Category Archives: Doing

Unschooling John Muir and Squirrel

We found this book at our local library with a great story about John Muir in Yosemite, and his interactions (mostly fictional) with Floy Hutchings (Squirrel). Her father operated an inn and tour guide business in the Valley, and John Muir worked for him when he first came to Yosemite.

The kids loved seeing photos of themselves from our trip to Yosemite last summer. in the places he could have been–“Here’s a picture of you playing in the same river John Muir is relaxing beside. The exact same river!”

It’s really cool to see them make connections between their own lives and what they are reading. Also funny to point out to them that they were having so much fun playing in the Merced River that they completely missed the fact that Yosemite Falls even exists.

And maybe this view help develop his idea that glaciers formed the landscape?

Olmstead Point – always carry a stuffy

[Amazon affiliate link included]

Want To Try Trainerroad For Free?

Quick and to the point, if you’d like to try out Trainerroad for a month,  just leave a comment to this post with your first and last name and I will hook you up. The email address you use will have to be legit, but it won’t be displayed–I just need it to fill in the information on the TR side. First three commenters get them.

No catch, and they don’t have an affiliate program (yet), so I don’t get a dime for it. I just strongly believe in their product and want to help anyone who’d like to take it for a test spin.

Horrible pun.

I’m a huge fan of Trainerroad, although you wouldn’t know it by reading this blog lately. Actually, you wouldn’t think I’m a huge fan of much of anything by reading lately.

Still, when I am training (and why am I such a lazy bum right now?), I can’t think of a better investment I’ve made in my fitness that Trainerroad. I was riding a ton about a year ago–well, at least a ton for me–and I saw tremendous results not only in my cycling, but also in my running.

Yeah, being a strong cyclist takes you a long way towards being a strong runner.

I even did the Sufferfest Tour of Sufferlandria in 2014. What has happened to me?


Every Wave…

Black and white of the beach snapped at Torrey Pines State Park in San Diego, California
Every wave leaves behind a beautiful pattern in the sand
And every wave destroys another beautiful pattern in the sand
I reckon that’s supposed to be some kind of metaphor.
Or maybe it just looks cool.

National Parks Tour – Grand Canyon


After our February trip to Death Valley National Park, we were all pretty excited to go to see The Grand Canyon. As an added bonus, we were taking the scenic route via Flagstaff, AZ to visit some of our best friends, which paid unexpected dividends later.

We left Las Vegas in the late afternoon for the drive to Flagstaff, and we loved how the scenery seemed to change every 30 minutes or so as we changed elevation.

2015-03-21As we arrived in Flagstaff, 4 of the 5 people in the Adventure Van were worked into a fevered pitch by the sight of a Chik-Fil-A sign. It was the first chance to eat that stuff since September, and we fell off the gluten-free wagon (again) to take advantage.

The kids were excited to see old friends, but crashed pretty quickly after we got to their house. The next morning we were treated to pancakes (glad we were off the wagon) and cartoons while we got everyone prepped for the day. Flagstaff is cold in March.

We piled into our cars and headed toward the Grand Canyon. First stop, Desert View Watchtower. The only other time I’d been to the Canyon, I’d come straight from Las Vegas, so this was new to all of us. I don’t think the views are as “grand” here, so it doesn’t make the impression for first time visitors the way Mather Point does. But, while not as impressive for The Missus, the kids loved the tower, and we spent a good deal of time here.

Which brings me to a couple of things to consider regarding the downside of taking young kids to the Grand Canyon. Our kids really like to hike and experience things hands on. At the Grand Canyon, there are big crowds, and it’s sometimes tough to keep your eyes on them to make sure they are staying safe. There are also limited opportunities for them to hike, but luckily we were able to remedy this.


Our next stop was the Visitor’s Center. Again, really crowded. But we at least needed to get our passports stamped and let the kids pick out a souvenir.


Now the good part. Our friends are both biologists who work or have work for the Parks Service. Luckily, one of them spent lots of time working at the Canyon and knew just the spot to get away from the crowds and allow the kids to rampage. We took a nice mile long hike through the forest to a secluded part of the south rim. Really nice because their kids are the same ages as ours, and it gave them an opportunity to climb around on fallen trees and do lots of exploring. Plus, the quiet and uncrowded spot was nice!


Before heading back the next day we decided to check out Sunset Crater National Monument in Flagstaff. Really cool, and zero crowds! There’s an amazing lava flow to explore and a short but steep hike to the top of a crater with beautiful views. It was the perfect stop to stretch our legs a little to prepare for the drive back to southern Nevada.


National Parks Tour – Death Valley

Death Valley National Park

Ussie at Badwater BasinSince it’s so close, we decided to make our first big “National Parks Family Trip” venture to Death Valley in a single day. January and February are the prime visiting times for this park, and it still wasn’t very crowded. Maybe people have the idea that there isn’t anything to see here, but that’s not the case at all. As soon as we arrived at the visitors’ center and saw the campground, we wished we made it a two day trip. This place is absolutely amazing. There’s a ton of cool stuff to see in Death Valley, even with little kids, and we’ll definitely be making another trip when the weather cools off again in the late fall.

Death Valley Stamp

At the Furnace Creek Visitors’ Center we bought each of the kids a National Parks Passport book to collect cancellations–we plan on hitting a lot of parks, and wanted them to have something they could use for their rest of their lives. I hope they’ll try to see as many of the Parks as possible. And hopefully, this is the first stamp of many we’ll collect in 2015!

Pupfish at Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

Our first stop was at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. We love to see stuff that you can only see at one (or at least only a few) places in the world. Believe it or not, there are fish in Death Valley. This trail is a boardwalk that crosses Salt Creek several times, and it gave the kids a chance to get a close up look at the Death Valley Pupfish. They were stranded in Death Valley at the end of the last ice age and have adapted to this environment. Pretty cool!

Death Valley Pupfish

Sand Dunes

Hiking the Death Valley Sand Dunes

The first time I ever came to the Mojave Desert, I was surprised that weren’t at least some sand dunes to see. I was just looking in the wrong place. For our next stop, we visited Death Valley’s Sand Dunes. This was definitely one of the highlights of our visit. You go for a couple of miles on these dunes, and when we come back we’ll definitely come armed with more water and some snacks. The kids had a great time running down these–almost as good as playing in snow. Almost.

Death Valley Sand Dunes

Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park

This was the stop I was most excited about personally. Being here in January, I can’t imagine getting out of the car here in July, much less running 135 miles from here to Mt. Whitney. Temperatures were in the upper 70s for us, but it felt much hotter, even with a little bit of an overcast sky. The girls had fun pretending the salt flats we were walking on was snow–any chance they get to play “Elsa and Anna”. It was a little tough keeping them off the untouched cracked sections. I’m sure that was very tempting to them. What kid wouldn’t love to feel that crunch under their feet?

Salt Flats at Death Valley National Park
DSC_0476Because of its proximity to Las Vegas, Death Valley was the first on our long list of National Parks we want to visit while we’re living out West. One of the best things about living in Las Vegas so far has been the proximity to so many amazing things we never had access to on the East Coast, and we’re taking full advantage.

If you’re ever in Vegas on a cold day and want to see something cool, I’d definitely recommend a quick road trip to Death Valley. Much closer than the Grand Canyon, and you can enjoy the warm sunshine on a cold winter day.

We’re also enjoying the Ken Burns documentary on the United States National Parks (my second time watching) and found this great companion to the show.


We can’t to return to Death Valley this November or December. It’s such an easy drive from Las Vegas, and stopping in Pahrump for dinner on the way back was a treat as well!

White Rock Loop Trail Run

My intention was to write a long descriptive post about how awsum this run was. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to blog, and have now forgotten most of the details.

That’s a good thing, because the sooner I forget how much this run beat me up, the sooner I’ll go out and do it again.

Enjoy the photos!!!







Tips On Tracking Unschooling Activities With Evernote

For the last 11 months, we’ve been pretty diligent about recording educational activities in Evernote. When I say “we”, I mostly mean The Missus. She has a lot more access to the kids on a day-to-day basis to capture photos and write quick descriptions of what they’re doing.

Even with our efforts to stay on top of it, it’s next to impossible to capture everything they are learning.

That’s a good thing.

When you change your perspective and realize that learning is something that is always happening (not just between the hours of 8 am to 3 pm during the months of August-May), you realize you can’t even begin to truly document it.

We just had our annual teacher evaluation for our first grader 6 year old learner. It was the first time we’ve gone through the official evaluation for the state of Florida, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Mostly, we wanted to make sure that we had not only enough hard samples, but also lots of information stored digitally to demonstrate the wide range of subjects and interests she’s explored during the “school year”.

The Missus is an organization freak, and I’m an information hoarder, so we should have known we’d done enough. Still, we were relieved to find we had plenty of hard samples of work, and what we’ve been doing in Evernote made it super easy to demonstrate the fact that our kids are learning a ton.

Our approach to using Evernote to track the kids’ education is constantly evolving and being tweaked, but I thought I’d document a few of the tips and tricks we’ve developed along the way.

Buy the Premium version of Evernote

Homeschoolers are notorious for seeking out good deals and using as many free resources as possible. Not criticizing that at all…I’m all about it! But this is one place I’d recommend spending the extra money. You won’t be sorry. At $45/year, Evernote is an insanely good deal. Some of the benefits of Premium are:

  • 100 Mb notes, and 1 Gb/month of storage. You’ll need it for the photos you take on field trips with your mobile device
  • Search within photos. Again, this works great for field trips. You won’t have to annotate nearly as much, because you can just take photos of all the informational signs you see, and search will help you easily navigate to these signs later.
Searching for "Greek" in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.
Searching for “Greek” in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.
  • Sharing notes. More about this in the next section, but our strategy depends heavily on both parents having access to the Notebooks we use.

If you aren’t sure about this purchase, the free version is still extremely useful and highly recommended!

Get Both Parents Involved

My favorite thing about using Evernote is that I get to see what the kids are doing and learning without being there. I only get to go to a few of their out-of-the-house activities because of the pesky work thing, but they are constantly out doing stuff. I have Evernote open all day for my own notes, and since Evernote allows The Missus to record notes on her mobile device and they are shared with my account, I can see what’s going on semi-real time. If they’re out for a program at a nature center, I can check in at lunch and see what they’ve been up to. When we sit down to dinner, I have a bunch of specific questions about their trip.

“Did you get to see any critters on your field trip?” is a much better conversation starter than “So…what did you learn today?”


I also use Evernote to add notes for things I do with them, and it gives us a central location to track everything. For example, I taught them a game they love a few weeks ago.  To tell me which coloring pages they want me to print from Google Images, they give me the column number and row number of the picture. To them, that’s just a cool “code” to tell me what they want, but it gets recorded in Evernote as a math activity–the Cartesian coordinate system.


I do the majority of bedtime reading around here, and as the kids are getting older the subject matter is getting a little deeper. So we are now able to have history discussions based on what we read in the “Little House” series and science discussions prompted by books about snakes and sea creatures.


Minimize Notebooks

Your first inclination may be to create separate Notebooks for every subject, but when you think about it, that will soon put you in a position of having to choose between at least two Notebooks, maybe more. For example, let’s say you’re reading the “Magic Tree House” series of books and your child starts asking questions about mummies–what they are, how people were mummified, how long ago this happened (all based on a real conversation we had by the way).

This is exactly how self-directed education works! It’s working! You definitely want to make a note about this! But does it go into the “Reading” Notebook, the “History” Notebook, or the “Science” Notebook? After all, you’ve hit on all these things.

The answer is to forget about trying to drop stuff into Notebooks (basically folders) based on subjects and use tags instead. You can only put a note into a single Notebook, but you can tag it with as many things as you’d like.

(more on our tagging system in the next section)

That doesn’t mean Notebooks aren’t useful though. We use a pretty simple system of Notebooks to keep up with the new notes we create–a “To Be Processed” Notebook, a “Current Academic Year” Notebook, and (as of next month) a Notebook for each archived academic year.


The default Notebook is “To Be Processed”. Every note we create goes here automatically. It stays there until we have both had a chance to tag it, review it, and annotate it if necessary. Once that’s finished (processed), we move it over to the “Current School Year”. And once the academic year has ended and we’re ready to start a new “year”, we’ll move all the notes in that Notebook to the archive Notebook for the past year.

Since school learning never stops for us, we’re continuing to add notes to the “Current School Year”, even though it’s summer. In August, we’ll empty out the “Current School Year” Notebook, moving all of these notes over to the “2013-2014 Academic Year Archive”, just so we can stay in sync with the timing of regular school.

Tags, Tags, Tags

This is the real payoff in my opionion. The ability to tag your notes is huge for unschoolers. Since we don’t have “subjects” in the traditional sense as part of our every day learning, it would be really difficult (as mentioned above) to categorize notes into separate Notebooks the way traditional education systems break down classes and subject matter. Still, we need a way to make the evaluation process run smoothly and to show that we’re making progress in specific subjects.

And, let’s be honest, some unschoolers get a little anxious now and then they aren’t “doing” enough, especially when it comes to math. By tagging notes, it’s easy to go back and review what’s been going on and quickly see progress. More often than not, you’re able to put your mind at ease when you find there’s actually a lot of math going on, just not in the sense of filling out worksheets at a desk.

Forty six notes as shown below may not seem like much, but when you consider that these are just the moments you were able to capture and document, you realize they are doing a ton of math all the time!


So how do we organize tags? This is the part of our system we’ve developed by trial and error. What we’ve tried to do is determine what we’d like to know about each note, and develop a way to organize the tagging:

  • What subject?
  • Who? Which kid(s)?
  • What area of interest (specifically)?
  • Where did this happen?
  • When (automatically taken care of in Evernote…cool!!!)

Here’s where we got fancy out of necessity. When you go to tag a note, Evernote tries to assist you with an auto-complete feature.  Great feature! The problem is that you’ll probably end up with a ton of tags in the four different areas mentioned above, and that makes the auto-complete not as handy.

For instance, if your kid’s name starts with an ‘S’ and you want to tag them in a note, as soon as you type ‘S’ you’re going to get a long list of possible tags and (from experience) you’ll end up hitting “enter” prematurely and tagging them with an incorrect spelling that you can’t find later.

To make it easier to tag notes quickly, we came up with a prefixing system to make things super-easy to see at a glance.

For traditional subject categories, which are useful when it’s time to do evaluations, we use the ‘$’ (it looks like an ‘S’, get it?) as a prefix. So if we’re doing something related to history, we tag it as “$History”. There are very few of these tags, but again, most of our notes have more than one “subject” tag.

When we go to tag the subject(s) of a note, all we have to do is type the ‘$’ symbol, and Evernote automatically filters our tags down to those few subjects.


For the “who” type tags, we just use our kids’ names, but with a ‘+’ at the beginning. So you may tag a note with “+Johnny”, “+Sally”, and “+OtherKid”. This allows you to go back later and look at a what a single child has been up to, or even see what activities they’ve been doing with their brothers and sisters by searching on multiple tags.

When we want to tag the kids in a note, we enter the ‘+’ symbol, and all of our tags are immediately filtered to the only the kids’ names–just three tags.

IMPORTANT–Since our kids are “free-range learners”, a large number of the notes we take are things we just happen to catch them doing during “play”. We’re constantly stumbling upon them doing things like observing bees and counting/sorting rocks. Lots of these activities are things they’re doing together!

For “where” we preface all of the tags with “loc”. Again, not a ton of these, but they look like locHome, locClasses, locMuseum, etc. Admittedly, we don’t use the location tags for a lot of our notes because the photos make the location obvious and Evernote can actually keep up with the precise location for you. Still, it’s nice to quickly be able to use “locBeach” to quickly see all the notes about things they’ve learned there.

By far, the most varied tag type we use is our set of “interests”. We preface these with a ‘!’ (like an ‘i’). Tons and tons of these: !Tessalations, !WaterCycle, !Sewing, !RevolutionaryWar….the list goes on and on. Unlike the others, this set of tags is constantly growing, depending on what the kids are interested in at the time.

We also use the !interest tags to get more specific information about a $subject. For example, if the two year old is sorting game chips by color and counting them, we’ll tag it as $Math, !Sorting, and !Counting.

Here’s a really great example of how we tagged a note for an activity that came about after reading a book on Pompeii. The 6 year old became interested in volcanoes, and read some other books before making one of her own.

I’ll save my remarks about how amazing it is that this was all self-directed for another day, but you get the idea here. Lots of subjects were involved, and specific interests give us more detail about the activity.


I feel like the real benefit to using Evernote for unschooling is going to come at a later date. Maybe in a few years, after they’ve learned to use a tool like Evernote for themselves, they’ll come across some information about Pompeii and wonder, “that sounds familiar–have I ever learned anything about Pompeii?” They’ll be able to easily filter through these notes and see what they’ve already learned.

Maybe it will trigger something for them and it will all come rushing back. Maybe it won’t. But they have the foundation for a personal knowledge base they can continue to build on their own in whatever format they like.

At the very least, Evernote makes it easy for us to keep up with all the amazing things they are doing!