Category Archives: Works for Me Wednesday

IXL Blues

A few months ago, I was looking for a way to punish my children when they are slack in their schoolwork. I wanted something that would be measurable, tedious and difficult, without taking up any of my time.

Key Parenting Principle: When punishing your children, you should always take care that you don’t punish yourself along the way.

In my search for a corrective tool, I happened upon IXL, an online program providing a seemingly endless variety of math problems at elementary through middle school levels. At the time, the subscription cost was prohibitive, and so I mentally set it aside. It just wasn’t worth $12 a month to me to punish my children — after all, I can punish them for free, most of the time.

Some homeschoolers just cry out for punishment.

A few weeks ago, I became discouraged with my children’s math progress. One problem with homeschooling is that you don’t always know what you don’t know, or haven’t been taught. I noticed that several of my kids seem not to have a solid understanding of some foundational math skills, and it made me sad to see them struggle to learn, when I know it is because we haven’t prepared them properly.

And then it came to me from the mists of my memory: IXL is the answer! Suddenly, I realized that IXL would be the perfect solution to the problem — not as a punishment tool, but instead as a way to fill in the gaps and solidify their understanding of foundational math principles.

Doesn't the logo make you think cheerful thoughts?

As I often do with new, shiny ideas, I jumped on this with both feet. “Let’s sign up Rachel and Daniel,” I enthused to Kathy.

“Are you sure about this?” she hesitated. “They are pretty busy already with school … ”

“They can always make time for this — it will be fun for them! They’ll thank me when they take the SAT and get great math scores.”

Ancient Edgren Proverb: Waiting for your kids to thank you is a good way to build patience. I signed Rachel and Daniel up, and assigned them five sections each day, demanding they reach 100% ‘mastery’ on each skill.

Later, when I saw how much fun it was for Rachel and Daniel, I decided to sign David and Sarah up, too. Sadly, IXL ends after middle-school, and Joshua (the show-off) is taking Calculus. “Maybe they’ll come up with an IXL for Washington State History,” I told Kathy, hopefully. “We could give him a subscription for Easter, wouldn’t that be fun?”

<sarcasm>Assigning five sections of IXL per day was a wildly popular decision.</sarcasm>

Perhaps the coolest thing about IXL is the way they enforce ‘mastery’. In order to get to a 100% Smartscore™, you need to prove to the program that you really understand the skill. As you proceed, the questions get harder and harder, and if you miss one, you are given two or three more questions of the same kind, to make sure you weren’t just guessing. If you don’t make any mistakes, you can finish a section in about 30 problems — but for every one you miss, you can expect three more. In extreme cases, you might find yourself working as many as 143 (I speak hypothetically, of course) problems on the same skill.

Sarah and I dancing together, celebrating the beginning of the IXL age.

Another really excellent attribute of IXL is the way it enforces careful precision and accuracy. As with many homeschooled kids, my children are used to their teacher giving them all kinds of grace and mercy. If they can show that they understand the problem, they can often get away with small arithmetic errors without being penalized.

Not so with IXL — the computer doesn’t care if you cry — if you didn’t enter in the exact, correct answer (with the decimal in the right place, the proper sign, and in some cases, the correct units) then you get no credit for that question. Learning that sometimes there is no ‘give’ in the world is important, I think.

I wanted them to quickly get up to speed, so I told them all to go down at least one grade-level from their current grade. “Do five sections a day,” I instructed them. “You must reach 100% mastery before you can go on to the next section.”

Since there are between 200 and 250 skills for each year level, I figured we could knock off a year’s worth of math in about ten weeks, leaving the summer for their current grade level. I was so excited that this automated tool would solve all our Math troubles.

A graph showing an individual student's progress over the course of a week.

A third feature of IXL really sells it to parents or teachers — the program readily produces reports that show each child’s progress. With minimal effort, I can see how long each child is taking to reach mastery on each skill, and how many skills they’ve finished each day. You can tell which children are skating through the skills with minimal effort, and which are struggling. In less than 30 seconds, I can monitor a whole day’s worth of progress.

It wasn’t more than a day or two into the new IXL program, before the push-back began. “I hate IXL,” one of my children complained. “IXL is ruining my life!”

As it turned out, five sections was a bit of an aggressive goal. While some sections might be finished in just a few minutes, others were taking more than an hour. Sarah, my nine-year-old, was spending an average of two and a half hours a day on IXL alone.

Daniel working on his French.

Tonight, we had a meeting of the mimes, in which I gave each person a chance to speak up about IXL.

Not our actual "Meeting of the Mimes".

I tried to explain my vision for the program, and how it was going to be a huge blessing in their lives, but much of my pep-talk fell on deaf (and in some cases, hostile) ears. Eventually, we came to a compromise: each school day, each of my kids will spend a minimum of 40 minutes working problems on IXL’s website, and will complete a minimum of one skill (no matter how long it takes). Also, I will pay a bonus of $100 cash (or $200 toward Worldview Academy or a short term missions trip) when they finish all 200+ skills of a grade level.

This seemed to cheer most of them up a bit. Maybe in a month or so I will publish a progress report, so you can see who is working the hardest toward Math Mastery.


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WFMW — MP3 Downloads

A couple of weeks ago we learned a new praise chorus in church. Written by Chris Tomlin, it is a simple, melodic song that, as we sang it in worship to God, reached a crescendo that touched my soul. I hummed it (off-tune, of course) all the way home. When I walked in the door, I immediately sat down and looked it up in Amazon’s MP3 Store. Sure enough, the song was entitled Praise the Father, Praise the Son, and was downloadable instantly for $0.99. I bought it on the spot, and was listening to it 60 seconds later. It turned out to be much better than my tuneless humming.

All this was done even before I had lunch, which just goes to show that there are more important things than Sunday lunch.

sarah, rachel and jenny

Rachel’s good friends joined us for church on Sunday.

When I was a surly young teenager, there weren’t very many voices in the Contemporary Christian Music scene. There were the Praise Maranatha Singers, Amy Grant, Keith Green, DeGarmo and Key, Petra, and somewhat later, that Johnny-come-lately, Michael W. Smith.

My parents had some deep misgivings about the godliness of this so-called ‘Christian’ rock music, and so I had to listen on headphones, or deep in the bowels of my basement bedroom. I remember feeling vaguely resentful about that, and using their seemingly-unreasonable stance against contemporary Christian music to justify (in my own mind, at least) my rebelliousness in listening to secular rock on the sly. (As is the case with many teenagers, I exercised no monopoly on logic.)

Now I have a teenager of my own, and two younger ones who seem to think they are teenagers. As a Christian parent, I am determined to encourage my children in godliness, and not to allow Satan a foothold in the area of music. For this reason, I permit, and even encourage my kids to develop their own tastes in the area of music styles, but I insist that they listen to music that has godly lyrics and is performed by people who love and follow Jesus. I don’t see any benefit that secular music would provide to my children, and so far nobody has argued that point with me.

sarah sweetie pie

Sarah doesn’t want to argue with her daddy, no sir!

In the old days, we would sign up for some CD-of-the-month club (like Sound and Spirit) and buy whole albums featuring our favorite artists. Or maybe we would go to a Christian book store and listen to some of their demo albums. Either way, we’d end up buying a whole CD. Then we would cull through those songs and find the one or two songs on the CD that we could stand, and add them to our playlist on the computer.

In this modern age of wonder, we can listen to each song in advance and we buy only the ones we like, at a competitive price, albeit in digital form.

For Kathy’s birthday, I made a list of all the songs I had heard recently, that I actually liked. (Kathy and I have similar, but not entirely congruent, tastes in music – but, hey, if I liked ‘em, she probably would, too. Either way, there would be music around that I like.)

I listened to our local Christian radio station for days, making notes every time I heard them play a good song. I searched the web for new songs by artists we have enjoyed in the past, and spent hours listening to their albums. Eventually, I had a list of 25 songs or so, and I spent an hour one evening buying them all. I loaded them on a flash drive, and wrapped it up for her so she could have something tangible to unwrap.

Amazon makes it really easy for you – once you’ve installed the download manager plug-in for your browser, you simply click to buy, and the song appears magically in the “Recently Added” section of Windows’ Media Player.

Now, when I want to reward one of my children, I buy them a song on Amazon. “Have a song on me,” I tell the fortunate child. They usually spend half an hour or so browsing around until they find a song they like. Then we download it onto my computer, and copy it to the laptop or the kitchen computer so we can play it from anywhere. If any of the kids really like it, they’ll put it on their mp3 player.

let's start a band!

Which one of these kids is gonna grow up to be a rock star?

It hasn’t always been peaches and cream. The kids don’t all have the same tastes in music, and deciding whose playlist we listen to in the kitchen or family room has been the cause of some considerable strife in our family.

Ask me about the Strategic Music Compromise we have, dated and signed, on our bulletin board.

Still, I think when all is said and done, we’ll continue to glorify God in the music we play in our home, and (I hope) my children will not be tempted into rebellion in the area of music.


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Black Forest Cake

My mother-in-law is a baker extraordinaire. She worked for several years as a caterer’s assistant and is talented and creative. Her cakes are stunning confectionery creations.

I am not that baker.

One of Tim’s favorite desserts is his mom’s Black Forest cake. I’m not particularly fond of cherries myself so it isn’t a recipe I have ever tried. This, however, not being my birthday I decided to make Tim a special treat. I began an extensive search online and ended up at the Taste of Home website. My goodness, pages of delicious recipes, most complete with gorgeous pictures. As a faithful subscriber (I’ve gotten Taste of Home and Simple & Delicious for years and years) I have access to the website’s collection of recipes.

I spent almost as long looking at pictures and recipes as I did in making the actual cake. Of course, looking at the pictures of my creation and the Taste of Home’s original, one might suggest I spend a little more time working and less dreaming.

Here’s the cake I was striving for:

taste of home

Not my actual cake.

Really, how hard could it be to make a ‘little’ chocolate cake?

Here’s a shot of my work in progress:

what happened here?

Yes, the cake slid, slipped and took some sort of a nose dive during the chilling portion. True, I tweaked the recipe along the way, but I didn’t see any warnings about potential cake earthquakes.

Ah, it reminds me once again that I will never be a truly excellent chef. I’m afraid I don’t have patience for the details. I used a cake mix rather than making the cake from scratch. I relied on canned cherry pie filling instead of mixing my own. While I was cutting the cake into layers I had a child help me hold it. Sadly, the knife didn’t cut evenly and we ended up with a nice, jagged tear in the top half. The recipe called for cherry filling only in the bottom layer (look closely at the Taste of Home picture and you’ll see what I mean), but I put the filling on two of the four layers.

I’m just a rebel that way.

I tried to follow the directions for the cream and chocolate fillings; here are the ingredients and assembly instructions:

6 tablespoons butter (no substitutes), softened
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 to 5 tablespoons half-and-half cream

1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup chocolate syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, beat cream filling ingredients; cover and refrigerate. In a mixing bowl, beat cream, syrup and vanilla until soft peaks form. Cover and refrigerate.

To assemble, split each cake into two horizontal layers. Place bottom layer on a serving plate; top with 1/2 cup cream filling. Place 1 cup cream filling in a heavy-duty resealable plastic bag; cut a 1/2-in. triangle in one corner of bag. Make a rim of filling 3/4 in. high around outer edge of cake.

Make a second rim 2 in. from edge. Spoon cherry filling between rings. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Spread chocolate filling over second cake layer; place over cherry filling. Spread remaining cream filling over third layer; place over chocolate filling. Top with fourth layer. Spread frosting over top and sides of cake. Garnish with chocolate curls, cherries and mint. Store in the refrigerator.

It’s okay. My family ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ over the cake. Tim was touched that I would take the time and effort to make one of his birthday favorites. I may never win any culinary awards, but I have a solid fan-base here at home.

one of my biggest fans

If you are a Taste of Home subscriber, I heartily recommend popping over to their website and browsing through their recipes. Yum and double yum.

For other Works for Me Wednesday posts, stop by Rocks in My Dryer.


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WFMW – Vocabulary Help

It turns out that some of my children are voracious readers and others are, um, not. A deep love for reading and hours spent immersed in literary works, not surprising, results in a rather expansive vocabulary.

It does not, however, guarantee perfect spelling.

But that’s thought for another post, and may be something the children have inherited from their mother. Ah em. As I was saying, it was recently rubbed in my face brought to my attention that there are a few among us who could use some help in expanding our personal vocabulary expression and understanding.

And really, is there anyone who can truly say their comprehension and use of the English language is as vast and complete as they would like?

get working kid!

Standardized test scores can be a sobering reality check when you are the teacher, and have been for the entirety of the children’s education. Every weakness or below average area of study seems a glaring reflection on your ability and diligence as the teacher.

Thankfully every year presents us with a fresh start and, until the children head off to college (or trade school or McDonald’s to flip burgers), we have the opportunity to strengthen and add to the building blocks (however small they may be) of our education.

All of which leads me to our Works for Me Wednesday idea:

WFMW: Wordly Wise 3000 Books

I purchased Wordly Wise 3000 books for Joshua, Rachel and Daniel. I also picked up the answer guides. Just in case my own vocabulary is a little rusty.

It doesn’t hurt to be careful.

danno boy

I found the books at (CBD) for a good price. Coupled with free shipping (use code 275405 for free shipping with $50 purchase), the books were a reasonable addition to our homeschool library. I also decided to buy Vocabulary Vine in order to begin some work on Greek and Latin roots. We haven’t cracked the cover on that one yet (it only arrived 3 days ago), but I’m sure it will help transform us into great scholars and ensure excellent SAT scores.

If you have any vocabulary curriculum you use or other tips, PLEASE pass them along.

We’ll deal with spelling some other time.

Stop by Rocks in My Dryer for more WFMW ideas.


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WFMW – Kitchen Organization

It would appear that something has happened to me of late. My night time energy has departed, abandoned, left me a sleepy wreck.

Normally, at this time of the evening (9:20 pm) I would be chortling with glee (snickering even), knowing there are HOURS ahead of productive thinking, writing, cleaning. Soon the children (even those pesky older ones who don’t go to bed at 8 pm anymore) would all be upstairs and the house would be quiet. Ahhh.

some of my favorite kids

These kids don’t look one bit sleepy!

Now I find myself looking at the clock and wondering how soon I can sneak off and climb under the covers. Occasionally I’m even upstairs in bed before the children. Gasp.

This is making a serious dent in my blogging time. Not to mention my waste-time-online-watching-movie-previews-for-over-an-hour. Okay, hard to weep over that particular loss.

I blame the combination of early rising and homeschooling. In order to get through our rigorous school schedule, we simply have to get up early in the morning. It’s either that or continue schooling after dinner. Getting up early is not something I do well, or gracefully.

It’s pretty ugly, actually. The only way I am able to drag myself out of bed at 6:30 am is if I get a good, solid (ie at least 8 hours) night’s sleep. I don’t understand this as I have spent months surviving (fairly cheerfully) on 4 to 6 hours of sleep. The key, I suppose is the morning hour. There is something so pleasant about waking up between 8 and 9 am. Even if I’ve gone to bed at 2 or even 3 am, it feels like sleeping in when you get up after 8.

sarah pie!

Sarah agrees with me, she LOVES to sleep in late. No early morning girl here.

What does this have to do with Works for Me Wednesday? Sadly, everything. These days, by the time evening arrives, I have no further creative energy remaining in which to blog. I’m drained and mentally ‘empty.’ This week’s theme is Kitchen Organization. I have five children, a husband and a kitchen. Surely I have numerous helpful tips to share. I can sense them, hovering near the surface, eager to be posted.

Alas, I’m afraid I’ve already written about my best hints, and all the new ones are waiting for the Old Kathy to return. The Late Night, Doesn’t Ever Get Enough Sleep but Blogs Like Crazy, Kathy.

going to the park with a friend is wonderful

Thankfully my friends love me whether I’m a night owl or a morning slug.

Oh, here’s one thing. I love the new rice cooker my mother gave me for my birthday. It’s wonderful to add water and rice, turn on the power and let the rice cook itself happily. One less thing to fret about, or just plain manage during the dinner hour.

Since I am loath to leave you tipless, here are some links to other Great Duckabush Kitchen Posts:

Life Skills – chores for kids
Favorite Foreman Grill
Homemade rolls
Breakfast Baking
Master Grocery Lists

Oh, one quick question, do you morning people blog or write during the early morning hours? I know people who study their Bibles and even exercise (shudder) early in the day, just wondering if anyone writes then. I LOVE to journal and blog late at night, don’t quite have the mental acuity to do so in the morning.

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