Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

Today's Speed Bump comic strip:
I don't want this to be me, but there are days when it hits pretty close to home.  It makes me wonder, if I asked my kids what they thought was most important to me, what would they say about me?  Frankly, given the fact that I actually just "shoo'd" my youngest away so I could concentrate on writing this, I'm pretty sure I know what they'd say.  I'm just not brave enough to pull out a camera and record their answers.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Expedition Australia: Take One

My first reaction after we finished the week of Expedition Australia was, "Now that that's over, I'd like to try it again."

I am fairly new to the world of unit studies, brand new to the world of e-books as homeschool curriculum, and not only new to, but completely intimidated by, the world of lapbooking.  Expedition Australia combined all three, and in my first attempt I stumbled and stuttered my way through.  When I was done, I took a look around, surveyed the results, and realized that it went better than I expected.  And now that I know what I'm doing a little, I'd like to give it another shot.  Who knows what we'd learn about Australia the 2nd time around?

Expedition Australia is the 2nd e-book unit study provided to me by The Old Schoolhouse (TOS) for the purpose of "auditioning" for the Homeschool Crew.  My job was to use the e-book with my children, evaluate the resource and write a review.  Expedition Australia retails at TOS for $7.95 and is part of TOS's new "Download 'N Go" series produced in conjunction with Amanda Bennett.

TOS also offers the option of purchasing sets of the "Download 'N Go" series at a lower price per item.  The series is geared toward kindergarten through 4th grade students, and is specifically written to incorporate lapbooking into the unit study experience.


The review: The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked for a temporary employment agency.  The first job they sent me on was in a medical office, doing "light filing."  My first day on the job, one of the women who'd worked there for several years showed me the ropes and explained what I would be doing.  She pulled out a medical file, into which had been crammed some 20 or so loose pages, and her hands and mouth flew while she told me how those pages were supposed to be arranged into the file.  She opened the brads, lifted a stack, over to the hole punch, "this goes here," pulled out a staple, "stick these behind this section," flattened the brads, flipped to the other side, open those brads, "take this off," back to the hole punch, another staple out, "these go in reverse chronological order," "this goes behind the green sheet," set the stack back on, close the brads.  Then she handed the finished file to me, pointed to a stack of identical files and said, "Any questions?"

I felt the same way then as I did when I first glanced through Expedition Australia.  Overwhelmed.  I've only done a few unit studies, and the ones I have done were very "read this, do that" straightforward.  Which is not to say that Expedition Australia is not straightforward, but rather that the layout was very different from anything I've ever used.  The first time I clicked a link, it fast-forwarded me some 80 pages in the e-book, and I backed slowly away from the computer, hoping to avoid "breaking" it further.  It took me a minute to figure out that the page I'd navigated to had a link back to the page I'd come from.  I honestly had to take a few running starts at this one before I got up the guts to go for it.  It was just a lot of "new" for this homeschooling mom.  Just like that medical file - once I realized that I could study the finished product to figure out how to get the works in progress to completion - I was able to tackle the newness of unit studies, internet-linked PDF files and lapbooking, all rolled into one.

A quick rundown of our first attempt at this:
Day One:  Okay, I am doing this.  No, not checking my e-mail or reading an extra chapter of Swiss Family Robinson to delay the inevitable.  I am plunging in feet-first.
Day Two:  Um, do I remember how to do this?  Wait, was I supposed to print those pages yesterday?  Yup,  I was.  Okay, now where was I?  Oooh - I love this poem [get completely distracted for 20 minutes memorizing poem with kids]  Okay, now really, where was I?
Day Three:  I've got this.  Quick read-through to figure out what we're learning.  Print the pages, do the activities.  (side conversation with self: You know what would be really cool? If my computer was linked to some type of projector, so the kids could see these videos on the "big screen."  I wonder if DH would hook up some sort of computer-TV link for me?)  Oh...I think I get it.  The pages are for a notebook, the activities are for a lapbook.  Right?
Day Four:  Yes, kids, I'd like to go to Australia too.  No, we cannot get a platypus for a pet.  Yes, we'll go to the library and get more books about Australia this afternoon.  (side conversation with self: No one ever told me that these unit studies could lead to so much enthusiasm about a subject.  And someone should probably be alerted that the 7th-grader is having as much fun as the 1st and 4th graders are.)
Day Five:  Is it over already?  OH WAIT!  That means I have to actually DO the lapbook part, doesn't it?  Did I mention I'm not the crafty type?

Expedition Australia was a HUGE hit in our house.  The students in this particular homeschool are 4 (pre-k going on 2nd grade), 6 (1st grade), 10 (4th grade) and 13 (7th grade).  Even though the study is geared toward the K-4th grade crowd, everyone participated.  The study was like a little mini-safari each day; one that we all truly enjoyed.  The kids, ALL of them, have retained so much of what they learned.  Even now, several weeks after finishing, they're still talking about the things they learned.  Last night we were watching a nature show and all four immediately identified a koala, before the name was announced.  Not only that, but they went on to tell Dad where koalas live, what they eat, and how they raise their young.

The study did not stop when the last lapbook was complete.  For the past three weeks we've continued to explore on our own, using many of the books suggested in the study, as well as going back and reading more of the information provided through some of the links (and links of the links).  I contacted a friend of mine who lives in Australia, and she was kind enough to send the kids their very own Expedition Australia surprise: A genuine, aboriginal-hand-carved, hand-painted boomerang.  The kids have been researching how to best throw it, working on their form and a couple of them are actually able to throw it and get it to come close to returning.  This same friend is also fostering a baby kangaroo, so we're following her adventures with that as well.  (No kids, we won't be getting a kangaroo as a pet; that family is just taking care of that one until it's big enough to survive on its own.)

I was definitely a reluctant user of the Download 'N Go product, and I've been totally and completely won over by this product.  We will be using more of these unit studies.  I found the content to be very engaging and fun.  The activities were enjoyable for all of us.  Yes, even when I had to pull out craft supplies and help assemble lapbooks. {grin}  My 4th-grader was able to easily complete all the writing activities.  My 1st-grader needed some help, but there was not so much to do that it was overwhelming to her.  My pre-k daughter enjoyed learning right along with the others, and even though she's just starting to read, she's excited to have her own lapbook and shows it to anyone who will look.  While the difficulty level was far below what my 7th-grader would normally do, he too enjoyed doing the study with us.  With very little effort, I was able to extend this study to challenge him a little bit, assigning him some extra things to do that coincided with what we were all learning.

I had only two very minor issues with this study.  First, it would have been nice to have a little bit more guidance on how to use this.  Even a one-page introduction that explained the concept of the internet-linked PDFs and a little more explanation on what to print and how to use it would have gone a long way in alleviating my anxiety about using this for the first time.  Second, every single link in the entire e-book that connected to an internet site popped up a security warning on which I had to click "allow" to be able to access the website.  Once or twice wouldn't have bothered me, but with 20+ links per day, it got old REALLY fast.  This appears to be some type of security issue that may be fixable on the publisher end.

However, even with those two problems, I still have to give this curriculum a very hearty A+.  I don't come across a lot of curriculum that excites my children to the point of going out on their own to find out more, and this one did so, in spades.  Kudos to TOS and Amanda Bennett.  They've truly developed a winning curriculum.  We'll be using this one again, and downloading a few more to go with it.

Disclaimer: Expedition Australia was provided to me free of charge, courtesy of The Old Schoolhouse, for the purpose of this review.  I was not compensated in any other way for the review.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My very first curriculum review!

Who, me?  Opinionated?  Well, sure, when it's important, and I think this is most definitely important.  I'm "auditioning" for a chance to be a member of The Old Schoolhouse (TOS) Homeschool Crew - a group of homeschool families that get a chance to try out new curriculum and products and share our opinions with the rest of the world.  I'm excited about this chance, and a little nervous.  As a violinist, I've had plenty of auditions; as a writer, I've had plenty of chances to write; as a homeschooling mom for the past eight years, I've tried out a LOT of curriculum and a LOT of homeschool products.  But I've never had the chance to put all three things together, and I'm praying that this effort reflects the best of all those skills.

So, without further ado...

The Product:
WannaBe Series: When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Firefighter E-book
Available from The Old Schoolhouse; $8.95

This is an E-book, which will be delivered straight to your computer, no shipping charge.

80 pages

We live 1.5 miles south of the fire station that serves our local suburban area.  Three or four times a week, we'll hear a siren screaming down the street and the kids will run to the windows to watch the truck sail past.  Then come the questions: "Where do you think they're going?" "What do you think happened?"  "Is there a fire?"
After spending a week using this unit study, the questions are the same, but they are now asked with the distinctive air of a child who knows what those firefighters on that truck do.

A quick caveat: To be honest, I'm not 100% comfortable with e-books.  I prefer the look and feel of paper, and have a hard time reading a "book" on a computer screen.  I have been known to print out 200+-page PDF files (four pages to one sheet, double-sided and in draft mode, lest you think me wasteful) to read through once, just to avoid having to read it on a computer screen.  I did print this one out, minus the first color-heavy page and the last two pages (TOS ads at the end of the file), using the fastest, most ink-saving mode on our printer.  This made it easier for me to work with, but wasn't exactly financially (or ecologically) responsible.

The review:  This is billed as a multi-age unit study.  In some ways, it worked for all four of my kids, ages 13, 10, 6 and 4. Many of the information sections were perfect for reading out loud, and the kids did seem to enjoy hearing the information.  The older three could answer my verbal questions about the information very well; the 4 year old remembered the bare-bones basics.  Overall, I agree that as a read-aloud, the majority of this study works very well for a large range of ages.

I found a couple of the sections of this study to be somewhat off-topic.  A short paragraph about how robotics are being developed to help detect and fight fires leads to the entire science section...on robotics.  That didn't make much sense to me, even though the activities in the science section are both interesting and fun.  However, I could think of several other "science" ideas and activities that would tie in much better with the theme of this e-book.  How about the way the gauges on the truck work?  How valves function in the firefighters' breathing equipment?  The mechanics of air and water pressure in the hoses?  The robotics section did not tie in very well.

Additionally, there was a page of American Sign Language finger spelling that spelled out several fire-related phrases.  I could find no explanation for this which led me to assume that it constituted the "foreign language" component of the unit study.  Wouldn't it make more sense to learn the word fire in several languages?

The activities in the book seem to be geared toward the mid- to late-elementary years.  Most of the written activities could be done orally, but only my older two could come up with the answers to all the questions.  The math was too easy for the 10 year old, but too hard for the 6 year old, so somewhere in between the two is where most of the math was geared.  The "fill in the story" activity we did together, and it worked really well.  My older two then suggested we go back through and figure out the part of speech that each "blank" was supposed to contain...and then turn it into a mad lib. {smirk}

Many of the games were a hit in our house, and the party ideas, which I'd carefully hidden under several other things on my desk, were discovered by my children and I was subject to a chorus of "please can we?"  I sense a fire-truck cake-making in the very near future.

Overall, I'd give this e-book a B-minus.  It provides some good, basic information about firefighting and life in the firehouse.  It provides a variety of activities for a range of ages, in creative writing, spelling, vocabulary, science, math, history, handwriting and ?foreign language?.  The e-book includes links to more information, and more than a page of suggested books for further study.

However, the information doesn't always flow smoothly.  Even my 13-year-old noted several times that it seemed to jump to the next topic before concluding the previous one.  Several of the sections seemed out of place.  While this is an interesting overview of the job of firefighting, it falls short of my expectations for an elementary-grade unit study.

Disclaimer: This unit study e-book was provided to me free of charge, courtesy of The Old Schoolhouse, for the purpose of this review.  I was not compensated in any other way for the review.