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From Kitty Friends to October's End {10 Things That Made Me Happy This Week}

1. The neighbor kitties. We are not allowed to have pets, but Aiden really wants one. It makes me happy that the neighbor cats come over to play with Aiden. It is almost like him having pets... but we don't have to take care of them, ha!

2. A freezer full of meals for the week. While making freezer meals isn't my favorite, it has been awesome to not have to think too hard about meals this week!

3. My silly boy's love for costumes. He loves costumes year-round, but the week of Halloween is a good excuse to embrace this fun! He dressed as Darth Vader to go to the dorms, as Minecraft Steve for his taekwondo party, and will be a ghost tomorrow! Oh, and we can't forget the random clown wig wearing!

4. Talking baby names with both my best friend and my niece! I definitely love babies! Even if one of them has stolen my favorite baby name, ha!

5. A successful surgery for my niece. My 5-year-old niece ended up needing to have her appendix removed this week. I am so thankful for a good outcome after a stressful time!

6. Our awesome Pastors. One just had his first baby (yay!) and the other spent part of his day with my family in the hospital while Kylee was being treated. It is such a blessing to have them in our lives!

7. Prayer warrior friends. I was so comforted and encouraged by friends who prayed for my family and checked in with me this week when things were hard.

8. Aiden's love of writing stories and cards. He has recently gotten into spelling... he loves to spell words aloud for us. This makes me happy because I have to spell less words for him now, ha!

9. Time to reconnect with a good friend in person. Text messages are awesome, but nothing beats being able to spend time together in person. There is no substitute for mama friends who understand the challenges that are unique to this season of life.

10. Fresh starts. It has been a long week, but today is Friday which means I now have a weekend to reset and a fresh new week to look forward to! It is almost November... almost time to start getting festive. Life is good.

Also on the blog this week (in case you missed these posts!

And don't miss my guest post at Behind the Camera and Dreaming!! 
I shared a fun DIY Lego Mini Figure Display

Linking Up With: 

What made YOU happy this week? I would love to hear about it in the comments! Or link to your own post if you have one!

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

The Hoffman Academy provided me with a free download of the complete materials for Unit 1 so that I could complete this review. However, I have been sharing my love for this program since long before I was offered this opportunity. (See examples here and here.) The honest opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. 

It was obvious from early on that Aiden was a child who really loves music. He enjoys listening to all kinds, singing both songs he has learned and those he makes up, tapping out rhythms on every surface, and recently he has developed a love for written music as well. He can often be found drawing musical notes in his notebook, and then adding words below. He also loves to use a kindle app Matt found that lets him compose music and play it back. So, when I learned about the Hoffman Academy and their free online piano lesson videos, I knew I had to at least check them out! 

I wasn't entirely sure about the idea of online lessons at first, and if I am being completely honest the fact that the lessons were free made me even more skeptical. However, there were two primary reasons I felt compelled to give them a chance. The first was cost, and the second convenience.  

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

Hoffman Academy provides their online video lessons for free. 

For a one-income family on a tight budget, this is an incredible value. I fully believe that piano teachers are worth the cost of lessons, but if lessons cannot be worked into the budget (and for us, they simply could not) then children miss out on the opportunity to learn! We were given a jazz organ by my sister, so we had that instrument readily available to our child, but neither my husband or I could teach him to play it. Matt can pick out songs by ear, and he plays a pretty awesome version of A Might Fortress Is Our God, but other than that we are both pretty clueless. So, for us, all that was missing was a teacher, and these lessons solve that need in a way that works for our family! 

I mentioned that  had reservations about the quality of the lessons given the price (free!), but I was immediately impressed by what I found. I have a very normal 5-year-old boy who is not one to sit still for long. When I set up his first lesson, I was amazed by how he sat there so engaged and attentive. Mr. Hoffman is an excellent teacher, including movement and activities in his lessons, and he is a pretty lively guy who is easy to listen to. Plus, he keeps the lessons short! The real surprise, for me was when Aiden started demonstrating what he was learning right away. I will talk a little bit more about that below, but I don't want to forget my second reason for trying these lessons. Because it isn't all about cost!

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

Hoffman Academy piano lessons are incredibly convenient, and can be done anywhere with access to a piano and an internet connection. 

As you can see from the photos above, for some lessons you don't even need to be near your piano! While we are a homeschool family who has a pretty flexible schedule, the truth is that we often still feel overbooked. Aiden's taekwondo lessons take up a significant amount of time in the evenings, and during the days we often have other things going on. One of the things we love about homeschool is the ability to be flexible and this is by far the most flexible option for piano lessons I have seen! Another benefit of the online format of this program is that students have the option to easily repeat lessons when needed. This has been a great help for us.

After the very first lesson, I could see that my child was really learning. 

I think it was lesson 4 when I realized he was already better at piano than me. Sure, I was watching the lessons with him and learning a little bit as well. But he could apply it a whole lot faster! There is definitely something to be said for beginning things like this early. We are now halfway through Unit One, and I am just blown away by how Aiden is learning and enjoying this! I am not going to pretend there aren't days when I have to convince him to practice, but even if we have a tough day he is still always asking for more by later in the week. (Later on in this post I am sharing a download that helped us in being consistent with lessons and practice in a big way!)

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

In addition to their online lessons, Hoffman Academy provides (optional) additional resources as an incredibly reasonable price. 

I did not jump into purchasing the additional resources right away with these lessons, and Aiden was learning quickly without them! I was very pleased with the video lessons, and kept going back and forth about the additional resources... did we really need them? Well, when I first downloaded the Unit 1 files, I knew we would be using them for sure. There are printables for each lesson, as well as mp3 files for both listening and practicing. While I don't think we missed anything by not using the print resources in the beginning, I can't deny how valuable they are now that we are using them. Aiden was an instant fan of having his own heartbeat mat for dictating rhythms, and having the practice in writing music correctly is valuable as well.  The website explains their pricing in this way: 
Every video lesson on our website is free. No purchase required at any time.
To get even more out of your learning, the Complete Materials for each Unit of 20 Lessons (includes activity pages, sheet music, practice instructions, and MP3 files) costs $19. That’s less than $1 per lesson!

Hoffman Academy Piano Lessons are effective, enjoyable and are clearly working for us!

I honestly could go on and on about this program. As I mentioned at the start, we were hooked on it long before I had the opportunity to do this review! I can't say that they will completely replace lessons with a live instructor for our family. Right now it is too soon to tell. If Aiden continues to show a love for piano, we may look in to lessons locally for him down the road. However, I wouldn't be surprised if we find that these online lessons are everything we need to give him a solid foundation. I also love the support for parents you can find on their blog, and how wonderful their customer service is. I would recommend them without hesitation, and my friends can tell you that I do just that!

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

Printable Piano Lesson Activity Tracker for Unit 1 {A freebie for my readers!}

While the convenience of online lessons speaks for itself, there is a (small) downside to this... it requires that the parent be consistent in making sure lessons and practicing take place regularly. It took me a while to find my footing in this area. In the end, I decided I needed some sort of activity tracker to make sure we were keeping things moving. I created one that I am excited to share with you for free today! I hope it helps you as you explore these amazing lessons and start working through Unit 1! An added bonus for homeschool families is that it is the perfect way to show progress in this area in a portfolio. You can download the activity tracker by clicking the preview below!
Download this file

Hoffman Academy Coupon Code

I am excited to be able to offer my readers a 20% discount off of any individual order from the Hoffman Academy Store. Just use the code MYREFLECTION20 when you check out! You will want to take advantage of this code before it expires! 

Ready to get started? Check out the About page on the Hoffman Academy website for great information!

If you have any questions about our experiences with the Hoffman Academy, please feel free to reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook! And be sure to let me know if you try them out and what you think!  

Do Online Piano Lessons Really Work? {Hoffman Academy Review + FREE Printable Lesson Tracker}

Find the Hoffman Academy on social media for more great resources!

We Preach Best What We Need To Learn Most {a reflection on being genuine and sharing struggles...}

It all started with a movie quote...

As I sat listening to the Luther movie dialogue with my teens on Wednesday night (I wasn't exactly watching as I had asked their permission to edit photos while we watched... remember, I was "in the weeds" that day!) something really stood out to me. The quote as I heard it was, "We preach best that which we need to learn most." It kind of stopped me in my tracks.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the value of sharing genuinely about where I am at right now. Sometimes it seems like we have to have all the answers before we can share anything. Of course that very idea is completely fallible as we will never have all of the answers this side of heaven. We do, however, have God's Word as a source of wisdom. We also have the gift of fellowship with other believers to share in this earthly journey as we seek the will of our Heavenly Father in our everyday lives. However, it is only through genuine sharing that we can fully benefit from the relationships God has given us here on earth.

We preach best what we need to learn most. 

The statement is both simply profound and incredibly intimidating. The very idea that we can be most effective when we are most vulnerable is not an easy one to swallow. However, scripture is full of chosen messengers who felt ill-prepared to do the work God had set before them. God has always loved choosing individuals who aren't necessarily the most qualified, and it is in His supreme wisdom that He does so. There is a more well-known quote that easily comes to mind when I start thinking about this...

"Those whom God calls, He equips." 

This statement so commonly thrown about is not without Biblical support. We see in Scripture where God promises to equip his children for service. A few examples:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. {Ephesians 2:10}
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. {Hebrews 13:20-21}
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. {Philippians 1:6}
I probably have said something like this more than once. Yet how much harder is it to actually put into practice? How often have I said "Here I am! Send me!" but then failed to trust in my abilities or started to doubt that I am good enough for the task set before me? I know I often find myself thinking that I can serve once I become more ____________. I fill in the blank any number of ways. I want to be more disciplined, have more knowledge, feel more prepared, possess more resources... I am always focusing on what I lack instead of focusing on the One who will provide. 

What often holds me back, when I look at the very root of each issue, is the fear of not being accepted or successful. 

The picture of success that the world paints is very different than the one our Creator does. How can I successfully serve the God of All Creation if I am such a hot mess? How can I trust equally flawed people to respond to me, when all around me the world whispers that I am not good enough? If I share where I am right now, instead of waiting until I have the answers, how can I maintain that picture of togetherness that people want in a leader or influencer? Not that I have ever been the picture of someone who has it all together. I can't help but laugh at that thought. The truth is that there is a whole layer of my frayed life that is even messier than what I already let people see. Do I really have to be that genuine? And do I really want to be a "leader"? 

It is okay to not have all the answers. It is okay to instead share just the questions that shape your current journey.

So, here I sit... preaching to myself about what I most need to hear. And sharing some of that internal conversation in a somewhat public forum. I feel so strongly that this is where my efforts need to focus right now. Maybe the questions I am asking myself are actually more valuable than the answers I don't have. Wait... did that totally not make sense? I am pretty sure I have reached my limit of structured thought by now. If you thought this post would have answers of any kind... well, sorry! It does, however, mark the start of something for me. 

I have been reading back through a lot of what I used to write. I see how God has been working on me in huge ways, and I also am reminded that just sharing my brokenness was often the thing that encouraged others the most. If there is one thing I can easily be, it is broken and flawed. Why do I exert so much energy trying to "be better" and "do more" when all God asks of me is that I be open to His work in my life and the ways He can use that for His glory? Over and over He has shown me that the messy parts of life hold some of the greatest treasures. I want to dwell on that right now, and really process that truth. I feel like it holds such wisdom. 

So anyhow, there is the state of my heart tonight. No answers; no neat and tidy packaged wisdom. Just a whole lot of questions and a beautiful hope that through this sharing I can glorify God and encourage others. It sounds like a lofty goal when I type it out. So, before the insecurity can take root I had better hit publish! More to come, friends...

Oh, and this was not pre-planned with this post but I am cohosting #LetsBeRealTogether with this awesome blogger on IG tomorrow! It is a project that happens on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month, and is all about encouraging us to be more genuine and "unedited" in our social media once in a while. Read more here and join us tomorrow! 

Linking up with Titus 2sDay and Titus 2 Tuesday

Care to share? 
What is something you can preach best because you need to learn it yourself? 

#ParentTeacherMeetUp - Week 7

Hey friends! It is time for another week of the #ParentTeacherMeetUp! I am so excited to see what everyone has to share!

I am also super excited to welcome a guest host today! I was paired with Melanie for a fun blogging project called Solidarity Sisters. Today, I am welcoming her to my blog so I can introduce her to you! You can find Melanie blogging about homeschool and sharing great free resources at Wind in a Letterbox. Be sure to go stop by and say hello! I am also guest posting over on her blog today, so feel free to check that out! And signups just started for the next month of Solidarity Sisters, so go check that out as well! But before you go click happy with all that... here is a little about Melanie!!

Hi! I’m Melanie, wife to Jacques and mom to Angie and Emmy. Jacques and I met at Wits drama school way back when, and got married in 2009. We live in Johannesburg, where we plan to stay unless God calls us elsewhere. Wind in a Letterbox was launched in 2014 as a place for me to write about faith, marriage and parenting. If you’re a parent looking for inspiration and encouragement, then you should feel right at home here. Feel free to stop by my Facebook page or say hi on Twitter.

About Wind in a Letterbox
Read more about Melanie, her blog and her family here.

Okay... are you read to link up with us?

Help us spread the word about this linkup by clicking here to tweet about it! The more people who know about it, the more traffic we can send your way!

Tweet: Join @bransonmerrill for the #ParentTeacherMeetUp and share your best #homeschool & #kidsactivities posts today!

Before linking up, it would be lovely if you would follow all 3 of us in whatever social media avenues you frequent:

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and our GUEST HOST Melanie!
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From Road Trips to Hot Sips {10 Things That Made Me Happy This Week}

Y'all... it has been one crazy week. Like hands-down the craziest week yet since trying to refocus and find some sort of "normal"... which leads me to believe that my normal is just plain hectic. Which I refuse to accept. But anyway... this is my time to sit down and think about the happy parts of the week. So, here we go.

1. Road tripping with the family. We headed out to western Nebraska for my niece's wedding and it was fun to spend that time with my family. I was there primarily to photograph the wedding, but I still had some time to spend with the people I love as well. Even if my sister did have to replace a tire on the drive home, the actual road trip part was pretty fun as well!

2. The actual photos from the wedding have been making me (mostly) happy! I definitely struggle with being too critical of myself, but it is blessing to get to provide these photos for Arianna as a gift to her. (See more photos here)

3. Getting to see my oldest brother. I can't exactly remember the last time I saw him. Surely I have seen him since my Grandma's funeral in like 1999, right? Btw, how weird is it to type 1999 as a year I was an adult? Makes me feel old to talk about last century, haha! Anyhow, Cameron officiated the ceremony and getting to see him "in action" as a Pastor for the first time was awesome as well!

4. Hot apple cider. It is that time of the year!!

5. Continued learning in the book of 1 Peter during quiet time this week. I am almost done with this book finally! ;)

 6. Aiden making cookies with rainbow sprinkles for our teens. Baking with him always makes me happy, and his little boy creativity is the best!

7. Watching "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" with Aiden. He laughed and laughed! It was free to watch on either the ABC or CBS app for the kindle... can't remember which one!

8. A definite laugh-out-loud moment this week was when Aiden was inspired by a monster preschool post about an awesome balloon activity we did and disappeared for a few minuted only to return with this balloon he had drawn faces on! It makes more sense if you check out the post, but either way this was funny!

9. Aiden coming home from Taekwondo on Thursday and showing me his jump kick progress was!! I am so very proud of that kid! He earned another belt recently (I don't think I have mentioned that yet because I didn't get to do this post last week!) and when Matt and I heard this next form included jump kick we were wondering if he was really ready for that. He has shown us that he is, and even thinking about it now makes me smile so big.

10. Getting to talk about pregnancy and motherhood with my sweet niece Jenna who is expecting her first baby in January. She is definitely glowing these days, and I am proud of how she is so devoted to motherhood already.

Woohoo! I made it to 10! I know that my life is so blessed, but this was just a super hard week and I had to dig a bit. Doing so made me realize even more though how much there is joy even when things are tough. I can definitely say that I am starting to feel much better today, though. I remain hopeful as I prepare for a new week. God is SO good, and I know He is doing great things in my life every day. Bring on the new week....

Also on the blog this week (in case you missed these posts!

And don't miss my guest post at Behind the Camera and Dreaming!! 
I shared a fun DIY Lego Mini Figure Display

Linking Up With: 

What made YOU happy this week? I would love to hear about it in the comments! Or link to your own post if you have one!

Photographing a Wedding {Getting Ready}

I mentioned recently that I was photographing my second wedding... this time for my niece. Here are some of the photos of her getting ready for her big day! I am still editing the family photos and the reception... if you have ever thought that wedding photographers were overpaid or that the work was easy, I can tell you that is certainly not true! Of course I did this wedding for free, and am not a professional so my editing is much slower... but still, it is a stressful and intense job!

Fall Flashback: Monster Preschool Fun! {Math and Science activities with a monster theme}

I was cleaning off memory cards recently, and I found these photos from a fun preschool playdate we had with Aiden's cousin last year! We used the Googly Eye Printables found here and the fun Monster Science found here. Both of these activities were a definite hit! I miss these preschool playdates now that his cousin is off to school! Aiden and I will be doing some of the other googly eye craft suggestions later this week... he pulled out the container of eyes and asked to make crafts yesterday, so clearly we are thinking alike.

When Aiden saw the photos of the balloon experiment he immediately wanted to do it again today! I will have to run out and get balloons later! I think it will be fun to see what faces HE draws this year, instead of drawing them for him!

My sister had given us a TON of googly eyes, so we had plenty for this activity. And I will tell you a little secret... after they had been hanging on display for a while I took them down and popped the eyes back off to reuse for other things! We can't possibly keep every worksheet or activity he does, so I document the ones he loves with photos like this and then recycle the actual papers. (Original artwork I am much more likely to keep!) 

One of the things I love most about this time of year is all of the holidays to plan activities around! I am looking forward to finding some great new activities this year, but I also love looking back at things like this and remembering the fun we have had! I am truly blessed to get to be my little guy's teacher and get to experience this exciting time of learning and discovery with him. 

"In the Weeds" Wednesday...

It always seems to happen... once I start blogging consistently something comes up that throws me for a loop. The weekend out in Western Nebraska for my niece's wedding was non-stop action, and I haven't been able to catch a break since! In fact, there is still luggage laying open in the middle of my living room... exactly where it was dropped when we unloaded Sunday night! I have been trying to catch up on everything while also getting in some wedding photo editing each day. I have to say... I am beyond exhausted. I can't even think about genuine blog posts right now. So, that is where I am, and I will leave you with a couple photos from the park time before we hit the road to head home on Sunday. Even if it was a crazy weekend, it was good to see the fam! 

#ParentTeacherMeetup - Week 6

This weekend I traveled to Western Nebraska to photograh a wedding. So... I don't have a post for this week. And I am still catching up on sharing, commenting on and pinning the fabulous posts from last week. But I will get caught up this week and may have a post to add later. For now, I will leave you with this little video from instagram of Aiden's smooth moves on the dance floor! ;)

A video posted by Branson (@bransonmerrill) on

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Before linking up, it would be lovely if you would follow all 3 of us in whatever social media avenues you frequent:


That time I photographed a wedding...

Just to be clear... I am not a professional photographer. However, I love to take pictures. When I lived in Missouri and worked with the youth at our church I developed a very special relationship with an amazing young woman. Really, her family became my family. She and I used to go on photo adventures together, and we shared a great love for photography. These are some of my best Missouri memories!

So, last year, when this amazing young woman was planning her wedding she asked me to take her photos. I was both honored and terrified of the idea, ha! I knew it would mean a lot to both of us for me to do it, though. It was the most difficult, exciting, stressful, beautiful, happy day ever! I loved doing it, but swore I would never do it again! Until my niece asked me! Sooooo.... now I am off to photograph another wedding this weekend. Of course part of preparing that was looking back through the photos from last summer. Here are a few of my favorites (there were so many to choose from!!!):


There were so.many.more pictures! And this didn't even include getting ready or the reception, ha! But it is good to look back at these and remember that day! This weekend I pray we have favorable weather and my niece has a wonderful wedding day! I will do my best to capture it! I haven't even seen the location yet, so I am also praying for good light! Being an amateur photographer with amateur gear makes the low light situations hard!! The ceremony and the reception at this wedding were both a bit darker than my camera was prepared for, but we made it work! Maybe this time I will catch a break there!