Wednesday, September 29, 2010

TOS Review: Vocabulary Cartoons

From New Monic publishing comes a new way to teach and learn vocabulary: Vocabulary Cartoons

We received the elementary edition a few weeks ago to use in our homeschool.  Vocabulary Cartoons work much differently from other forms of vocabulary teaching.  Most curriculum I've found will introduce a word by giving the word, the pronunciation and it's meaning(s), followed by using the word in a sentence or two.  Then the child spends the rest of the week putting that word to use in sentences, crosswords puzzles, drawing lines between synonyms and other similar activities.  Vocabulary Cartoons uses rhyming, visual mnemonics in cartoon form to help the child immediately acquire a vivid mental picture of the word and it's definition.  But here, this can probably explain better than I can:

There are other samples of the book here.  You can also find a full list of the words in this book here.
The Elementary Edition of Vocabulary Cartoons retails for $12.95, and is geared for kids from 3rd-6th grade.

What we thought:  When the book first arrived, I left it lying out on a table for about a week, to see if anyone would pick it up and start looking through it without my suggesting it.  What I didn't account for was two children's birthday parties and round two of moving the school room "stuff" around to get better organized, and despite my best efforts, the book ended up at the bottom of a pile more than once.

I gave up on that idea, and instead, one night tossed it to my oldest son (who, at 13, is admittedly slightly above the recommended age for this book).  "Take a look at this," I told him, "and let me know what you think."  The book promptly disappeared for a total of 7 hours.  Did I mention he's a fast reader?  It was back on my desk the very next morning without a mention from him about what he thought.  This is a kid who is pretty crazy about comics and cartoons - he even draws his own - so I was surprised.  I'd flipped through when I first got the book, and though I didn't find anything wildly hilarious, I did think that there were some amusing ideas.

Okay, so my turn.  I picked up the book with the intent of figuring out how I would teach this to my one child who was at the appropriate level for it.  The introduction was pretty simple - just a short explanation of what a mnemonic was (shouldn't that have been the first word to learn in the book?) and how the rhyme and cartoon helped to cement the memory of each word's definition.  I flipped through a couple of pages, thinking maybe we could do this book "Suzuki-style": Learn one word, review that word and add one more, review both words and add one, etc.  The only problem was, as I went further into the book, I kept running into things that made me not so eager to use the book at all.

Con #1, part a:  Despite the fact that this is billed as teaching vocabulary through rhyming and visual mnemonics, only some of the cartoons actually have a RHYME.  For instance "Fleet" uses the word feet as the sounds like word, but doesn't actually make the caption for the cartoon rhyme.  Instead, we get "The Postal Service's new Feet Fleet" where the rhyming words are next to each other (under the cartoon of a "fleet" of Postal trucks with feet instead of tires).  In the introduction, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean BLUE" is used to demonstrate what a rhyming mnemonic is.  So shouldn't the caption read "The Postal Service switched to FEET to replace the tires on their old FLEET" or something similar?
Con #1, part b:  Some of the "rhyming" mnemonics don't even rhyme at all.  The so-called rhyme for "Horizontal" is horizon, which doesn't rhyme at all.  Same with "Culprit" and paw prints.

Con #2:  You need a brave kid to enjoy these, and a mom who isn't too protective or demanding about the material her children study (for the record, I am NOT the aforementioned mom).  Quite a few of the cartoons show what I consider to be inappropriate ideas or behavior.  For instance, my 5th grader was afraid of being in his dark room until he was about 9 years old.  So why would the cartoon that teaches the word "Dread" (to said 9 year old) show a picture of a terrified kid in bed with a scary tree grinning wickedly through the window, a tentacle coming out from the end of his bed, a monster crawling up the side of the bed and a skeleton reaching over the top of the bed?
Sure, "Dread" rhymes with bed, but it also rhymes with head.  As in: "Because of my mother's DREAD she makes me wear a helmet to protect my HEAD".  Look at that!  A rhyming mnemonic AND a safety lesson PLUS you don't have to deal with a kid who won't go to sleep because his vocabulary book scared the bejeebers out of him!  Same thing with quite a few other cartoons: We have Jason in the hockey mask (yes, that Jason) scaring the kids in the cafeteria, a giant hairy hand grabbing a kid (again, in bed!), ghosts, more skeletons, Frankenstein's monster, vampires, and a few random acts of unnecessary violence, including a guy who gets pummeled by a baseball bat because he has the nerve to wear a sheet and shout "BOO" at his friend (see "Hoax").

Con #3:  The introduction states that "In this book you will find that every word you wish to learn is rhymed with a word you probably already know."  Try this on for size:  If a child is learning the word "Crevice", do they really already probably know crevasse?  I don't think I knew that one until high school, and even then I didn't learn it because it was taught in school, but because it was in a book I was reading for fun - a biography about a mountain climber (for some reason they don't assign those in school).

I did get around to asking my oldest what he thought of the book and here were his notes.
1. "It was okay, but some of the cartoons didn't make sense because the words they used didn't actually rhyme with the vocabulary words."
2.  "It might work if we did it like Suzuki lessons or something"  (Mom's note:  Great minds think alike!)
3.  "I bet I could make up some better cartoons.  Do you think they'd hire me?"

Overall, I like the concept of Vocabulary Cartoons.  I just wasn't very impressed by the execution of the concept.  I've always been good with rhyming, so maybe that's why I found myself automatically making up [what I considered to be] better, more accurate and fun rhymes to go with the suggested words.  I suppose I could get together with my son and we could do the same thing for our own vocabulary lists.  Hmmm - maybe  New Monic would hire both of us?

Want to find out what others thought about Vocabulary Cartoons?  Check out a bunch of other reviews here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of New Monic's Vocabulary Cartoons in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, September 10, 2010

TOS Crew Review - America's Math Teacher

When I first found out that I'd been selected to review America's Math Teacher for TOS Homeschool Crew, I was excited and hopeful.  My 10 year old son, Aaron, struggles with math, and I am always on the lookout for the perfect math program that is going to fit his learning style and help him understand the concepts that he has problems with.  The fact that America's Math Teacher is an online program made me even more hopeful; Aaron tends to learn best when he's using the computer, probably because computer learning combines visual, audio and kinesthetic learning - Aaron's 3 primary learning styles.

Rick Fisher is America's Math Teacher, the voice and mind behind the website launched last month.  Rick teaches 5th and 6th grade math in San Jose, California.  His math program is so successful that each year, approximately 1/2 of the students are able to skip the 7th grade math course and go directly to an advanced 8th grade algebra program.  With this in mind, he launched America's Math Teacher website, offering math instruction from 4th-grade through algebra.  The site has four basic courses:

Course 1 Basic Math Skills

Each course includes instructional video for each lesson, and the first three courses also have accompanying worksheets to work on what you've just learned.  The site also has speed drills for addition, subtraction and multiplication, which gives students a chance to hone their skills at these basic functions.  After going through each course, there are evaluations for each level, to gauge the child's level and what he has learned or not quite gotten.
The site allows you to try out a few things and look around before you purchase.  With a coupon, you can even get a 30 day free trial.  The membership costs $195, and that is good for an entire household for one full year.
I went into this evaluation hoping to find a good math program for Aaron, and in that I was truly disappointed.  My first thought after using the program myself, and having him do several of the lessons and evaluations, was that this might eventually function as a good supplemental program to go along with a standard math program.  But at $195 a year, even if you had several students in the family using it, the price tag is pretty hefty for something you're using as an add-on and not even your basic math program.  
I realize, and want my readers to also realize, that I essentially came in on the ground floor of this effort.  The site had just come online when I was given the free 60-day trial to use for this review.  Site content was being added almost daily; I would find new things every time I worked with the program or sat Aaron down to try it out.  Bugs were being dealt with, content was being added.  In that respect, it was rather difficult to give this site a comprehensive review, because it truly isn't ready for public use yet.  Even now, within the last 3 days when I was really going back through everything one more time to make sure the problems I had were not just bugs, things had changed from the previous week.  It could be that in six months from now, or a year, the site will truly be a good stand-alone math program.  The potential is most definitely there.
Here's what I liked:
  • The speed drills are a fantastic way to build up your child's strength in addition, subtraction and multiplication facts
  • The white-board style video lessons (where you only see what the teacher would write on the board, not a bunch of distracting graphics or movement) focus the child on the math skills
  • The sequential style of teaching works well for many kids
  • The video lessons can drag on a little slowly for children with a short attention span
  • On the same token, though, the teacher will give the answer too quickly when doing the lesson, giving the child very little practice in finding the answer first.
  • The worksheets are not adequate practice!  This was a big deal to me.  In fact, I waited to post this review until I was able to read what other people were saying about the worksheets, because I was positive that I had missed some major area of the website where the real worksheets were.  But it appears I didn't miss anything.  Each lessons only had one very short worksheet to go with it, and that was all the practice provided for the entire subject taught in that lesson.  Maybe I'm spoiled with my Saxon math, but I've found that children do best in any subject when they work on the same content daily until they can show they have speed and accuracy (mastery!), then you add one new thing.  But even when you add new content, you continue to review the previously learned content.  The worksheets covered the content for the lesson; the next lesson's worksheet would have, , 4 review exercises for the previous lesson.  By the time you were 4 lessons down the road, no review at all for the 1st lesson.  In my opinion, that is way too little review, especially for a subject like math which requires that you gain good basic skills, and continue to review those basic skills while you learn a new skill.  Math builds on itself, and 2-3 days of minimal review isn't going to confer life-long ability in Math!
  • The evaluations were, in my opinion, not even ready to be brought online when they were.  Still, now, there are way too many errors and problems with the evaluations area to be made available to even test users.  Here is just a sampling of the problems I ran across:

    • One question in the basic math skills evaluation is:  The multiple choice answers are: -9, 36, -15 and -36.  There simply isn't enough information given; all of those answers could be correct.  Are we supposed to be solving for x or solving the equation?  Either way, something is missing and no matter what I try, any answer could be correct.
    • Here's another example:  What is the perimeter of a square with sides of 16 ft?  My answer - 64 ft (4 sides times 16 ft each = 4 x 16ft = 64ft).  The site shows the correct answer as being 46 ft.
    • May of the questions were marked wrong simply because there wasn't enough variation in how the answer was stated.  For instance: If the question asks "how many miles" and you put a number (200) instead of a number and the word or abbreviation miles (200 miles, 200 mi) you get the question marked wrong, even if you technically answered the question correctly.
    • Here's a question and the answer copied straight from the site: Find the least common multiple for 4 and 8.  {Correct: 12; Answer: 16} (My Note: 12 is NOT a multiple of 8)
Overall, I found that America's Math Teacher had some good potential for being a nice tutoring site, should the price be lowered significantly.  I also thought that it has the possibility of being a good stand-alone math program,  a lot more work and resources were added.  I think that Rick Fisher has started on the right path for an online math program.  But for now, it needs a good deal of work and a lot of honing before it's ready for the public.

Want to see what other people think about America's Math Teacher?  Visit The Old Schoolhouse's Homeschool Crew Blog for more reviews.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary 60-day membership to America's Math Teacher in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Have WE got an offer for YOU!

Have you ever been tempted by one of those late-night infomercials?  The product just performs so well, and you cave.  2 payments of $29.95 later, you hold in your hand the magical gizmo that promise to make life, and work, easier.  More often than not, whatever has been promised does not quite deliver, or live up to the expectations that have been built up in you.

I must confess that I've purchased my fair share (or perhaps several people's fair share) of these products.  In fact, just last week I hauled one such old purchase to Goodwill, after it had been sitting in the box for over 4 years, untouched.  We did get it out initially, put it together and use it diligently for about 2 months.  That "Ab-Doer" turned out to be nothing more than a chair with a flexible back.  My kids' desk chairs perform about the same function, and at $50 each, they also function well as a desk chair.  My abs?  Still flabby.  My bank account is $100+ leaner though, thanks to my impulsiveness and naiveté.

Perhaps this is a poor analogy for a product that does deliver, but I couldn't help but think of the late-night infomercials when I started looking through The Old Schoolhouse's 2010 Planner.  That's because every time I thought that the planner had truly managed to incorporate everything a homeschooling mom would possibly need to have a well-ordered school year, I'd come across even more resources and think "But wait! There's more!!!"

Honestly, this is clearly misnamed.  They shouldn't call this a planner.  To quote my bosom friend Anne Shirley, "There's no meaning in a name like that."  They ought to call it "The Old Schoolhouse's Amazing Compendium of Resources for a Practical, Purposeful and Peaceful School Year."  So, here's my own, realistic, from-experience middle-of-the-day blogmercial for this fantastic product.

The Amazing Compendium of Resources for a Practical, Purposeful and Peaceful School Year

Are you overwhelmed and frazzled?  Does your school room look like this?
Or this?
Do you need help getting your thoughts, your time, your school work and your life organized?  Are you wondering "What's for dinner?" or "How do I keep track of the books we're reading?"  Maybe you're in need of a handy place to store the information your kids are supposed to be memorizing.  Perhaps you just need a good, encouraging article to start out each month.

Well, have WE got an offer for YOU!!!

The Old Schoolhouse 2010 Planner is just the resource you've been looking for.  The 614 pages are a homeschooling parent's dream, with everything you need to make your school year successful.  Each month's 12-20 pages of information put uplifting articles, helpful tips, links to resources and great ideas right at your fingertips.  But that's just the beginning!  There are learning ideas for each month, and pages of monthly recipes to make even dinner time quick, easy and delicious, as well as a learning opportunity for teaching kids to cook!

But that's just the BEGINNING!!!

There are loads more resources, too numerous to name them all!  Not only does the Planner have calendars, but it has interactive calendars!  Frustrated with all the illegible markings all over your calendar?  TOS Planner allows you to input information from the computer, neatly into your calendar before you print it out.  There are plenty of other interactive forms, including Curriculum Recording Sheets, Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Semester and Yearly Goal sheets,  To-Do Lists, Progress Reports, even customizable interactive forms for you to make your very own.


There are journal pages, preschool activities, handwriting practice, book report forms, and so much more.  

Okay, you say, I'm sold.  How much am I going to have to shell out for this amazing resource?  Well, right now, you can purchase the e-book version of this incredible product for only $39.00!

Not sure you want the e-book?  TOS also offers The Planner on CD for only $44!

Don't wait another day to turn your household into a well-oiled machine!  Get yours now!

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of the TOS 2010 Planner in exchange for this review to help sell the product. No other compensation was received.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

My very first GIVEAWAY!!!

My friend Tracey is celebrating the 1 year anniversary of her excellent menu service, Good Life Menus.  Tracey and I are on the same page in a lot of our lives: we both homeschool, we both studied Communications at Taylor University, we subscribe to the same ideas about healthy eating, we're even members of the same local food buying club.

As a gift to us on her anniversary, Tracey is giving away to one of my readers a free month-long subscription to her menu service.  In addition, the winner will have the option to continue the subscription for three more months at a discounted price.

What is Good Life Menus?  It's menu planing for your life!  Tracey's weekly menus are suitable for diabetic, gluten-free, autism/adhd and low-carb eaters.  Like me, Tracey avoids empty calories and artificial sweeteners.  This is good healthy food!  Each meal is packed full of nutrient-dense, delicious whole foods.  And because she plans the menu for you, all you have to do is one shopping trip per week, then follow the directions.  It's a simple way to begin eating better.  Check out her website and see all that she has to offer.  In particular, take a peek at her sample menus.  They're guaranteed to get you drooling!

So, how to enter?  You get a couple of shots at entering, so take advantage of them all!
1.  Share this giveaway with others: link this giveaway on any forum, Facebook, Twitter or your own blog.  Then return here and post a comment letting me know you did so.
2.  Subscribe to or follow my blog:  (hint, you have to do #1 to get credit for #2!) If you're already subscribed, and you've already done #1, leave a second comment letting me know.  Or subscribe now after doing #1 and let me know.
3.  BONUS ENTRY (2 points for this one).  You'll receive two additional entries into the giveaway if you post a picture of yourself holding a zucchini on Facebook, linked on Twitter, or on your own blog.  Post back here and let me know where the picture is.

All entries must be received by midnight, September 17th, 2010.  The winner will be drawn randomly from all eligible entries.  Good luck!

Find more information about eating REAL FOOD at the Healthy Home Economist's Monday Mania Carnival

This post is linked to Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade

Friday, September 3, 2010

A true spelling test

Admission #1 - The first time I typed the title, I spelled the word "speeling" by accident.  Yes, I know how to spell very well most of the time; my fingers (first attempt: gingers) just don't keep up with my brain very well.
Admission #2 - I was not as enthusiastic about trying out Spelling City's Premium membership as I could/should have been.

Don't get me wrong. I'm excited to be on The Old Schoolhouse's Homeschool Crew, trying out and reviewing new products.  Most of the things we've received for review so far, I've enthusiastically implemented, whether they were a hit or not.  It's just that SPELLING is the one thing in our entire homeschool curriculum that I actually have figured out right now.  I have a program for each child that works for each child, and the last thing a homeschool mom wants to do is rock the boat when you find a good curriculum fit.  

Add to that two somewhat obstructing factors: 1) The announcement for the Spelling City review came the day after I told all my children we were taking a solid 1-month break from ALL school work (live and learn - I now know that as long as I'm a Homeschool Crew member, promises like that cannot be made, period!); 2) We were supposed to be going on a several-weeks-long trip half-way across the country for a family wedding, with little or no internet access most of that time, and the last thing I intended to do was drag a computer along for the ride.  When you have four kids and all their gear to schlep into a hotel every night and out of a hotel every morning all by yourself, the last thing you want or need is one more thing to carry.

I scrambled to figure out how to do this review and not completely alienate my children.  The first thing I did was thoroughly investigate the Spelling City website myself.  Looking over the site and trying out many of the different activities on myself, I discovered that Spelling City has some fantastic teaching tools.  Not only does it have several different ways to teach and review spelling words, but it also has tools to helps children with understanding the words in context.  The teacher resource page offers access to spelling lists, articles including links to other spelling resources, and news about new features and changes to the website.  They also offer videos to guide you through all the features of the website.

Spelling City can be used for free; the premium membership upgrade, which costs $24.99 per year for a family (up to 5 students) includes: 

  • Automatic test grading and a student grade book
  • Complete activity tracking of student activities
  • Premium Games (Speedy Speller and Letter Fall)
  • Telephone support

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the spelling lists provided on the site included AVKO's Sequential Spelling program lists.  Since I'm using AVKO with 2 of my children, this was a great bonus to me.  Not only could I easily integrate Spelling City into our homeschool, but it was actually already set up to be used with my current, working for us spelling program.  The more I played around with the site, the more I found that I liked about it.  It's easy to use, easy to navigate, has the tools to help the child learn the words AND understand the words, and lots of feedback for the teacher.

However, the program is not completely fool-proof.  As I was playing around with the program, I made up my own spelling list with words like "grab" "cup" "machine" "letter" "apostrophe" and "dispenser."  I then used the TEACH ME option.  TEACH ME takes each word, says the word, then spells it, putting one letter up on the screen at a time.  Then the word is said again, followed by the word being used in a sentence.  For instance, "cup" in TEACH ME would sound like this: "Cup. C-U-P. Cup.  My mom drinks hot coffee from a foam cup.  Cup."  
This did not work so well with the word "apostrophe".  TEACH ME said: "Apostrophe.  A-P-O-S-T-R-O-P-H-E.  Apostrophe. An apostrophe turns backslash will not backslash into backslash won backslash tee backslash.  Apostrophe."  I had to go to the PLAY A GAME part of the site to even figure out what the sentence was supposed to say.  Both the games "MATCH IT" and "SENTENCE UNSCRAMBLE" showed the correct sentence to be "An apostrophe turns "will not" into "won't".  Clearly the program has a flaw when it comes to any sentence that uses quotations or apostrophes.  The same thing happened when I used the word "contraction" in a list.  The sentence: "Don't is a contraction of "do not."  The computer voice, in TEACH ME, says: "Backslash don backslash tee is a contraction of backslash dee oh not backslash."  I can imagine that there are only a handful of words that actually use a sentence with quotation marks, so this isn't a huge problem.  For a moment, I wondered if this was a problem with any word with an apostrophe, but it appears that the program does recognize the contractions (don't, I'd, he'll, should've, etc.) and speak them correctly.  And the site does have a user forum, where the user can submit feedback, so I've already notified them of the problem, and hopefully it'll be fixed soon.  UPDATE: Within less than 24 hours, I had a response to my post about the problem, and within another 2 hours, the problem was fixed.  A+++ to Spelling City for EXCELLENT customer service!!!

There were a couple of other drawbacks that I noted.  First, even with the premium membership, you have to deal with ads on the site.  Both sides of the page (on my computer about 2 inches on each side) are one huge ad for an NFL site.  Additionally there are google ads near the top of the page.  Second, the majority of the site works best for children who are fairly strong readers, especially the games.  Some of the games also require at least basic typing skills, though strong typing skills would be better.  This is specifically true of the premium membership game SPEEDY SPELLER.  The child's score on that game is based on how quickly they can correctly spell the word.  For a child who has to hunt and peck for each letter, they aren't going to have a very speedy score, which can be frustrating.  That was, at least, our experience.

Instead of using the program as a "curriculum" for "school", I presented it as a new game site for Aaron, my 10-year-old to use in his computer time.  I put in several word lists that were a couple of grade levels lower than his current spelling ability, and let him loose in the PLAY A GAME section of the website.  He spent hours playing the different games; his favorites were Letter Fall, Hang Mouse and Audio Word Match.  Though I went through the different options of the site, including TEACH ME, TEST ME and HANDWRITING WORKSHEETS, I didn't feel that it was fair to make him do too much that was technically school work after I'd promised the month off.  He did catch on after about a week, giving me the narrowed eyes and asking "Are you telling me I can do this because I'm supposed to be learning something?"  I assured him that I'd given him the easy words on purpose, so that he could just play with the program and not have to work at it.  Then I asked him, "If this was school work, would you want to do it?"  He thought about it for a moment before admitting that, yes, if this was school work, he'd still want to do it.  

Overall, I really liked the program and will continue to use it for spelling review for Aaron.  He tends to do better with things he learns on the computer, probably because computer programs combine auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning styles.  I'm interested to see how Kaitlyn, my 7-year-old, does with this, given that she is still learning to read, and has no typing skills at all.  I know that this is going to be a huge hit when I add it as part of our regular school work, though.  I guarantee that first thing every day, I'm going to hear a chorus of "CAN I PLEASE DO SPELLING NOW?" from my kids.  And a program that has kids begging to learn is always a good thing, in my book.  

Interested?  Read more reviews of Spelling City, and the sister programs Time4Learning and Time4Writing here.

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