There’s An App For That!

It’s September, which means school is officially back in session just about everywhere, including in our home.  I don’t write often about our day to day life as a (mostly) homeschooling family, but I hear a couple of the same questions enough that I thought I’d write a few posts on them.  They are questions about how we spend our days and what resources we utilize, and the answers might be beneficial for many families, whether homeschooling, public-schooling, private schooling or just passionate about learning.

“What are some of your favorite websites and apps for learning?”

I’m fairly certain we could not homeschool without our local public library or the Internet.  As much as we love things like nature walks and the increased opportunity for outdoor time that homeschooling affords, we are a family that embraces technology as a valuable learning tool.  I’m going to share a list of some of our favorite websites and apps.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope you find something on it that inspires you too! 


Khan Academy
Khan Academy is incredible.  I cannot sing its praises enough.  It is absolutely free, covers a wide variety of subjects, and allows you set up an individual learning program complete with instructional videos and interactive practice exercises that help you reach mastery level.  It’s now being used in schools across the country to “flip the classroom,” allowing students to watch instructional videos as homework, freeing up valuable class time with an instructor to apply the lessons learned.  My kids use it primarily as a supplement to their math curriculum but I’ve watched videos on everything from balancing chemical equations (which I never really understood) to art history. 

Brain Pop/Brain Pop Jr. 
These short animated films offer an introductory level lesson on a large variety of subjects.  Each video is accompanied by additional options like writing prompts, comics, or quizzes.  Engaging for elementary aged students.  Subscription required. 

Apparently there is more to YouTube than kitten videos!  Who knew?  Our favorites this past year have been Crash Course (John and Hank Green’s vlog series on a variety of topics, we particularly dig the World History videos), Smarter Every Day and Numberphile

Netflix offers a decent selection of documentaries.  America: The Story of Us is a great series for older students interested in American history, How the States Got Their Shapes is a fun way to supplement memorizing the names and locations of the fifty states by introducing kids to the quirks and oddities that make each state unique, and Netflix offers countless nature-based documentaries as well.  Netflix does change its offerings on a fairly regular basis though, so don’t get too attached to any one series or watch fast!  Subscription required.

GameEd Academy’s Minecraft Homeschool 
Have a Minecraft addict on your hands?  Don’t let the homeschool part of the name scare you away, this site can be used by any student interested in using Minecraft as a platform for learning.  Last year, the boys took classes on things like medieval castles and cannons or the seven natural wonders of the world that combined reading, videos and Minecraft for building and constructing models of what they learned. 


Code Combat
Code Combat teaches coding (Python or Java) through a video game.  Your student has to code their way through the levels of the game in order to advance, and it has been a big hit with our new middle-schooler.  You can play the first 100 levels for free, and after that it requires a subscription.

Code Studio 
Code Studio houses, the originator of the Hour of Code. It offers free courses in computer programming for elementary and middle school children that allow them to work in groups or independently. Students can start on an introductory level, using a drag and drop method of coding.

Created by the MIT media lab, Scratch teaches basic programming concepts that allow you to create your own games or stories to share in the Scratch online community.

Foldit’s tagline reads “solve puzzles for science” and that’s exactly what you are doing.  A collaboration between the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration and the UW Department of Biochemistry, Foldit seeks gamers to apply their puzzle-solving abilities to protein-folding quandaries faced by scientists.


Dance Mat Typing
An animated approach to teaching the basics of keyboarding to young kids.  My kids grimaced at some of the characters, but it improved their keyboarding significantly over the course of the last year.

Foreign Language

A great supplement to foreign language instruction, you can download this app and practice a number of languages on the go.


This app teaches the basic concepts of algebra through illustrations before introducing numbers.  It’s fun and kids want to keep unlocking new levels by solving the puzzles (which are really just balanced algebraic equations). 

Times Table Lab
A fun and easy way to practice multiplication facts on the go.  My kids don’t relish memorizing math facts, but this is a step up from flashcards! 

Language Arts

We use Overdrive to access our public library’s extensive database of digital books and audio recordings.  There are other options out there for audiobooks (like Audible) but this one is free, and our local library has a great selection.   

We have a monthly subscription to Spotify’s mobile service and I was surprised to find a decent number of audio recordings of stories and books available, from re-tellings of Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes. If you listen from home, no subscription is needed.

And there you have it … a few of our favorite websites and apps.  I’d love to hear from you, what websites and apps does your family love for learning? 

Refugees Welcome

We’d been on the road for an hour.  I’m not even sure it qualified as a road actually, it was more of a bumpy, dirt-trodden path, and with every twist and turn I felt the familiar lurch of motion sickness and silently wondered when we would stop.  I held back my request to move to the front seat.  I was here to learn, to volunteer.  I was among the privileged and was embarrassed by my own trivial concerns.  Surely I could stomach a little nausea.  I looked back out the window like they always say to do.

We pulled up to the small, isolated fishing village thirty minutes later, our backpacks stuffed with trinkets for the kids and our arms full with heavy bags of rice and beans.  

“Maybe you could help out this mama,” someone suggested as we approached one of the huts. “She has a two week old baby and is struggling to nurse him.” 

Walking in the front door, I mentally prepared myself to go through the lactation counselor motions, check the latch, the suck, the tongue for a tongue-tie.  Ask about wet and soiled diapers and nursing patterns.  I was new to the field, but had already amassed a naive confidence in the ability of the breastfeeding mama to overcome most obstacles in her path.  

Until I met her.   

I watched her put her tiny, newborn baby to her breast, perfectly latched, desperately sucking.  Their combined weight could not have been more than a hundred pounds.  In her kitchen area was a hanging basket with a tomato and an onion.  It was the last available food in her house.  The beans and rice we brought would last her until next weekend.   

She didn’t have a breastfeeding problem.  She had a hunger problem.  I was completely impotent in the face of her struggle.  There was no amount of on-demand feeding or finger training that would turn this around.  I said a prayer of thanks for the formula that was in the van, held her hand and told her that her baby was beautiful.  He was, beautiful.   

I didn’t share this story with many people when I returned home, but was met by a similar response each time that I did.  “Didn’t you just want to take that baby with you?”  


I wanted to take the mama with me.  I wanted to find a way bring her and her child to a place that could offer more than a bag of rice and beans, more than the economic opportunities of a washed-out fishing village, an hour and a half outside of the drug cartel violence of the border town many of the village’s members had already fled.  I flew home to my own beautiful baby boy, abundantly fed and privileged to have been born on the soil of a country only a hundred miles away from this other world, where homes were built on landfills.  Where a few years after my visit, 72 bodies of drug cartel victims would be found in those landfills.  

Before that trip, in my previous work I got to meet the families who left, who found a way out of economic despair, or a political crisis, or in some cases, violence that threatened their cities and lives.  Most of these families were considered immigrants, though a few qualified as refugees.  It is important to make that distinction because while we also have a migrant crisis, international law says that countries have a specific responsibility to protect refugees.  I saw first-hand how there is sometimes a fine line between the two, how the difference between fleeing a violent drug cartel and fleeing a war results in different opportunities, and, in this country at least, a different reception.  I wonder if our long and complicated history with immigration informs our attitudes towards to refugees, anesthetizing us to their plight, stripping us of our shared humanity.

Fortunately, in our line of work, the distinctions didn’t matter.  The families welcomed me into their homes and lives, feeding me and sharing their struggles and victories in acclimating to their new home.  There were times when I wondered what they must have left behind to come and live packed into one bedroom apartments with extended families, in communities that were not always welcoming, overcoming language barriers and bureaucratic obstacles to create a new life.  I would go home and hold my newborn baby and wonder what kind of conditions it would take for me to leave everything I had ever known, strap my baby to my back and cross a dangerous river, or get on that boat, or climb in that truck and run.  Extreme hunger?  A war?  A community overrun by violence?  

Yes.  To all of those things.  I would flee for my child.  And likely you would too. 

“no one leaves home unless 
home is the mouth of a shark 
you only run for the border 
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.”
– Warsan Shire, continued here…

You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.

I thought of that little baby boy yesterday when I read the stories about Aylan.  When I shared in the collective weeping over his image, and read his dad’s heartbreaking words.  I wondered where he is now.  I wonder if they too fled.  I wonder if he and his mama made it.  I wonder where it even is.  

I watched the news pour in yesterday and I did what I always do when I am overcome by sadness.  I looked for the helpers (and there are so many helpers) and then I took the small steps I could to become one.  I made donations, I shared on my tiny platform, I followed up with the local refugee agency I’ll be volunteering with this year.

It never feels like enough.  

It’s not enough.  

The response to this crisis has to come from us all.  We have to find the courage to turn our collective tears into collective action.  

And sometimes, standing on this privileged soil, this soil I was simply lucky to be born on, that can feel impossible.  While citizens of Iceland and Germany push back at their governments, offering up their homes to refugees if their leaders will allow more people to come, we listen to presidential candidates yell about who can build a bigger wall around our country and what type of weaponry will flank that wall.  While others around the world attempt to use their collective force for good, we are on social media talking about Force Friday, using our collective wealth to purchase more toys we don’t need.  We, a nation of immigrants and refugees, make the argument with each new generation that America is done growing now, that it’s time to close up shop.  That it’s essentially time to remove the famous plaque from inside the Statue of Liberty.  That this generation constitutes the real America.  No more room at the inn.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

I’ve said before that I don’t have a single political or militaristic solution to the crisis in Syria or the threat of ISIS.  I still don’t.

But I’m going to keep talking about refugees and immigrants.  I’m going to keep asking that you join me in this conversation.  I’m going to keep asking that you take one small step today to help.  Make a donation to one of the many organizations with people on the ground trying to bring food, resources, medical supplies and support to refugee camps.  Call your representatives and ask them to raise the quota on Syrian refugees from 8,000 to something higher, something that makes a dent in the three million Syrian refugees that exist today.  Contact your local agencies for immigrants and refugees and find out how you can help those already here.  

I’ll include links at the bottom of this post.  

Please join me.  

Five Practical Ways to Help

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, or Doctors Without Borders

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)

Refugees Welcome

Refugee Legislation

St. Louis local?  Check out these resources:

Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program

International Institute