Homeschool Posts

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Before Five in a Row

Ever been Rowing? That's a term used by veteran users of Five in A Row, a curriculum developed by homeschooler Jane Claire Lambert. The concept is this: Each week you use a different book, reading it once each day, and your other studies (including social studies, science, art, etc.) are centered around that book for the week. It's essentially a year of week-long literature-based unit studies. And just for the little ones (ages 2-4) they now have Before Five in a Row.

Before Five in a Row is intended to be "a treasury of creative ideas to inspire learning readiness," or a gentle way to guide your little ones to make connections in their world in the areas of language, literature, science, art, music, math, history, and more. It should be noted that this is in no way a rigorous or formal curriculum, more a guide of ideas for activities to help engage young children and keep learning fun. The book is divided into 2 sections: Stories and Activities, and Parent's Treasury of Creative Ideas for Learning Readiness.

The first section, the bulk of the book, presents 24 different picture books, each with a week's worth of activities centered around that book. You'll read Blueberries for Sal and make a plenty of noise counting, adding and subtracting by dropping toys into a tin pail. You'll read Good Night Moon and make cards of animals for a classification game. You'll read The ABC Bunny and talk about awesome weather events like lightning, clouds and hail. Each book is accompanied with a 1/2 dozen to a dozen short, little activities to try out with your child. The great part is that, other than the guide itself and the books, you only need common household items, toys, and sometimes the great outdoors to do the activities.

The second part of the book is filled with physical activities and games you can play with your child to promote developmental skills like reading readiness, coordination, large motor skills, small motor skills and more. Just little extras to do on a rainy (or sub-zero) day, or to help get some of the extra wiggles out.

The whole Five in a Row (FIAR) concept intrigued me when I first heard about it, so I was eager to receive Before FIAR and try it out for myself. I found implementing it to be a little more difficult than I had supposed, though---I couldn't get the books, not without buying them, that is. We own a couple of the books and our local library has couple of the books. Some might be available through inter-library loan and I'm sure that I could buy some used, but by golly we are simply overrun with children's books in this house:-) I do believe, after reading through Before FIAR and trying it out, it would be fairly simple to modify some of the activities given or even come up with your own using the same principles to fit with whatever books you happen to have. In other words, I think this book is a good springboard for creativity in developing your own toddler-friendly mini-units, even if you can't get the specific books used in it.

As for the second section of the book, it's filled with good ideas, but our family didn't get much use out of it simply because these are things we already do. Some examples: mixing and pouring, pounding box, singing, making musical instruments, skipping and galloping, balancing, fact, I find that if I let them be, my kiddos do all these things on their own without my guidance at all. This section reads a little more like a manual for first-time parents, pointing out the value of these activities that our children discover naturally and the learning opportunities that they provide. It can be a valuable and encouraging resource for new parents or for those considering homeschooling when their children are still quite young.

Before Five in a Row (149 pages) is available from for $24.95. They also have an active community of Five in a Row users eager to share ideas and activities.

To read other reviews of this book and reviews of Five in a Row (ages 4-8) and Beyond Five in a a Row (ages 8-12), click the banner below:

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of this book. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cadron Creek Press: Going Further Up and In with C.S. Lewis

I love the concept of unit studies. The idea of incorporating all the main subjects into one central theme gets me every time and the kiddos love to see how everything can come together. The first year we started homeschooling, we started during the summer with a mini-unit study I created on Daniel Boone. It was a wonderful, gentle way for David to transition from going to school and it really had him hooked on learning! He even enjoyed the "Daniel Boone Math" word problems I made up for him. The year went on with more history-based unit studies, and it was a lot of fun, but also a lot of planning and work for me.

I was so excited to get the opportunity to review a literature-based unit study from Cadron Creek Press. Further Up and Further In by Diane Pendergraft is a year-long study based on the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, a perennial favorite in this house. What could be better than the type of curriculum we love using, books that we love with all the planning already done?

Each of the 7 Chronicles is studied in this curriculum, reading a chapter a day, 4 chapters each week, taking an average of a month per book. It is designed for grades 4-8, but can be modified to use with younger or older children. The introduction states:

Further Up and Further In is a well-rounded scholastic program needing only math, grammar, and a spelling curricula to complete the student's course work.

The description on Cadron Creek's website differs a bit from that:

Supplemental studies in history, math, grammar, and spelling are recommended to fill out the program.

I'll talk a bit more about what the program actually covers in a bit.

Further Up and Further In starts with the Magician's Nephew. Now, there's a little bit of controversy over what order these novels should be read in...I won't really go into that here, but we decided to start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LW&W), the first book published in the series. While Further Up and Further In does recommend that you read the books in the order the unit uses since material from previous books will be referred to periodically, I found displacing one book to not be a real problem with a little planning.

The study is well organized: each week of the unit begins with a planning guide that gives you a breakdown of the materials and resources to collect, followed by any worksheets provided for that week. I would highly recommend reading through all the planning guides for each book before starting it so you'll have plenty of time to order books through inter-library loan, to find some unusual resources (videos on ice fishing, for example), and to plan field trips. After the week's planning guide, you will find study guides for each chapter.

Each chapter's study guide typically starts a vocabulary section which introduces new (or unusual) words that will be present in that chapter. For the unit study, your child will start his own vocabulary notebook where he can enter these words after looking them up in the dictionary. There is usually a vocabulary activity of some kind as well, like filling in blanks with the correct word.

After the vocabulary, the other activities for the chapter are divided up by subject. You'll find Art, Bible, History, English, Geography, Science, Critical Thinking, Life Skills (like cooking) and even suggested field trips listed. At times the smorgasboard of activities and suggested research topics can seem a bit overwhelming. At other times the suggestions can see a bit underwhelming. The last week, for instance, of The Lion, LW&W has very little to it at all except for Bible and Critical Thinking.

The subjects tend to jump around a good deal as well. For example, because LW&W begins with Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy being evacuated from WWII London, the first week's history assignment involves learning about the evacuation of London's children during WWII. Then, a week later, when a character in the book who comes from Norse mythology is introduced, you study Norse mythology. And finally, towards the end of the book when Peter and Edmund have been knighted and all four children eventually take their thrones, you study knights and castles in the Middle Ages. The only organizing principle here is the events of the novel itself.

The science studies are very similar in nature and generally involve looking up something in the encyclopedia. Now, don't get me wrong, the encyclopedia can be a valuable resource for quick information, but there's a wealth of information to be had both from your local library and from the internet...not to mention ideas for activities, hands-on experiences and experiments. And while some of the art activities are fun little doodads, for the most part they are not designed to increase the student's appreciation of art or knowledge and understanding of art elements or techniques.

What I found, with the exception of the Bible and literature, was that in general the studies were a smattering of this and a smattering of that...nothing in depth, no chronology, no real organizing principle except when a concept happened to present itself in one of the novels. While I still love teh idea of a unit study based on the Chronicles, this just doesn't seem to be meaty enough for the 4th-8th grade range it's intended for. The Bible and literature discussions are a good start. If I wanted to use this for a year-long curriculum, I would do one of 2 things:
  1. Use it as a literature/Bible study separate from my other subjects, or
  2. Go through it book by book and write out my own plan, choosing which historical era to cover for each book, choosing a particular topic (or topics) in science for each book, etc. for all the subjects so that the studies could be more in-depth rather than just touching the surface. There's no reason why these subjects can't be incorporated into the curriculum. But it would take time to track down resources and to plan it out. Further Up and Further In does give me a good starting point for this and saves me the trouble of rereading all of the novels first in order to decide what to cover.
I would probably also speed up the pace at which we read the novels and add more literature (either contemporary to Lewis or appropriate to the historical era we were studying at the time) to the mix. The Chronicles beg to be read more quickly than a chapter a day:-)

Further Up and Further In can be purchased from Cadron Creek Press either as a paperback ($56.00) or spiral-bound ($62.00).

For other reviews of this curriculum or of Cadron Creek's award-winning Prairie Primer (Little House unit-study) and Where the Brook and River Meet (Anne of Green Gables unit-study), click the banner below:

Heads UP!

One of the great things about the TOS Crew is getting to try out things that I never knew existed. These colored frames and readers from Heads Up! are a great example of that. Heads Up! is a company that specializes in products intended to help children (and adults) with learning challenges. While their product line is full a neat items designed to help especially with distractibility and hyperactivity, I think you'll find that many of these items will work very well for any child. You'll also find links to articles and resources on their website.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received samples of their Heads Up! Readers, Heads Up! Top of the Line (Size 2-3/8" by 8"), Heads Up Double-Time (Size 2-3/8" by 8") and Heads Up! small (Size 4" x 4-1/2") and large (Size 4" x 9") Frames, all in multiple colors. All of these products have translucent, colored windows designed for reading text through.

The idea is that that bright color draws your child's attention to that part of the page to help reduced distractions caused by other parts of the page. Wonderful for teaching phonics, whether or not your child has learning challenges! Also wonderful for older eyes trying to concentrate on too- small type.

Now, if they could find a way to do this for computer screens, I'd be forever grateful!

Mary chose the pink reader because pink is her favorite color, but some people will find that particular colors are easier on their eyes for various reasons, so the variety of colors helps you to decide what works best for you. The Frames can be used for reading math problems or for dividing pages up into sections for the child who is easily overwhelmed by a page of word problems.

Click on the pictures or word links for more information about each product, or visit the Heads Up! website to see their other products.

For more review of these products by other homeschoolers, click the link below:

Math Tutor---It works!

To tell the truth, I never really gave much thought to math tutoring programs...they always seemed so dry and lifeless. After all, why have a pre-recorded "tutor" teach your child when he can have you in the flesh and plenty of manipulatives to work with? And looking at the Math Tutor DVDs I received to review as a member of the TOS homeschool crew, at first I didn't see much to change this opinion. Here's a math teacher, Jason Gibson, obviously very well qualified with all the credentials, standing in front of a white board with his black dry-erase marker and explaining how to do word problems. He misspeaks a few times, seems a bit nervous...what's the big deal?

Then I showed my 8-year-old son the Algebra 2 DVD...

And, his first reaction is, "Ehhh Math!"

I told him he didn't have to do anything, just sit down and watch the DVD with me and let me know what he thinks. About 5-10 minutes in he said: "Can you pause it for a minute? I want to write some of this down?"

"Sure, go ahead and bring in the white board." He dragged the white board into the living room and set it up near the TV.

The next thing I knew he was drawing his graph and plotting lines along with Mr. Gibson. For each new example, I paused the DVD and David figured his coordinates for the line equation and then plotted them on the graph. Then I played the DVD, we watched Mr. Gibson finish up the example, and David checked his answers.

After a while David said, "Mom, can we stop now? I want to go plot some lines on paper so I can keep them!"

So, how's that for turning a math hater into a math groupie? Not a miracle exactly, but I'm convinced Math Tutor has got something here. And the funny thing is, I think the nervousness and imperfections actually help the overall presentation. It's a confidence builder for children when they can do something better than the "teacher" can. David was delighted that he could draw a straighter graph that went up to higher numbers than the one Mr. Gibson drew on the DVD. And whether your children notice and point out little mistakes (in the Math Problems DVD, the instructor will very occasionally say the wrong number, though he writes it correctly) is actually a good way to see if they are paying attention and help engage them in the math dialog.

Mr. Gibson also does a good job of explaining the problems in simple, easy-to-understand terms and uses many, many examples of varying difficulty. Too many examples for you? Just skip ahead to next topic. I do especially like the fact that, with a little ingenuity, the DVDs can be used as self-checking exercises for extra practice.

The Basic Math Word Problem Tutor, priced at $26.99, is an 8 hour Video Course on 2 discs that covers the following topics:

Disc 1
  • Adding Whole Numbers
  • Subtracting Whole Numbers
  • Multiplying Whole Numbers
  • Dividing Whole Numbers
  • Adding Decimals
  • Subtracting Decimals
  • Multiplying Decimals
  • Dividing Decimals

Disc 2

  • Adding Fractions
  • Subtracting Fractions
  • Multiplying Fractions
  • Dividing Fractions
  • Percents
  • Ratio and Proportion
This DVD set is designed to provide extra help with word is not designed to replace a basic math curriculum. While basic operations are used in the examples, they are not explained in depth. There is a Basic Math Tutor set available.

Ordinarily, I don't think much of separating word problems out from "regular" math (after all, the whole point of understanding mathematical concepts is to be able to use math in real life---i.e. word problems). I also don't think much of dividing word problems into particular types. Determining what operations to perform involves critical thinking and understanding what is being asked, not following certain rules. However, I still think the self-checking possibilities of using these DVDs for extra practice in understanding how word problems work make this set a valuable resource. You can very easily play the original problem, pause it and have your child reason out the problem, and then play Mr. Gibson's explanation. Not only will your child see if his answer is correct, but he'll get a full explanation of how to arrive at the correct answer.

The Algebra 2 Tutor, also priced at $26.99, is a 6-hour course on 2 discs and covers the following topics:

Disc 1

  • Graphing Equations
  • The Slope of a Line
  • Writing Equations of Lines
  • Graphing Inequalities
  • Solving Systems of Equations by Graphing
  • Solving Systems of Equations by Substitution
  • Solving Systems of Equations by Addition

Disc 2

  • Solving Systems of Equations in Three Variables
  • Simplifying Radical Expressions
  • Add/Subtract Radical Expressions
  • Multiply/Divide Radical Expressions
  • Solving Equations with Radicals
  • Fractional Exponents
  • Solving Polynomial Equations
  • The Quadratic Formula
Again, these is not a complete course in Algebra 2, but it does cover and give numerous examples of many of the most important topics.

To see the other topics available or to look at screen shots from the actual DVDs, take a jump over to And for more reviews of these products by other homeschoolers, click the banner below:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pinewood Derby 2009

David's a proud derby car engineer.
Notice the cool cutout at the nose of the car.

Peter acted out his own car race.

Mary spent some time with her friend Avery
and her VERY realistic baby boy "Tom."
More than one person thought our baby
had been born early.

I don't know who these cars belong to...but it's a cool picture!

Can you pick David out of the pack?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Let's Sing About the Bible

Looking for something to play for the kiddos on those long car trips that's fun, educational and guaranteed to be unoffensive? Give Bible Story Songs a try. I recently received for review The Bible CD, a full hour of songs about the Bible and what it's all about. The CD contains 32 tracks, each only a couple of minutes long, including songs to help memorize the books of the Bible (both new and old testament).

The CD is of professional quality and the songs are performed by a choir of children, with each song being introduced by a child giving a short intro or "blurb." Sound-wise, the quality is good, with the exception being an obvious difference in volume between the intros and the songs themselves ( the intros can be a little hard to hear). The songs are not gimmicky and there are no electric guitars or anything like that. It can be difficult to make out the words if you are in a room with a lot of background noise (emanating from your own children, for instance), but the CD comes with a booklet containing all the words to the songs so you can follow along. There is also sheet music available.

Let me say that these are light, airy songs, nothing profound or particularly enlightening. They may serve well as an aid to memory for certain Bible verses, and if you want your children to learn the names of the books of the Bible in order, they can help with that, too. My children were not particularly interested in the songs and I personally found that they kind of disappeared into the background, but then perhaps we've been ruined by listening to too much of The Beatles and Louis Prima:-)

One note: The creators do not state they are of a particular denomination, nor could I find a mention of what Bible translation they are working from. For more info in this line, see their about us page.

The CD sells for $9.99 and there are volume discounts available. There are also other CDs available, including Moses, Matthew, and David.

To see more reviews of these CDs, click the banner below:

The Bridge to the Latin Road

The Bridge to the Latin Road
by Barbara Beers is a complete English grammar program designed for grades 3-6 and intended to bridge the gap between Beers' The Phonics Road and The Latin Road. As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I was given the opportunity to try out The Bridge with my 3rd grader, David.

First, let me say this: If you are looking to teach your young ones Latin at an early age, that is not the intent of this program. The Latin in The Bridge is limited to learning Latin roots, suffixes and prefixes, a feature that you might expect to find in any thorough English grammar program. The intent of The Bridge is to get your child ready to tackle The Latin Road (or really any other Latin program) by giving him a strong background and understanding in English grammar. You can see the scope and sequence of the program here.

In our kit, we received the teacher's guide (in a 3-ring binder), student notebook (in a 3-ring binder), 6 DVDs, designing cards, the verb memory game, 3 pencils (1 regular, 1 red, and 1 blue) and a scaffolding ruler (used for "scaffolding" or diagramming sentences). The student notebook is meant to be consumable, so you will need one student notebook for each student.

Note: The binders given with the materials are definitely inadequate. They are 1-1/2" (too small for the materials they contain) and not heavy-duty (mine are already falling apart after only a few months). The first thing I would do upon receiving the program would be to replace the binders with 2" heavy-duty binders.

Let's take a look at the program itself:
In the teacher's guide, you will find pockets with your DVDs and then 3 tabs: Framing Codes, Sentences to Analyze, and Designing Codes. The Framing Codes section also contains the daily schedule, which is divided up into 36 weeks with lessons for 4 days each week. There is room to take notes here, and you'll want to take plenty. The program is not really designed to be "pick-up and teach." The DVDs contain instructions for the lessons organized by the week. So each week, you'll want to sit down and watch the DVD track/tracks for that week ahead of time. Each video consists of the author, Barbara Beers, showing you the sheets that will be used for that lesson and explaining how they are to be used. For some lessons, she will also sing a "grammar tune" to be introduced (little memory aids set to familiar tunes).

While the copy on the website states that the DVDs can be watched by teacher and student side-by-side, and that the videos will teach the lessons, I found the videos better suited to preparing you, the teacher, to give the lesson. The DVDs were helpful to me for showing me what sheets were to be used and how, but I did run into some situations where the sheet shown on the video did not match up with the sheet in my materials (a different edition, perhaps?), causing some confusion. There are also instances where Ms. Beers would refer to a sheet from the previous program (The Phonics Road) in passing and I would have to decipher what was meant, since I don't have access to that program. The Bridge is supposed to be a stand-alone program, so I think some improvements could be made there. Overall, though, the combination of teacher's notes and videos did leaving me feeling fully prepared to teach each lesson. No being left in the dark or figuring it out for yourself. And what comes next is clearly spelled out for you, so, while it does require some prep work on your part, the program is very easy to follow.

The worksheets themselves require a good bit of writing on the part of the student, including taking dictation, creating sentences, writing definitions and "marking up" sentences to show different parts of speech. I really appreciated the fact that lessons are broken down into 4-day weeks, giving us some wiggle room. The lessons are designed, however, to be about an hour long each. This might be a bit long for some, even if you count it as handwriting practice as well. I found that I needed to cut down the daily expectations to about half for my reluctant writer. An older student with no writing difficulties could definitely complete the lessons in less than the prescribed hour, but this is something that will vary from child to child. For younger students, splitting the daily lessons in half and taking 2 years to complete the program should work quite well.

The overall program is pretty systematic in covering the different parts of speech and how they work together ("framing codes"---think of it in terms of building a house) and latin roots ("designing codes"---you've got to add the extras after you've got the frame up:-) A child who completes this program will have a very firm grasp of English grammar. But, there are some awkward areas in the program that could use some work. One example is the treatment of "noun objects." From the very beginning, the child is asked to circle noun objects in their sentences, and yet direct and indirect objects (and the other roles of the noun besides being a subject) are not really explained until about halfway through the course...a little frustrating and confusing. I chose to give David a working definition early on and then review it in depth later when we come to it. Another good reason to read through your teacher's notes and view the DVDs, so you know what to expect.

While the sheets in each section are numbered, you will find that the lessons take you back and forth through the sheets, and it's very easy to get lost. The idea is that your child will have a ready grammar reference to refer back to in later years, rather than just a mass of papers to dig through, so, while the lessons build on each other incrementally, the pages themselves are organized differently. I found that the best way for me to keep on top of this was to review the teaching notes the night before, then clip the pages together with a large black binder clip to the page we would be doing the next day (in both the teacher's guide and the student's notebook) we were automatically on the same page. I happened to have the clips, but flags, post-its, books marks or some other creative innovation would work just as well.

And will we continue to use it after the review period? Not at this time. Though I think it's a good program overall, I found it to be a little too rigid for our homeschooling style. David is gifted in language and has a good intuitive sense of the elements of grammar. At this point I prefer to reinforce those skills with reading and copying good literature (in other words using good grammar), rather than filling out worksheets. We will revisit this curriculum at some point in the future, perhaps in 5th or 6th grade if I find that a more formal approach is needed.

The Bridge to the Latin Road is available from Schola Publications for $139.00. Additional student packages are available for $39.00.

To see reviews of this program and of The Phonics Road and The Latin Road, click the banner below:

Little Mama

Little Tom Beddy-Bye demands a lot of his Mama's attention
(except when he he's being changed by his "Grandma," that is).
He also gets dropped a lot.
So, I made Mary her own baby sling.

If there's enough interest, I'll post some rather sketchy instructions on how to make a baby doll sling for the "Little Mama" in your life (I kinda winged it based on slings I've made for myself), but you should be able to Google it (did you ever think that would be a verb?). I'd love to hear about little ones caring for their little leave me a comment:-)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ROCKET your way through reading

Mary just celebrated her 5th birthday last month and is soooo ready to read. At just about the same time, I found out I would be receiving a complete phonics program from Rocket Phonics to use and review for the TOS Homeschool Crew. Woohoo, how's that for timing!

The complete Rocket Phonics Kit comes with 2 spiral-bound books, 2 decks of sound cards, bingo chips, a "peeker," and extras including more games (like treasure hunts!). With your purchase, you will also receive periodic emails with even more resources which include more games and helps. The entire program is non-consumable, so you can use it with all your children, and you won't even need to make copies.

Rocket Phonics is based on an ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) where the student is taught that a particular letter (or pair of letters together) make 1 particular sound. For example, in Rocket Phonics, "a" makes the short "a" sound. For the long "a" sound they use "ay." In cases where words are "non-phonetic" (meaning that they don't fit the ITA), the words will be presented in the book with "helpers" beneath them to prompt the child with the correct sound.

I haven't yet formed an opinion on the use of an ITA for phonics instruction. My gut instinct on this topic has always been that it's a bad idea, after all, at some point the child needs to stop relying on "helpers" to sound out the words... will she be able to make that transition? At the same time, I've seen first-hand how difficult it can be for children to master the multiple sounds that letters can make (particularly the vowels) and the confusion it can cause when trying to figure it all I was willing to give it a whirl.

We've dabbled in phonics before now, in fact I've mentioned some things in previous blog posts that have helped Mary become more aware of phonemes. She's very aware that letters are just symbols that represent particular sounds, but any attempts to teach Mary how to sound out words using beginning readers has been met with the ole "this is boring" or "this is too harrrrd" complaints. So, how to make it fun? Mary likes to copy letters that Mommy writes out for her, but tracing letters in oatmeal or shaping strings of beads into letters just isn't her thing, though we do play lots of rhyming games.

Rocket Phonics tries to put the fun back into learning phonemes through games and activities. You start by learning individual sounds while playing bingo. Bingo?! Yes, bingo. And, believe it or not, Mary actually looks forward to playing those bingo games and playing fish with letter sounds. So far, she's doing quite well with the program and is taking the initiative in sounding out words for herself with little or no prompting. She is blending her sounds and comprehending the words she is short, she's making real progress.

I do have a couple of issues with the program so far that I'll briefly mention here. The kit comes with playing cards that have the letter symbols on them and pictures to remind the child of the sound the symbol makes. For example, the "t" card has a picture of a tiger. There is some inconsistency with these as some of the letters are not for the initial sound of the picture words. One example is the card for "u," which has a picture of a duck. It would have been simple to use an umbrella, for instance.

The other thing is that Mary does not like the "peeker." This is a piece of cardstock with a rocket printed on it that has a small window in it. The idea is that you use it so the child can only see the word they are sounding out and not be distracted by the other words on the page. Mary finds it disorienting not to be able to see where she's at on the page, so we've opted for using a ruler or similar tool so she can see the entire line.

We are still in the beginning stages of this program, so the transition from the ITA is not yet an issue. We'll continue to use the program as long as Mary is benefitting from it, so I'm giving it a tentative "thumbs up" at this point. Since the entire program is designed to get your child up to a 5th grade level, I've been asked to revisit Mary's progress with it over the next several months, so be on the look-out:-)

In the meantime, check out the Rocket Phonics website for more information. The cost of the complete program (and remember, it's completely non-consumable) is $160.

For reviews of this program by other homeschoolers, click the banner below:

Monday, February 16, 2009

My "Aliens"

Peter likes to walk around the house
with one of Mary's headbands over his eyes saying,
"I am an alien from life"
in a robot voice, of course.

One of Mary's favorite pastimes
(in addition to playing dress-up)
Is making poofy skirts over the vents.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The ABCs of Homeschooling

Thinking about taking a leap into teaching your children and not sure how to begin? Or maybe you know a family just starting out who could use a little more support and reassurance? Consider looking into Homeschooling ABCs, a weekly class designed to help guide you through the maze of curriculum, schedules and challenges one step at a time. If you sign up for the ABCs, each week you'll receive a friendly email from Terri Johnson of Knowledge Quest with instructions on how to download that week's lesson. The beginning lessons start with the basics and are designed to help you get started right away:

Lesson A- 10 Steps to a Great Start in Homeschooling
Lesson B- Let's Begin with the Basics
Lesson C- Copy the Classroom-Not!
Lesson D- Dare to Differentiate
Lesson E- Establish YOUR Philosophy of Education
Lesson F- Finding the Best Curriculum for Your Family

As you move through the lessons and gain more confidence, the topics become more focused on various specific aspects of homeschooling, including particular subjects and challenges that we face day-to-day:

Lesson J- Just Say "No"-Staying Focused and On-Track
Lesson O- Out the Door-Time for a Field Trip!
Lesson Q- The Quintessential Expression of Art & Music

Each lesson starts with a reminder of what was covered the previous week and a glance at some of the coming topics so you know where you're at. At the end of each lesson you'll find links to previous lessons in case you missed any or somehow misplaced them on your hard-drive. The lessons are short and can either be read on your computer or printed out and tucked into a binder. Many of the lessons have embedded links to resources on the internet or curriculum add-ons that have been provided free-of-charge to you the subscriber. For example, Lesson H (for Hands-on) comes with 2 free downloads of project packs from Hands of a Child. So, not only do you get a wealth of information and encouragement on how to begin homeschooling, you also get some goodies to add to your resource stash!

Homeschooling ABCs is a little like getting a 26-chapter beginning homeschool resource book in little, non-overwhelming bites. You can read a few pages a week and do your "homework" assignment (each lesson has an assignment to help you incorporate that week's reading into your overall homeschool plan), and before you know it, you'll be in the groove.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I've had the opportunity to follow the class for the past few months. Overall, I've enjoyed Terri's light, yet informative, writing style and the logical progression of topics. Yes, you could purchase a book that covers the same material, read it in a weekend and then...let's face it, be totally overwhelmed! There are so many aspects to consider when educating your children at home, so many things that seem equally important and urgent, that it's very easy to lose your way in the maze that first year. This is a gentle, gradual way of starting out with plenty of encouragement along the way.

I do have one caveat: The early lessons seem to assume that you are starting with very young children. Here's an example from Lesson A: ...types of flowers can become the spelling words (ie: rose, tulip, chrysanthemum – just kidding on the last one!) The joke is misplaced here, obviously there are plenty of children just beginning to homeschool for whom chrysanthemum would be a perfectly appropriate spelling word. I know parents who have started homeschooling pre-teens and teenagers due to problems at school. I myself started homeschooling my son for 2nd grade. If I had given my son rose as a spelling word in 2nd grade, he would have rolled his eyes at me. But, don't let this dissuade you from considering this class if your children are older and you are just starting out. The suggestions themselves are perfectly sound and the tendency to aim them at parents of very young children is not present throughout. This is simply a case of knowing your child's abilities and working with them, something that we all do every day. If you understand the premise behind the suggestions, you can certainly modify them for any age group.

Homeschooling ABCs is a 6 month long class. Cost is $10 per month. Once you sign up and pay your initial $10, you will receive your first lesson---no waiting for class to start! Thereafter, your credit card will automatically be billed $10/month for 5 months. Not quite sure if it's for you? Try out the 5-day "mini-class:" 5 Ways to Know That You Are on the Right Track!
And, if you try it and don't like it, there's a 60-day money-back guarantee.

To read reviews of this product by other homeschoolers, click the banner below:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Math Mammoth

Math instruction can be divided into 2 different approaches: spiral and mastery. Most math programs go for the spiral approach: introducing topics a teeny bit at a time, over and over again, a little more each time. The idea is that every topic will be taught and reviewed several times during the course of the child's education, so if he doesn't get it the first time, he'll surely get it the umpteenth time. One day you might do addition, the next telling time and the next volume measurement. There's a lot of review and a lot of exercises.

The other method is mastery. Topics are introduced in large chunks at an appropriate time in the child's intellectual development. Using this method, your child might spend a couple of weeks learning to tell time to the minute (including how many minutes till the next hour, how many minutes past the hour, quarter till, half-past, etc.), figuring passage of time, and reading a calendar, before moving on to the next topic. This is the approach that Maria Miller takes with her program Math Mammoth.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I was asked to try out the Grade 2 full math curriculum from Math Mammoth's Light Blue Series. I chose this level after having 8-year-old David take the placement test. David's one weak subject is math (partly because he absolutely hates workbooks and textbooks) and this is an area I've been striving to get him caught up in this year. After he completed the placement test, I decided that the Grade 2 curriculum would present enough of a challenge to keep him engaged without overwhelming him.

The year's curriculum is divided into 2 worktexts: 2-A consists of 136 pages and 2-B consists of 143 pages. You can see the table of contents and some sample pages for each here and here. These are worktexts, not workbooks, and include full explanations of each concept---no additional textbook is needed. They are designed to be used by the student independently, or you can read the text parts together before he attacks the practice problems, or even help him with the problems. In other words, the degree of teacher involvement is up to you.

The texts can be purchased as a download, on cd or as a printed workbook with cd. We received the download version. This is a color text, not full-color with photographs, but color is used for many of the diagrams. Some of it is unnecessary, and you can print those pages in black and white, but there are other pages that are much more effective with color. Generally, I try to avoid printing worksheets in color if at all possible (the ink for my Cannon printer is just too expensive), but I've found myself relenting in many cases for this text.

The method of presentation gives your child a solid foundation and builds up gradually to mastery of the topic. There are plenty of practice problems for each topic and each type of problem is presented in several different ways to promote true understanding and mastery. I am really quite impressed with how thorough the program is. There have been a few occasions where the instructions given for a particular set of problems were unclear (both to David and to myself), and more than one possible solution was possible depending upon your interpretation. A glance at the answer sheet cleared it up.

When we first started the curriculum, there were some grumbles, but now David likes the challenge of trying to complete his math error-free before sister completes her phonics lesson. Nothing like a little bit of competition to get a boy moving! We also change the routine some days and do the day's lesson together or I have David do the problems orally. The curriculum does not contain drills, so you may want to supplement with your favorite drilling method.

There are two caveats I have for this program. First, 2nd grade does not cover Roman numerals at all. It's possible this is covered in one of the other years (I don't know), but if you want your 2nd grader to know Roman numerals, you'll need to add it in. There are actually plenty of free resources for this available online. Secondly, and this is probably more important, you will need to review what your child has already mastered periodically. You know the old adage: "If you don't use it, you'll lose it." While there is a review at the end of each section, it's important to have your chld continually use these new skills so they are not forgotten. I prefer to do this with real life examples rather than worksheets, and that works really well for us.

The 2nd Grade complete curriculum from Math Mammoth is available:
As a download for $27
On CD for $32
On CD with printed worktexts for $54
For a list of other grades in the Light Blue Series click here.

Also available from Math Mammoth are workbooks organized by grade or topic that target particular concepts that your child might need additional help in if they are just not getting it with your regular math curriculum. For a complete explanation of all the products available from Math Mammoth, check out the homepage.

And for more reviews of this and other Math Mammoth products, click the banner below:

OK, Now I'm a Tea Snob!

So what's that weird looking contraption in my tea cup, you ask? It is a "deep infuser." It actually goes almost to the bottom of the cup and will fit in your teapot as well. Loose tea needs room to swim to develop all the of the many things I learned about tea at a recent tea party hosted by a homeschooling friend of mine. The tea and the info were presented by Jenni Binder, owner of Countryside Tea Room.

I've never drank so much tea in one afternoon in my life! For those of you who buy your tea in bags from Walmart (yep, that was me, too), you're probably wondering "what's the big deal?" Tea is tea, right? Try some of "Richard's Raspberry Chai": Indian tea, cloves, ginger, cardamon, pepper, cinnamon, raspberry leaf, raspberries, carrots, hibiscus, eldeberries, and bilberries. Add a tiny bit of raw sugar and a couple of teaspoons of half-n-half, and you've got heaven in a cup.

And unlike your paper teabags that you use once and toss, high-quality loose tea can be refreshed...a heaping spoonful will get you through your morning and you won't be full of jitters (all the caffeine is in the first cup)! One bag of loose tea for $7.99 will get you a lot farther than your 20 bag box of Celestial Seasonings, so the price is quite reasonable. Standard shipping is $3.50 and orders over $50 get free shipping! Be sure to check out Countryside Tea Room.

Disclosure: This post is uncompensated and unsolicited, it reflects my personal opinions and experiences.

Welcome to the Renaissance!

So, what are y'all doing in school these days
besides reviewing stuff for TOS, you ask?
Actually, we just started learning about the Renaissance.
The first week was pretty cool.

We built a model of the Cathedral in Florence
and learned how the dome was built.

We also learned about some of the amazing things Leonardo da Vinci created,
including his art, his designs for "war machines" and his other inventions.
David got to build a working model of Leonardo's "flying machine" which
was based on his careful observations of birds in flight.

Of course, Leonardo didn't know about air foils, lift and drag,
so it never would have gotten off the ground...
but it's pretty cool all the same.

Did you know that Renaissance artists were the first to use
One-Point Perspective in their paintings?
Here is David's drawing of a room
using One-Point Perspective:

He says it's an FBI base in the Swiss Alps.
(notice the mountains in the windows!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

WriteShop StoryBuilders...a World of Imagination!

If you think about it, story-telling is an important skill that can have a major impact on a child's overall writing skills. Story-telling (or narration) can teach important concepts like logical progression, and reinforce information learned, but it can also help to teach proper grammar and expand a child's vocabulary. You can start it at any age, once your child learns to talk. And best of all, it's fun! Or at least it should be. But maybe you have a reluctant child who just can't seem to latch hold of an idea to get started? Or maybe your child loves to tell stories, but they are always about car chases and jedi knights? Or maybe you sometimes get stuck when it comes time to tell a bedtime story? WriteShop StoryBuilders might be just the thing you need.

Each set of StoryBuilders comes with 4 types of cards that you can print out on cardstock: character cards, character trait cards, setting cards and plot cards. You have the option of either printing them in color (each card type has a different color font so you can easily keep them separated) or in b&w on colored paper. You get 48 different cards of each type and some blank templates for adding your own ideas.

Now what do you do with the cards once you print them and cut them apart? There are so many ways to use these. You can start by separating the cards by type into 4 piles, then have your child choose one card from each pile. If he's a reader, have him read them aloud and then organize them into a sentence or even a story. If he wants to write a story, that's great, or have him narrate the story to you and share it with your other children. If he's not a reader, that's okay, too. Read the cards to him and have him tell you the story. Make it a game...who can tell the most elaborate story from the same 4 cards. Or the funniest story. Or have him choose 2 character cards and 2 setting cards---can he come up with a story with a speed skater, a trampoline acrobat, a dangerous mountain mountain and a rowboat? Or a gorilla, a peacock, and an iceberg under the couch?

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I was asked to try out and review "World of Animals" StoryBuilders and "World of Sports" StoryBuilders. These are a bunch of fun! David, our 8-year-old, loves to tell stories, but using the StoryBuilders has really expanded his horizons. I especially like the inclusion of character helps him think about and develop the character's personalities, rather than painting a flat picture where stuff just happens. It also gives us the opportunity to talk about things like a character's motivation, you know, that kind of stuff they try to teach you in high school?

These are a welcome addition to our homeschool "extras." Each story is utterly unique and the unusual settings and unexpected plot points really help to stretch the imagination beyond the realm of everyday things. But, best of all, the cards are totally portable...they'll definitely be going with us on our next car trip!

Each set of StoryBuilders is available as an e-book from WriteShop for $7.95. Also available are "World of People" for $7.95 and the "Christmas Mini-Builder" for $3.95.

For reviews of these and other StoryBuilders, click the link below: