5 Important Back-to-School Tools for Teens

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Back-to-school means it’s time to stock up on school supplies – even if you school at home. While I’m right there with you when it comes to tossing $0.50 crayons  and composition books in my shopping cart, when you’re thinking back-to-school for high school students, you sometimes have to start looking at investing in supplies that fall under the “big-ticket” category.

5 tools that will help teens - homeschooled or otherwise - as they go back to school.

Following are some of the back-to-school items I think are important for high school students:

Science lab equipment

It wasn’t until just a few weeks before Brianna started her 9th grade year that I realized I’d forgotten something important. We had all her books and other supplies, but in reading the blog of a mom whose daughter was also preparing to start biology, I realized we were missing something.

“What is the one thing you remember from high school biology,” I asked Brian.

He promptly replied with the answer I expected, “The labs.”

Yes, labs are a huge part of high school biology and something we hadn’t even considered. After discussing it, we decided that, with two other kids to follow, a quality microscope was worth the investment.

homeschool science equipment

And worth the investment it was. All of us got into Brianna’s lab assignments when it was time to pull out the microscope. We’ll get to enjoy it again within the next couple of years as Megan and Josh go through biology.

We also found it worthwhile to get some good beakers and test tubes when we hit chemistry. Brianna really appreciated having quality science equipment. Even though science wasn’t her favorite subject, having the right equipment for the experiments gave them an air of importance over the “kitchen science” she’d done prior to high school.

Organizational equipment

As teens move into high school, it’s time for them to start working more independently. I think it’s important to offer them tools to stay organized. Those tools are going to look different for different kids. Some will appreciate student planners, while others, like Brianna prefer a more simplified lesson plan sheet.

One of the things that Brianna liked best, believe it or not, was our work crate system. Having the individual file folders for each of her subjects helped her stay organized. Even today, with only a couple of classes to finish up before graduation, if I find myself looking for something school-related and have to ask Brianna about it, she’ll say, “It’s probably in my work crate.”

And, it usually is.

Quality markers

Okay, for your student, it very well may not be markers. I’m mom to an artist, though, and as she moved into the high school years we felt the need to invest in high quality markers. For your student, it may be a musical instrument, a good sewing machine, or drama classes.

All I’m saying is that high school may be the time when you see that your student isn’t losing interest in a long-time hobby or maybe he’s picked up a new hobby. As our teens move closer to adulthood, we can start to see where their hobbies may give way to a career interest and it’s good to invest in that when and how you can.

Even if our kids’ hobbies remain hobbies, they may play an important role in their lives as adults. Give them as much opportunity to explore them now as you are able.

A Laptop or tablet

Clearly, I’m all about the technology. Even if you aren’t, however, I think it’s important that our kids know how to use it. Computer technology is part of the make-up of society now and to be competitive in the job market, our teens need to know how to effectively use it.


Brianna got her first laptop several years ago with some Christmas money and a little help from Nannie, who may have earned “Grandmother of the Year” award that year. She’s used it for math (our curriculum is computer-based), for all her subjects when we used Switched-on-Schoolhouse one year, for research, and for typing her writing assignments.

She’s also watched countless YouTube videos on it. Many of them, of course, are not educational, but she’s used them to learn sign language and some Japanese. And, of course, there is Facebook. Homeschoolers are supposed to get socialization, right?

My younger two just got laptops this week. It’s amazing how quickly kids take to technology. I’m lost when it comes to Windows 8, but they’re both already navigating around like they’ve been using it forever.

Graphing calculator

Finally, thanks to Staples, we now have a graphing calculator. This is fairly new stuff to me. There were no such things way back when when I was in high school. The thing is, though, I don’t want my kids to be at a disadvantage when it comes time to take the ACT or SAT. I want them to know how to set the problems up and figure them out the old-fashioned way, but if the majority of the kids taking these tests are going to be using graphing calculators, I want my kids to have one and know how to use it.

The knowing how to use it part was tricky for me. You know how you sometimes have to hand your smartphone off to your kid so they can work it for you? Yeah. Have you seen how many buttons are on one of these graphing calculators?

graphing calculator

I was having my friend who is tutoring Brianna in math help her figure out how to work it. Then, I found this awesome site where even I can learn to use a graphing calculator. There is a general information section and it has everything broken down by the subjects you can use the calculator for, such as Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, pre-calculus, calculus, statistics, and trigonometry.

Then, you can click on specific problem types and the site walks you, step-by-step, though how to figure out those types of problems on your graphing calculator.

algebra graphing calculator

I’m not going to lie to you – I don’t yet understand how everything works on this calculator, but the Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus offers such features as:

  • 16 character, 8 line display
  • 24KB RAM
  • 13 pre-loaded apps
  • USB and unit-to-unit connectivity for downloading apps, printing homework, or sharing work
  • Hard-shell cover to protect the unit

There is a learning curve to using the graphing calculator, but once you figure it out, it’s fairly easy to operate. And, if all else fails, just hit the Easy Button!

Staples Easy Button

The Easy Button also adds a whole new dimension to family board games. Beat someone soundly? Pressing the Easy Button is well-received. Or not, but it’s fun. That may be another post for another day, however.

I may not be able to help you with some of the high school must-haves on this list, but thanks to the folks at Staples, I can help you with the graphing calculator and a fun Staples Easy Button! One reader will win a TI-84 Plus graphing calculator and an Easy Button from Staples. Follow the directions on the RaffleCopter widget below to enter. (Email readers will need to visit the blog to enter.)

Rules: This giveaway is open to United States residents, ages 18 years and older only. Giveaway ends on Monday, August 19. The winner will be selected at random using Random.org via RaffleCopter.

The winner will notified via email and given 72 hours to respond. You must enter a valid email address to win. In the event that the winner cannot be contacted by email or does not respond within 72 hours, the prize will be forfeited and and alternate winner selected.

Click to read the complete rules. By entering this giveaway, you indicate that you have read and agreed to abide by these rules.

I received this product free for the purpose of reviewing it.  I received no other compensation for this review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my personal, honest opinions.  Your experience may vary. Please read my full disclosure policy for more details.

This post is linked to the Homeschool High School Link-Up.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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  1. My daughter is very artistic,.so we got her a sketch pad and some charcoals. We also got her.a dslr camera.for.a photography course she’s taking.

  2. Great suggestions! We are just heading into high school, and this is the first that I’ve heard of a graphing calculator! One of our most important school supplies here is index cards. We can go through tons of them in a year.

  3. I would put fun colored pens on the list. I loved picking those out when I was a teen. I still do, actually! 🙂

  4. TI calculators are the best around. I used mine through college, and grad school. couldn’t have made it through engineering school without it

  5. I just found your blog and I am glad I did! I am beginning our homeschool journey this year with elementary and middle school aged children. Thank you for the chance to win!

  6. This year, I’ve bought huge stacks of classic books for my teenager! I want to compile a comprehensive transcript to colleges that includes a list of books he has read. And, after all, one can never have too many books to read, so I look forward to reading them too! Thank you so much for reviewing this amazing calculator from Stamples! I just nearly need someone to kick me out of Staples whenever I go on shopping sprees there! In fact, our entire family is addicted to scouring the treasures of office and school supplies! Thank you again.

  7. I have a rising 9th grader and the graphing calculator is on my list. Enjoyed the post, especially the easy button… I need one of those for myself!

  8. I think I’m going to get an easy button for my house! We are always talking about it, might as well go pick one up. Our major cost this year, is lab stuff. Thankfully someone in our church gave us a very nice microscope. I just about cried when they did. We have been very blessed this year, by this family. They have 2 boys who are now grown and out of the house. They pasted down all of their home school stuff to our family. So really the cost we have, are the little things, dissection kits, a few test books, etc.

  9. I admit math is not our strongest subject, and so the calculator idea is one I’ve neglected(or denied, maybe even put down?). You raise a valid point about testing, though….I still can’t believe students are ALLOWED to use them!
    It was all paper and pencil for me. 🙂 Good ol’ days?

  10. I would include some organized social interactions with friends. (Since you may have to pay to join a co-op or to attend events, I would count it as a ‘supply’ or ‘expense’)

  11. Ooooh, what a great giveaway! My graphing calculator just died and I need a new one to teach Algebra 2 this year. Love my poor, broken old TI-83, but would be really excited to upgrade. Graphing calculators rock! I do my financial formulas in table format, easily figure graph intercepts, and you can see all the numbers you entered to double check your data entry. The one thing worth using through high school, college, and the rest of life.

  12. I am curious about what type of microscope you have. I have to purchase one in the next couple of weeks for daughters who are taking Biology this year.

  13. I would add a good planner. Every kid should get into the habit of writing down assignments and checking them off, and learning how to break down long term assignments. This will be a great life skill that they can use in college and in real life.

  14. Something fun… either pretty folders or a new game, etc. I know when I was a teen there was always one supply that I would be particularly excited about because it was beautiful. 🙂

  15. This is a great list of important highschool equipment. Being addicted to words, I find myself too often purchasing just books instead of tools. While books are of obvious importance, having items like a quality microscope would make a huge difference in our home. Thanks for the reminder!!!

  16. I like your list of teens back-to-school must-haves. We finally got a microscope this year – well, we are sharing it with another family. We have students at about the same grade level and they had just purchased a microscope but then had a sense of sticker shock at the prepared slides they’d need. So I have started purchasing the slides and we share. That solution wouldn’t work for everyone, certainly, but if you happen to have trusted homeschooling friends that you can share a big ticket item with conveniently, it’s something to consider.

    My students also get some kind of day-timer or calendar planner at the beginning of each school year, to help them be more independent in managing their own time and their assignments and other commitments.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Kym. I actually meant to mention that in my post, but I guess my ADD kicked in. If you’ve got some trusted homeschool friends, I think it’s a great idea to share big ticket items like that. It would be a plus to do the science labs together, too.

  17. I’ve got twins beginning high school — they most definitely are needing organizers (for them, and for me!). The graphing calculator would be a wonderful +! (Sorry, bad math joke…)

  18. Thanks for this blog post, we have a 9th grader this year so it was very helpful. Yeah, I don’t get that graphing calculator either…lol. I struggle with doing 2+2 on it. Too many buttons.

  19. We are still in the elementary years, but I am glad to read posts like these to get me prepared for what is to come. I would love to get a good microscope for our science activities. I know eventually we will need it for the higher grades.

  20. A graphing calculator will be useful as my daughter moves forward in Algebra.
    We found a good student planner at Target; now she actually has to use it!

  21. I don’t actually have a teen yet, so I don’t know what is necessary for a teen’s back-to-school list. I think I’d definitely want a graphing calculator, though. I remember when we had them in high school. They were a horrible mystery to me, and I never did understand it. This is mostly because the class was right after lunch, and I’m an idiot right after lunch. Who does math after LUNCH?? Siesta, anybody? 😉

  22. Last year we bought the microscope and it has been enjoyed by all. I didn’t think of getting a graphing calculator for the ACT, though. I will have to add it to the list. 🙂

  23. I have just been looking this week at a good quality microscope. Ack! So important though. 🙂 We don’t have a graphing calculator yet either…

  24. I think a student planner is so important to have, with a second one for me, or a software version that I could also access. My girl is a list-maker, so I think she will be fine, but I am afraid my son will be a “fly by the seat of my pants and hope I don’t forget anything” type of student, like me. :\

  25. Same as your list- graphing calculator, quality materials (no junky colored pencils, the real thing such as Prisma Colors), microscope. A laptop dedicated to the student would be a great addition, too!

  26. My daughter isn’t a teen quite yet, but we are getting close. I think for a teen we’d make sure she had an up to date computer & tablet device. The graphing calculators are a must for upper level math, just depends on when you take that level math. I remember my trusty, clunky graphing calculator from highschool / college (I have a math minor) and it was absolutely necessary from some of my higher science courses too.

  27. I have three sons in high school now. A laptop is essential in classes. No paper! We use screen capture for all essential projects and papers. Easily attached to applications. Have A Great School Year!

  28. Online or CD Rom classes require a good headset. That’s something my teens use daily; a spare set is a blessing. I haven’t given much thought to the graphing calculator until now. Hmmm.

  29. A good folder system with dividers, page protectors, lots of paper for writing and pockets to hold extra stuff. Also clamp in there a pencil bag so that pens and pencils are always handy. I also like month to month calendars, those can be placed at the front of the folder.

  30. Our family has spend countless hours playing with our microscope . . . one of our best homeschool purchases. We don’t have a graphing calculator or an EASY button, but wold love both!

  31. Great post! At our house, going out to buy a few practical things, like composition-type notebooks for use in a) making notes while taking online classes, b) taking notes from her readings/texts, or c) just working creatively (she’s writing a novel) is a must-have! Unlined Index cards are great for language and vocab study. Anywhere you need to make short notes for studying concepts. (I could see these being handy for science, math, too.) Dd really wants them to be “unlined,” too, btw! Post-It notes also seem to be a big hit for my teen! (She’s a list-maker type organizer, like me! If it’s not on a post-it note, fuhgeddaboudit! LOL ) A Kindle became a new “must have” recently, because we are such readers. (Duh…. We’re homeschoolers, right? LOL) And, this was an easy way to carry around a lot of books as we did more car-schooling, traveling, etc. We tend to like the older, public domain classics, so the Kindle gets a good workout! And, the books are usually free! LOVE that! Happy Homeschooling with your Teens! It’s just another exciting chapter in the grand adventure!

  32. We had to buy a microscope last year. This year my son can’t wait to get the stuff for his chemistry labs. Would love to win the graphing calculator.

  33. Good point about the laptop – I hadn’t really thought about my son not using the shared family computer, but it is getting harder and harder to balance shared time ! And I was wondering how I was going to teach him how to use a graphing calculator – I have NEVER used one. Thanks for the website!!

  34. The technology curve in both laptops and graphing calculators hangs me up. I appreciate your insight on it and know it is a step we have to take with wisdom.

  35. Cool…although I admit, we are going to do labs at our vet’s…so maybe it is worth getting to know your friendly doctor or veto see if you can use their microscope…with their help, of course…and maybe their inputs on the subject as well.

  36. We always stock up on lots of art supplies in this house too since both my home scholars inherited some of their Daddy’s talent in that area. Our first day of the new school year tradition is decorating a new pack of pencils and the cover and dividers of new binders. Then the kids get to feel like they got off to a fun start and I feel like we got off to an organized start. 🙂
    Thanks for hosting this giveaway.

  37. I’d love it if we could get a time machine for our teens – they always seem to have more to do than time to do it! 🙂

    Real world, though, we’d love a good calculator – we’re just getting into higher math now, and it’s getting TOUGH! And a good dictionary that they can use throughout high school and college.

  38. I would say a “mentor” or an internship/on-the-job-training in whatever area your teen has interests! In my middle son’s case, diesel mechanics!

  39. We LOVE YouTube around here. My son learns gaming techniques and new songs on his guitar. He’s also found alot of science experiments on there. Alot of learning can take place using YouTube.

  40. This year our most important school supply need (right after extra patience for me!) will be a microscope. With a highschooler and 3 younger kids all loving science it’s a must for us!

  41. I would have to agree with the graphing calculator and laptop/computer as a must-have for high school student. Some type of planner would be good too, but with smartphones and such these days that might just amount to an app.

  42. A really sturdy and supportive backpack is a must for high school students. Their bodies are still growing and developing, and they have so many things to carry from place to place that a sturdy and supportive backpack is essential. I also really like your suggestion about encouraging them in their hobbies, with better equipment, whatever that might be. This is so valuable to their holistic development.

  43. A planner to keep everything straight. And any supplies sbould be in fun colors or designs according to my teen…that just makes school more fun 😉

  44. Hello I would have to agree with the graphing calculator and microscope but my daughter really wanted us to
    get a telescope so she could look at the stars.. I have 10 children, 1 grand child and 7 are still at home that I home school so this would really help. Thank you

  45. You are absolutely right about the science equipment and the graphing calculator. I’m so impressed with your list that I can’t think of what to add to it. I also agree with above comments about splitting the cost of big ticket items with others or having those science experiments being done in a co-op so kids can collaborate and complete lab journals together. Oh, that’s what shouldn’t be forgotten – lab journals. I didn’t understand the point in a regular classroom, but then I took a more involved class where our work was more independent and it’s so important to document step-by-step so that your work can be reproduced by anyone coming in behind you. Who would have thought that would be useful in my career later in programming and application development. So many people don’t know how to document their work. OK, that was tangent. Sorry. 🙂

  46. I think a must have for the high school years is a quality journal. This is a good time to begin the habit of either keeping a bible study journal, prayer journal, a journal of quotes from books read, or a journal of goals, hopes, and dreams.
    My son needs a graphing calculator for chemistry this year and I have been postponing buying one until the last minute. 🙂

  47. Besides the usual supplies (especially, as one commenter noted, index cards by the ream), I think a list of high-quality websites to review or go beyond classwork, such as Art of Problem Solving or Khan Academy, or, if your child is a musician, a subscription to Naxos’s online music library.

  48. The TI-84 calculator would be an asset to our homeschool. I did not realize it’s capabilities.
    Thanks for you great advice. Staples here I come!!

  49. For my teen boy, I am getting him a really nice planner and a wall clock! He is an excellent student, but his time management needs work. I am very poor at time management and don’t want him to follow in my footsteps!

  50. We have borrowed a microscope from a good friend, and bought the slides and specimens and dissection kit. That was fun. We bought a language curriculum that has cd’s to listen to. Now I’m wondering if we need to get the graphing calculator. Hmm.

  51. We have been borrowing things from a friend who in turn borrow things from us. A graphing calculator is something we really need to get for ourselves!

  52. A blank cookbook for them to start writing down their favorite recipes so when they get ready to leave home they will be able to create that home feeling whenever they need it.

  53. I would highlight a student planner. Each year I give them one less scheduled out class and instead give them a syllabus of what to cover. I want them to have practice scheduling their own workload. Of course, I keep close tabs on how they are doing.

    1. That’s a great idea to slowly turn over the reins and expectations like that. Do you blog? That would make a blog post that I would want to read. 🙂

  54. It didn’t even occur to me that my kids would need a graphing calculator. We used them some in high school but I forgot about them.

  55. I like to stock up on arts & craft supplies since my girls are so crafty. We do a lot of hands on projects and we can always use cardstock, colored pencils and crayons. Thanks for the chance to win!

  56. I already made pact with another mom, next year she will do all the Biology Labs at her house and I will do all the Geometry proofs at mine. Thank you Jesus that my dear sister friend isn’t as squeemish as I am!

    1. I dare say that there’s a good chance she’s thanking Jesus for you that she doesn’t have to try to wrap her brain around geometry! 🙂

  57. My oldest is just starting high school. I had not thought about needing a graphing calculator. Thanks for the reminder.

  58. Oh, the high school list. Third high schooler starting this year, so we need another one of everything, it seems. Calculator, another computer because of more online classes…

  59. With 3 teens now in high school, any help is appreciated! My 2 oldest were able to do the Biology labs with another homeschool mom but my 3rd will have to suffer through it with me 🙂

  60. I have 3 teen boys. They really rely on headphones or decent earbuds as school supplies, when they are completing math (computer driven) or listening to other lectures.


  61. Lots of great ideas being posted here — can’t think of anything to add….
    Thanks a bunch for the chance to win the calculator — it’s on our list to buy this year.

  62. Some things my daughter likes to get each year are new pencils and special note books to go along with the plain ones.

  63. I bought my teen her own copies of the novels she will read so she can underline and annotate; making the books truly belong to her.

  64. Love all the suggestions here! Completely agree with the qualityscience lab equipment. We are also tackling biology this year. As one of the previous posters mentioned this is the subject where I will be trying to keep my game face on! 🙂 Binders and a weekly planner help my teen stay organized and adding in a double dose of grace as we enter the waters of homeschooling high school! Thanks for the opportunity to win this great calculator! Have a great year everyone!

  65. My kids would get excited about a good study bible (yeah, they’re “those” kids ;-). love ’em!), high-quality art supplies and anything that is science-related. Thanks!

  66. High School “must have” lists for student (s):
    Two Items I would purchase (if not already owned)
    1. Bible
    2. Laptop

    For the parent(s):
    1. Pillow on which to kneel for the many needed prayers of patience and sanity.
    2. a stock pile of chocolate or ice cream, pick your vice. 😉

  67. I agree with the planner idea and would add a timer. We are just starting the high school years and it is a big step up!

  68. My oldest teen goes through a lot of highlighters to mark up her textbooks. It’s also really nice for her to have her own laptop and her own workspace.

  69. Pretty notebooks, a new planner, a sketchbook, a pack of oil paint, a classical music CD, … back to school options are endless and I prefer to lean toward items that support a love of the arts to help keep a balance 🙂

  70. Great giveaway! Great suggestions for the teens, just finished up Biology and the quality microscope made a huge difference. Love Teaching Texbooks, starting Algebra 2 with them after absolute success w Geometry.

  71. What a great idea for a giveaway. My husband and I are hosting a high school exchange student this year and this would be so wonderful for her!

  72. We always have to include a large pack of colored pencils for doodling and when that creative moment hits and they want to draw a masterpiece.

  73. I would ad a date book or planner for the kids to be able to track their own long term and daily assignments 🙂

  74. The ideas are great. I’m home schooling high school for the 5th time this year (2 children) and all these items make home learning much easier. The one thing we don’t have is the calculator. The older children took their’s with them.

  75. I would definitely put the TI84 on a list for back to school. Every one of my kids has had to have one for school and I had to use one for Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus in college. There are many problems that are impossible to do with paper and pencil. Using a graphing calculator actually helps kids to do problems they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

  76. Thank you for the information & reminders about what high schoolers need. Our daughter needs a good calculator of her own as well as a microscope.

  77. For us, even in high school, pens and pencils disappear like cookies lol! We too are trying to increase our library, not just depending on the Kindle….love my Kindle, love a paper and ink book more though 🙂

    1. I don’t have teens, only littles, but some good, fun reading books are always good for relaxing but helping to build vocab and all that. 🙂

  78. Thanks for the great information. My oldest is a freshman and I would say her #1 item on her back-to-school list is a planner. She LOVES to plan so that really helps her through the school year to stay on track each day. A calculator for Algebra and a microscope for Biology…two things I wish I’d ordered!!

  79. It is my sister who is in high school and her must have was new mechanical pencils. If we could afford it she would also have a laptop.

  80. Great list! We have one more year before my oldest starts high school. I’ve been starting to look at microscopes for him. I hadn’t thought of a graphing calculator. I’ll be sure to add that to my list.

  81. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog! Thank you for the support and encouragement!
    God bless!

  82. I am home schooling my first high school student this year. Eek! MY necessities include coffee and LOTS of prayer. 😀 But I am quickly realizing the need for another computer/laptop for my kiddos!

  83. Our must have school items would have to be notebooks for when we are travelling and a laptop. We would be lost without them

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