Encouraging Reluctant Writers – Happy Mail

Happy Mail

If you have a reluctant writer, you know that getting your child to get even a sentence down on paper can be an exercise in extreme frustration for you both! I explored lots of different ways to get the not-so-enthusiastic writer in my family to write, and one thing I found that worked was to have him write letters! I arranged for my son to write letters to everyone from the president, to family members, to restaurants. He worked hard to get his letters just right and was always excited to get a response tucked in our mailbox. Over the years we saved the letters he received back, and some of them will always be treasures, like the letters from his beloved grandfather who has since passed away.

While working on my up-and-coming language arts curriculum, I was looking for some books to get students writing in a creative way and stumbled across Happy Mail. I will be adding it to my curriculum schedule in the writing assignments. The writing portion of my curriculum is being designed to be a gentle, non-pressure introduction to writing for grades 2-6. I’m taking my experiences with students who both LOVE and HATE to write and incorporating these into my book and resource choices.

Happy Mail is the perfect book to get kids and young teens engaged in the old-fashioned art of letter writing and card making. It starts out with an introduction to letter writing tools – all the fun stuff the artist in me loves like felt-tip pens, card stock, and even the humble black crayon. Some of the supplies call for a craft knife, so an adult will need to supervise or assist with a few of the projects.

The next section covers letter writing basics: parts of a letter, salutations, how to address an envelope, and so on. After that there is a section of simple writing prompts (perfect for kids who would otherwise stare at a blank page for hours), as well as a 30 days challenge with plenty of letter writing activities and ideas for your budding writer.

The next section covers lettering styles. Each letter style shows a complete sample alphabet and is followed by a lined practice page like this:

Letter writing for kids

There are 5 lettering styles:

Paper Cut Alphabet, Brush Lettering, Open Alphabet, Ribbon Alphabet, and a Storybook Alphabet

The book emphasizes that there is no need for perfection, and kids are encouraged to add their own touches and styles to their lettering.

After playing around with some hand lettering, there are several projects that are shown in detail with all of the needed supplies listed. Some of these projects are:

Cut Paper Love Notes, a Quote Note, Emoji Note, I Love You More Than…, a List Letter, Birthday Card, Wildly Grateful Thank You Card, Salty Pretzel Sorry Card, and plenty more for a variety of occasion like holidays, congratulations, etc. There are even simple instructions on now to make a homemade envelope. I like the Letter to Your Future Self idea. It’s something I did when I was a kid, and it’s fun to look back as an adult on some of my younger self’s ideas and dreams!

Letter writing ideas for kids

The last section of the book has some pre-designed cards, notes, and templates with cute and full-color art, along with some black-and-white samples your child can color in.

card projects for kids

Happy Mail is a good book to get your child off the computer and into the world of pens, pencils, and the excitement of sending off a letter or card the old-fashioned way!

Book Review – Drawing School

Drawing School book review

I’m a sucker for art books. When I was homeschooling, I had quite a few on the shelves for my kids like Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad and various Klutz Art books, among others. I have always felt that basic art and drawing skills are important to teach!

I recently had the chance to review Drawing School. (Thank you Quarto Group and Edelweiss!) This book is ADORABLE and stuffed full of over 300 things to draw with very clear and easy-to-follow drawing instructions. The 272 pages are organized into categories of items that will appeal to both boys and girls. The categories are:

  • Pets
  • Sports Stuff
  • Let’s Celebrate
  • On the Farm
  • At the Beach
  • Under the Sea
  • At the Zoo
  • In the Garden
  • At the Circus
  • At the Show (with things like guitars, instruments, a movie star, etc.)
  • In a Fairy Tale
  • Around the House
  • At School
  • Around Town
  • Around the World
  • Beyond Our World (planets, an astronaut, etc.)
  • In the Past (dinosaurs)

The book starts out with a small section on supplies and basic drawing instruction, like learning how to see shapes and different types of lines.

Each section features a number of specific items that belong in the category. The items are shown being drawn in full color with manageable steps like the following screenshot of a cat’s head:

At the end of each section, there is a full color, 2-page spread that shows many of the section’s drawings in a scene like this:

Homeschoolers will like the Around the World section with instructions on how to draw things like an Egyptian pharaoh:

This book is not just for kids. I got it for myself, lol…because the drawings are so cute and perfect for handmade cards and notes.

I LOVE this book. I love the happy, colorful drawings, as well as the simple drawing instructions. If you have a student who loves drawing, Drawing School would make an excellent Christmas present, or a perfect addition to a low-key art program.

A mom shares her experience with Chemistry in the Kitchen

homeschool chemistry curriculum review
A mom recently shared her teens’ experiences with Chemistry in the Kitchen. I’m sharing what she wrote here, with her permission! I get a lot of emails that describe this type of transformation of a student’s attitude toward science. These stories highlight what my goal for Guest Hollow curriculum is: to engage students, get them thinking, teach them practical things they will actually use in their lives, and spark an interest in learning by using a creative approach. If you have a story to share how Guest Hollow has changed your school day or your child’s view of a particular subject, please feel free to share in the comments! Your sharing will help other families better decide if Guest Hollow is a fit for them or not! 🙂
The excerpt from the email I received:
I’ve always been intrigued with a more literature learning style but my boys were reluctant. They say they prefer one textbook for the whole course. What I’ve found is when it comes to science a textbook can be hard because they tend to just give the facts and you memorize. There is no practical application (aside from experiments.) When I chose this course I didn’t know if it would be a good fit. It was so different than anything we’ve done before. They liked that they only had one small book at a time, it didn’t feel so overwhelming. If they didn’t like a book they knew it would be over in a week and they would jump into something new. My oldest who is the pickiest loved all the practical learning. He would often pull me into a discussion about what he read that day. Sometimes it would be comments like, “I’m never eating that again” and sometimes it would be, “What do you think about vaccines, my book says this.” Both teens willing do their science daily – that to me is the biggest blessing because with Biology, I had a wonderful and solid course for them but they fought me all year. We ended up doing just the reading part and the microscope sat in the box unopened. I think this course is perfect for the non-traditional learner because it is more interest-led. My boys have already decided that we will be doing Guest Hollow Physics next year.

Review of Marie’s Words – Vocabulary Flash Cards

Marie's Words Vocabulary Cards

I’ve been homeschooling for 17 years now and have seen (and probably used, lol) just about everything you can think of for vocabulary studies. One of our favorites over the years is the book Vocabulary Cartoons for the way it connects pictures to a word’s meaning. The negative about Vocabulary Cartoons is that it’s in a book format. It’s kind of hard to practice definitions when you can see everything (like the definition/answers) all together on the page.

Marie’s Words Vocabulary Flash Cards solves this! Fun illustrations are on the front of each card (about the size of an index card). Flip it over and you get the definition(s), pronunciation help, synonyms and antonyms. There is a total of 550 cards with words targeted for the SAT.

Marie's Words Vocabulary Flashcards

Look at all these cards! There are 550 to be exact.

The front of each card features the word you are learning along with an illustration to help you remember the meaning of the word. For example: the word viscous is drawn with a jar of honey being poured over the top of the letters V I S C O U S. You can see that the honey is clinging to the top of the letters and dripping down. It’s an immediate visual cue that really helps you remember that a viscous substance (like honey) has a thick, sticky consistency between a solid and liquid.

On the “hamper” card below you can see both meanings for hamper: something to hold dirty laundry and also the fact that the vehicle is being hampered from driving any further.

Marie's Vocabulary Words

The back of each card has several helps beyond just a definition (or several definitions if a word has more than one meaning).


First, there is a number on the upper left corner. This is helpful if you want to alphabetize your cards. Ours are hopelessly out of order from using them so much, but if we ever wanted to put them back in order, these numbers would help tremendously.

Next, there is the word you are defining featured prominently at the top (which is nice if you are helping a child practice – you don’t have to look at the front of the card to see what you are doing) as well as a pronunciation help underneath. The pronunciation help is a great feature, especially for some of the harder and more unfamiliar words. For example: On the card for the word putrid the pronunciation help shows: pyoo-trid with the pyoo part in bold so you know to emphasize that syllable.

Underneath the word and it’s pronunciation help is the definition itself. Sometimes there is more than one definition if a word has more than one meaning. There is also a sentence for each definition so you can see the word in context. I find this really helps my son better retain the meaning. The sentence for the first definition (and most commonly used meaning) is related to the drawing on the front of the card to make it stick even more.

The last thing on each card are two boxes at the bottom. One contains synonyms and the other antonyms. These boxes do double duty. Not only do they expose you to even more vocabulary, they also help clarify the meaning of the word. Let’s say my son is learning the 2nd definition for the word “hamper” and he doesn’t know what impede or restrict means. He can look at the antonym box and see that the opposite meaning is to allow or permit. This not only helps make the definition more clear, it also connects it to other words and meanings. When he looks at the synonym box he can see the synonyms block and stymie. These words will either help him better define the word or will introduce him to additional vocabulary words he may not be totally familiar with. I find the synonym box to also be a huge plus in that it can allow a student to define the word using just one other word instead of a longer definition. Sometimes that just works better (and is quicker)!

I know these cards are being marketed for SAT study, but I think they are just as useful as a vocabulary program for almost any age (though some words and their definitions might be too difficult for some early elementary students). I’ve found that they are a fun break from using a workbook or something similar. They are easy to use, quick and memorable (and portable!).

Another thing I want to comment on is that I work with a child who has (high functioning) autism (Aspergers). This child sometimes has difficulty learning things out of context. Having Marie’s Words on hand instantly ties each word to something visual and more easy to connect to than just a word itself.

A student can easily use the cards on his own, but I find it’s more fun to use them together. We like to flip through them and quiz each other. Even I learned some words *blush*…

The only negative thought I have about Marie’s Words is the name. It’s not sticky. I think the cards should be called something like Visual Vocabulary or something similar. Ah well. That’s a very minor complaint and has nothing to do with the actual use of the cards themselves. Also, sometimes the definition is kind of difficult, but all you have to do is look at the synonyms to “dumb it down”.

I’ve had great success using Marie’s Words in my homeschool and highly recommend them if you are looking for something different to help you teach vocabulary. The illustrations really help the word meanings stick and turn learning vocabulary into something visual, quick, easy and even fun!

Click here to visit the official Marie’s Words website. You can also purchase them from Amazon and Timberdoodle. If you visit the official site, there is also an app available for the iPhone, iPad and Android!