Friday, May 25, 2018

Bridge to Terabithia

My oldest daughter, a voracious reader, has volunteered to review some of her favorite books on Highhill Education. Here is her first review.


     In a heartwarming and heartbreaking story, Bridge to Terabithia follows the friendship of two fifth grade students, Jess Aaron and Leslie Burke. It was published in 1977 by Katherine Paterson, and won the Newbery Medal in 1978. In 2007, Bridge to Terabithia was adapted into a film. A moving story of friendship and loss, Bridge to Terabithia is a story for children aged around 12 and up.
     Using deceptively simplistic language, Paterson eloquently weaves an incredibly complex story.     Though it primarily follows Jess and Leslie, several other characters (including May Belle, Mrs. Meyers and Janice Avery) are carefully developed. Most, if not all of the characters experience loneliness; which is a key theme throughout the novel.
     In the beginning, Jess’s greatest dream is to be the fastest runner in fifth grade. However, though he has trained all summer, his dream evaporates when he and other boys are easily beaten by the strange new kid: his neighbor, Leslie. Initially, Jess’s disappointment appears as anger, and he and his classmates shuns Leslie. However, Jess eventually realizes Leslie is quite an interesting person, which leads to their becoming friends. Together, they create the world of Terabithia, a magical kingdom of which they are the rulers, where they can escape from their worldly problems. However, one day, in a failed attempt to reach Terabithia, Leslie is terminated, leaving Jess anguished and full of despair.
     Overall, Bridge to Terabithia tells a compelling story which examines the essence of human nature. As reviewed by The Horn Book, “the story is one of remarkable richness and depth.” It is a book which the reader will continue to think about, and may even reread. Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful story for children aged around 12 and up.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Nailed It Cake Baking - Chemistry? - Problem Solving?

Have you seen the cake baking show on Netflix called Nailed It? If not imagine selecting three average people, showing them a gorgeous cake and challenging them to make it. They are given internet access, supplies and a time limit. As the three bakers compete against each other to recreate the best cake, three experts watch and comment among themselves discussing interesting ideas of the bakers as well as things they should probably have done differently. Some people do quite well, but most end up doing some improvisation. All use their best problem solving skills to attack the given challenge.

The results are hilarious, especially when time is in short supply and plans do not go as expected. What would you do if your cakes overflowed? How do you make melted chocolate look like mud? Have you ever made fondant?


This show has inspired our latest series of educational activities. Earlier in the year we made bread for science and then we learned to make candy. In both cases a recipe was both given and followed for every activity. Thinking scientifically in terms of chemistry, students are typically given an experiment to follow which is much like a recipe.

In more advanced chemistry classes, students are given only basic instructions and asked to design an experiment which will solve a problem. These cake baking challenges are more in-line with advanced baking because they involve using problem solving skills. Whether or not they are considered chemistry is up for debate, but they are excellent activities for middle school children. Nailed It was such a natural inspiration.

Because I wanted the kids to be successful in the challenges, I made a few alterations to the rules. First, we did not have a time limit. In fact, they were given the challenge several days in advance and asked to come up with a plan which included a shopping list. They were given internet access which they could use to find a recipe or directions or examples of items they were trying to recreate. Secondly, they were asked to work together. Since they are siblings, they are constantly competing. I wanted these challenges to be fun and cooperative.

For the first challenge, they were asked to recreate the emoji cakes created on Nailed It.


They had watched the episode and heard the experts suggest using butter to grease the pans and did so themselves. Despite this fact, their cakes still stuck to the pans. We still haven't discovered the problem.

The kids have never made fondant before, and had to learn how. On the emoji episode, some of the bakers had never used fondant and that proved to be an issue. One added too much food coloring ruining the fondant. Therefore, icing was used as a last minute substitute. The result was acceptable, but fondant would have been much better.

Here are the cakes my kids made. Keep in mind, I didn't help in this activity at all. Bonus!


Their biggest issue was creating black fondant. I think you can purchase black food coloring? That however wasn't on their shopping list. Instead, they mixed all the colors and were able to come with a shade of grey. I think it looks pretty good.

The cake tasted good too. Now I'm no expert, but love a little sweet every now and then.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Pattern Explorer Review

Pattern Explorer is one workbook, from The Critical Thinking Company While their other workbooks were equally engaging, I felt this one was the most appropriate level for my kids. Their workbooks are unique because they are designed to teach kids how to think. This one really works! I would recommend it as well as trying others.

Pattern Explorer comes in Levels 1 and 2. The Level 2 book pictured here is geared towards students studying pre-algebra or algebra. Each page contains several picture problems such as the one shown below. The top problem on the left shows a series of figures containing solid and transparent circles. The student is asked how many shaded and total circles appear in later stages of the series.

This may seem like quite a difficult question, but the table below the figures assists the students in finding the answer by helping to recognize patterns. Once the table is completed it becomes much easier to see how the number of circles in later figures is determined.


The page on the right above shows a different type of problem in the book. The balance problem works a little like solving a algebraic problem in which you can divide both sides by the same number, or subtract the same number from both sides. For example, the top problem asks how many diamonds will balance a pentagon. One pentagon sits on the top left scale balancing four triangles. Two triangles balance three diamonds on the other scale. To solve the problem, students must figure out how the different shapes relate to each other. Students can arrive at the same answer thinking about the problem in different ways.

In addition to these two types of problems, the book contains sequence problems, function problems and number problems all designed to teach kids to think. As a child I was always good at math, and now I have kids who are good at math. These books are excellent for kids excelling in math, but would also be good for those struggling as they approach problems in a pictorial way that appeals to the brain in a different way.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Life of Fred English and Grammar

Did you know there are Life of Fred English books?


The creator of Life of Fred is a retired high school math teacher who entertains students while doing an excellent job teaching the application of math. Unlike a typical math textbook, the books require little "kill and drill" problem work.

In the language art series, five year old math professor Fred, travels to Australia and ends up teaching language arts. In the same way the math books teach application of concepts, the language arts series aims to teach the application of grammar.

I worked through the series of four books over a period of about six months with my fifth and eighth grader who have a good background in creative writing and some knowledge of the parts of speech. We found the books entertaining and a good overview of English and grammar.

Because language arts does not naturally build upon itself like math, we found it difficult to retain all of the concepts presented in the books. Therefore, I would recommend working through these books as a review or as a tangent to other language arts lessons. They are worth while, but I would not rely on them as the sole method for learning literature and grammar concepts.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Firekeeper's Son

Set in Korea, The Firekeeper's Son is a fictional story based in history.


Long before telephone communication and the internet, the Koreans used signal fires to warn the king of a pending attack. In case of attack, enemies were most likely to arrive by sea. Therefore, the firekeeper living closest to the sea would light a fire every night to signal he did not see enemy soldiers. There were a series of firekeepers between the sea and the palace, and it was each firekeeper's job to light a fire after ensuring the fire in his line of sight was burning. If ever a fire was not lit, it was a sign of trouble.

Firekeepers tended to come from the same family. In The Firekeeper's Son, one night the fire didn't burn as usual. When the son went to investigate, he found the fire should have been lit and made sure the job was completed proving himself to be a qualified firekeeper.

This tale of courage not only teaches children about a small part of Korean history, but inspires. When kids hear tales of children taking responsibility it empowers them to do the same. I recommend this picture book for kids K-4th grade.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos - Book Release

My husband wrote a book and my daughters and I illustrated it! Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos


I'm so excited to tell you about our second product from Highhill Educational Supplies, but first let me tell you about the author.


Jeff Norkoli is an informed citizen who has learned to gather information from a wide variety of news sources and thereby think for himself. Being aware of issues in the country is a passion of his, and living overseas in Europe for six years has given him a unique perspective. As a homeschooling father since 2007, he has learned to appreciate the value of a great story.

He holds degrees in both civil engineering and computer science. Throughout his career he has continuously been given tasks which include writing because his co-workers..... (didn’t want to do it)…. discovered his gift of word smithing. 

Long before becoming a homeschooling father, his own father shared with Jeff his talent for creativity with words often writing poems for birthdays and other special occasions. Jeff enjoyed listening to his father’s ballads and inherited his ability to naturally create them. His talent for writing coupled with his interest for educating children in an entertaining way inspired him to write this children’s book.



With sales down at his taco restaurant, Johnny Van Socken invents a new delicacy that becomes an instant success: jelly bean tacos! Unfortunately for Johnny, his success poses a threat to some of the local business owners. When the other business owners convince the local government to pass rules to control the sale of jelly bean tacos, Johnny stands up to protect his rights as a businessman, as well as the rights of his customers.

Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos is written in verse and perfect for kids ages 4-10. The story introduces kids to the concept of government protectionism without ever mentioning the phrase. Like the card game Speed! which is truly a game, Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos is truly an entertaining book. Although kids will come away with an understanding of protectionism, this is not a lesson in disguise. It is a great story!

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Giver

 What does a perfect world look like to you? Would you like to live in a place with no pain or fighting? Would you like to live in a place where each person works in their ideal job and where nobody suffers from hunger?

 The Giver by Lois Lowry tells a strange story of a utopian world. All the people are happy and just go about their lives questioning nothing. What they don't understand is what they have given up to live in this ideal world.... Free choice and so much more.... After all, their ideal world was created by their ancestors many generations ago.


This book is an excellent read for children 11 years old and up as reading it will invoke questions of personal beliefs and philosophy.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Learning to be a Designer

For over a year now my youngest child has stated she wants to be a designer. More specifically, she is referring to a clothes designer.


When she was five years old she met Denise DeMarchis, creator of the Matilda Jane clothing company. At the same time she met three other individuals connected to Matilda Jane. Shortly after that she began talking about becoming a designer, and for the last year she seems quite convinced that is what she would like to do.

My daughter is a creative child who loves art and would create and sew the entire day if possible. Because she wants to be a designer, at least for now, we are doing as much as possible to incorporate that into her education. For her computer work, she is learning how to draw using the free vector graphics program Inkscape. She watched a Netflix series on Art and Design and we are sewing again this year.

Sewing has been the highlight of her school week for two years now. My mom is a sewing fanatic and has been teaching my daughter and I everything she knows. Here is a glimpse of a few of the projects she has completed this year.

Snowman Potholder: This project involved sewing machine in-the-hoop applique and the chenille technique of fraying appliqued fabric, as well as incorporating heat protective layers into sewing projects.

 Christmas Tree Pillow: Paper piecing is a quilting technique for creating detailed designs with a pattern.

 Snowman and Christmas Tree Wall Hangings: These projects involved sewing with the blanket stitch, fusible wonder under for applique, applying rhinestones, and sewing on buttons with the sewing machine.

Flower Pillow: This pillow was sewing on the serger sewing machine and incorporated piping and unique fabric tucks.

Puffy Pillow: This pillow used texture magic, a heat sensitive product that puffs up when exposed to the heat from an iron. The iron actually never touches the material.


Batik Fabric Dying: These two pieces of fabric were created in a class to learn techniques of Batik Fabric creation. Wax was used as a resist and ironed off to remove from the fabric.

Design is a field that can go in many directions and there is an endless supply of machines and techniques to learn. Projects are varied and endless. Sewing day is not only the favorite day of the week for my youngest, but it is my favorite school day as well. I love learning and creating along with her.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

Life of Fred Chemistry

While candy and bread making were tasty fun for chemistry, we also studied the Life of Fred Chemistry book and memorized the periodic table.


I LOVE the Life of Fred Chemistry book! Studying chemistry with my oldest child a few years ago was easy with Life of Fred. Chemistry was put into a context that made sense and was perfect for an in-depth introduction. Now my fifth and eighth graders are getting the same chemistry experience. Since they are both well into algebra, the math portion of chemistry is within their capabilities.

My favorite part so far this time around is the song.... "Johnny was a student, but Johnny is no more, what Johnny thought was H2O was H2SO4."

If you're not familiar with Life of Fred know that it is a series that teaches through story with a heavy emphasis on application. We really like all of the Life of Fred books we have experienced including the entire math series, first to book of the Language arts series and the Chemistry book.

Along with studying Life of Fred Chemistry, we took some time to memorize the periodic table. We did this by learning the Periodic Table Song below.

It took quite a while to memorize the entire song, but we only spent a few minutes a week working on it. By learning around three new elements each time we went slow, but steady. I think the memorization work will make studying higher level chemistry so much easier.

Science has been a fun subject this year as we have been able to incorporate lots of hands on studying of bread making, candy making and microscope work, with memorizing the periodic table and book work from Life of Fred. The kids and I have really enjoyed it.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Making Candy for Science

Once we were through with making bread for science, the kids began making candy.


Like making bread, making candy is also a science. Just melting chocolate involves measuring temperature and a precise heating and cooling cycle. If proper tempering isn't done, chocolate can burn or end up with unsightly white streaks. I liken it to the science of metallurgy where metals are combined, heated and cooled to precise temperatures in order to achieve desired characteristics.


Although there are several science candy making kits on the market, we chose to put together our own. Unfortunately many reviews of such kits stated there really wasn't much inside the boxes. Therefore, we purchased the Candy Making book by Autumn Carpenter and found our own supplies. While there are several websites available for purchasing supplies, we discovered a local candy supply store. We paid the store a visit and left with a big box full of supplies.

Beginning with simply dipping treats into chocolate and making clusters, we learned about candy coatings, flavorings, peppermint crunch and more. The kids made a few friends giving away candy and were thrilled to have so many treats around the house.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Making Bread for Science

My kids have been baking bread to learn about science and satisfy their tummies.


We began our science lessons this year by learning about the microscope. Using the Ultimate Guide to Your Microscope, the kids studied an entire world of small things. Next we moved into hands-on chemistry.

In the past, I have had difficulty making good bread, while my dinners have always turned out fine. I'm a person who doesn't like to follow a recipe exactly as written, but rather use it as a guideline. While this works out fine for culinary dishes, it is a disaster with baking. Why? Baking is a science. It requires careful measuring and proportions. Ingredients must be precisely measured so the chemical reactions can take place. Improper proportions result in dough that falls, or doesn't rise properly, or doesn't cook properly. These are a few of the reasons we chose to learn to make bread for about 10 weeks this year as a small part of our chemistry program.


We followed the book Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz as a guide. The first section of the book lightly explains the science of baking and goes in-depth into the differences in ingredients. The author recommends weight ingredients instead of measuring with cups and spoons as it is a much more accurate method for proper proportions.

After the introduction section, the book contains ten main recipes for various types of bread such as brioche, baguette, bagels, and whole wheat. Each main recipe can be altered to make many more breads. Some breads can be made in one day, while croissants take three days to prepare.

By making the breads, the kids learned how adding yeast in different amounts at different times during the preparation process can affect the final bread. Making bread was a tasty experience the kids really enjoyed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

American History for Middle School

This year I found a new history book to add to our collection.


I love history books that tell the story and explain reasons behind decisions. In the past I have discussed several history spine books. Books that give an overview of a time period which can spark deeper interest into historical topics and help kids to put more in-depth history studies into context. The majority of the books I have found provide overviews of world history, such as the well-known series Story of the World. Since we were studying American History this year, I was looking for something different.

That's when I discovered The Landmark History of the American People. There are two volumes separating American history around the time of the Civil War. The first is from Plymouth to the West and the second is from Appomattox to the Moon. Since we already studied Early American History, we only read volume 2.

The chapters did a good job at explaining causes and effects and discussed subjects that are often overlooked by other books. For example, the book had a sizable section covering mail order catalogs such as Sears and Roebuck, their reasons for coming into existence and how their being affected people. Since reading the book, my son has been asking a lot of questions on topics such as World War II. Yes! Finally he is curious about history.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Essentials in Writing - Our Writing Curriculum for 2017 and 2018

With a 5th grader and 8th grader learning at home, this is the first year we have followed a structured writing curriculum.


As I've stated in the past, I believe reading, writing and math are fundamental skills required for any education. Although we haven't followed a structured writing curriculum, we have worked on writing. The Brave Writer philosophy has had lots of influence on our past writing, and we have always placed value on working on writing 3 to 4 times per week.

So why now? This year my 11th grader is thriving in an AP Composition class at our local high school. Obviously, the lack of a writing curriculum hasn't had too much of an impact. Well, the main reason is that I finally found a curriculum I wanted to follow.

The Essentials in Writing program is very much in-line with our family's approach to writing. It covers grammar, but doesn't over emphasize it. Instead, it places a large focus on making writing interesting. There are many lessons on incorporating action verbs, descriptive adjectives, adverbs, simile, metaphor, personification, and onomatopoeia. The lessons begin by identifying literary elements and then teach incorporation through the use of writing short paragraphs.

In addition, I was drawn to the program because it was simple to implement. The book comes with video professor lessons which are between 2 to 10 minutes in length per lesson. We usually watch the lessons, and then work on the assignments in the book. Our family chooses to work on writing four days per week, one hour per day for a total of four hours per week. Most days we cover one lesson, but often cover one-and-a-half, to two lessons. I believe we are on-track to complete the book over the school year.

As with most curriculum, this one is far from perfect. I have found mistakes and a few questions that could have been worded better. Overall, I feel Essentials in Writing has been a good addition to our school day this year. It has kept our writing sessions short and focused, and made them a lot easier for me to implement. I'm still undecided as to whether or not we will follow the curriculum next year and at what level, but this year it has taught the kids a lot and we will continue to finish the book.

As a side note, this is not the writing program IEW, or Institute for Excellence in Writing, which is very popular but a different writing program.
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