“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

As I sit at my desk the Saturday before the first week of our THIRD year of HPA, I am overwhelmed with love and gratitude for all the people that have helped make this little school a reality. If I started a list, it would be miles long because I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without the amazing examples set by my teachers from elementary school all the way through college. I also wouldn’t be the Christian I am today without the wonderful pastors, youth leaders, and mentors I have had, but today, I am especially thankful for the strong women I have had in my life to speak words of life and truth into my spirit.

You see, while I’m writing this, my mom and her friends are driving two hours back home after making the pilgrimage up to Gallatin to see our new school building. Those cars that are on the road right now are filled with three generations of powerhouses – my mom and her friends, their daughters who I’m blessed to call my friends, and the newest addition to this hometown tribe – baby Palmer, who has the most beautiful blue eyes you have ever seen!

The Cowan Crew
Leah Salyer (HPA founder), Linda Thayer (“Mama Thayer”), Rose Pearson (family friend who named HPA), Mary Pearson Smith (lifelong friend), Patsy Rigsby (family friend), Jill Rigsby Higgs (lifelong friend and mom to that cutie in the baby carrier, Palmer)

These women know what it means to be a tribe – they celebrate the highs and hang with you through the lows, and raise their hands high on the roller coaster ride of everything in between! They have recipes for all occasions and can throw together a wedding or a baby shower (flowers, food, and all) with their hands tied behind their backs, and I love them fiercely.

So, today when they came to see our new school we moved into in February, it made it feel “real.” Having these ladies from my hometown see this giant dream of mine alive in this building was such an amazing experience, and it just reminds me of the phrase that we are standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before us.

I had already decided that our theme for this school year would be mentorship, and today was just a beautiful confirmation. To stand in front of the school with Rose Pearson, who named Higher Path Academy; her daughter Mary, who has been one of my longest and very best friends; “Saint Patsy” as my mom calls her, and her sweet daughter Jill and grandson Palmer (I’m already missing those cute little toes!), I truly felt the importance of surrounding yourself with amazing mentors and a tribe that will dream with you, stand with you, cry with you, and fly with you.

Ladies, you have helped me learn to soar! Thank you!

Rose, Mary, and Mama Thayer in front of HPA
Rose Pearson, Mary Pearson Smith, and Linda Thayer

Why I Choose Choice Boards

First, what are choice boards? A choice board is a type of assignment style that gives students the freedom to choose how they will connect with the subject matter.

There are many different styles of choice boards. Some are tic-tac-toe boards, asking students to choose three activities in a row; others are in the form of menus, asking students to choose from different sections on the menu (appetizers, main course, dessert) to create a full “meal.” (These styles are especially great for younger learners.)

Teachers and parents know that there are tons of ways to teach the same subject matter, but how do you decide on one or just a handful of activities that will be both meaningful and engaging for a classroom full of different students who each bring their own talents, interests, and background knowledge to the concept being studied?

I believe that the choice board is one of the absolute greatest tools to empower students to take ownership of their education, while rewarding them with the freedom to choose from a variety of meaningful activities.

Here is an example of a choice board I created to accompany the 7th grade History of the World curriculum by Abeka.


For our home school tutorial program, I include a wide variety of activities: reading comprehension questions, note taking strategies, essays, Bible memorization work, family activities, creative writing, vocabulary, lab reports, volunteering, connections to art and literature, etc. Many of these activities can be found as part of the curriculum, but I’ve added others to further expand the number of choices.

Students enjoy getting to choose how they will earn their homework points, and I enjoy seeing so much more creativity from them. They also help students learn about time management and even personal finance!

For my choice boards, students need to earn 500 points, but they are allowed to earn up to 100 bonus points per choice board. I encourage them to “bank” some bonus points each week to save them for a rainy day (i.e., a tough week due to travel, extracurricular activities, etc.). If you think about points as a form of currency, students are indirectly learning basic budgeting skills just by doing their homework! I also try to make sure that I’m awarding about 100 points per hour of work, so students can see about how much time they still need to finish a choice board just by checking how many points they lack. As a result, they start learning more about time management.

One drawback to using choice boards is that is does require quite a bit of explanation at the beginning, but the outcome is absolutely worth it!

On a recent World History Choice Board, one option was to recreate a picture that appeared in the textbook. Sophia Kingsbury, one of my particularly artistic students, used her abilities to digitally recreate a picture of a child soldier. The video below shows her amazing process.

Thanks to the flexibility of the choice board, Sophia was able to connect with the reading in a meaningful way that showcased her love for art and her God-given talent. The result? A masterpiece!

To see more of Sophia’s amazing artwork, check out her Instagram page, Sophia Rose Art.

To learn more about choice boards, check out this list of FAQs that I’ve developed for my students.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to complete every assignment on the choice board?

No. What is so great about the choice board format is that it is full of…choices. You get to pick which assignments you want to complete each week. Since all of the assignments listed help you dig deeper into what you’ve read, you have the freedom to choose activities that appeal to you.

Do I have to complete every assignment in a box?

No. You can choose ANY combination of assignments on the choice board in order to earn your points. Just because you choose one assignment from a certain box does not mean you now have to complete all of the activities in that box. You can mix and match as you wish.

Do I have to complete the same work on every choice board?

No. Every choice board in a clean slate. What you chose on the last choice board has nothing to do with what you choose on any other choice board. So, play around with them and have fun. Some students find activities that they really enjoy, so they choose them over and over. Other students try something new on each choice board. One suggestion, though – you don’t know if you like something until you try it, so don’t be afraid to think outside the “box” that you usually choose. 🙂

How many points do I have to earn?

500. Unless otherwise stated, most choice boards require you to earn 500 points, but you also have the opportunity to earn bonus points each week.

Can I get bonus points?

Yes. Unless otherwise stated, you can earn up to 100 bonus points on each choice board. However, the limit is 100, which means you can’t attempt any points over 600 to cover any points you might miss due to wrong answers. I STRONGLY encourage you to attempt at least a few bonus points on each choice board. Think of the points like money – you may have heard your parents talk about working “overtime” to save up a little extra money for a vacation, home repair, or “rainy day fund.” The bonus points are just like that – a little extra money in the bank for a rainy day. You never know when you are going to have a difficult week (due to sports, time constraints, emergency, etc.), and maybe you are only able to complete 300 points one week. However, if you’ve been “banking” some extra credit every week, it is easy for that 300 to still average out to an A (or even higher) thanks to all those bonus points.

How do I turn in my work?

Hard copy and Edmodo. No matter what activities you completed, you will need to turn in a completed choice board for each unit/module. In order to avoid situations in which the dog may have eaten your homework, the best thing to do is to turn in both a hard copy AND an electronic copy. That way, if something happens to the hard copy, we will have a back up online in Edmodo. I consider a “hard copy” to be the original page out of a workbook, a copy of the page, handwritten answers, or typed answers – any of these are acceptable. The choice board itself will serve as your cover sheet for the packet of work you are turning in. Always put any hard copies of work BEHIND the choice board before you staple your packet. Also, when turning in work on Edmodo, don’t forget to submit a picture of the choice board as well.

How do I earn points on the mandatory section?

Honor system. The mandatory section for each choice board consists of reading the current unit/module. I’m giving you points for doing this because it is part of your homework which requires time and effort on your part. However, you don’t have to do anything extra to “prove” that you completed this work; simply mark it as completed and fill in the section for the number of points attempted.

How long do I have to complete the choice board?

It depends. Typically history classes have one week per choice board, and science classes have two weeks. However, there will be times (such as over fall/spring/Christmas break) that you may have extra time, so make sure you check the due date listed in Edmodo.

How do I fill out the choice board?

Name, date, check marks, and points attempted. At the top of the choice board, please fill in your name, the date (either when you completed it or the due date is fine), and the total number of points attempted out of 500 (including bonus points). Also, you will want to fill out the points attempted section for each box. Remember, it’s perfectly fine to have a zero in a section or even what looks like a “low score” because you are mixing and matching points from each section to add up to 500 points total. Each activity has a box to check in front of it IF you completed it – place check marks ONLY in the boxes in front of activities you completed. This will help you keep up with what you’ve completed, and it also helps your parents and me see at a glance what you’ve completed.

How should I manage my time each week?

It’s up to you. Again, this is the beauty of homeschool – it allows you to be as flexible or as structured as you need. For the Notgrass history books, you have weekly units with five lessons per unit. So, you can easily do a lesson a day. Then, if you are trying to incorporate your choice board points into your plan for the week, I would suggest shooting for earning about 100 points on each of those 5 days. However, some students prefer to get “in the zone” on a certain subject and work on it for quite a few hours at a time, and that’s fine, too. For the science choice boards, you typically have two weeks to complete the work, but the readings and assignments usually take more time and effort, but you can still apply the same strategy for setting a points goal for each science study session you do.

How do I figure out my grade?

It’s a percentage. Take the grade I give you and divide by 500 points – that will give you your percentage. Here are some examples: 425/500 = 85    500/500 = 100%   575/500 = 115%. Remember – all these grades get averaged together, so a 450 one week plus a 550 another week is still like having two 100s. You will get your choice board packet back in class, but your grade will also be posted on Edmodo. Since classes only meet once a week, you may see your grade on Edmodo before you get your hard copy back in class.


Your turn – What is your favorite thing about using choice boards?

Passion Projects

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
― Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first woman to be elected head of state of an African country



I absolutely LOVE this quote! It challenges us to step out of our comfort zones, dream big, then put in the elbow grease to achieve the impossible. After all, if you already have the capacity to achieve something, it’s more of a to-do list item than a dream anyway, right?

A dream stretches us and our faith. It makes us take the first steps on a journey trusting that God will direct our path, walk beside us, and be waiting for us at the finish line.

I feel like I’m living out my dream every day at HPA! It is the best combination of my passion for God and my passion for teaching, and this giant dream that used to scare me (and sometimes still does), is the most beautiful journey of faith.

Now, I am hoping to bring even more of that passion to our final projects for English class. Instead of simply writing a final research paper, I’m asking students to take on a passion project – to create something more than just five pages in MLA format.

So far, students have come up with ideas for photography projects, how-to video series, recipe books, original music productions, and the project pitches aren’t even due yet! I can’t wait to see what all they come up with over the course of this project.

So, here we are, dreaming big scary dreams about changing the world, because we serve a big God who has equipped us with the time, talents, and resources to do just that – leave the world a better place than we found it, no matter how young (or young at heart) we are.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. -1 Timothy 4:12

So, what is your passion project? What dream has God placed on your heart?



With the first snow on the ground, my mind turns to my love for the changing seasons. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite, and my mother and I are no exception. In fact, we share the same favorite season – fall. Here is what our beloved “Mama Thayer” had to say about her favorite season…

I love fall! I’ll say it again, I LOVE FALL! It’s my favorite time of year. I feel cool, crisp mornings. Folks have turned their gardens. Leaves are falling with exceptional color. I walk the woods with my furry kids. I want to rest, and I long to draw closer to family and friends.

Do I even need to make a case for fall’s aromas? Cinnamon, cider, pumpkin spice, spruce, and apple crisp. The good news is there is something for every level of motivation – be it in a kitchen baking or a simply enjoying a scented candle! Did I mention Lifetime movies?

At this point I’m in anticipation of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and full tilt bore winter. (Winter is the only time I can give myself permission to put aside my gardening tools and hibernate.) Yes, I’m a fan of all the seasons. I totally get the whole spring rebirth thing, for instance, and I’m a fan of that as well, but fall…it feeds my soul. In all of God’s wonders – numero uno is fall – especially if you’re Southern. Happy Fall, Y’all.

So what is your favorite season? The Bible teaches us that “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). With this in mind, we are gearing up for a season of growth and change at HPA, as well, so please stay tuned for important announcements!

Photo by Laula & Co on Unsplash

Joy Unspeakable

It’s been a big week here at HPA – the start of our second year, and for many students, their very first week at Higher Path Academy. I am so excited about all the new students and families I have met, and I can’t wait for our second year to be so awesome that last year gets jealous!

As new families have come in, I have noticed one common theme – people often mention that they heard how energetic and fun the classes are. At one point, I overheard my mom speaking with a new family and told them, “A lot of people ask if Leah is always this full of joy, and (not because she’s my daughter) but yes she is!” While that is such a huge compliment, it really hit home with me since I’ve had the topic of joy on my heart for the last few weeks.

While I was in college working on my teacher certification, a huge focus was placed on our philosophies of education. We wrote multiple papers about it, presented and defended it in front of a panel of professors, and included it in our portfolios for future job interviews. I’ve thought a lot about how my philosophy of education has evolved, and if I were to rewrite it today, without a doubt, joy would be the major focus.

Students walk into my classroom with all kinds of worries and fears and doubts, but if for just a few hours, we can smile and laugh and learn together, maybe all those negative things can take a back seat for just a moment. I want my classroom to be that safe space that feels like you’re at home and at church and at school all at the same time. I think that is where learning truly occurs – in the context of God’s Word through the strength of relationships in an atmosphere of joy.

And I am passionate about sharing this joy with my students because as Christians, it is available to each of us. The problem is that many times we confuse happiness with joy, but happiness is a temporary emotion, circumstantial and fleeting. While our emotions are part of God’s design for us, we are not meant to operate at that level. Instead, God operates in the permanent – He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and that is His desire for us – not just moments of happiness but a lifetime of joy.

“But life is hard.”

I know. Our friends and family have not been untouched by some of the same tragedies facing my students and their families. I know the devastation cancer wreaks on a family. I’ve seen the affects of the pain of addiction and abuse. I’ve cried with people battling illnesses of all kinds and prayed with and for those who have faced unimaginable loss. But even in those darkest of nights, God’s promise rings true that JOY comes in the morning (Psalm 30)!

I love the description of joy in 1 Peter: “Whom having not seen, you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” It’s like God KNOWS we can’t wrap our brains around the lifetime of joy He has called us to. It’s “unspeakable;” other translations say “indescribable” or “inexpressible.” It’s just like the peace He promises us – “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). It’s peace in the face of turmoil and joy in the midst of despair – something the world can never replicate, because it is the divine work of the One and Only True God!

So, that is my philosophy of education – that woven into the fabric of every lesson plan and homework assignment and project, that my classroom would be overflowing with God’s unspeakable joy!

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Romans 15:13)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash