Homeschool Posts

Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: Hank the Cowdog


Hank the Cowdog, self-appointed ranch security in the series of 54 chapter books written by former cowboy John Erickson, is not the sort of canine who inspires confidence in his human owners. His adventures, er ahem, misadventures aim to amuse and entertain your younguns with Hank’s wise advice to his underling, Drover, and his daringly heroic exploits (grin). As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a sampling of Hank products, including the paperback book The Case of the One-Eyed Killer Stud Horse, The Tales and Tunes CD and The Tornado travel game for review.

8Ok, I admit it, before this review came along, I had never heard of Hank the Cowdog. 54 books! Where have I been? My 9-year-old had. “Oh, yeah, I don’t like Hank.” When I asked why, his response was a bit guarded, but he said that it takes forever for the story to start. Hmmm, I decided to read it on my own before reading it to the kiddos.

The One-Eyed Killer Stud Horse (paperback $4.24 or hardback $12.49) is told from the perspective of Hank the Cowdog, who is by no means omniscient, in fact that’s where much of the humor of the book comes in, the play between his perspective and the perspectives of his human owners…let’s say they don’t have as high an opinion of him as he thinks. The story is also told in a laid-back anecdotal style, think about a stand-up comedian telling a story and going off on all sorts of tangents for comic effect. I think this is where David’s complaint comes from. The things that “happen” in the book are a little slow to happen, as the time is spent on the amusing give and take between the characters.

There’s plenty of dialog between Hank and Drover, full of cliches, mixed metaphors and misused words. “Monogamy” in place of “monotony,” for instance. Which Drover mistakes for “mahogany,” and so on. The implication is that Hank thinks he’s pretty smart but...well, let’s just say he’s a little mistaken. Oh, and Hank thinks that Drover is pretty dumb and , well, maybe he is, except when he’s doing addition in his head, apparently. He’s able to work out that 8 and 6 make 14? Let’s say character portrayal is a tad uneven. The book also plays to a number of stereotypes. For example, Sally May’s mother-in-law is described as clomping around in her old lady shoes on the gravel.

Am I being too critical? Perhaps. I don’t find the book to be particularly offensive, I just don’t see anything to recommend it over any of the other chapter books crowding the shelves at the local bookstore or library.

The CD I received, Tales and Tunes ($3) has excerpts from some of the books and 9 songs, all voiced by the author. The CD quality was good and Erickson has put real effort into developing the voices for his characters. Each song is preceded by an excerpt from the book it comes from. The songs were ok, but not particularly inspiring or memorable, in fact a few were downright “un-song-like”. “A Fundamental Disagreement,” Sally May’s monologue on how she and Hank don’t get along, is one. You can listen to samples here. The voicing of the stories was well done and it was easy to pick out the different characters, though I didn’t think much of Junior Buzzard’s stutter.

maryvilleandtripeast 112The Tornado Game (12.99) is very much like Trouble or Sorry. Each player gets 3 pegs with characters on them (Hank, Drover, and Junior) and they move around the board bumping each other back to the start and running into tornados. The object is to get all three of your characters home safe first. The game board is uniquely made so that the entire game fits fits inside the board when you fold it up. The spinner locks in place when you set it up and the pegs fit into the little holes, so it’s perfect for travel. It also comes with a cassette tape with excerpts from The Case of the Swirling Killer Tornado. We had a little trouble with the spinner sticking (everybody was spinning 4’s, and since you have to spin a 1 or a 6 to start a peg, this was a bit of a problem), but a slight change in the rules remedied the problem. As game play is so similar to other games that we already have, the main thing recommending this one is the cute game pieces and the whole game’s portability.

For other reviews of these products, be sure to visit the TOS Homeschool Crew’s Blog.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Review: Web Design for Kids


Brian Richardson, founder of Click Drag Solutions, has put together an engaging little DVD that will teach your kiddos HTML. As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I had the opportunity to review this product and I recruited my 9-year-old son, David, to try it out with me.

This is a nicely produced video featuring Brian and 2 middle school-aged children as the students who ask the scripted questions at the appropriate times. The program is divided into 7 lessons that cover the (very) basics of HTML, from the first few lines of code to changing background and text colors, to inserting pictures. Each lesson runs approximately 15 minutes, though you may find that your child spends much more time than that depending upon how quick a typist he is. Here’s where having a pause button comes in handy---no pressure to complete the task ultra-quick.

There are no additional purchases necessary if you are using a Windows machine. All you need is notepad and a web browser (Internet Explorer is specified, but we were able to use it quite nicely with Firefox with a few minor modifications). I would recommend using it with a laptop, as you can then easily watch the video and type on the laptop at the same time, but you could have your child take notes and use a desktop computer. An internet connection is not 100% necessary, though the video does show you how to get free backgrounds and pictures off of the web---you can easily sub files from your own computer.

David had no HTML experience prior to viewing the video and I wanted to see if the instructions were simple enough for him to do it independently, with me available in the wings to provide any needed support. He did very well and after completing the course was able to create this webpage (sorry, it’s not hosted, so you won’t be able to see the marquee title scrolling across the screen):


I did need to help him add some additional code not provided in the video to correctly size the pictures. What I love is that as he was working on the code, he was inspired to do some experimenting trying to build off of what he learned…anything that can do that ok in my book.

While David worked on the program afternoons, I took one evening after the kiddos were in bed to go through the entire DVD to evaluate it from the point-of-view of someone with some HTML experience. The program is very, very basic, which is fine for kiddos to start with. It moves at a moderate pace, broken up into easily digestible chunks. It will take you by the hand and teach you to create a website (web hosting is not covered in this DVD, but Brian has put together a page on this due to so many requests), and how to customize it to some degree.

I was a little disappointed that while the video shows you how to insert pictures, it doesn’t for instance, show you how to size those pictures. And while it does show you how to change text colors, it does not show youo how to make your text bold or italic. But once you’ve learned how to add an attribute, it’s a simple matter of downloading an HTML cheat sheet and playing with the code yourself.

I do think that it is enough to inspire someone who is truly interested to learn more on their own, or maybe even buy the second video when it comes out.

Web Design for Kids regularly sells for $40, but is on sale now for $19.99 + $3.99 s&h, and it comes with a money back guarantee.

Download a free sample clip here.

For more reviews of this product by other homeschoolers, go to the TOS Homeschool Crew blog.

Review: Stick Figuring™ Through the Bible with Grapevine Studies

august 018

Looking for a fun, easy way to learn or review the Bible timeline? Not particularly artistic? How about Stick Figuring™ the Bible?

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I had the opportunity to review Grapevine Studies’ Old Testament Overview. I received the hardcopy black & white teacher’s edition (level 1&2), the color e-book teacher’s edition (level 1&2) and the e-book student’s edition (level 1). Level 1 is recommended for ages 6-8 and level 2 for ages 8-10. The two levels are essentially the same, hence a single teacher’s manual, except level 2 has more memory work. Since I am using this with David and Mary, I decided to go with the lower level and have David do the additional memory work, if necessary.

The Overview contains 50 lessons that can be covered weekly or broken up into shorter, daily sessions. Truly an all-year program, it would be equally suitable for Sunday school or homeschool. The first lesson is a general outline of the entire Old Testament timeline, from Creation to the 400 silent years between the Old and New Testaments. This lesson is meant to be covered over the course of 2 weeks and gives your students a general framework to mentally organize all the stories of the Old Testament to be be covered.

The second lesson covers the Creation timeline and finishes up with making an event card to serve as a reminder for what happened on each day of creation. In addition to the timeline, you are also given plenty of discussion questions and each lesson has a Bible verse for memory work (additional memory work is given for level 2). The remaining lessons each start with a review of where you are on the timeline, a 2-page mini-study of the next point on the timeline, and making a character/event card. For each caption on the timeline, you draw a stick figure (or sometimes a minimalist picture). The teacher’s edition gives you instructions on what to draw to represent each caption as you are teaching it to your children (they recommend drawing it on a large white board or chalkboard with different colors), but you can change this as you wish (and expect your children to show their creativity, I know mine did). Since my easel is in storage, I improvised by printing the page from the color e-book teacher’s edition and holding it up for the kids to see as we talked about it.

One of the things I like about this curriculum is its non-denominational approach. It does not teach doctrine and is not tied to a particular Bible translation. The memory verses, for instance, need to be looked up in your own Bible. While there are summaries and overviews provided in the teacher’s edition to aid you in teaching, these are simply a guide and can be altered as you choose, so you can easily add this to whatever program you are using.

The student edition consists only of the captioned, but otherwise blank, timeline pages and discussion questions. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book. I chose the e-book because the licensing allows you to print as many copies as you need for your family. For the teacher’s edition, I prefer to have something in hand so I went with the hardcopy. The publisher very generously sent me the e-book as well, so I could see the difference between the color and black & white editions. If you are very visual, the color edition might be easier to use, but I found the black & white edition was sufficient to read as a manual.

august 017 David is a kinesthetic learner, who seems to always need to do something with his hands for information to sink in, and Stick Figuring™ is right up his alley. In fact, some of his drawings are quite elaborate and he happily drew as we discussed---I think I may need to try this strategy with some of our other studies. So far it has not been a real challenge for Mary or David, but the stories we have covered are stories they are very familiar with. As we get further into the study, we’ll be filling in some holes in their knowledge, and they are already developing a visual organization of Biblical events and how they all fit together. Synthesis! Isn’t it great to see the gears turning in their little minds!

The Old Testament Overview is available directly from Grapevine Studies:

Teacher’s Edition paperback Levels 1 and 2

  • color $45.95 or
  • black&white $35.95

Teacher’s Edition e-book Levels 1 and 2 $22.95

Student Book Level 1 $25.95

Student e-book Level 1 $25.95

Levels 2, 3, and 4 are also available, as well as a New Testament Overview and various multi-level studies.

And, if you order between now and Sept 30th you can get a discount on your order, just use this code:


For more reviews of these and other products by Grapevine Studies, visit the TOS Homeschool Crew’s Blog.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review: Barnum Software’s Quarter Mile Math

logoOur 9-year-old (going on 13) is totally resistant to math drills of any kind. As someone who struggled with math a good deal in the elementary years, I know the value of drills and of learning those math facts so well that they are like second nature. Who wants to get out a calculator to estimate the cost of the groceries at the store, or to double a recipe? And he thinks he wants to be an engineer someday:-) He won’t get very far without those math facts at his instant disposal. Enter The Quarter Mile Math by Barnum Software.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received The Quarter Mile Math Deluxe and Standard (Levels 1, 2, and 3 bundle) editions for review. Both programs cover 323 topics from grades K through 9. The Standard edition ($89.95 on cd) is a standalone program that you can purchase outright and use with all your children over the years. The Deluxe edition ($2.95/month) is a subscription product that requires an internet connection to work. As the “gameplay” is essentially the same regardless of the edition, let me explain how the program works, first, then I’ll get back to the differences between the two editions.


This software is designed to complement whatever math curriculum you are using. The complete bundle (levels 1, 2 and 3) covers 323 topics with over 70,000 problems. The topics range from simply entering single digit numbers (great for increasing keyboarding speed, by the way) to pre-algebra. The product does not teach these topics, but aims to improve a student’s speed in recalling facts and performing operations. Rather than just answering monotonous math problems, the player gets to power his dragster or riderless horse to go faster and faster with correct answers to the problems. With each correct answer, the dragster (or horse) accelerates.

The Quarter Mile is designed in such a way that the student is not trying to compete against another child, the computer, or even a time clock, but himself! For each new topic, he will first race against Fast Eddy, a computer generated opponent who’s going to lose (Fast Eddy gets off to a real slow start, so it’s easy to make him eat dust). After running a few races, your child notice that his times are replacing Fast Eddy times…he’s racing against himself. Incorrect answers don’t hurt progress, but they don’t help, either, and he’ll have answer each problem correctly to move on to the next problem (answering a problem incorrectly 3 times in a row will cause the program to give the correct answer, but the player still needs to enter it---good for reinforcement).

The program only keeps track of each player’s 5 top races for each topic. So, if your child has an off day and runs a poor race, it won’t drag down his average. It also notes even miniscule time improvements (how’s a hundredth of a second?), so as long as a student keeps at it, he should start seeing improvement over time.

quartermileraceresultsThe picture to the left shows the results from a race. Your child will always be in the far left lane. Towards the bottom, you’ll see the top 5 average for that topic for that player.

Mary and David both tried out this program. Mary (age 5) likes to do the keyboarding topics which allow her to practice typing single digits and single letters---good for number and letter recognition as well as learning the keyboard. She loved to see her progress over time (the fastest time displays closest to the top of the screen, so it’s easy for her to see how she’s doing). My biggest challenge was getting her to stop playing the game, lol.

David was pretty interested, at first. But he became frustrated whenever he entered an incorrect answer. If you enter an incorrect answer, that answer stays on the screen for a few seconds and you cannot enter the correct answer until it disappears. Doesn’t sound like a problem, does it? But if you are intent on the problem and answering it quickly, you don’t really notice that an incorrect answer is remaining on the screen (keeping you from entering a new answer) as your typed answer doesn’t appear right after the problem but off to the right (I tried it myself, and it is a little disorienting). I think this is a small problem that he’ll get past with some more practice using the program.

Standard or Deluxe? The Deluxe edition is really a monthly subscription that requires a constant internet connection to be used as all the races are stored on a database that needs to be accessed before and after each race. The program will shut down if it is unable to access the internet. If your internet connection is at all iffy, this can be a problem. Also, if you think you’ll be using the program for many years, it may be more cost-effective to pay a one-time expense to own a copy of the software. On the other hand, there are a few distinct advantages to the Deluxe edition.

quartermilestudentprogressThe Deluxe edition gives you access to a single screen where you can track the topics your child has been working on, their average time, the number of races and the number of correct answers. The only record keeping the Standard edition has is the average of the top 5 races for each topic and you’ll have to access each topic separately to find the information , a little tedious and not altogether helpful.

Either edition can be installed onto multiple computers, but the Deluxe can actually be used on multiple computers simultaneously, no waiting in line for bro or sis to finish, if you are fortunate to have more than one computer with internet access. The Deluxe is also available as a downloadable file, so it can be easily installed on computers with no optical drive (like this netbook I’m typing on:-). The Standard comes on cd and the cd must be in the drive for the program to work.

You can also do real-time tournaments with the Deluxe edition. Real-time meaning that both players race at the same time on separate computers, though they won’t show up on each other’s screens. This is minor, though, as you can coordinate tournaments with the Standard edition, the players simply won’t be racing at the same time.

The Deluxe comes with free upgrades. Upgrades are available for the Standard edition for $5 each.

The Quarter Mile Math is available for both PC (Windows 98, NT, 2000, ME, XP, and Vista) and Mac (System 8.x through OS X):

The Quarter Mile Math Deluxe subscription is available for:

  • $2.95 per family per month or
  • $19.95 per family for 1 year or
  • $34.95 per family for 2 years

The Quarter Mile Math Standard edition Levels 1, 2, and 3 Bundle is available for $89.95. Each level is also available separately.

Try a free demo today.

Now through the end of September, enter the following code when you order and receive $5 off any product at Barnum Software: