful now that basic music theory was under his belt.  We went with the Guitar Fretboard Workbook.

I was no help to him in this book.  Well, a little maybe, but he was pretty much on his own.  If he came to something he didn’t understand, good ol’ Google or a friendly guitarist at church came to the rescue.

YouTube Tutorials

By the time the second break between teachers rolled around, Caleb knew more about the guitar and craved to actually play real music.  Of course, he knows what all good homeschoolers know – – – you can pretty much learn anything on YouTube.  And, he went all over that site soaking in every bit of guitar goodness he could find.  He started with actual lessons and then moved on to listening to worship songs and rock songs trying to pick out leads and chords.  These practice sessions even helped strengthen his ability to play a bit by ear.

The Complete Guitar Manual

The Complete Guitar ManualDuring his third hiatus, Caleb knew he needed more depth to his self-taught lessons.  He found The Complete Guitar Manual and has been working his way through it steadily.  The book is really pretty cool.  It’s in full-color and highly step-by-step illustrated (which works well since Caleb is a very visual learner.)  It’s almost like a guitar textbook with lessons on everything from finger positions to music theory.  There’s even a DVD to show him how to play.

I’m happy to report that Caleb just started guitar lessons with a real live teacher again!  However, I’m noticing that he hasn’t given up on his own plan at all.  In fact, I’ve even heard him talk to the teacher a few times about how the lessons can help him reach his own goals.  I love his passion!

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that he wanted to round out his guitar instruction with learning about audio/visual equipment having to do with musicians.  He began helping in the sound room during youth band at church and quickly moved into helping in the sound room during church services.  This experience has taught him a ton!

High School Credit

We are definitely turning all this passion into high school credit.  In Kentucky, 120 hours of learning time equals one credit.  I’ve simply been logging the time spent on guitar and noting the materials used.  That’s it.  Not every course has need for a formal textbook or intricate plan.  It’s student-led learning at its easiest.

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Composer Study Made Easy

Confession time.  I’ve been really slow about starting composer study with Eli (2nd grade.)  Yep.  Even seasoned Charlotte Mason homeschoolers don’t do everything all the time.  But…and this is a big but…I’m doing it now and it’s never been easier!

Composer study has never been eaComposer study has never been easier now that I'm using the Zeezok Music Appreciation curriculum!

Forget the fact that I got the Zeezok Music Appreciation for the Elementary Grades Book 1 Program for free and was compensated for my time in writing this post.  I’m SERIOUSLY in love with this program and I’m over the moon that I don’t have to plan my own composer studies anymore!

Elementary Music Appreciation Can Be Easy

Charlotte Mason Composer Study

“Let young people study as far as possible under one master until they have received some of this teaching and know its style.” Charlotte Mason

What is Charlotte Mason style composer study?  The way I’ve always interpreted it is really pretty simple…We choose one composer to study for four weeks or so.  During that time, we listen to his music, talk about his style, learn a bit about the composer’s life, and learn a bit about the musical period and its instruments.

None of that sounds daunting and really isn’t if you have the time to gather the CD’s, biographies and information about the musical period and such.

Zeezok Made My Planning Easier

What if, though, someone handed you all the materials (plus some) and you didn’t have one single thing to think about in order for composer study to really happen?  Zeezok’s Music Appreciation Program has done that for me.

Zeezok's Music Appreciation program gives me everything I need to make composer/music study happen in our Charlotte Mason homeschool.

Using living literature as the backbone of the studies, four weeks of lessons are provided in a full-color workbook which allow you to learn all about the composer, his music, the musical period and its instruments.  Um, yeah, that’s everything I include in my own studies – but there’s more.

Not only does the curriculum come with CD’s of each of the seven composers’ music, the pieces are intertwined with the story so you can hear exactly what he composed at various points in his life.  If that isn’t enough, the literature books also include sheet music in case your budding composer wants to give the pieces a go.

Zeezok's Music Appreciation program gives me everything I need to make composer/music study happen in our Charlotte Mason homeschool.

Besides the biographical and historical information gleaned from the living books, the workbook that comes with the program dives even deeper.  I especially love the focus on each composer’s positive character qualities.  We often forget to talk about the behind-the-scenes lives of famous people, but this workbook shares a fresh perspective about their generosity, focus on family, hospitality and more.

Most of you know that I’m not a huge fan of workbooks.  But, man, this one rocks.  Eli has been able to complete maps, make charts of instrument types, practice handwriting, complete experiments, take quizzes and more.  As you can see, this program is way more than just composer study.  There are some days that I am able to check off history, geography, science, copywork, narration and/or reading in our lesson plan book, too.

Zeezok's Music Appreciation program gives me everything I need to make composer/music study happen in our Charlotte Mason homeschool.

Zeezok's Music Appreciation program gives me everything I need to make composer/music study happen in our Charlotte Mason homeschool.

While I’m using the workbook pretty much as is, there are a few things I’m tweaking to align more with our Charlotte Mason style.  One example – the workbook contains written comprehension questions that follow each chapter of each book.  Since Eli is only in 2nd grade, we don’t do a lot of written comprehension questions, but we DO work on comprehension via narration.  Rather than just leave those pages blank and move on, I’ve found the questions to be great for guided narration.

Ideally, narration wouldn’t involve much interruption from the teacher. However, when a student is just getting started with narration, gets stuck, or has read a hefty chunk it can be helpful to ask guiding questions or give small hints to prompt the narration. In this instance, Eli has read an entire chapter from Sebastian Bach the Boy From Thuringia. The book had introduced some new concepts and vocabulary in a pretty lengthy chapter. So, the comprehension questions from the Zeezok Music Appreciation curriculum served as a guide.

Elementary Music Appreciation Can Be Easy

Even after all that I’ve already mentioned…the living literature, music CD’s, sheet music, biographies, worksheets, activities, quizzes…there’s more!  For each composer, you can create a lapbook.  A whole lapbook!  (The lapbook templates are in full color, but my color printer is currently on the fritz.)  As you can see from our Bach lapbook, we covered musical vocabulary, music theory, life during the Baroque period, and interesting science tie-ins.

Elementary Music Appreciation: Easy and Complete

Now you can see why I’m over the moon, right?  I have no more need to plan my own Charlotte Mason composer studies when Zeezok has taken care of everything…plus a lot!  I’m finding that we’re taking longer than the four weeks suggested to finish each study, meaning the program will last us at least a year.  Since it’s appropriate for grades 2-6 (in my opinion), I feel fine about taking our time and savoring the program.

Two Goodies For You

Our Journey Westward readers can get 10% off any Zeezok music appreciation product using the coupon code ihomeschool15.  The code is only valid through 4/10/2015!

Don’t miss the GIVEAWAY of an entire Book 1 Collection!  It ends on 4/2/2015.


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