The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Released in September of 2013, The Year of Billy Miller has received nothing but glowing reviews. We got the audiobook for long car trips (and bedtimes, and…), but I was surprised to find that after the big hit that was Fortunately, the Milk, my seven year-old son seemed nonplussed by this story of a seven-year old boy in second grade, despite having a myriad of parallels with the character. After listening to the entire thing along with him, I’m a bit conflicted about the story myself. Stay tuned for more after the jump.


Kevin Henkes, author of Chrysanthemum, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, and many more says:

Books are often the first exposure to art that children have. Keeping that in mind urges me to make the very best books possible. I know how important the books from my childhood were (and are) to me. Without them, I might not be a writer and artist today.

Priscilla Gilman’s New York Times book review says:

That Billy’s anxieties and problems are typical of elementary-school boys will comfort young readers. Billy is impulsive, distractible and has “words in his head” that don’t always “make it to his mouth.” He gets frustrated by fine motor tasks. He worries that his diorama looks as if “it was made by a 2-year-old”; he decides to write a short poem “because that would mean fewer words he might not be able to spell.” Fearing that “Mama” and “Papa” sound “babyish,” he resolves to call his parents Mom and Dad in public.

I agree with all of that. The book is an arguably cute story about seven year-old second grader Billy Miller, and the bump on his noggin that makes him worried about starting second grade sets the tone for the rest of the story. He’s the oldest sibling in a two-child nuclear household; Dad is an artist, Mom is a teacher. So far, so good. Billy has trouble sometimes with self-expression and verbalizing his feelings, which is vastly identifiable for many children, and especially boys, and he worries at the begining of the school year about whether he has offended his new teacher, Ms. Silver. In fact, interpersonal relationships are the primary theme of the book: family, friends, unfriends, teachers. Social anxieties and lack of confidence in developing skills are prominent throughout the story. Billy’s struggles are, in short, completely identifiable. Whether to call his papa ‘Papa’ or ‘Dad’. Whether the snotty girl in the class hurts his feelings. Whether he hurts someone elses’ feelings. And there’s an admirable example of sibling sharing that occurs in what might be the most touching moment of the book.

My concerns with the book are as follows: Billy vacillates as to whether or not he “hates” his sister, and at one point in the very short book he fantasizes about being a bat so he can bite, poison, and kill his female nemesis in the classroom. While I understand the emotions behind the sentiments of young boys fairly well having a Billy Miller aged son, I really wish that instead of being so relatable, he’d set a good example or offered coping strategies for those feelings.

And that’s another thing: Billy Miller is, perhaps, too relatable to hold the interest of a young boy. Boys in the target age range for this book love action, adventure, and fantasy; they don’t necessarily want to hear a story that’s exactly like their life.

If you have a long car trip or this book becomes a trendsetter, read it – it’s much better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid or lots of other books out there. It just isn’t as good as it could be.

If you decide to read this book with your literate little one, you can get your copy here and  find the Teacher’s Guide here.

Categories: Ages 4-8, Children's Books, Children's Novels | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Theresa Heary-Selah, founder of SHINE, a small group correspondence program for homeschoolers, with individual mentoring

Theresa has a Masters in Education from Bank Street School, and taught for 10 years, including teaching SAT prep. A mom herself, Theresa has recently founded SHINE, a personalized online correspondence program that provides individual mentoring to each of her students between the lessons. She keeps her virtual classes small- 6 students a session – and tailors the classes to the individual need of each batch of students.

  • Theresa, you used to teach; what made you switch to teaching at-home classes? 

I wanted to spend more time with my daughter and be able to travel and move to be closer to some old friends. My best friend and I run a day program for homeschooled kids in Schoharie County, NY.

  • How long have you been involved in homeschooling? HPIM0203

The school that I ran in MA was a homeschool coop called The Chicken Coop at The Farm School.  Basically, parents (one of whom ran an educational farm) were seeking educational opportunities for their middle school students. They hired me, gave me three students and a big partially converted Chicken Coop. We worked together to finish the conversion. The students and I wired the electricity and built the simple furniture. It was really magical. The school grew and grew, and the curriculum and traditions became more solid. The school regularly enrolls a dozen students each year, and has solid reputations with both the private and public schools in the area. I founded that school and ran it for 10 years. Last year was Shine’s inaugural year, so I have been homeschooling other people’s children for 11 years.

  • What would you say summarizes your educational philosophy?

Life is juicy! Every aspect of the world is sufficiently beautiful, interesting or upsetting to warrant an investigation. The skilled teacher figures out what the kids need to know to be responsible citizens and how to present it so that the kids are most likely to engage. Then she gets out of the way, while the kids explore, work with, and seek to understand. The best teachers are invisible. The kids are work and the teacher circulates, clarifies and encourages where need be. With today’s technology, I can be helping them as they work from anywhere. Sometimes, I have all the kids work on their own writing in breakout rooms of the online classroom, and I stop into each classroom to talk to them about their work.

  • Tell us a little bit about how the program works.

We begin by forming an online community. I teach the kids simple tools to help them make really great videos introducing themselves and what they think is important. I make forums on a social platform to help them interact and engage. While it is not the same as being friends with kids in your neighborhood, it does provide a sense of community and belonging. Some kids have been able to form true friendships! I plan online classes in which I present the relevant information to the kids, and allow them to discuss and interact with it. I answer their questions, make sure that they are engaged and know what ideas they are to explore, and I send them off to do it. The real conversations happen after class on a tool called VoiceThread. Check this out: The kids are really able to interact, share ideas, and learn. For shy students, VoiceThread is even better than a live conversation.

I offer the students tutorials for their writing and their projects, such as this one:  They write, send me their writing, and I comment upon it in a way that helps them grow and become stronger readers and writers. Here is an example of the sort of feedback I am able to provide:  That said, an online program cannot take the place of human friends and play. Kids need that, too. This is just one aspect of a complete education.


One of Theresa’s students hard at work, and loving it!

  • What inspired you to use the structure of small-group correspondence and mentoring?

Kids need a group and they need mentoring!

  • Although the name of the organization is Students at Home in New England, do you also accept students from other areas?

We started in New England, though the program is morphing and becoming more internet based. Yes, we accept students from anywhere. I have recently had a lot of interest from the West Coast, so I am going to be offering some classes at a time that is better suited to that side of the country.

  • Who will your program work best for?

My goal is to provide fresh material and interesting ideas for families to discuss together. I want to contribute to your dinnertime conversation! The program works best for kids from supportive and involved families, who would like a little help with curriculum and writing. Often, kids can better hear criticism when it comes from someone other than their parent. I can tell your kid that she misused a comma, and it is not a big deal. When the parent tries to provide the same information, kids often simply disregard it or rebel against it. Homeschooling does not mean that a parent is responsible for every single aspect of a child’s education.

  • What sorts of affiliations (if any) does SHINE have? none
  • Would SHINE also work supplementally for children in a traditional school setting? Sure!
  • Do you offer summer programs? Sometimes, it depends on the interest.

My favorite line from the site is: “We welcome families that are Christian, and work to be inclusive and create an environment where people of all backgrounds feel welcome. That said, we also welcome families with diverse family structures, gender-roles, genders, and definitions of gender. We welcome families who are atheist and pagan. We furthermore welcome families who, every now and then, run into WalMart or McDonalds. While the values that we support tend toward creating a financially and physically healthy world, we are not in the habit of telling other people what to do. ” This philosophy means that your child may broaden their horizons by sharing classes with children that may have a variety of worldviews, which can be an education in and of itself! For more information, you can visit or contact her at (518) 872-2548, or at


Categories: Correspondence Courses, Homeschooling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Waiting for Superman

In 2010, I was still saying never. Never will my son attend a public school. I had attended a public school for exactly one semester during my academic career, in the second semester of first grade, in Mississippi. I hated it so much that on dismissal for summer break, I shouted “I AM NEVER COMING BACK!” as I stalked toward my mom’s waiting station wagon. (I didn’t; she put me back into private school the next semester, and homeschooled me when we moved out of the area because of my father’s work.)

In 2010, Waiting for Superman came out, and oddly enough, my anti-homeschooling former in-laws recommended the film to me.  My 4-year old son was in a private preschool, and he was already having problems with his academics and socialization in large group classroom settings. I did what I said I’d never do, and put him in public school. His kindergarten year was decent, and he had a great teacher- but in the first couple of months of first grade he began racking up disciplinary notes and suspensions.  By 2012, he had managed to go through several public and private schools, being asked to leave two of them.

I withdrew him to homeschool. Our school district is considered to be excellent, but it seems the flaws in this documentary are universal.

Teachers – even the most passionate teachers – in every district are forced to teach to the standardized tests, and children are losing their passion for learning, thanks in no small part to the No Child Left Behind Act introduced by President George W. Bush in 2001. says:

“According to Waiting for Superman, from 1971 to today, America has gone from spending an average of $4,300 per student to $9,000 per student, (adjusting for waiting for supermaninflation). Though money doubled, reading and math scores have flat-lined. And US schools produce lower test scores than many comparable countries despite spending more on education than any other country.

Why you should care: Every American that pays taxes has a vested interest in the school system. There’s a direct link between education and crime. In Pennsylvania, for example, 68% of all prisoners are high school dropouts. The average prison sentence of 4 years costs $132,000. Now, multiply the $9,000 a year spent on a student by 13 years in education, and we’ve spent $117,000. Do the math. Where would you rather put your money?”

In what might be the most heartening (and simple) clip of the film, a teacher uses rap to get her inner-city students to learn math terms, with so much success that they sing the songs out on the playground. Here’s the trick, folks: kids love learning – as long as learning is fun. What’s fun? Experiential learning. Science experiments. Math games. History songs. And so on, and so forth. You know what’s not fun? Verbal rote memorization to pass a test. If you have to make a kid memorize something they can’t see a practical application for, you have to make it fun. Alterantively, you might be able to bully them into it- but what teacher has time for that? No teacher has enough time to devote a serious amount of individualized attention to her students. 1 divided by 27 is what? How many minutes of a 7-hour school day does your child get? My son’s sitter called me last Fall to let me know that my son was under his teacher’s desk barking like a dog and that when she gestured toward him and asked what was going on with him, the teacher merely shrugged and said, “Some years are better than others,” walked off, and went on about teaching her classroom while ignoring my son. Maybe she cared, maybe she didn’t: bottom line, she didn’t have time to deal with his individual issues. Whether she wanted to or not, she had to leave him to do his own thing or sacrifice the greater good.

Tenure, Teacher’s Unions, and the bureaucratic congestion of controlling “reform” severely limit teachers. Not only are they controlled by nationally implemented standards, they’re limited and directed by state standards, district standards, and individual school policies.  The teaching in the teaching profession has changed from our parents’ era. It’s about metrics, measurable standards of learning, and no longer about individuals and their levels of knowledge. 

Sometimes good teachers burn out. Sometimes they get discouraged and give up. And sometimes, they aren’t the right people for the job in the first place.

Education is the American Dream. It’s the difference between the immigrants of the foundations of our country, the children working in factories in the industrial age, and the minimum wage job holders on social welfare in our society. Education is the potential to rise above circumstances and achieve the American Dream.

Entire lives are at stake.

You can watch the documentary here. For more on the plight of public education in America, see our blog on The Cartel.

We do not receive any money for reviewing or using any of the products we feature, but we do receive a small percentage commission if you choose to by something through any of our Amazon links. Help a fellow homeschooler out, and shop through us! Thanks bunches!

Categories: Charter School, Education, Homeschooling, Learning to Read, Private School, Public School, Reading, School, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are your kids bored and restless? Do they love dragons? Here’s your answer.

We love dragons (and as an aside, we’ve discussed the possibility that dragons and dinosaurs are the same thing- the Bible would give us an indication that they might be). We read My Father’s Dragon and How to Train your Dragon back in 2011, and we’ve watched the How to Train Your Dragon movie (as cute as the book, for once).

This game is a startlingly worthwhile crescendo and it’s brand new. You can play for free (although we do have Jumpstart premium).

Is it educational? YES. This game focuses on science, with various scientific categories arranged into quests.

There are free coordinated science worksheets (by grade) on the site, here

If you want to further supplement the educational value with a unit study (yes, please!), there’s an amazing preschool pack that we’ve already used over at There are plenty of other lapbooking and other units we haven’t used at CurrClick and other sites.

I definitely recommend the game, the books, and the preschool pack.

Categories: Animals, Education, Homeschooling, Insects, Religion and Mythology, Science, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amazing Spheres: polymers and you

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From the site:

Great for introducing science principles to young scientists!

Just add water and watch these little clear and colored beads grow into giant jelly marbles. Before soaking, sort the different colors and ask yourself science questions like “How are these alike, and how are they different?” Do you think the different colors will grow to different sizes? Try it and see! Afterward, you can have lots of fun playing with your experiments. Find a water-safe surface and play the slimiest game of marbles in town, or try out your new jelly bouncy ball. You can even try to grow your amazing spheres in different liquids, like milk, vegetable oil, or salt water. Use a notebook and record your hypotheses and observations! 

With this kit you will:

• Sort, hypothesize, and test, just like a real scientist.

• Add water and watch your beads grow into giant jelly marbles that BOUNCE.

• Learn about the amazing superabsorbent polymer.

• Use physics magic to make the clear spheres disappear and reappear.

Science Principles explored in this activity: chemistry, applied chemistry, physics

This is a great kit for teaching science principles and skills to young scientists. The fun, colorful experiments capture the attention of the youngest science explorers, and children gain confidence, observational skills and the ability to follow-through with tasks as they set up experiments, wait for them to be completed, and record their experience by writing or drawing. 

You can easily incorporate the scientific method to principles learned by experimenting with your Clear Spheres. Be sure to act as a learning facilitator: encourage questions, and don’t have all of the answers. Instead say things like, “I’m not sure what will happen—let’s try it and see!” Amazing spheres are safe to poke, prod, pinch, or squeeze through your fingers. 

As a possible choking hazard, keep them away from pets and babies. Experiment components can be disposed of in the garbage either dry or hydrated (just don’t push them down the drain or they’ll wreak hydrated havoc on your pipes.) Be sure to set up your young scientist’s laboratory in a place that won’t be threatened by a little (inevitable) spilled water—after all, the mess is half the fun! The other half is the incredible science smarts, so have fun exploring. 

Superabsorbent polymers are an amazing family of molecules that scientists use every day to do research, prevent drought, and solve crimes. Parents use a very similar molecule every day to keep baby bottoms dry (that’s right–superabsorbent polymers are what make disposable baby diapers work!) 

With your adult assistant’s help, you can use amazing spheres to perform other science experiments. What experiments can you think of to try? Do you think amazing spheres will absorb other liquids besides water? Try it and see! You can also perform “magic” tricks as you “bend light” to make your clear spheres disappear and reappear. 

Amaze your parents and impress your friends–impress them even more with your science smarts! Your giant test tube can be used again and again for nearly any experiment you can imagine. So what are you waiting for? Start discovering!

Included in this kit: 
• Giant test tube
• Clear spheres
• Garbled Marbles

Ages 8 and up

Was this our most education experiment ever? Nope. But it sure was fun!

PS- they bounce!

NOTE: We purchased these for our own nefarious uses and are not likely to be reimbursed by the impoverished third-world nations that ordered us to do so.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment


Epic was… well, pretty epic.

While you’re at it, go over to Squarehead Teachers to get a spiffy forest printable unit, since it ties right into the theme.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Homeschooling Myth #4 – I don’t have the time to homeschool my kids

So much of the average school day is wasted lining up, filing in, creating order; children don’t get 7-8 hours of instruction. At home, we can cut straight to the work of learning. This blog makes its case excellently.

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The Wright Brothers

Nest Learning has a video about the Wright Brothers that we watched, although we didn’t do the coordinating worksheets for this one (yet). You can order the video here, check it out from your library, or watch the entire thing on Youtube! [ has a fantastic Wright Brothers coloring book here. also has some fantastic Wright brothers printables, one of which is here.

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Rose Art Bounce -n- Bumper Cars

We adore little craft kits, and this is the one we did today. You mold the nifty little packets of ball molding compound into a plastic car mold and submerging it into tepid water until it congeals befofre separating it from the mold and pressing it onto the chassis. Neat little craft.

Categories: Crafts | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

May is National Inventors Month – We’re emphasising Leonardo da Vinci

Yes, there’s really such a month. Congress officially recognized it in May of 2011,  although Inventor’s Digest and others have honored the month-long celebration of great minds in motion for longer.

Bean is already a huge fan of scientists and inventors of all varieties, but I decided to spend most of this month focusing on one of my favorite Renaissance inventors: Leonardo da Vinci, and supplementing with other inventors. Here’s our jumping off point:

We used Animated Hero Classics Leonardo da Vinci dvd. (This video is pretty hard to come by these days, but we managed to get one on Amazon anyway. Some libraries also carry them.)

For the printable workbook that we’re using (adaptable for all ages through upper elementary), there’s a library gracious enough to host the workbooks for the entire series on their site, and this is the direct link to the da Vinci workbook. Because we aren’t doing crossword puzzles or cursive yet, we’ve had to skip a few of the worksheets, but we’ve been able to do many of the “code” and coloring sheets.

We read Who Was Leonardo da Vinci? by Roberta Edwards. At 112 pages, we read it all in one night, and Trey listened raptly and asked questions. The book discusses Leonardo’s childhood in Italy before delving into a brief history of parchment and paper and then his apprenticeship to Adrea del Verrocchio. There are descriptions of apprenticeship programs and making inks with beetles, berries, stones, mortars, and pestles. The book discusses how math is useful for depth and precision in art, and it talks about the Renaisssance, major historical events, and Leonardo’s inventions. Overall, it’s a useful and informative book.da vinci

With a little help, Bean was able to build Pathfinder’s ‘working re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century “Aerial Screw” ‘ – or, Leonardo da Vinci Helicopter. The kit is for ages 9+, but younger ones can manage much of the construction. A huge selling point? From the box: “Based on his drawing from the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo’s Aerial screw was to use the power of four men to push the canopy and outer ring. We have scaled down the flying machine so that you can use your own Lego people. (Pick the ones with helmets!)”

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My apologies for the changing aspect of the video!

Side note: Leondardo was homeschooled.

Another note: We don’t get paid for writing these reviews or recommending or dissing products, but if you do shop through any of our Amazon links (even if you don’t buy what we linked to) we make a leetle commission, and we thank you in spades).

Categories: Children's Books, Children's Movies, Curriculum, Science | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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