Getting a Higher ACT Math Score

My younger son took his ACT for the second time in early February. He got a decent score the first time, but in the hope of getting better scholarship offers elected to take it again to try and increase his math score (and bump up his composite as well).
He took it originally in April 2017 as a sophomore and got a 28 in math with a 32 composite. He was taking Thinkwell online Geometry at the time. This year he is taking Thinkwell Trigonometry (which begins with a massive Algegra 2 review!).  I am not affiliated with Thinkwell, we just really like their upper-level math courses for homeschool.

This post contains affiliate links.  See my full disclosure policy here.

We had the first edition of this McGraw-Hill 50 Top Skills for a Top Score ACT Math  (the second edition is out now) that his brother had used with some success when he was in high school and so thought it would be a good way to try and increase his math score. There are 50 lessons to cover 50 key ACT math concepts and strategies. He signed up for the February 10, 2018, test. By the time we recovered from the holidays and a family vacation, he had three and a half weeks to study; practically speaking he had 22 days. I challenged him to cover at least three lessons a day on top of his regular schoolwork. He had Sundays off and at least one camping weekend during this time, so he usually did four lessons a day.
Test day came and went, and I knew the scores usually come out the second Tuesday after the test Saturday so was really planning to check first thing on the 20th but got busy and forgot!
It was a couple of days after the scores were up before I remembered to look.
Mission accomplished! He managed to score 33 on the math section, which was a gain of five points! His other scores were comparable to last time, so his composite went up to a 34. I went and woke him up to show him the scores on my laptop screen. He was less excited than I expected.
This book is available on Amazon.
His method was simply working through the lessons in order, but this includes a CD with two extra practice tests (recommended), a pre-test and post-test, and cut out flash cards.  These images are from our book, which is a few years old.  The one linked above on Amazon is the new second edition.

I should say that no matter how good the prep materials are, you won’t get a good result without a lot of time and effort.   Your results may vary!


I think his Thinkwell Trig course with the Algebra 2 review included helped but the prep book was a HUGE factor in improving his score.  We highly recommend it!


Why You Should Plant Russian Sage

Are you looking for a plant that survives freezing winters and scorching summers, is drought tolerant, blooms all summer, and attracts bees and butterflies?  Look no further, because it’s right here…Russian Sage.  Its botanical name is Perovskia atriplicofolia.  This tough beauty is originally from the region around Afghanistan, and it is one hardy (zones 4 through 9), gorgeous plant.  But it’s not really Russian, and it’s not really sage either…

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicofolia) is one of my absolute favorite perennials.  It is completely different from culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) and you do not cook with it.  It is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) but is not generally considered edible.  (If you smell it you will know why.  It smells rather medicinal.)  It is considered an herbaceous perennial.  It is tough as nails once it gets established, and blooms nonstop midsummer to fall.  I have it in my front flower bed with my Red Double Knockout roses; full sun, facing east, in a very well drained raised brick bed.  This is a photo taken in late June.    

Russian Sage and Knockout Roses from

It grows to a tall (around three feet) airy shrub with delicate gray-green leaves with tall spikes of tiny purple/blue flowers.  It really is stunning.  The bees love it too.  

If it gets too tall for you or starts to flop over, just give it a trim and it will recover and be blooming again in just a few weeks.

 Maintenance on this is super easy, I just give it a very hard pruning (to about 6 inches tall) in the late winter.  If I find a plant in a spot where I don’t want it, I have the best luck moving them in winter while they are dormant.  I have killed a few (ok, many) transplants during their active growing season.  My gardening style is best described as “benign neglect” so this is an ideal plant for me.  

When I first planted three of them behind my roses, the plant instructions said they rarely reseeded.  Well, I beg to differ…I had dozens of tiny baby Perovskia coming up in the bed the next spring.  Most of them were in desirable places so I let them be.  I don’t really consider them invasive, but if I left them alone they would definitely take over the bed.  This winter I have been able to share some of my extras with a couple of friends.  Since that first season, they aren’t reseeding so much as rooting from flopped stems and spreading by runners, as mints will do.  This year I will try some pinching back early in the season to see if I can reduce the flop factor. They get more water than they really need since they are in with my roses that are watered fairly regularly.  That combined with their eastern exposure is causing them to be “floppy”.

To keep these happy plant in full sun in well-drained soil.  Cut down almost to the ground in late winter or early spring, as they bloom on new wood.   They are pretty drought tolerant once established.   

Below is a photo of Russian Sage used as a tall bedding plant at MS&T in Rolla, Missouri.  This was taken in late June.

Russian Sage in landscape

Here’s a closer look at the flowers tucked behind some four o’clocks…

Russian Sage in the background with four o'clocks

I highly recommend this plant if you have a well-drained spot for it.  It won’t disappoint!




Steak in Cast Iron Skillet With Peppercorn Sauce

Steak in Cast Iron Skillet from House of Ingrams

Steak is one of the few things I can guarantee every person in my house will enjoy.  Here’s my favorite easy method you can do anytime, no grill required…

You will need a seasoned cast iron skillet large enough to hold the steak flat, a steak suitable for grilling; it should be thick, not thin– (T-bone, ribeye, New York Strip, etc), kosher salt, butter, heavy cream, beef broth, and fresh ground pepper.

Unwrap the steak and place on a platter.  Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt on each side.  Let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes, up to an hour.

When you are ready to start cooking, place the cast iron skillet on medium-high heat until it is screaming hot.  Turn on your vent fan.  You might want to open a window too.  😀  Carefully put your steak in the pan and sear for four minutes.  There will be smoke and sizzling.  If it’s smoking too much, turn down your heat some.  Flip and do another four minutes.  At this point, you must determine how done you want your steak.  Time depends on thickness and your skillet temperature.  An instant-read thermometer is super handy at this point…

120° F (48.8° C) = Rare

130° F (54.4° C) = Medium rare

140° F (60° C) = Medium

150° F (65.5° C) = Medium well

160° F (71.1° C) = Well done

For 1 inch thick T-bone as pictured, I flip it again and do about 1 to 2 more minutes on each side, then remove from the pan and cover with foil to rest for at least 10 minutes.  You should test the temperature to determine your stopping point.  I aim for medium rare to medium.  Well done steak makes us sad.

Cast Iron Steak

For the pan sauce, take the cast iron skillet and over medium heat add 1/2 cup of beef broth to deglaze the pan, add 2 tablespoons of butter,  a generous amount of fresh ground pepper (1/2 teaspoonful), and a quarter cup of heavy cream.  Increase heat to medium-high and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By now your rested steak will have left some liquid in the platter they are on…add that to your sauce and stir.

Peppercorn Pan Sauce for Steak

Serve!  When all four of us are home I use two cast iron skillets at the same time (two ribeyes or one T-bone will generally fit in one pan).

This is one of our favorite meals.  We usually have the steak with some bacon browned green beans or a salad.  Simple food is best!

Steak in Cast Iron Pan with Peppercorn Pan Sauce

No grill required for this yummy steak with pan sauce.  

Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Resting Time 10 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 1


  • 1 Tbone or other thick grilling steak
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup beef broth
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream


  1. Unwrap steak and sprinkle each side with kosher salt.  Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes to one hour.  Heat seasoned cast iron skillet on medium high heat.  Turn on vent fan to prepare for smoke.  Place steak in pan and cook for four minutes.  Turn and cook another four minutes.  Test temperature with instant read thermometer.  If it is not done to your liking cook another 1 to 2 minutes per side.  Place on platter and cover with foil to rest at least 10 minutes. 

  1. For pan sauce, deglaze skillet with beef broth, then add butter, cream, and pepper. Stir and simmer over medium heat until sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon.  


The Florida Aquarium and the American Victory Ship

Back in January, we took a day to visit the Florida Aquarium in Tampa because we are all about aquariums…seriously, we go to every one we possibly can, including the ones here in Oklahoma, which are obviously few and far between…

Our visit coincided with a rare cold spell in south Florida, but it was still warmer than Oklahoma.  The first full day we planned to check out the aquarium in Tampa then make our way to our hotel in St. Pete Beach that afternoon.  It was COLD.  A really good day to be inside somewhere–and lots of other people must have agreed because the place was packed.  There was a pretty good line of people waiting to get tickets when we arrived.  We finally got our tickets and made our way inside.  I took some pictures but they don’t really do things justice.  It’s a very beautiful facility with oodles of amazing animals.  

Sand eels are so cool!

Roseate spoonbills.

The duck above is watching all the strollers closely so it can snatch up dropped kiddie snacks…”Pay no attention to that sign behind me!”

We went through the whole place in around two hours; keep in mind my boys are 20 and 16 so they weren’t interested in the hands-on or outdoor play areas (they have an outdoor splash pad playground which was not open during our visit, go figure!); families with smaller kids might want to allow more time.  And if you go when it’s warm, which is apparently almost always, you will want to bring swim gear, towels, and sunscreen so your kids can play out there.  They have a place to change in and out of swim gear right next to the playground.

There is a snack bar on site but since we had seen everything we wanted, we walked about a block down the street and found a New York style pizza place which was really good.  It had a New York police precinct theme.  It is called, appropriately, Precinct Pizza.  Check it out if you are in town!

We were thinking about heading to the rental car and finding our hotel, but had noticed a sign on the way into the aquarium mentioning something about a historic victory ship nearby…so we followed the signs and found this:

American Victory Ship

The SS American Victory Maritime Museum is one of only four working WWII era ships in the country.  My older son is a major history buff, so of course we had to spend the rest of our day exploring the massive ship.

They take this old merchant marine cargo ship out on a Relive History Cruise twice a year, and we were bummed that we missed that.  Perhaps another time.  There are nine decks to wander, including 3-story cargo holds, galleys, crew cabins, mess halls, officers’ quarters, and lots more.  They also have medals and many historic artifacts.

Above you can see the dazzle paint scheme that helps to break up the shape of the ship.


Both places are definitely worth a visit if you are in the Tampa Bay area!  If you decide to include the ship on your itinerary, keep in mind it has nine stories to go through and it is a ship…so expect lots of walking, and lots of steep metal stairs.  To give you an idea, I had 10,975 steps on my Samsung phone for that day.  😀









Backyard Birdbath Deicer

Birdbath deicer House of IngramsDo you enjoy watching birds in your yard?  One of the very best things you can have is a birdbath.  Water is vital for birds all year round.  What do you do when it’s freezing outside?  You could bundle up every hour or two and run outside with some hot water in a kettle and pour it into your birdbath…or you could get a deicer for your birdbath and stay cozy indoors.

This post contains affiliate links.  See my full disclosure here.  

Here’s my birthday present this year!  We have a birdbath in our backyard and with our temperatures going and staying below freezing so much, we really need a heater to keep the water liquid for them.  Birds don’t get in the water and splash around when it’s super cold, but they always need water to drink.  It’s especially important around here this year, where we are in a full-on drought.

The K & H Pet Products Ice Eliminator Original Birdbath Deicer

My husband found this on Amazon and I think it’s pretty well designed.  A few years ago we had a different heater and it had lots of ridges that made it very difficult to clean.  This is smooth, and you can even sand it and spray paint it to match your bird bath.  I elected to leave mine natural, as our bird bath is light colored.  And I’m lazy.

It has a thermostat so it doesn’t run when the temperature is above freezing and has a 3 year from purchase warranty.  That’s really good since birdbath heaters in my experience only last a season or two.  It uses just 50 watts of power so it’s energy efficient.  It has a short 18-inch cord so you will need to get a good outdoor extension cord and plug into an outdoor outlet, ideally one that is GFI just to be extra safe.  You should probably also wrap your connection with some electrical tape or use a weatherproofing connection.

woodpecker deiced birdbath House of Ingrams

So far our temps have gone down to the low 20s and there was a ring of ice around the edge of the bath but liquid water in the center.  The result, happy birds this morning.  Happy me, because I don’t have to run out and refill with warm water.   This is a win-win!

woodpecker deiced birdbath House of Ingrams


I will update this product review as needed.  So far, I am really happy with this deicer.


The Great Backyard Bird Count

Have you ever heard of the Great Backyard Bird Count?

GBBC 2018It’s February and almost time for the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count! This year it goes from February 16 through 19.  Started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audobon Society in 1998, this is a free four-day long event and anyone can participate.  You can count for as little as fifteen minutes or as long as you like, one day or all four.  This event helps scientists get a better idea of how bird populations are doing.  Last year (2017 GBBC) was the biggest ever with over 160,000 people participating!

To find out exactly how to participate, go to the GBBC website.  You will need to make an account if you haven’t already.  Here’s a link to an instructional PDF.  If you are a brand new user, they recommend registering at

Red Bellied Woodpecker on feeder

You can count birds in your own yard, a park, on roadsides, or anywhere.  The online report forms allow you to log the time and location.  There are lots of tips on counting and identifying birds on the website as well and many excellent bird photographs.  If you take some bird pictures you can submit those too.

You can start with a printed checklist or just use a notebook.  Note your date, time, and location.  I usually take a notebook and write in the birds I expect to find then use tally marks during the observation period.  If there are several birds of the same species, try to report the largest number you saw at one time, this way you won’t overcount.   If I get an unexpected bird I just write it in.  After I have completed all my viewing I log in and enter the data using their easy forms.


I have tried to participate a little bit every year but it’s been kind of hit and miss.  In my own backyard, we usually see lots of birds when it’s cold and nasty out, but when the GBBC rolls around we nearly always have nice warm weather and the birds don’t show up.  😀  I will give it a whirl anyway!

White Crowned Sparrow

If you really enjoy keeping track of bird sightings, on the eBird website you can log bird sightings year round and it will track all your data for you.  I haven’t logged in a while and have some serious updating to do…

Helpful bird identification tips can be found at eBird, along with bird data and news. has news and photos.  Cornell’s website has an online searchable bird guide.  There are also mobile phone apps you can use.

This is an excellent opportunity to get your kids involved in citizen science, a process in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions.  Anyone can “do science” this way; you don’t have to have a degree.  You could go on a field trip to a park and make a really fun day of it, and you might spot more than just birds!

Squirrel Talk

Are you planning to participate in the GBBC this year?  Let us know in the comments!




Clearwater Marine Aquarium

While in Florida we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  If you have small children, you have probably seen this place in the Dolphin Tales movies.  It was all new to us.  This is a wildlife rehabilitation center that rescues and releases marine animals.  There are a few permanent residents that couldn’t return to the wild due to their injuries.  The most famous is Winter the dolphin, who has a prosthetic tail.  When she was about two months old she was found with her tail flukes wrapped tightly in a crab trap rope and they ended up having to remove her tail.  Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics worked with the aquarium personnel to develop a new tail for Winter to help her swim normally.

Winter the dolphin enrichment
The staff engages the dolphins with enrichment activities daily.

Nicholas is another rescued dolphin who came to CMA when he was a tiny baby with severe sunburn on his back from beaching himself next to his mother.  Dolphins must be taught survival skills by their mother and unfortunately, his mother didn’t survive.  He did recover from his injuries and is now a permanent resident at CMA.  He lives in an outdoor tank.  You might see him here on his webcam.

There are many educational presentations going on during the day.  One of these is Tail Talk with Nicholas.  If he feels like participating, he does some high leaping out of the water-the first three rows are a splash zone.

Nicholas the dolphin

Nicholas the dolphin

There are also resident otters, sea turtles, stingrays, pelicans, and sharks at CMA.

Because this is a working animal hospital it is unlike other aquariums.   You can observe medical procedures through glass windows.  When we visited there were many cold-stunned sea turtles in the surgical suite.  Since our visit, they were able to release several of those turtles, as you can see in this video:

We took a Sea Life Safari boat tour after lunch.  (We packed along some cold cuts and cheese and ate in the parking garage). You can get a combo ticket for a boat tour and CMA admission.  This tour goes through the intracoastal waters where they do a net pull to collect sea creatures (they identify them, pass them around, log them and put them back where they were found at the end of the day).  We cruised out to a tiny shell island and hung out for about 15 minutes, collected a few shells, then headed back.  It was a very fun and informative trip.

Sea Life Safari Boat
This is the boat pulled up to the tiny island.

Puffer fish Sea Life Safari
A couple of puffer fish gathered during the net pull. They had settled back to normal size at this point.
Critter from net pull, Sea Life Safari
Another critter from the net pull.
Sea Life Safari Tank
This is the tank they put critters in after they are removed from the net.

If you visit the Tampa Bay area, don’t miss this aquarium.  They are in the process of expanding the facility.  The staff and volunteers are obviously very dedicated and are focused on educating visitors.  It is also kid-friendly, but there are a lot of stairs.  The Sea Life Safari was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it as well.

CMA can always use financial support, so if you would like to donate to help support wildlife conservation, go here.






St. Petersburg Mural Tour



In early January we went on a family vacation in Florida.  One of the highlights of our visit was a walking tour to see just a few of the murals in downtown St. Petersburg.  A good friend of mine from high school lives in St. Pete and when she found out we would be in town she set up this great tour for us.

St Pete mural tour

The tour company is called Tour St. Pete.  They offer group and private walking tours.  There are a few different options, so check out their page and see what sounds good to you.  Their website has a slideshow with lots of fun pictures.  We enjoyed the mural tour.  Greg, our tour guide, is extremely knowledgeable about the murals and the artists who create them.  I believe he said there are something like 400 murals at this point, and they add some every year.  I definitely want to go back and do the Sunshine City Tour, which is about the history of St. Pete, and would love to take another mural tour sometime.

Our friend and her family came along with us and we had a great time catching up while we checked out the amazing art.

St. Pete mural tour

St. Pete Mural Tour Cat

No one will ever mistake me for a photographer, so try to imagine how great these murals look in person based on my not so amazing photos…

Peacock mural St. Pete tour


St. Pete mural tour

St. Pete mural tour

Up close you can see all the layers of color the artist used to build the final product…with spray paint, ya’ll!

St. Pete Mural Tour

The obligatory “run from your imminent destruction” shot!  Note the end of an old “Coca Cola” ad they incorporated into the mural.

St Pete Mural Tour


St. Pete mural tour payphones

We also found some old payphones!

St Pete Mural Tour

This one is stunning in person, look closely at the different textures going on within the shapes.

These are just a few of the murals we were able to see.  I highly recommend you visit and go on the tour if you get the chance.  As with any walking tour, dress sensibly for the weather, wear good walking shoes, put on that sunscreen and hat, pack along some water, and don’t forget your camera!

This tour was on a Sunday afternoon, and SpaceX was going to launch a rocket at 8pm CST that night…we finished the tour and set off across the state of Florida toward Cape Kennedy…but that’s another post.

Many thanks to my friend Stephanie, her family, and Greg from Tour St. Pete!










Turkey Pot Pie Soup (Low Carb and Keto Friendly)

Do you still have some post-holiday turkey lurking in your freezer?  Here’s a tasty way to use it up.  Back in the day, I would have made a fabulous turkey pot pie using a Pillsbury pie crust…but our new way of eating doesn’t call for wheat.  I do have a mighty good low carb pot pie recipe, but a turkey pot pie soup is yummy and less work, and it’s definitely soup weather here.

turkey pot pie soup low carb

This soup has no potatoes or flour to thicken it, and I don’t use cauliflower, that darling of the low carb community, because my husband kind of hates it.  I use the standard frozen veg mix with carrots, peas, green beans, and corn, but only two cups so the carbs are spread out over several servings.  If you don’t want even a tiny bit of corn, peas, or carrots, you can substitute low carb veggies of your choice.  Homemade turkey broth, butter, and heavy cream bump up the fat content to make this creamy, satisfying, and keto friendly as well.  I put in a half teaspoonful of xanthan gum to thicken–this is completely optional.  The state of your broth is very important to a good soup, so you will need to taste it and adjust the salt and other spices so it isn’t bland.  Be sure to taste BEFORE you add the salt.  A word of caution, be sure it’s cool enough to taste.  Burned tongues are no bueno.

turkey pot pie soup low carb


I hope you enjoy it!

Turkey Pot Pie Soup (low carb and keto friendly)


  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup onion chopped
  • 3 stalks celery chopped
  • 1 tsp chopped or crushed garlic
  • 6 cups turkey broth or stock
  • 4 cups shredded cooked turkey
  • 1 tsp salt to taste; may need more! check your broth for saltiness
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp rubbed sage or poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp xanthan gum OPTIONAL
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables


  1. Melt butter in large dutch oven.  Saute onion and celery until tender.  Add garlic and cook briefly (don't let it brown).  Then add broth, turkey, salt (if needed), pepper, sage, garlic and onion powder.  If using xanthan gum, sprinkle over the top and whisk thoroughly.  Add the mixed vegetables.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.  Add cream and simmer another 10 minutes or so.

Recipe Notes

One cup of this is remarkably filling, so you might even have leftovers, which are FABULOUS the next day.



Nutrition per 1 cup serving:  Calories 201, Fat 14g, Total Carbs 3g, Fiber 1g, Net Carbs 2g, Protein 13g

DIY Peanut Butter Bird “Suet”



It’s winter in Oklahoma.  We had a long very warm fall but the bottom dropped out in late December.  It is flat COLD today and it’s not going to warm up for a while.  I have filled our bird feeders with black oil sunflower seed.  The birds and a very fat squirrel are loading up on it.  When it is this cold, extra fat and protein will help birds keep warm so it’s a nice thing to offer during a cold winter.  Traditionally beef suet is the fat of choice but I don’t happen to have any of that.  I used to make bird food using peanut butter, bacon grease, and cornmeal, but the latest research from Cornell Ornithology seems to indicate that bacon grease isn’t the best thing for birds due to the sodium and nitrate content.

One has to be careful when feeding fat to birds.  If it is not frozen solid it can get on their feathers and they lose their insulating power which can cause birds to freeze.  Basically, if it’s above freezing out, pull your “suet” feed so the birds don’t get it all over them.  If you put it in an old onion or fruit bag to hang, little bird feet could get tangled in the mesh.  A wire feeder is a better option.  Fat in an easy to access place could attract more undesirable yard visitors.  If you start to notice critters you don’t want in the yard, pull that feed.

I happened to have a block of frozen beef fat left from my bone broth making and I used it to make some bacon-free bird “suet”.

Here’s how.

1 cup peanut butter (natural preferred)

1 cup beef fat OR lard, needs to be soft enough to mix

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup oatmeal

1/2 cup raisins, optional

Mix all ingredients well…I use my Kitchenaid.  I love that thing.

I pack in into old butter containers and freeze solid, then unmold and put on the platform feeder.

If the weather warms up above freezing, don’t leave it out.