Wednesday, May 29

Ten Best Historic Novel Series for Middle School

Summer is the perfect time to catch up on fun reading!  We set aside a minimum of an hour each day to read...sometimes together as a family and sometimes quietly wherever we happen to drape ourselves.  

When a book can bring educational value in the form of a fun context, it gets a thumbs up from this homeschool mom.  Being a history-loving family, we've read nearly every single book from all ten of these series.  We love them, and think that you will, too!

A quick note about reading level -- some of these books are at an upper elementary reading level, however we parents don't always read collegiate-level books, right?  When reading for fun and learning, it's perfectly fine for a child to read something that's under his or her grade level sometimes...especially if it's fun, engaging, and there is educational content.  {These books are denoted in the descriptions.}

We Were There
Written between 1955 and 1963, the thirty-six books in this series each tackle the fictional retelling of an actual historic event.  Children are the primary characters, which makes the books accessible and easy to relate excellent way to learn our history!  The books weren't just standard fiction; they each had a "historical consultant," someone who was an expert in the topic covered in each, and are historically accurate.  Our children have retained a lot of historical fact simply by 'living' these adventures!  Additionally, each of the books has beautiful pen and ink least one per chapter, to help your child visualize the story.


American Adventure
The forty-eight books in this series each cover a different point in American history, with children as the main characters.  They are religious-based, experiencing struggles and overcoming through good moral character and their belief in and reliance upon God.  This is a good option for families who want to incorporate religious beliefs into their stories.

Dear America
Each book in this series covers a different historic event from American history.  They are all written about a girl's life and told from her perspective.  They are narrated in the form of a diary, with dated entries that typically span a year or two.  Good moral character is emphasized in these coming-of-age stories.

My Name is America
Each book in this series covers a different historic event from American history.  They are all written about a boy's life and told from his perspective.  They are narrated in the form of a journal, with dated entries that typically span a year or two.  Good moral character is emphasized in these coming-of-age stories.

I Survived
Adventure-seekers will love being in the story, escaping disaster, and learning lots of small details surrounding each of these disasters!  The series includes ancient tragedies, such as Pompeii, and goes all the way to more recent ones, like the Joplin tornado.  Perfect for those who may be a grade behind reading level or just love a little bit of excitement!

Landmark Books
The non-fiction complement to the We Were There series, these are the epitome of Hi-Lo books.  The reading level is upper elementary, but the content is aimed at older children.  It is full of details, anecdotes, illustrations, and rich descriptions that will bring the subject to life.  Each book covers one person or event in history.

Magic Tree House
Most children begin reading this series in elementary school, but the later volumes are written at a higher reading level and go deeper into specific points in history, making them appealing to older students, particularly those who may fall into the realm of struggling readers.  I also like to use the research guides which accompany each book as jumping off points for writing exercises.

Spy on History
With only three books so far, this is a fairly new adventure series that puts the reader directly into the action.  There are removal book components that are used for code-breaking and other activities, allowing your child to experience history in a new way!  Currently covers the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War 2.

Little House on the Prairie
The nine books in this series give an in-depth look into mid-1800s daily life.  (Our family's favorite volume has always been Farmer Boy.)  Heartwarming stories of good character will delight your children!  They do not have to be read in order.  If your family is a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, you can even use this series as a history curriculum alongside The Prairie Primer.

Who Was...What Was...Where Was?
These are nice tidbits - introductions to a particular topic.  There are MANY books in this series, covering a wide variety of aspects -- historical, scientific, and current events.  This is another series that would be useful with struggling middle school readers.  They are non-fiction, but written in an engaging style that reads like a novel.

Modern Mythology
Somewhat historic in nature, each of the books in our Modern Mythology series, written by our 15 year old son, tackles a different culture's mythology.  They are written from a modern-day perspective, but teach quite a bit about the mythology of many ancient cultures, such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Celts, and more.  There are seventeen books thus far in the series.

 Rick Riordan

Access all of our FREE Novel Studies for both modern and vintage literature here.

Tuesday, May 28

Nick & Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle

Secret Agent Gadget Battle After foiling a gang of kidnappers and fending off an army of robots, 11-year-old siblings Nick and Tesla Holt could use a little rest! But as their third mystery opens, they discover there’s a spy in their midst, searching for secrets in the home of their beloved (and slightly crazy) Uncle Newt. Is it the new laboratory assistant? The exterminator? The housekeepers? Or someone completely unexpected? To expose the mystery agent, Nick and Tesla must engineer all kinds of outrageous contraptions, from code wheels and fingerprint powder to spy cameras and burglar detectors. Best of all, instructions are included throughout the story, so you can build the projects, too!

  • anagrams
  • furrowed
  • obtuseness
  • perfunctory
  • quarry
  • concede  
  • default  
  • nondescript
  • furtively 
  • sauntered
  • fretted
  • disdainful
  • careening
Document - Use your Free Lab Notebook for these!
  • Can you think of a time in history when codes were important?  When, and how were they used?
  • Use this code wheel or create your own secret code and send a letter to a friend.
  • Use references from the book to explain how Nick and Tesla are alike and how they are different.
  • Do you think Uncle Newt is crazy?  Why or why not?
  • What is reverse psychology, and how is it used in chapter 14?

Monday, May 27

Homemade Natural Bug Spray

*This was originally posted on Gypsy Road in June 2017*

The more I educate myself about DEET and other chemicals, the more I’m convinced I have to be proactive about finding better alternatives.   Going without isn't an option as mosquitoes and ticks seem to be out 24/7 in the summer...and being outside is a big part of summer on the homestead!

Instead of getting desperate and spraying on commercial bug sprays (that may contain some nasty chemicals), let's consider a better alternative... a natural bug repellent that smells wonderful, is effective, and takes only minutes to whip up!

Homemade Insect Repellent

  • 1 32 ounce bottle of Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 2 TBSP each of dried Sage, Rosemary, Lavender, Thyme and Mint
  • Quart size (or larger) glass jar with airtight lid
  1. Put the vinegar and dried herbs into large glass jar.
  2. Seal tightly and store on counter or place you will see it daily. Shake well each day for 2-3 weeks.
  3. After 2-3 weeks, strain the herbs out and store in spray bottles or tincture bottles, preferably in fridge.
  4. To use on skin, dilute to half with water in a spray bottle and use as needed.
  5. Use whenever you need serious bug control!
  6. Fair warning: this stuff stinks when it is wet, though the smell disappears as it dries!

Friday, May 24

Natural Electrolytes

Working out in the heat of summer can take its toll on your body!  Today, we're going to focus on how you can address this serious summer concern with a homemade solution.  

I like to make up about a gallon ahead of time to keep on-hand in the fridge for use as needed.  (As an aside, I've also had friends and family use the replenishment drink as part of colonoscopy prep, with good results.)

Why should we care about electrolytes?
Our bodies rely on a balance of calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium chloride, hydrogen phosphate (a mineral), and hydrogen carbonate (a salt), which are vital for survival. 

If we dilute them too much, it can lead to death by “water poisoning.” They regulate our nerve and muscle function, our hydration, the pH of our blood, rebuilding damaged tissue, and determining blood pressure.

During strenuous exercise or exposure to excessive heat, you sweat and lose electrolytes.  These homemade recipes will help to replenish the electrolytes without all of the added chemicals found in marketed versions.

Electrolyte Replenishment Drink
Ingredients  (makes one quart)
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 ½ to 2 cups fresh water, depending on how strong you want the flavor
  • 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons natural sugar or honey, to taste
  • Blend everything together.
  • Pour a glass over ice.

Lemon Barley Water
·         2 medium sized lemons
·        -1/ 4 cup pearl barley
·         3 cups water
·         1/ 8 to 1/ 4 cup honey


  • Using a vegetable peeler, peel the zest of the lemons, avoiding the pith.
  • Put the zest in a medium saucepan with the barley and the water.
  • Squeeze the lemon juice into a cup and set aside.
  • Bring to a boil , reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes, until barley is soft.
  • Strain and discard the barley and the zest.
  • Stir in the reserved lemon juice and honey.
  • Chill before drinking. 

Monday, May 20

We Were There at the Normandy Invasion

***Pick up your FREE Activity Pack***

Back in the spring of 1940, toward the beginning of World War 2, Germany had invaded and seized control of France.  Four years later, in 1944, the Allies took it back…

In one of the best-coordinated military operations of modern history, General Eisenhower (later to be President Eisenhower) commanded ‘Operation Overlord’ to take back France.  Based in Britain, the Allies began the invasion by landing a huge army in Normandy, located on the northwest coast of France.  They landed on five beaches in the area – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword – on the morning of June 6, 1944.

Before arriving by ship, the Allies came by plane, attacking the Nazi defense and dropping paratroopers behind German lines.  They were assisted by local French Resistance fighters, who helped to communicate and to sabotage Germans in the area.

There is no exact count of how many men died, but it is estimated that 425,000 (including both Germans and Allies) were killed, wounded, or missing after the D-Day campaign.  Hitler lost control of France, however, and it was a major turning point in the outcome of World War 2.

Though its code name was ‘Operation Overlord,’ this event is often referred to as D-Day.  The D actually stands for "day."  Typically, any important military invasion was dubbed D-1, and the days after were D+1, D+2, etc.

Make / Do
  • Research what paratroopers and soldiers did on Omaha Beach.  Choose a role, and write a journal entry about your D-Day experience.
  • Use this free cloth map activity to see where the troops are and figure out where your character should be stationed.
  • Study troop movements with this interactive map.
Define / Identify
  • casualty 
  • draft 
  • infamy 
  • liberation 
  • onslaught 
  • premeditated 
  • propaganda 
  • What helped Operation Overlord to be successful? Why was Hitler not prepared?
  • How would you have kept up the morale of your troops after the devastating losses on the beaches of Normandy?

Check out all of our We Were There unit studies!

    Wednesday, May 15

    Midsummer Night's Dream & Celtic Mythology

    **Many thanks to our 15yo son, who created the Modern Mythology posts!**

    Many of the Celtic myths derive from superstitions and folklore. There is a lot of crossover between the mythologies like that of Arthur and that of the Romans and Norse. Both cultures had quite a bit of influence on the legends, as they both controlled the land for quit some time. This led to many of their customs and legends becoming similar. 

    One example is the fact that Lugh, an important god of Irish mythology, had a magic spear just as Odin had Gungnir, his spear. There is also a important figure named Dagda, who is shown to have a giant club and a skin draped over his shoulder, much like Heracles with his club and the skin of the Nemean Lion. 

    Unfortunately, there isn't much to write about the actual myths themselves. Most of the mythologies of places such as Wales and Scotland were lost with the coming of Christianity. The myths, which were retold through oral communication, were altered by the Christian faith.  Some were even lost to history!

    • A Midsummer Nights Dream - This book is a little easier to understand, and it appeals to a love of Legos!
      • The story takes place in Athens. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is planning his marriage with Hippolyta, and as a result he is a planning a large festival. Egeus enters, followed by his daughter Hermia, her beloved Lysander, and her suitor Demetrius.  Add a few sprites and fairies, and trouble ensues!
      • Read the full book synopsis here.
    • King Arthur - This an abridged and easier-to-read edition of the classic story.
    Make / Do
    • fairy
    • sprite
    • Arthur
    • Merlin
    • Excalibur
    • Gungnir
    • Lugh
    • Dagda
    • Heracles
    • How else do you think other mythologies have affected the evolution of Celtic myths?
    • Can you think of some books that have been influenced by Celtic myths?

    Tuesday, May 14

    How to Write a Business Letter (and Why!)

    As students become teens, it’s time for them to learn how to write a business letter. The goal of this writing is to articulate a concern and seek or suggest an action.

    Whether you've experienced troubles or enjoyed your stay, a business letter or follow-up to a phone call is a life skill that all teens should learn. These letters aren't just for expressing displeasure -- they're also a great opportunity to point out what's right with your product / service...although all too often, these letters aren't the ones that get written. 

    Business letters are used for the following situations :
    • To praise a product, service supplier, or staff person
    • To compliment a speaker
    • To compliment or praise an author
    • To praise someone for an achievement
    • To complain about poor product quality or poor service
    • To ask for political or social action or change
    • To write a letter of recommendation
    • To request information
    A few notes :
    • Letters may be written in block or indented form. See examples of both here.
    • Be professional.  A business letter should be on par with a resume; clean and precise.  It should also be fair and not abusive (if it is a letter of complaint).
    • Write clearly and to a point.  Use active writing and short paragraphs.  Keep it to a single page, if possible.
    • Single space your letter and leave a space between each paragraph. Use a plain font like Arial or Times New Roman.
    • Use underlining or bold print to emphasize a few words or a phrase that is the most important part of the letter.
    • Be persuasive.  Suggest a solution and provide sound reasoning for the suggestion.
    • Proofread your letter!!  I cannot stress this enough.

    Writing Assignment

    Use the sample letter below to practice writing a letter to one of these recipients :
    • City council member 
    • State legislator, representative, or governor 
    • Owner of a local business 
    • President or CEO of a corporation 
    • College or university admissions department 
    • Chamber of Commerce (to request brochures or travel information


    Sample Letter Format

    Contact Information (Your contact information. If you are writing on letterhead that includes your contact information, you do not need to include it at the start of the letter.)
    Your Name
    Your Address
    Your City, State, Zip Code
    Your Phone Number
    Your Email Address


    Contact Information (The person or company you are writing to)
    City, State, Zip Code

    Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name: (Use a formal salutation, not a first name, unless you know the person extremely well. Note that the person's name is always followed by a colon (:) in a business letter, and not a comma. If you do not know the recipient’s name, it is still common (and safe) to use the old-fashioned “To Whom It May Concern:”).

    The first paragraph of your letter should provide an introduction as to why you are writing so that your purpose is obvious from the very beginning.

    In the following paragraphs, provide more information and specific details about your request or the information you are providing.

    The last paragraph of your letter should reiterate the reason you are writing and thank the reader for reviewing your request. If appropriate, it should also politely ask for a written response or for the opportunity to arrange a meeting to further discuss your request.

    Sincerely / Thank you,   (Choose one.)

    Leave four lines for a Handwritten Signature (for a hard copy letter — use blue or black ink to sign the letter)

    Typed Signature

    Find more real-world writing lessons in The Writing Life course, included with your SchoolhouseTeachers membership!
    Whether your student sees himself or herself going into a creative field in the future or not, writing concisely, clearly, and powerfully are skills each of us needs to learn. In The Writing Life: Learn to Write Well homeschool course, students are given the opportunity to learn just that.
    This full-year course for high schoolers is just one of the 450+ courses included with a membership, which covers all classes for every student in your house!

    Monday, May 13

    Fascinating Chemistry {Review}

    When we think of homeschooling through high school, most of us are intimidated by the responsibility of teaching science and math.  After all, many of us struggled with those subjects ourselves in school, so what makes us think we could teach our kids...

    Fascinating Chemistry, from Fascinating Education, is one of those programs that might be a great alternative for students who are strong auditory learners or for those who are interested in a more high-tech program. It might also be a good program for those older students who still struggle with reading comprehension.  The company offers programs in chemistry, biology, and physics.

    What is included in this course:
    The Chemistry course consists of the visual course in which Dr. Margulies narrates the entire presentation at a comfortable rate of speech; a multi-page script you can download and print off; chemistry experiments (you will need to have a second password to access these) and tests (which are online multi-choice tests and are self-graded or you can download PDFs of the tests).  You will need an online connection to access the course lectures, which are a PowerPoint-type presentation.

    Material covered in the course:
    • Lesson 1:The Intramolecular Bond
    • Lesson 2: The Ionic Bond
    • Lesson 3: The Covalent Bond
    • Lesson 4: The Polar Covalent Bond
    • Lesson 5: The Metallic Bond, Part 1
    • Lesson 6: The Metallic Bond, Part 2
    • Lesson 7: Heat
    • Lesson 8: Air Pressure
    • Lesson 9: Properties of Water
    • Lesson 10: The Mole
    • Lesson 11: Gases
    • Lesson 12: Solutions
    • Lesson 13: Chemical Reactions
    • Lesson 14: Orbitals
    • Lesson 15: Electrochemistry
    • Lesson 16: Polymers
    • Lesson 17: The Nucleus
    • Lesson 18: Final Problems
    Labs, which are matched to the lessons:
    • Lesson 2: Salt Crystals
    • Lesson 3: London Dispersion Forces
    • Lesson 6:Making Brass
    • Lesson 7: Heat of Fusion and Volume of Ice
    • Lesson 8: Weight of Air,Atmospheric Pressure, and Barometer
    • Lesson 9: Density, Sugar in soft drinks, and Viscosity
    • Lesson 11: Heat
    Could this course count as a high school chemistry credit?  
    According to the FAQs, the content in the course is similar to that found in other high schools chemistry classes.  However, in terms of the amount of material (plus labs), it doesn't seem to add up to the approximate 120-150 hours of coursework necessary for full year Chemistry class.  It seems to me that additional resources would need to be added to this class in order for me to feel confident that my student was doing work worthy of a high school course.

    Our Thoughts
    Because Fascinating Chemistry is designed for high school students, and my son is an 11-year-old 6th grader, we broke each lesson down a bit more than suggested.  We spent at least a week on each lesson.  We watched them once, read through the printed script together, and then watched them again.  We reviewed the material at least twice before heading into the lab section.  

    I like how Dr. Margulies combines visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles for the most retention of the material.  The lessons are presented clearly and in an understandable manner, and the graphics are beautiful and informative.  Also, when we hit upon an activity that my son asks to do (very rare event), rather than my telling him to do it, it gets brownie points!

    A couple of suggestions that I would like to see added to the course
    • A PDF of all materials needed for all of the labs in the course…so that we make sure to have them on-hand.
    • Printable PDFs of the diagrams presented in the power point.

    Crew Disclaimer

    Ten Best Vintage Novel Series for Boys

    We live in a throw-away society that places a premium on all things new and shiny.  Toaster breaks?  Buy a new one.  Car not working right anymore?  Buy a new one.  New is supposed to be better.

    But I don’t think that’s true…..especially when it comes to literature.

    In 1944, C.S. Lewis stated, “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”  He went on to say, “If a reader must read only the new or the old {books}, I would advise him to read the old.”

    Reading aloud with my children - regardless of their ages - is one of my greatest mom passions.  I began reading to them in utero and am still keeping it up...umpteen years later.  I know that they are going to choose the more modern books to read in their free time, so we often choose vintage literature to read together as a family.

    • Vintage literature tends to be cleaner and teach good morals.
    • Vintage literature encourages children to dream, but also teaches them to help.
    • Vintage literature provides a unique ‘primary source’ perspective on historic events.
    When I discovered that Amazon carried Megapacks of these books, it was a Happy-Dance kind of day!!  These are such an amazing find, and here's why --
    • Each megapack has between eight and fifty (!) books in it.
    • They are priced from 59 cents to 1.99.  (That's for the whole pack, not per book.  A steal!)
    • They're accessible anywhere, and I can loan them out just like a regular book.

    G.A. Henty
    Henty's stories typically center on a youth who is about 15-16 years old at the start of the story and run for the next five or six years. The story shows the virtue of education, discipline, and hard a lot of luck. There is quite a bit of history tucked into the pages as well!  These are the well-loved stories that have been adapted into Heirloom Audiobooks.

    The G.A. Henty Megapack collects 20 classic adventure novels -- more than 4,500 pages! -- by the great Victorian author.

    Dave Dawson
    Robert Sidney Bowen, Jr. (1900– 1977) was a World War I aviator, newspaper journalist, magazine editor and author. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and died of cancer in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the age of 76. Bowen is best known for his boys’ series books written during World War II, the Dave Dawson War Adventure Series and the Red Randall Series. He also worked under the name R. Sidney Bowen and under the pseudonym James Robert Richard. 

    Included in this volume are 14 novels in the Dave Dawson War Adventure series.
    Tom Swift
    Tom Swift seems to have unfathomable resources to do pretty much anything he wants. He can build things, do things, go places, and have extraordinary adventures!  Similar to the Rover Boys, but set just a bit before them, these will appeal to fans of Hardy Boys adventures.

    The Tom Swift Megapack presents the first 25 volumes of the famous series in proper order, with original cover illustrations.
    Sherlock Holmes
    The stories in this collection are relatively new; they are also short and conventional.  All but a few follow the comfortable and familiar, tried-and-true formula of having Dr. Watson serve as narrator.  The combination of plot, character, and setting are as expected from a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

    This volume assembles a mammoth collection of modern Sherlock Holmes stories -- no less than 25 tales -- by modern masters.
    The Rover Boys were precursors to the Hardy Boys -- three brothers who solved mysteries and had adventures at boarding school, on vacation, and abroad. They were considered to be decent, honorable chaps, and never mean-spirited. They were fun-loving, red-blooded American lads who had numerous adventures involving cars, boats, motorcycles, trains, airplanes, guns and other fun things. Their adventures often took them to grand and exciting places.

    For fans of Indiana Jones and The Hardy Boys, this set contains all twenty volumes of the series.

    Tom Corbett, Space Cadet
    When these books were written, it was believed that Mars had artificially-built canals filled with water,that Venus contained life and could be colonized, and that the planets in our solar system could be readily reached in just a few days.  This collection features Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series, plus Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet, by Blake Savage; Star Born, by Andre Norton; and The Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim.

    This set has ten sci-fi novels - all except the very last book of the series, Robot Rocket.
    King Arthur
    Matters Arthurian have been a theme in literature since the Middle Ages. King Arthur, Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail are now part of popular culture.
    These stories employ the Arthurian legends, ranging from early epic poems to 19th and 20th century novels and stories, showing how these myths and legends continue to enjoy new life.

    Fans of knights and kings will enjoy these 19 stories!
    Boy Detectives
    This collection includes several stand-alone novels (not part of a series) that feature mysteries with boy detectives.  The tales feature boy detectives, from Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer, Detective" to entries in the Mercer Boys, Ken Holt, Hal Keene, and Skippy Dare series, and lots more -- over 1,400 pages of great reading! 

    This collection features twelve stories.
    Aeroplane Boys
    Published between 1910 and 1913, the Aeroplane Boys series consisted of 8 books aimed at boys fascinated by the new technology of flight. It was written by H.L. Sayler under the pseudonym “Ashton Lamar” and focused on the adventures of a group of amateur flyers.

    The collection includes eight full-length novels.
    Dick Hamilton Boys' Adventure
    The Dick Hamilton series chronicles the adventures of a boy who struggles to keep the family fortune after his mother’s death. Fortune-seekers, a greedy uncle, and other perils await Dick around every corner.  Although not always politically correct by current standards, the stories are rollicking adventures. Fans of the original Hardy Boys, Rover Boys, Motor Boys, and other similar series will enjoy them.

    The set includes six books from the series.

    Though not available in an e-book megapack, one of our all-time favorite read aloud series with the boys is Tales of the R.A.F.  There are six books in the series by Don Patterson.  They are set during World War 2 in England, and follow the lives of a Royal Air Force squadron and young Harry Winslow.  These brave, adventure stories with good morals will delight you and your children!