Monday, January 31, 2011

TOS Review: Times Alive

"Math Facts, Math Facts, MATH FACTS!" [stomp, stomp, stomp]  "I HATE MATH FACTS!!!"

Welcome to life in my house, where I was spoiled rotten by my first child, and now I'm paying for it with the other three.  Child number 1, now 14, has always "gotten" it.  Whether it is spelling, math, grammar or history...he just gets it.  Easily.  The first time.  Every time.  In fact, until child number 2 started school, I prided myself on choosing curriculum so well, because I had obviously picked the perfect curriculum for him.

You know what they say: Pride goes before the fall.  Enter child number 2...and child number 3...and child number 4.  With every single one of them, I've dug through the curriculum bins, combed through the catalogs, pulled all-nighters reading reviews, purchased books and CDs and subscriptions and online memberships - essentially tried everything to find a program or book or service that would help them learn the things they will have to know.  Not "should" know.  NEED to know.  Those basic things that are critical to function in the real world.

Things like Math Facts.  I now have a 5th grader (child number 2) who barely knows his addition/subtraction facts and is fighting me tooth and nail when I insist that knowing his multiplication and division facts is essential and non-negotiable.

That's why I was beyond thrilled when I found out that we'd have the chance to use City Creek Press's Times Alive software.

Times Alive is a completely unique approach to memorizing the multiplication facts.  Instead of endless drilling and frustrating repetition, times alive presents the facts using unique stories and fun music.  Each lesson is interactive, giving the student a short lesson followed by immediate practice.

Here's a quick preview:

Times Alive offers your choice of either a CD-ROM (for PC or Mac) for $48.95 or an instant download (also for PC or Mac) for $44.95.  You can use the program with multiple users, no extra fees.

City Creek Press says that Times Alive will:
  • Increase retention to 95% with our interactive method
  • Eliminate boring repetitive drills once and for all
  • Bring success to students with learning disabilities
Times Alive doesn't teach the function of multiplication, it's simply a tool to help children memorize the multiplication facts.  

Unfortunately, Times Alive didn't work for child number 2 any better than the CDs, the worksheets, the online programs...  For us, it's simply a "push came to shove" issue where we're going to have to go with something that he will have to do whether he wants to or not.  I think the Times Alive is a little...childish...for an almost-12-year-old, so I probably won't use it when I push him to memorize his multiplication facts.  However, I plan to continue using it with child number 3, my 7 year old, because it's the perfect tool for her to learn with, and she's a good age to appreciate it, even though she doesn't really understand the mechanics of multiplication yet.

Find out what other crew members think about Times Alive here.

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

Friday, January 28, 2011

TOS Review: Ten marks

I had a love/hate relationship with math through my middle school and high school years.  On the one hand, when I understood a concept, I loved the challenge of being able to find the correct answer.  On the other hand, the repetition and drudgery of doing the same thing, so many times, all the time, frustrated me.  I can remember vividly sitting before a page of 30 problems, fighting tears.  It wasn't hard math, or anything that I struggled with understanding.  But I knew that those 30 problems would take me at least an hour to do, and I wanted to be doing other things.

I think that's why my kids both found Ten Marks to be so appealing.  Each child doing the Ten Marks program is assigned a total of 4 worksheets every week.  Each worksheet only has 10 problems.  The child works the problems and selects the answer.

Every problem displayed offers the child the option of help in the form of 3 hints, and a video lesson.

The video lessons show the type of problem the child is working on (not the actual problem) being solved using a whiteboard-like demonstration.

Once the child has completed their ten problems, they are shown how they did, and what problems need to be re-worked and corrected. The work is then submitted for evaluation, and recorded to a report card that the parent can access.  When I look at my parent screen, the first thing I see is a little "mini-report" for the child selected.

This gives me a snapshot of what's going on with his progress and allows me to go in immediately to change his curriculum.  Or, I can look at the bigger picture by going to his report card.

This provides more detail, and shows where he's strongest and where he's weakest.  The report card keeps track of how much "help" he is using, and what he's scoring on each worksheet.

From there, I get the best picture of what he has firmly grasped, and what areas he needs to continue working.  I can then customize his worksheets based on that information, or choose to let the program continue as planned. TenMarks personalizes the students´ learning experience so they can work at their own pace while following a curriculum based on their grade, proficiency level and learning preferences.

Ten Marks also offers the parent the option of providing rewards to motivate the child.  The parent chooses the reward (and can provide a picture of said reward), the start date, and how many worksheets the child has to complete to earn the reward.  We didn't choose to utilize the reward program, but for children reluctant to do even 10 math problems a day, this might be a great incentive.

Actually, I should say, I didn't choose to utilize that reward program.  There is actually a built-in reward program where "games" are unlocked when a certain number of worksheets are completed.  Both boys looked forward to unlocking new games (which - shhh, don't tell - are actually more math practice).

Ten Marks is priced very reasonably.  For each child, the program is $10 per month, $49 for six months, or $89 for the year.  Ten Marks is mapped to state standards.  Here's a great video that explains the entire Ten Marks program.

Overall, we really liked Ten Marks.  Several times the kids mentioned to me that the worksheets seemed to "get hard really fast".  Part of that, I think, was that I wasn't keeping up enough with customizing the curriculum, and the other part is that they're used to doing Saxon math, where they review the same concepts for weeks on end.  With Ten Marks they were just jumping from one concept to the next, with very little overlap or review.  In that respect, I wished that there were more built-in review.  I believe, especially with math, that it is critical to have mastery of each subject and Ten Marks doesn't ensure this to my satisfaction.  In the end, I wouldn't choose to use Ten Marks as a stand-alone curriculum because I don't see enough repetition to reinforce concepts.  But I could see using it as an every-other-day supplement to keep the "drudgery" of math to a minimum.

The Ten Marks customer service was excellent.  One day we had problems loading some of the videos.  I sent off an e-mail and within an hour we had a complete explanation of the problem and when it would be repaired (it was actually done much sooner).

You can see for yourself how Ten Marks works - check out their free trial.

Find out what the rest of the crew thought about Ten Marks here.

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TOS Review: Lifeway Christian Stores - Holman Illustrated Bible

One of our homeschool goals for this year is to read (out loud) through the entire Bible.  I read several chapters aloud to the kids every day.  But when your audience is little kids, sometimes you need a little help explaining what they're listening to.  That's where the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids comes in.  What a great resource!

If you're anything like me, this book will not only be a valuable tool for your kids, but a fascinating book for you!  I enjoyed this book as much as the kids did.  It is chock-full of simple, easy-to-understand definitions and explanations.  But it's also full of beautiful pictures, amazing facts and captivating facts.  For instance, we recently read through Joshua, where it describes the different tribes of Israel taking over different parts of the Promised Land.  Even my very thorough study Bible has a small map that shows where the different tribes settled in the land, but the Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids has a really cool map that clearly outlines the way the land was divided.
Division of Promised Land between tribes of Israel
Click to see full-sized image
You can take a peek at all the goodies by checking out this free sample.  This is a resource that is well-worth the inch of shelf space that it takes up (well, actually, it's worth a lot more than that!).  The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids is available from Lifeway Christian Stores for only $14.99 (a fantastic bargain, in my book!).  It's an excellent tool to have with you as you help your kids explore the wonders of the Bible.  You might learn something new, too!

Want to see what others have to say about this?  Check out the rest of the TOS crew reviews here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for Kids in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, January 21, 2011

TOS Review: Speekee

I took four years of high school Spanish, and I honestly don't remember any of it.  But when I was seven years old, I spent a week in Chihuahua, Mexico, living with a host family during a music tour.  They didn't speak any English, and I didn't speak any Spanish.  By the end of that week, I had a pretty solid grasp of some basic words and phrases - enough to get by - and I remember all of them.  Research has shown over and over that learning a 2nd language requires total immersion.  You best learn to speak a new language when your environment is saturated with it and you aren't given the translations in your first language.

Speekee tries to accomplish this immersion teaching with it's new online videos.  Directed at ages 2-10, the Speekee program is comprised of 10 videos, each teaching the basics of everyday life through songs, puppets and simple props.  Speekee has optional captions for each video (English/Spanish concurrently).  Additionally, Speekee offers worksheets and activities to go with each video, to reinforce the words and phrases the child is learning.  According to their website, Speekee is the number one Spanish course for young children.

Speekee is available online for a monthly fee of $7.50.  Alternatively, you could purchase the DVD set (you must have a PAL-compatible DVD player) for the US equivalent of £95 (95 British Pounds).  I believe several crew members were able to get the online ("tv version") to play through their Wii, as well.  You can try out Speekee with a free two-week trial subscription!

I wanted to like Speekee, and I hoped that this might be a good solution for some 2nd-language introduction. We have introduced all the kids to English Sign Language using the Signing Time DVD program, and they all have a fairly good grasp of basic signs.  I had hoped that Speekee might give them a similar introduction to Spanish.

My kids are 5, 7, 11 and 13, and none of them would watch Speekee voluntarily.  The two older kids, both boys, complained after about 5 minutes into the first video.  My oldest likened watching Speekee to watching Barney.  (He also noted that Speekee, the puppet, was "creepy-looking").  The younger kids, both girls, were frustrated because neither of them can read well enough to follow the captions, but without them felt they didn't have any idea what they were trying to learn.  My youngest watched through most of the videos, and I realized belatedly that she thought the "uno, dos, tres" were colors, not numbers (the characters in the video were counting different colored blocks and balls).  I could sit next to her and translate as they went along, but that seemed to defeat the purpose of the "true immersion" approach.  It was also annoying to constantly have to start/stop the videos.

I think that some of this might be an issue with US culture vs. European culture.  I think that the "puppet" teaching is much more widespread in Europe than it is here.  In the US we seem to stop doing puppet-teaching (if ever) by the time most kids are in kindergarten.  I think it's much more widely used in Europe (I'm thinking of Muzzy, and other videos coming from Europe that use puppets for teaching).

Overall, I think Speekee is a good approach to teaching Spanish.  And from some of my other crew member's reviews, it seems like it works well for many people.  It just wasn't a good fit for us.

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TOS Review: Maestro Classics - Peter and the Wolf

I can't even begin to describe the wonderful memories this simple phrase brings to mind.  I grew up in a household where music was an integral part of our daily lives, and I listened to our well-worn record of this story more times than I can count.  Yes, record.  You know: LPs?  Vinyl?  Or, as another homeschooling parent overheard their child say "a big, old-fashioned CD".   When I was growing up, the record player was our "TV" (we didn't own a television set until I was 15 years old), the records in the cabinet below the speaker were our "favorite programs".  When other people my age reminisce about Smurfs and The Love Boat, I'm thinking about the Fiddler on the Roof and Mother Goose.  And, yes, Peter and the Wolf.

Maestro Classics has done a wonderful job with this offering, which comes on a single CD with a 24 page companion guide.  In addition to the classic narrated Peter and the Wolf story (a wonderful recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra), the CD has stories about Prokofiev, the music of the story, the instrumental-only (no narration) version of the music, and much more.  There's over an hour of goodies on this one CD.  The companion guide offers several fun activities for kids, and a bunch of fascinating information about the composer, instruments, the story, and more.

That's just the beginning.  Maestro Classics offers many other musical stories on CD.  Some seemed quite like obvious selections (Swan Lake, the Sorcerer's Apprentice), and some were quite surprising.  I love the poem Casey at the Bat, and I'm quite curious about how they've set that one to music!  If your curious too, guess what?  You don't have to wait to purchase the CD - you can check out samples of every CD on their website!

We LOVED this one.  There's only one CD, and all four kids have been actually fighting over who gets to listen to it every night.  I finally had to set up a schedule.  The older kids have been fascinated by the information in the companion guide, especially the sections on the musical instruments, which are much different than the ones they're aware of.  My oldest was happy to find the sheet music for Peter's Tune, so he can learn to play it on the piano ("only one hand, though, so I'll have to make up the left hand myself" he told me).  This has made an excellent addition, not just to our "school" or our education efforts, but just to our household in general.  It makes me wish I'd made the effort much sooner to acquaint my kids with the music I grew up with.

The CDs retail for $16.98 each, but right now Maestro Classics is offering a special - 3 CDs for $45, with free shipping, using the coupon code WINTER2010.  Check out their full offerings and poke around the website to listen to samples and learn more about the creators of these awesome CDs.

You can also check out what my other crew members have to say about this CD here.

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

Monday, January 10, 2011

TOS Review: Easy Classical

What's the hardest part of homeschooling four kids?  Most days it's not that hard to get everything in, or work individually with each child.  For me, the hardest part is finding the time to prepare everything.  Last fall, when our school start day was looming just around the corner, I actually had a bit of a breakdown and begged my husband to please take the kids away for an afternoon so I could have 10 minutes to think without interruption in order to get the school schedules put together.  Thankfully, he took that request seriously, and instead of an afternoon, he took the kids for a whole weekend and went to the Creation Museum and Newport Aquarium, giving me a full 72 hours of uninterrupted planning time.

During that time, I contemplated - but ultimately decided against - putting together a classical study schedule for history.  I had picked up Susan Wise Bauer's and Jessie Wise's The Well-Trained Mind several years ago and I was excited by what I learned.  The classical education model that she was presenting sounded wonderful, but the idea of implementing it sounded...well, impossible.  Even with 72 hours to work on it.  Classical education? GREAT!  Time, energy, resources needed to plan classical education?  More than I can handle!
Enter Easy Classical - all the concepts of a classical education without the hours of prep work.  Easy Classical provides all the schedules, writing guides, copybooks, and geography curriculum and integrates them for ease of use and increased retention.  Easy Classical is the perfect solution for families that want to follow the Well-Trained Mind's classical education model, but don't have the time/energy/comfort level to figure out how to implement it for themselves.
I received the Early Modern History schedule to review.  EVERYTHING has been done for you.  All that's left is to follow the instructions.  Here are a just a few of the many questions that Easy Classical answers for you:
  • What curriculum do I use?
    • Not only does Easy Classical outline the entire list of books and other supplementary materials needed, but they tell you where to find each and every item
  • What do I do each day?
    • Easy Classical provides a detailed daily schedule to follow
  • How do I keep track of what we're doing?
    • The daily schedule has space to check items off as they're completed
  • How do I know which parts of the curriculum are most important?
    • The schedule reminders indicate the important parts of each week's curriculum
  • How do I make sure I'm prepared for each week's lesson?
    • The schedule shows everything you need, including the next week's shopping list, giving you plenty of time to prepare
And that's just a sample.  Speaking of sample, Easy Classical offers lots of samples on their website to give you a good idea of what each product offers.  Here are just a few of the samples offered for the Early Modern History schedule:
Sample Introduction Pages
Sample History Schedule Pages
Sample Lesson Pages
Early Modern History Curriculum and Books

The Early Modern History Schedule is offered in two formats:  The Notebook Version, for $35.95 and the Digital Version for $29.95.

Additionally, Easy Classical offers complete grade-level schedules, Writing with History, Geography with History, and Science schedules.

I think Easy Classical is the perfect answer for families that want to follow the classical education model, but are unable to put together their own curriculum (for whatever reason).  The schedules are the perfect answer for busy homeschooling moms!

Want to see what other crew members have to say about Easy Classical?  Check out their reviews here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary digital version of Easy Classical's Early Modern History schedule in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

TOS Review: Math Facts NOW!

I've probably mentioned this before, but I've been seriously spoiled by my firstborn.  Read early, learns easily, interested and dedicated...  I figured all kids were like this, but then along came the other three.

If Ryan learned his math facts easily, then Aaron is the polar opposite.  He fights me every step of the way, and nothing I've tried so far has really been "his thing".  I've lamented over and over that someone needs to write a computer (because Aaron learns best using the aural/visual/kinetic environment of computer learning) program that teaches and drills the math facts.  But not just that.  It needs to keep track of what the child is and isn't learning.  It needs to be a lot more than that, but those things are the basics.

And Math Facts NOW! does a pretty good job of covering the basics.

Math Facts NOW! is not a game, it isn't full of sound effects and cheesy music.  It's a straight up math fact drill program that you get to control.  The program can be purchased via online download ($15.95) or on a CD ($15.95 plus $3.95 shipping).  You install it on the computer in less than 5 minutes and then go through a very simple setup.  You can input as many children's names as you'd like, and then you can set up the lessons you want each child to work on.  You can choose from addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  After that, you choose the numbers you want the child to work on.  Then you get to choose how many seconds they get to input each answer, how many times they have to re-do a problem they get wrong, and how many problems they have to get correct to finish that lesson.  The best part is that you then get to decide whether they earn a reward for doing that lesson, and what the reward is (something you give them).

I like the idea of rewards and it definitely appeals to Aaron as a "learning tool".  We decided that I would assign 25-problems at a time, and each lesson he completes earns him 5 pieces of a LEGO set.  He can try to earn a 50-piece set, or he can work towards a gigantic 1000+-piece set, if he wants.  When he passed the 50-piece set in one day and kept going, I was pretty sure that he was willing to do the thing he hates (work on math facts) to earn the thing he really wants (big LEGO sets).  This is unprecentented!  I couldn't PAY him (yes, embarrassingly, I tried) to listen to the math facts CDs I purchased, and no amount of bribing (embarrassed again) with Nintendo DS or Wii time would induce him to play the math facts games I'd bought.

Anyway, after you set all this up, the child can open the program, select their name, and then select their lesson and get going.  Once they've finished, the program records the lesson results, including the time and date they completed the lesson, how long it took them, how many they answered correctly, how many they answered correctly, how many they answered too slowly and the average time it took them to do each problem.  You can print these results, if you want.  You also have the option of viewing a progress report on each child, which details this same information for ALL the lessons in one place.

Overall, this is a very good, inexpensive tool for children to work on their math facts.  I had just a couple minor issues.  One, when the child gets a wrong answer, they have to input the correct answer a minimum of 2 times before they can continue.  But they don't just re-answer the question, they actually have to type out the entire equation.  If they miss 11+3=, for example, they don't just re-type 14.  They have to type out 11+3=14.  My 11-year-old is not familiar enough with the computer keyboard that typing the symbols is easy for him.  It would be nice if they only had to input the numbers and the symbols were already in place.  The other thing I would like is if each child, once they select themselves as the user, would only see their assigned lessons.  Right now the child selects his name, then selects a lesson, but the lesson list shows ALL lessons that have been created on that computer.  I've "fixed" this issue by naming each lesson with the child's name and a number (Aaron1, Aaron2, etc).  So it would be nice but it isn't by any means necessary.

Interested in finding out more about Math Facts NOW!?  Click over to their website and check out their free trial or click over here to find out what the rest of the crew thought about it.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary download of Math Facts NOW! 2.0 in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.