Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TOS Review: The Phonetic Zoo

I first discovered Andrew Pudewa and the Institute for Excellence in Writing nearly four years ago.  At the Midwest Homeschool Convention, on a whim, I skipped out on a lecture by Jessie Wise (of the Well-Trained Mind fame) and instead went to hear a talk by Mr. Pudewa on "Freedomship Education".  I was blown away!!!  Mr. Pudewa has some very keen insight into how to teach, what to teach, and why you should teach them.  Although this isn't really a review on Pudewa or IEW in general, I'd like to start out by highly recommending the audio download on Mastery Learning.  It's only $3, and worth $300 in the incredible amount of information and ideas you'll get for it.  I tell everyone I meet that it's a must-hear for every parent, teacher and definitely every homeschooler.  Mr. Pudewa is very entertaining to listen to, so let your kids listen too!  Even my 5 year old asks, when we go on trips in the car, "Are we going to listen to Andwew Pood-wah?"

Since hearing Mr. Pudewa speak for the first time, I've eagerly looked forward to the day when I could start using some of the IEW products in our homeschool.  I actually have been saving up for the Teaching Writing Structure and Style/Student Writing Intensive, without realizing that there was a real GEM of a product, for a fairly low price, right under my nose the whole time!  The Phonetic Zoo (set A - $99.99)!

My oldest child is an excellent speller.  Like his mom, he tends to pick up spelling intuitively.  The rest of my children are forever turning in papers with "creative" spelling, or asking me "How do you spell...?" for every single word on the page.  We've tried several different spelling programs, with very little to show for it.  Maybe they retain the words long enough to take the test, but that's it.  Two or three weeks later, they're right back to the creative spelling, or asking me to do it for them.

The Phonetic Zoo has been a lifeline in this household.  I only wish I could hurry my younger three children through it at a faster pace.  (Patience, mom, patience!)

The Phonetic Zoo program teaches spelling using a multi-sensory approach.  The child sees the word, hears the word and then hears the spelling.  As Andrew explains in the included "Spelling and the Brain" DVD, just seeing a word can allow letters to be transposed in a child's brain.  That's why we so often see a child spell BIRD "brid" or TWO "tow".  The sequence of the letters doesn't get fixed in the brain when the child just sees the word and hears the word.  In order to have the sequence fixed in their brain, the child must repeatedly hear the correct spelling of the word.  That's the first part.

The Phonetic Zoo also teaches the child the spelling rules.  This can help a child beyond the limit of a set of words they learn for a test.  When a child understands, for example that the long-a sound they hear at the end of a word is most likely spelled ay, they have a basis for spelling words they don't know.

The program is short and simple.  Each set of words is on a card, with the rule on one side and the rule "reminder" on the other.  You teach the rule to the child several times, until they can say it with you.  Then you give them the card to study their words (the words for program A, B and C are all on the card; they only work on one program at a time).  When they think they're ready, you give them a cd-player and a set of headphones.  They listen with headphones because that puts the sound right at their ears, without any distractions coming between them and the spelling words.  They then spend about 10 minutes listening and writing.  First, they listen to the word and spell it on their paper.  Second, they listen again, and re-spell the word next to the first one based on the CD track, which says the word, then spells it.  This allows the child to self-correct, by marking out any words they spelled incorrectly the first time around.  The child must spell every word in a set correctly two time in a row before they receive their "zoo card" (a collector-type card with the rule on it that can be kept and displayed) and move on to the next set.

You can find out more information about the Phonetic Zoo and how it works by checking out the first two pages (after the Table of Contents) of this document.

This program definitely works better for my creative spellers than any other program I've tried.  It works on the same principle as working on a spelling lesson with mom (20 years ago for me!) - say the word, spell the word, correct the spelling, re-spell the word - you just do it over and over until it is solidified in the child's mind.  It's short enough that even my child who bounces off the walls after sitting for 10 minutes can do it and be done, without the dragging "do I have to?" every single time you start working on it.  It makes sense to study the words that have the same spelling rules together.  We will continue using this program for my three younger children, and will most likely continue on with set B and set C when the time comes.  I think the investment is well worth the results!

The Phonetic Zoo complete program comes with:

  • Spelling and the Brain video seminar
  • Introduction to The Phonetic Zoo DVD (showing how to use the program)
  • Phonetic Zoo teacher's notes PDF
  • Phonetic Zoo CDs (5 CDs for level A and B; 6 CDs for level C)
  • Lesson cards with the rules (or "jingles") and spelling words
  • Zoo cards collector-style cards for reminders or rewards
  • Personal Spelling Cards to keep track of misspellings 
Each program set is $99.  You can also choose to use the audio program only, for $79, or to get the budget package (no audio CDs) for $29.

Any of them would be an excellent investment for a child that struggles with spelling!

Want to see what other people have to say about this program, or Andrew Pudewa's "Teaching Boys and Other Children Who Would Rather Make Forts All Day" (also an excellent listen!)?  Check out their reviews here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary set of The Phonetic Zoo Spelling Starter Set A in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, December 13, 2010

TOS Review: ALEKS Math


I can't tell you how often I hear this in my house, but it's at least once a day, and always from my younger son - Aaron, age 11.  He's struggled with math ever since finishing up the workbooks with those pages where you count the owls in this box, then count the owls in that box, and then you add all the owls together.  I think the problem is that he has never mastered his math facts, but knowing that and fixing that are two totally separate things.  We've struggled with this for years, because the older he gets, the more resistant he is to doing what he calls "baby math"; that is, doing the basic math facts review, repetition and memorization that most kids learn in the early elementary grades.  Flash cards, Calculadders, workbooks, computer games - we've tried them all and every single try results in melt-downs, tears, screaming and my son sometimes even hitting himself in the forehead going "I'm stupid!"

That's why I was SO surprised to find that he not only would do ALEKS without a fight, but that he actually was asking if he could do it.  We received the ALEKS program shortly before we had a couple of planned week-long school breaks, then had one unplanned break for some family problems, and then had computer problems.  But through all of that my son continued to do his ALEKS math without complaint, and it was him reminding me that he needed to do it.  When I sat down to finish this review, I asked to tell me honestly, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is "I love it" and 1 is "I hate it"), where he ranked the different math programs we've tried over the years.  He gave ALEKS a solid 8, and it was the highest (by 2 points) that he ranked anything.  When I asked him if he'd like to continue using ALEKS instead of something else, he quickly answered "Absolutely!  YES!"  Then mumbled "if I have to do math..."

So, with that kind of endorsement, you might be asking yourself "What is ALEKS?"

ALEKS stands for Assesment and LEarning in Knowlege Spaces.  It is a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system that uses adaptive questioning to quickly and accurately determine exactly what a student knows and doesn't know in a course. ALEKS offers truly individualized instruction that meets the student at her learning level and instructs her on the exact topics that she is most ready to learn. As a result, no two students will experience the same learning path while working in ALEKS.  You can check out a 2-minute video that explains the ALEKS system.

ALEKS offers highly-targeted, individualized instruction from virtually any computer with Internet access, making it a comprehensive and mobile education solution for your children. A subscription to ALEKS offers access to all courses and your child may take as many courses as needed during their subscription period.

Here is what ALEKS has to offer:
  • Complete Curriculum Solution for Math with Access to Full Course Library
  • No Textbook Required
  • Artificial Intelligence Targets Gaps in Student Knowledge
  • Assessment and Individualized Learning for Grades 3-12
  • Master Account Includes Quizzing and Automated Reports to Monitor Learning Progress
  • Unlimited Online Access - PC and Mac Compatible
  • QuickTables- Complimentary Math Fact Mastery Program for Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction
Let me walk you through the ALEKS program - there's a lot to see, but it's definitely worth the time!

1.  Student Assessment - Each student using the program starts ALEKS by doing the online assessment program.  This helps ALEKS determine what your child has mastered, and what they need to work on.  ALEKS then generates the... 

2. MyPie page, to show both student and teacher the results.

As you can see, each part of the pie shows a dark area (near the center) and a lighter area (toward the edge).  The dark area is what your child has mastered.  The light area is what they need to work on.  From this pie, the student can select any item that shows up in the rectangle when you hover over that section of the pie.  The student starts working.

3. Aleks uses a free response environment and special Input Tools that require an actual answer, instead of multiple choice.  This helps the students demonstrate mastery of the skills they are learning.

4. Learning Mode:The Learning Mode provides students with practice problems, and offers explanations of topics and procedures as needed. Once a student has demonstrated mastery in the Learning Mode, the topic is added to the ALEKS Pie, and new material that the student is now ready to learn becomes available.

5.Explanations: When a student is working on a particular problem, she can access an explanation of that problem by clicking on the "Explain" button. The explanation typically provides a step-by-step solution, with commentary. In some cases, an alternative or more detailed explanation is also available.

6. Feedback: Students receive immediate feedback, and depending on what they are working on, sometimes they also receive instructions or suggestions for fixing the mistakes.

7. Worksheets can be printed out, if desired, to give the student further practice or review.  Each worksheet is uniquely generated based on the student's current knowledge.

There are a couple of other items the program offers, both of which I feel are great tools.  The first tool is ALEKS QuickTables. QuickTables is a research-based, math fact mastery program for multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction.  QuickTables is EXACTLY what my son needs to help him master his math facts, but since it's part of the program, it doesn't make him feel like I'm the one pushing him to do so.

The other tool is the Interactive Games.  The games are unlocked as the child masters subjects, and while they are technically still reviewing and learning, they see it as playing.  Win-Win!

That's just the student's area.  As the parent, you have access to a whole set of tools to help you follow your student's progress through the program.  
Above is the Master Account homepage.  This links you to each student account, where you can view their attendance records, their progress reports and MyPie charts, create quizzes for them and view the quiz results.

Attendance Report will show you how often they are using ALEKS and for how long.  It also allows you to view what they worked on each time.

Progress Report tracks student progress made throughout the course. The blue bar represents the percent of course material that the student has mastered during an ALEKS assessment; the green bar represents the percent of new topics the student has mastered in Learning Mode since the last assessment; and the yellow bar represents the percent of topics the student has yet to learn in order to complete the course.

Quiz Results: Quizzes are automatically graded and the results are available to both the parent and student immediately. You can view a detailed quiz results sample report (PDF).

So where do you get started?  Well, let me first suggest that you take advantage of ALEKS' free 1-month trial offer.  This is a $19.95 value, and it will give you plenty of time to explore the program and see if it works as well for you as it has for us.

Visit ALEKS for 1-Month Trial

After that, a subscription to ALEKS is
  • $19.95 per student, per month, or
  • only $99.95 every 6 months, or
  • only $179.95 every 12 months.
ALEKS also offers a Family Discount Program, if you have more than one student you'd like to use ALEKS for.  Yes, the program is pricey, but if you're dealing with the same problems I've been dealing with in my 11-year-old, it might just be worth it!  The best part about ALEKS is that the program will "patiently" continue to work on a math subject until it is mastered, no matter how long it takes the child.  That is definitely an area where mom is not so advanced herself!

Find out what other TOS Crew members have to say about ALEKS here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary 1-month subscription to ALEKS in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, December 10, 2010

TOS Review: Apologia Press - Good Morning, God

In my opinion, a good children's book has the following: Lots of repetition, a simple story line and detailed, engaging illustrations.  Good Morning, God, written by Davis Carman, contains all three of these, and so much more!

Good Morning, God - $14.00 from Apologia - is a very simple, sweet story told from the point of view of the little boy in the book.  It goes through a whole week in his life using the same pattern for each day.
"Good morning, God.  Today is (Sunday, Monday, etc.).  I wake up with lots of energy.  I worship God with my family and with all of my (being, heart, etc.).  Mom and Dad teach me when I'm sitting, when I'm standing, and especially when I'm (at church, running, etc.)."
The pictures of the activity where mom and dad teach the little boy are definitely worth 1,000 words!  For instance, "Mom and Dad teach me when I'm...climbing." shows the little boy climbing on the counter, reaching up for the cookie jar.  Obviously the lesson he learns from that incident are more than just about climbing.

The story goes on to describe an activity in his day.  Our favorite was:
"In the school room, I color a picture."
The school room in this story is just the family's living room, which both I and my children loved.  It's not often you find a book in which the family is obviously homeschooling, without the story specifically mentioning it.  All the illustrations - by Alice Ratterree -  are phenomenal.  Beautiful, detailed, calm and engaging.  We often spent each reading with more time looking and and talking about the pictures than in reading through the story.

Each day then ends with,
"At bedtime, I pray to God.  I say, "(variety of prayers each day)"   Good night, (Sunday, Monday, etc.).  Good night, God.
The repetition of the story is great for little ones.  My five year old, who is just learning to read, feels like she can follow along with the story and "read" some of the parts out loud herself.

The book doesn't end with the story though.  At the end are a week's worth of discussion questions and activities.  They could be used to turn this simple, lovely book into a week-long Bible curriculum.

What we did was read through the book once each day, then use the discussion questions and activities at the back of the book to extend our reading into some though-provoking discussion and family time.   We had to skip one activity (Take a bike ride) because it's been freezing and either raining or snowing almost constantly since we received the book!  But the kids really enjoyed the discussion times and activities (especially the family game night, which we need to do more often).   The ideas we discussed carried through to the following weeks and came up again and again.  I've been asked by my two youngest (5 and 7 years old) to read the book again, many times.  You can take a peek inside for yourself, with the sample chapter offered on Apologia's website.

Overall, this was a fantastic addition to both our home library and to our homeschool curriculum.  I also discovered that Apologia offers a companion Coloring Book ($4.00) for this book, which would be a great addition to using the book.

Apologia offers lots of other products as well.  We use their science curriculum (creation-based) and we love it!  I'm really impressed with everything I've seen from them, and this new book is no exception.  Want to see what other crew members thought about the book?  Check out their reviews.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of Good Morning, God from Apologia Press in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Great Giveaway

I love free things!  Happily Domestic is giving away a free Nutrimill grain mill on their blog.

We have this grain mill at our local "co-op" for member use.  You have to pay a one-time fee for use, and get trained to use it.  It's a great mill, very simple to use.  But my biggest problem is REMEMBERING to take my grain to grind it on co-op days!!!  Having one of these at home, so I could freshly grind my grain every time I wanted to make something would be so awesome.  I hope I win!

But in case I don't, you should enter too, for a chance to win.   Click on the picture above or click this link to enter.  There are LOTS of entries to gain in various ways, so get going!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

TOS Review: Master Ruler

Which lines on the ruler indicates 1/4 inches?  What about 1/8 inches or 1/16 inches?  It can be frustrating and overwhelming for kids to try and figure these out.  And what if you get interrupted while you're trying to count your way over in 1/16ths?  The Master Ruler to the rescue!

The Master Ruler from Master Innovations is a unique concept.  Hold it up, and you see the different measurements in different colors.  But that's just the beginning.  Each fraction of measurement is actually on a different layer of clear plastic.  The larger the measurement, the longer the line.  A spiral binding holds all the different layers together, making it easy to flip to the one you need.  On the back is a quick run-down of the different  measurements and their equivalents (1 ft = 12 inches, etc).  This video explains the concept of the Master Ruler and how it works.

We received the Standard Ruler ($9.95), the Metric Ruler ($9.95), the Master Ruler Workbook ($15.95), (these three items can be purchased together as part of the Master Ruler Starter Set at $41.25), as well as a Marvels of Measurement Poster ($10.00).

Marvels of Measurement Poster

The Master Ruler Workbook was very helpful, as I found that I had trouble getting started with how to use the product with my kids.  It had plenty of lesson ideas, and the consumable pages of the workbook are allowed to be copied for family use - very helpful for those of us with larger familes!

The Master Ruler has been, and will continue to be, well used in our house.  Not only does it help children learn basic measuring skills, but it teaches fractions at the same time.  My older son, who has been struggling with fractions suddenly gained a very real understanding of how to simplify fractions just using this ruler!  We haven't done this yet, but the Metric Ruler can also be used to teach decimals.

The Marvels of Measurement Poster has been a fantastic addition to our wall.  I'm pretty picky about what posters end up hanging on the wall, but this one was definitely worth the space.  Though we haven't done much to actually study it, the children seem to be absorbing the facts on the poster - well enough even to know some answers to trivia questions at Thanksgiving (when we play lots of family games together).

Master Innovations offers other math tools, including Master Clock, Master Angles and Master Fractions.  You can check out what the other members of the Homeschool Crew have to say about all the Master Innovations products here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary Master Ruler, a Metric Ruler, the Master Ruler Workbook in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, November 29, 2010

TOS Review: Nanuq

Nanuq: A Baby Polar Bear's Story is the story of a young polar bear and his family.  But it's so much more!  From Smart Kids Publishing, Nanuq is one of five books currently offered in the "My Animal Family" series.  More books are planned.  The book retails for $12.99 (on sale right now for $10.39, as are the other four books in the series).  The book is very nice - solidly made with beautiful illustrations.  Additionally, it comes with a DVD, and a card with the web address and password to "My Animal Family" online kids club.

Since there's so much material to cover, I thought I'd address each one separately for you.

The Book:  The book had a story that kept my younger girls' (ages 5 and 7) attention.  The illustrations are very pretty and engaging.  It's a good story for younger kids - explains about eating and hunting, but doesn't go into details that would disturb them.
One thing I thought rather odd: Usually when I read a book out loud, I read the title, the name of the author and, if applicable, the name of the illustrator.  This book didn't have that information where you'd normally see it, either on the front cover or on the title page.  In fact, I had to look at the Copyright Page to find that information.  I was surprised to see that instead of just the names of the author and illustrator, there were Executive Producers, Art Directors, and Production Managers, among others.  This is definitely a book WITH a DVD!

The DVD:  The DVD contains award-winning BBC footage (not high resolution, for those who wonder).  The first item is a short movie (about 10 minutes long) about Nanuq that is similar to the story in the book in some ways, and very different in others.  It shares some new information the book did not, and includes footage of newborn baby polar bears (aw!) and some really cute action scenes.  To get a better idea of what the DVD short movie contains, you can also check out a free clip from the "Ella: A Baby Elephant's Story" DVD.
The DVD also contains "Fun Facts" that are both educational and come in useful if you use the website (more on that in a minute), Polar Bear Paradise (song without words on screen), and "Nanuq's Song" (Polar Bear Paradise with words on the screen so you can sing along).  The last link on the DVD, "The Creative Team" is essentially the credits.

In the Habitat (online play):  My kids always look forward to online/computer play, and the My Animal Family online kids club was no exception.  Once you log in and supply the password that comes with your book, you can customize your explorer, then PLAY.  The kids club has two parts: Paint 'n Play, and The Habitat.

The Paint 'n Play games are pretty simple, though the mazes, dot-2-dot, matching and others don't have any feedback for the child; they could play everything wrong and not know it.  It is strictly a "have fun" without any educational value.

The games in the Habitat are generally your basic educational games, with a basic beginner, intermediate and advanced level for each game.  The games played correctly earn the player points, which they can spend in the little store for items that open up new parts of the game to play.  My girls enjoyed the games, but became frustrated when they realized that they had to play A LOT of games to earn even one item from the store.  My older daughter asked after about 20 minutes if she could stop.  When I asked her why, she told me that it wasn't worth her computer time to play.  Since she has limited computer time every day, she felt like she was only playing to earn the points (she said all the games were 'too easy' for her), and it was taking too long to earn enough to do the other fun stuff.  To her, the "fun stuff " wasn't enticing enough to keep playing the games.  My younger daughter wasn't as picky, and would gladly keep playing just to play (the points were just a bonus to her).  I guess we'll see what happens when she finally earns enough points for a tool from the store; maybe the older daughter will regain interest.

The website login provided with the book gives the user 6 months of access to that particular book's Habitat. Anyone can try the website out on a 14-day free trial.  After the 6 months or free trial runs out, additional access can be purchased (all Habitats) for $22.50/6 months or $36/1 year.

The My Animal Family series is a unique approach to learning about different animals.  Though I personally wouldn't pay $13/book to do so, we did enjoy the one we were sent.  If these books were available in our library, I'd definitely be checking them out!

Want to know what other crew members thought about Nanuq?  Click here to read other reviews.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of Nanuq: A Baby Polar Bear's Story (book, DVD and website access) in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TOS Review: A Young Scholar's Guide to Composers

Bright Ideas Press may be best known for the Mystery of History books (which we use and love) or the Illuminations course.  We got a chance to try out A Young Scholar's Guide to Composers, which is a full 32-week course exploring the different composers and different eras of music.

A Young Scholar's Guide to Composers is available as either a CD-Rom book for $29.95 or as a Printed Book for $34.95.

Here's what the Bright Ideas Press website has to say about the course:
Why take the time to “Crack the Code” of Classical Music?
  • Music is from the Lord. He created it, and He created us with the ability to both make and appreciate music.
  • Classical music is uniquely part of our Western civilization.
  • Research suggests that both listening to and playing classical music aids brain development.
  • Even rudimentary exposure increases one’s level of enjoyment and understanding.
This course provides a close-up look at famous composers, their music, and their times, with special attention to character traits and Christian testimony (or lack thereof). Even the musically challenged will enjoy this course! It’s perfect for grades 4-8 but is easily adaptable for younger and older students. Minimal teacher prep will return maximum enjoyment!

Here is what is included:
  • 32 Weekly Lessons
  • 26 Bios of Famous Composers
  • 6 Eras of Music Explained
  • Easy-to-Use Comparative Timeline
  • Easy-to-Use Maps
  • Composer Info-Cards & Game Directions
  • Note-taking Pages
  • Quizzes
  • Answer Keys
  • Listening Suggestions
  • Intricate Coloring Pages
  • Resource Books
What we thought:

I grew up with a very strong classical music background.  Both of my parents have a Master's Degree in music, and by the time we could read and write, all five of my siblings and myself could play an instrument.  I suppose you could say we grew up in a classical music immersion program.

Given that, the 32-week study seemed sparse to me.  While the website says "this course provides a close-up look..." I'd say that this course provides an overview.  I was surprised that much of the personal spiritual lives of the composers was neglected in the stories provided.  What was mentioned was very dry (in comparison to many of the books on composers we had growing up) - just the basic history of each composer including their spiritual beliefs.  Additionally, I was surprised that for a full course, it was up to the teacher to find the music that went with each lesson (though many suggestions and links were provided in the appendix).

Overall, this course is a good introduction to classical music for the 4th-8th grader who has had no previous musical education.  It's a good starting point for doing an in-depth study of music, and with some time and effort on the part of the teacher to research further, it could be expanded to a more comprehensive study.

Want to know what other Crew members had to say about this and other Bright Ideas Press curriculum?  Check out their reviews here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary CD-Rom version of A Young Scholar's Guide to Composers in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, November 15, 2010

TOS Crew Review - Corps of Re-Discovery

When I began homeschooling my oldest son eight years ago, I went craft-crazy.  Hobby Lobby, Michaels, Jo-Ann Fabric & Craft, and even Sam's Club became my personal Mecca, their sales and clearance racks drawing me like a moth to a flame.  I bought kits; I bought materials; I bought paper and yarn, markers, crayons and colored pencils; I bought brads, glitter, beads and buttons.  I filled up drawers, bins, shelves and cabinets with my penny-pinching finds, eager for the afternoons that we'd sit around the table, making Christmas placemats, homemade Valentines and crafty cards for the great-grandparents.

Then I discovered the awful truth: Just because I started homeschooling my son, I did not magically become crafty overnight.  I've actually never been crafty.  In third grade, our teacher would have us do "Squiggle Stories" where she'd draw a squiggly line on a piece of paper for each of us, and we'd have to turn that squiggle into a picture, then write a story about the picture.  My story always started out "If I could draw well, then you would clearly see a...." and I'd go on to describe in amazing detail the SCRIBBLE that my squiggle had turned into. My elementary grades were all ++ (the highest you could get), except for one subject.  Art.  I always got a - in art; essentially the grade that meant "A for effort, F for execution."

All this to explain, that I LOVE the Corps of Re-Discovery Cornhusk Doll Kit that we got to try out, but given my complete lack of ability in anything crafty or artistic, there will not be any personal pictures accompanying this review.
Corps of Re-Discovery's Corn Husk Doll
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery as a scientific and military expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.  The Corps of Re-Discovery is a small company run by a homeschooling family, whose mission is to provide products that inspire adventure and exploration in learning. Their project kits are designed to enrich your studies of American Indians, Frontiersmen and Pioneer Americans so you, too can "re discover" America. They want to help inspire imaginations and create memories.

Even though our project did not fare too well, we did have fun with it, and we had a great discussion about how Indian and Pioneer children would have worked on making their own Cornhusk dolls.  We've recently read through the Little House on the Prairie books, and my 5 year old, Megan, said "It's like Laura's first doll!" when she saw what we were going to (try to) make.  I went back and showed her the picture and read her the part where it explains that Laura's doll was actually just a corn cob wrapped in a piece of cloth, but that led into a conversation about what kinds of items could be made into a doll-like figure back in the 1800's when there were no Target stores to run to every time you wanted something new to play with.  Later in the week, the girls kept showing me things from the back yard they had deemed "dolls", including sticks, rocks and a leaf-wrapped bundle of grass.  Our project did inspire some great imaginative play and I think even though our cornhusk doll turned out more like "cornhusk abstract art" we created some pretty fun memories while working on it.

The Cornhusk Doll Kit is on sale right now for $4.50 (normally priced at $5.99).  The kit comes with cornhusks, twine, a small piece of fabric and the instructions to make the doll.  To make the apron and cap, you'll also need scissors, needle and thread.  This particular project requires an older child (teen) or adult to help (preferably a crafty adult!).  The instructions are pretty simple, though we ran into trouble when it came time to make the arms.  I'm not sure how much of that is simply my ineptness at crafts coupled with my inability to understand drawn diagrams, and how much is unclear instructions.  Even though we started out with a few extra pieces of cornhusks, we went through a few too many trying to get the arms right, and it was somewhat downhill from there.  I honestly think that was more me, and not really any problem with the directions though.
Girl and Boy Cornhusk Dolls
Corps of Re-Discovery offers a slew of other projects, including Pioneer, Frontier and Indian packages, with several activities in one kit.  These would be great to do simply as a fun project, or coupled with a study on early American history.  You can purchase through their website, or find many of the Corps of Re-Discovery projects at state parks and historical landmarks around the U.S., as well as in teacher supply stores and specialty shops.

Want to find out if others fared better than we did with their projects?  Check out what the TOS Homeschool Crew members have to say about their Corps of Re-Discovery experiences.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary Cornhusk Doll Kit in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Surfing the net, with a net

There are a lot of parenting issues that I call my own mom to get advice on.  But I'm starting to realize that I'm raising a generation of kids with issues that previous generations never had to deal with.
Right?  Most of our parents never even conceived of these issues.  We had a computer in our house by the time I was in high school, but it was for word-processing and accounting, not surfing.  The internet wasn't even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye (wink, wink) until I was already in college.

I think that keeping our kids safe online is something most parents want, but few know how to best achieve this goal.  There are plenty of options out there, and sorting through them can be overwhelming and intimidating.  To be honest, my main plan has always been (and continues to be) that the computer ONLY gets used in public areas of the house.  And even then, the child doesn't get to sit in a corner, surfing to his heart's content.  The computer screen faces the room, where anyone can see what's on it at any time, and the computer isn't on unless there is an adult in the room.

But what happens when I run out to the store?  Or have a doctor's appointment?  Or one of a dozen other scenarios where I leave home and my children are left alone (okay, quick disclaimer: my 13-year-old, who is a certified Safe Sitter, babysits when I go, and our next-door neighbor, who works at home, is available to help out, should help be needed).  I know that as much as I lay down rules and expect to be obeyed, there will be times when my children will break the rules.  Maybe someone will sneak the computer to their room after everyone is in bed.  Or sneak a little online time when mom is taking the little kids to the dentist.  So, for those times when I can't be looking over their shoulder, I'm so happy to have access to PG Key.

Looks too simple, doesn't it?  Just a USB plug-in?  That's going to protect your kids online?  Well...yeah.
It is simple.  Plug in, spend about 10 minutes setting up your controls, and walk away.  Well, don't walk away, but know that if you need to, PG Key will be monitoring what your kids are doing, and blocking questionable material.  When you set your account up, you have the option of blocking particular sites, or only allowing certain sites.  If there are only a few places you want your kids to go, the latter is a great option.  I can't imagine being able to figure out EVERY site you would want to block, because hopefully you don't know all the quesitonable sites out there.  You also have the option of setting each user a specific amount of computer time, which PG Key keeps track of, then the computer will be disabled when their time is up, requiring a password to continue.  Alternatively, you can remove the PG Key, which will disable the computer until the PG Key is reinserted.

The best part, in my opinion, is that PG Key actually SHOWS you exactly what your kids have been doing, by taking a quick screenshot every 5 seconds, with up to 60 hours of recording time on the key.  You play a short video to see what your kids have been doing, and get an immediate, accurate picture of what their activities have been.  

All this for a ONE-TIME fee of $49.99 plus shipping (also available through Amazon for a little less).  No upgrades, no yearly fee.  

The computer in our house will still be in the main living area, with the screen facing the middle of the room.  But the PG Key will be in place, for that little bit of peace of mind and extra protection.  Because I can't be there every second, and I can't guarantee that my kids will always follow the rules.  In a way, PG Key is like the safety net you hope you'll never need.  

Want to get some other opinions on the PG Key?  Check out the reviews from the rest of the homeschool crew, here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary PG Key in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Yuck, seriously

If someone handed you a package of powder, told you to mix it with water, and let you know ahead of time that the result would resemble something you blow out of your nose into a tissue, would that really be the encouragement you needed to follow the instructions?  After all, isn't one of the goals of any mom to train your children to eventually be able to take care of their own snot, so we don't have to touch it anymore?

Welcome to the world of Yuck.  From where I sit, this has to have been invented by a kid, or someone who refuses to grow up.  Kids love it.  Moms...well, I guess it depends.  For this mom, it was definitely a "I'll let you do this because I love you, not because I want to" project.  Of course, for this mom, things like Play-Doh and PlayFoam, and even painting, fall into that category.  Any fun project that means lots of clean-up for mom is on that list.  But even I have to admit, Yuck might actually be worth the effort.
We received four types of Yuck from Buckets-O-Fun to sample.

Chunky Yuck  This starts looking like rock salt (tiny cubes) and when hydrated, it's about the size of ice machine cubes.  This is the only Yuck you have to prepare ahead of time, as it takes about 24 hours to fully hydrate.  

Saucy Yuck  This begins as a powder; add water and it becomes the consistency of applesauce, but slimier.  

Snowy Yuck  This starts as a very fine powder; when you add water it becomes just like snow, but it isn't cold.  It's not quite firm enough to mold into snowballs, but it would make a great material for a Christmas party decoration.  I have to admit, Snowy Yuck is pretty awesome!  

Sticky Yuck  Yup, boogers.  Snot.  Mucus.  Human slime.  It's gross.  It's REALLY sticky.  And the kids will LOVE it.

Each sample pack made a nice bowlful of Yuck, plenty to play with.  The samples came with instructions, and several suggestions for games to play or activities that you could use the Yuck with.  Mostly, though, we just played.  Or rather, the kids played and I watched.

The different Yuck costs, depending on the variety, between $16-20 per pound (and a pound makes, again, depending on the Yuck, between 5 and 60 gallons of Yuck once it's been hydrated).  You can also order a sample of Yuck for free.  

Two suggestions I have for ANYONE who wants to use Yuck:
  1. Check out the videos before you start, just so you have a better idea what you're getting into.
  2. Two words: DISPOSABLE CONTAINER!  That's right.  Yuck cannot be put down drains, so I highly recommend that you mix up your Yucks in some type of disposable container, to make clean-up MUCH easier.  
Yuck probably won't make another appearance at our house unless we get another free sample, simply because I don't generally choose to pay money for messes I have to clean up.  I might pass along the recommendation for some Yucky fun to the nice people at our church, or our homeschool group, so the kids can continue to have Yucky experiences (without having to directly deal with the mess myself; is that mean of me?).  But if you're a kid at heart, you probably will LOVE Yuck.  

Want some other opinions on Yuck?  Check out what the rest of the Homeschool Crew has to say.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary sample of all four varieties of Yuck in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Read, Write and Type - TOS Review

Talking Fingers' Read, Write and Type learning system is computer software for children ages 6-9 that teaches reading (phonics), writing (spelling) and typing (keyboarding skills) in one combined program.  The program is research-based and classroom tested, showing "significant reading improvement" in the 10 years of testing in elementary school classrooms.

The program introduces children to keyboarding skills using two animated hands, Rightway and Lefty.  The animated villian, Vexor, steals the letters, also known as the "storytellers" to keep them from writing down their stories.  The child's goal is to foil Vexor as they play the different games, eventually going through the programs 40 different levels.  Read, Write and Type claims that the child will not move onto new levels until they've demonstrated mastery of each one, yet it does not ever tell the child "you've failed" - the child simply keeps on playing until they finish the level.

The program also provides feedback for parents, showing progress charts to help identify the child's strengths and weaknesses.

Read, Write and Type is available for $35 for one student, or additional licenses can be purchased for more students, in a variety of configurations.  You can choose to use the program online (which is what we did), or purchase a CD home edition, which comes with additional products, like a laminated keyboard, stickers and an activity book.

What we thought:  I made the mistake of being the first one to try out the program when all my children were in the room.  My first thought was that this program, even though it's technically geared for 6-9 year olds, would be a good fit for my 10 year old son, who loves computer learning, and could desperately use some computer skills.  Well, as I started up the program, as soon as the sound came on, all the kids gathered around to see what I was doing.  Oldest child said "That's kind of dumb." (Okay, I'll be blunt here - I thought so too!)  As soon as the words were out, I knew there was no way my 10 year old would go near it.

I instead set up the program for my 7 year old (barely a beginning reader at this point) daughter, Kaitlyn.  After all, the point is to learn to READ, write and type, and right now I'm much more concerned with the reading aspect of her education than the writing or typing.  She tried out the program once, but balked every time after that when I asked her to do a lesson.  "It's booooriiiing." She'd say.  I was really surprised.  Most of my kids will watch a 40 minute video showing water going from ice-cold to simmering, just to be able to have computer time - they don't even need sound!  For her to forgo computer time, DURING THE SCHOOL WEEK, is unheard of.  I sat down with her and tried it out, and she reluctantly went through the program, but not without quite a bit of pouting.  At first, I thought that maybe my oldest child's remark about the program being dumb had also turned her against it.  But after only a few minutes, I quickly realized that she had somehow, in her first time playing, gotten herself to a level that was above her skills.

There were a few problems.  First, once the child goes through the initial start-up, there is very little direction.  She wasn't quite sure where she was supposed to go, or what she was supposed to do.  I had to help her start randomly clicking areas of the screen to even find an activity to work on.  No wonder she was bored!   Second, I was startled, and disappointed, to see that unless the child types the WRONG letter for some of the games, the "Helping Hands" do NOT show the correct hand position at all.  Unless I sat right there next to her showing her where and how to place her hands, and which fingers to use for which keys, she would only hunt and peck with her index fingers.  Third, I don't agree with the fingering they DO use, when they use it.  Mavis Beacon taught me, and the fingering for keyboarding that she teaches is fairly standard.  RWT was having the child use, for instance, the INDEX finger to type a "C", even though correct hand position has the middle finger very naturally "fallling" down to hit the "C" key.  Finally, despite the RWT materials saying that the child cannot progress beyond what he/she has mastered, Kaitlyn did manage to get way beyond what she knew, in both reading and typing.

This could be a good program for younger kids, especially those who enjoy a lot of silly in their learning.  It was not a good fit for us.  Partially because I like the computer only when it can teach something that I am unable to do myself; it seems pointless to put a child on the computer only to have to sit next to them and supervise the whole time to make sure they're learning what the program is supposed to teach.  And partially because even at 7, Kaitlyn found the entire storyline of RWT to be silly and boring (and not just because she was already ahead of what she could easily do well).

Want to hear what other TOS Crew Members had to say about Read, Write and Type?  Check out more reviews here.


Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary subscription to Talking Fingers' Read, Write and Type online program in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.