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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

Try tucking your family album into your toolbox this week. The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to share family memories, and I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t love to hear all about his own personal history: the story of the day he was born, his first words, how he dialed 911 when he was 9-months-old and his naive mama let him play with the phone in his playpen while she was taking a shower.

But beyond that, he’ll want to know about your history, Daddy’s history, the Grands history…do you see where I’m going with this? In addition to building a robust oral tradition in your family (something we could all use more of) and helping your children to become great story-tellers in their own right (what better way to learn language arts than by using the language through the creation of stories), you’ll be exploring history together. Suddenly talking about WWII doesn’t seem so distant when Great-Grandpa was flying in bombers during the war---you’ve given your child a connection to the past and have made him realize it’s a part of him.

Do you have a way to use a common tool for uncommon learning? To participate in the meme, please sign MckLinky with your post for Tuesday's Toolbox, and feel free to use a previous post if you like. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

This post has also been linked to Work's for Me Wednesday.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Teach in Brilliant Color!

OK, I admit it, I tend to be a tightwad when it comes to school supplies, buying the cheapest off-brand available. But I'm learning my lesson. Cheapo watercolors aren't as brilliant and don't last as long. No-name crayons are a pale imitation of Crayola. Store pencils? Don't even bother using the eraser unless you want pink smears across your paper. But dry erase markers...they're all the same, right?

I've always been satisfied with my plain Jane black (sometimes red or blue). I had no idea how many colors EXPO dry-erase markers come in! Brilliant colors, worthy of any artbox---it's going to be hard to keep the kiddos from commandeering these and I'm already seeing some cool possibilities...don't be surprised if dry-erase markers appear in the next Tuesday's Toolbox. This 16 pack retails for around $20, not bad at all, just a little over $1 per marker

And you've got to have something to wipe your board off---I admit the tissues and paper towels I've used are more than a little wasteful. But won't a cloth get dirty real fast and spend all it's time in a pile laundry? This EXPO wiping cloth is no wimp, it's a whopping 13" x 14"! We'll see how long we can use it before it takes it's first trip to the washer. Retails for around $5.

And finally, a solution to my amazing disappearing caps, yes! The EXPO "Click" comes in both fine-point and fat chisel-tip. Super easy to use and no cap to lose! Get a 3-pack of chisel-tips for about $6 or a 3-pack of fine tips for about $5.

All of the markers are low-odor, so no chemical induced headaches.

Now that I've got these EXPO products into my sweaty little hands, let's put them to the test...Do they really last longer than the el cheapo dry-erase products I normally buy? And do the colors maintain their brilliance? And how well do their tips resist the squashing tendency of a 4-year-old? Stay tuned to find out.

I received a free sample pack from EXPO including the EXPO Microfiber Dry-Erase Cleaning Cloth, EXPO 16 Pack of Low-Odor Chisel Dry Erase Markers, EXPO 3-pack of Low-Odor Retractable Chisel-Tip Dry Erase Markers, and EXPO 6-pack of Low-Odor Retractable Fine-Point Dry Erase Markers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

Last week's tool was a tad on the pricey side, but you can’t get much simpler than this week’s tool: a piece of paper. So grab some paper (it doesn’t have to be plain, some scraps from present wrapping will do) and try some of these ideas.


Symmetry- Draw or copy several shapes on to a piece of paper, some symmetrical and some not. Have your child cut each shape out. Check symmetry by folding each shape in half.

Fractions, division and multiplication- Have your child take a piece of paper and fold it in half, creasing it, then open it and show her how she has divided it into 2 halves. Have her refold, then fold it in half again and show your child how she has now been divided it into quarters. And so on. Demonstrate how each time she folds it she’s multiplying by 2. How many times can she fold the paper in half?

Forms- You may want to use cardstock for this one. Create forms (start with a cube) by figuring out together how to draw the faces of the form so they will fit together after cutting it out and folding it (there are actually plenty of templates for doing this online-but measuring it out and designing it with your child will be an exercise in abstract reasoning and logic).


Aerodynamics and engineering(or making paper airplanes)-Fold some paper airplanes. See if you can determine what characteristics will give them the best lift, distance, etc. Experiment with different folds, different types of paper and test your airplanes. Here’s an online resource to help you out.


Origami- You can use special paper for this, but there’s no reason you can’t try it with plain paper, just cut it into squares. Origami Club is an awesome site with diagrams and animations to show you how to fold hundreds of figures.

Collage- Create a picture by tearing bits of paper in different colors and gluing them onto a base sheet. You can investigate texture and interesting color effects.

Social Studies-

Paper dolls- These can be a great hands-on addition to any history or country study. While there are some free paper dolls available online, you can also create your own. Or use a plain doll and have your child make her own clothes for it based on what you are studying. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is to tape the doll to a window and then put a piece of paper over it (you’ll be able to see the doll through the paper). Then your child will be able to draw the outfit by tracing the doll’s body. Be sure to draw tabs.

Do you have a way to use a common tool for uncommon learning? To participate in the meme, please sign MckLinky with your post for Tuesday's Toolbox. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas. And if you’re just joining us, you can find last week’s Toolbox here.

It is NOT 4 Days Before Christmas

I do not still have to do all my grocery shopping for Christmas dinner---our van did not break down last week leaving us with inadequate transportation for our family of 6 and it did not just snow 18" over the weekend, and totally did not ruin my proposed schedule for getting the shopping done..
I did not just put up the Christmas tree last night---and it is not still surrounded by moving boxes.
I do not still have to buy wrapping paper.
I do not have to wait on any gifts coming form Amazon this week (and I did not sign up for the free Prime trial to purchase a few gifts that I put off until the very last minute to get).

I did not let my kiddos play in the before mentioned snow in their sneakers (and Mary did not lose the same shoe 3 times in snowdrifts yesterday) and their snow boots have not inexplicably disappeared in the black hole of moving boxes.
And my foyer is definitely not draped in towels, drying snow pants and shoes.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: Maestro Classics


As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received one copy of Maestro Classics’ The Tortoise and the Hare for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Bringing classical music to children through classic children’s literature---this is the idea behind Maestro Classics. The Tortoise and the Hare begins with a 20 minute updated retelling of that well-known tale, followed by an “intermission” of sorts containing a very short (under 3 minutes) explanation of the origins of the story, a 2-minute little ditty from the story (The Pretzel Vendor of Paris Song), and a short talk about the music in the story and how it helps to “tell” the story. The next track repeats the story with the intent that listeners will have a new appreciation after learning more about it.

The story is narrated Yadu in an upbeat style, with a slooow deep voice for the tortoise and an energetic, cocky voice for the hare. While it does follow the basic plot, this is not Aesop (though they give the original version in the explanation afterwards) or any of the other older versions you may have read, but a more updated version using more “hip” language. The instrumental accompaniment is provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Simon. The piece was written specifically for the story.

Production quality is good, though I found a variance in volume from one track to the next. The story is one 20 minute track, so if you have to stop in the middle, you’ll want to leave it paused. The CD comes in a cardboard case that folds up and contains a little book insert that has some activities and the lyrics to the The Pretzel Vendor. Overall, it’s a nice, well thought-out package. It seems like a good way to introduce young children to music appreciation…but what did the kiddos think?

We listened to the story and then the educational tracks during lunch. David, Mary, and Peter were a little bored with the story, though, perhaps that was because they’ve heard so many variations of it already. They weren’t very interested in the explanation tracks, either, but I attribute this to a loss of interest after already listening for 20 minutes---although the kiddos have long attention spans, they are not big on audio books (there are a few exceptions, like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Jungle Book, but these would be classified as adventure stories).

Next time, I’ll play half the story, have an intermission and listen to the explanation tracks, then listen to the rest of the story---a little tricky since the story is a single track, but it could be done. The music is well done and I’d love to hear one of the other stories available. Maestro Classics has also produced versions of:

  • Peter & the Wolf
  • The Story of Swan Lake
  • Mike Mulligan & His Steam Shovel
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
  • Casey at the Bat
  • Juanita the Spanish Lobster (available in Spanish)

Each Maestro Classics CD sells for $16.98.

They currently have a special: Buy 3 cds for $45 (enter code: MAESTRO45)

For more reviews of this product, please visit:


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Mathletics


As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a 6-week subscription to Mathletics for two of my children in exchange for writing an honest review of my family’s experience with the program. I received no other compensation.

Mathletics is an online subscription-based math program. The curriculum for each level is divided up into several units, each consisting of several problem sets. Units are completed with a test. Students collect “gold bars” by completing each problem set. A graphic in the lower right-hand corner of the screen shows how many gold bars have been collected and how many there are total for that level.

Each problem set has a question mark to click for an explanation of the problem and how to do it. Explanations are generally step-by-step, with graphics to illustrate, but no audio file, so they must be read.

Each time a student completes an activity (or problem set), there’s an animated victory screen and they receive points based on the percentage of correct answers and credits for completing the activity. Credits can be used to buy accessories, cool hairstyles and more to customize the student’s avatar. Points go towards earning virtual certificates. Students can also compete against other students around the world in “races” to test their speed in math fact recall.


As the parent, you will have a parent center to oversee all of your “students.” This account gives you access to your children’s progress (you can see at a glance which units have been completed and the percentage of accuracy). You can also “assign” particular problem sets (up to four) for the next time and print out workbook pages, though the workbooks are a bit limited at this time (these are mostly available for the upper levels).

I used Mathletics with Mary (kindergarten) and David (4th grade). Mary breezed through the kindergarten level material in a week. The only thing holding her back was her reading skills. She can read, but not confidently at the level at which the instructions were written and, since there was no audio file to explain things to her, she found this a little frustrating (the use of names in charts that are hard to sound out, like “Juan”, also frustrated her), so Mom sat with her and explained what was wanted. This is fine, but keeps Mom from doing one-on-one work with another child and there’s something disconcerting about doing “one-on-one” work with your child in front of a computer screen.

Once she had completed the kindergarten level, I moved her to the next level. The topics that overlapped the previous level were no problem, but then it came time to do some topics she was not yet familiar with. I found the “help” given to explain these to be grossly inadequate at times. For example, the help for telling time to the half hour basically tells you if you are setting the time to 8:30, you should put the big hand on the 6 and the small hand between the 8 and 9---there’s is absolutely no explanation given as to why this represents 8:30 or why the 6 represents 30 minutes or anything. There’s no explanation as to why you can’t just put the small hand on the 8, either (and you will get it wrong if you put it on the 8).

David worked on the 3rd grade level, as I wanted to use it primarily for review with him (we’re working on shoring up the math knowledge he already has this year). David had no problem reading the instructions or doing the work. The explanations were not really necessary in his case as the material was familiar to him. He particularly enjoyed the “problem-solving” activities (a extra set of activities that are not actually part of the units but give valuable practice in reasoning).

Neither child was interested in competing against other students in real time. My kiddos love to compete against each other, but are not at all crazy about trying to measure up against someone else. They both do better when they are trying to improve their own times.

I found the parent center to be helpful for getting a very general idea of what my children were doing with the program, but found it lacking in terms of getting a firm handle on what exactly their weaknesses and strengths are. Sometimes it is helpful to know exactly what problem they got wrong so you can judge if it’s a concept they are having trouble with, a careless error, one particular math fact they haven’t mastered, etc. You can see the name of the problem set from the parent center, but you can’t even see an example of the type of problem it consists of. I got in the habit of having the kiddos print their test results to a pdf when they finished (after each problem set or test is completed, “victory” page shows thumbnails of all the problems completed and you have the option to print) so I would have a more complete record of where they were at. I do like the option of assigning particular problem sets, as David in particular will avoid doing topics he thinks are too hard.

Overall, the program has some good points, but I wouldn’t rely on it as a complete curriculum, more of a supplement.

Mathletics subscription rates (10 day money back guarantee):

  • $59/child 1 year subscription
  • If you know the Human Calculator's Favorite number (answer is '9') you can purchase a subscription for $49.95 per child per year.

To read other reviews of this product by homeschoolers, go to:


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Works For Me: Book Tabs


Here’s a little tip that works for me--- whenever there is a part of a book I refer to often, whether it be a recipe, a tip or just an inspirational passage, I like to mark it with one of those clear stick on tabs (the kind you can slip a label into). Here you can see the tabs I’ve added to my Tightwad Gazette. Also handy for marking holiday recipes! Post-its and flags work, but they tend to come off and get bent up. The tabs serve as a permanent place holder for me, and if one of the kiddos helpfully closes the book when I’m not looking, it’s easy to find my page again.


Looking for great Homeschooling tips? Be sure to check out the first edition of my new Tuesdays' Toolbox meme, and see how common everyday tools can be used for uncommon learning!
Now head over to We Are THAT Family for more Works for Me ideas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

Today’s tool for learning: a camera! Yes, we use our camera to capture our achievements and feats of learning, and even recording the steps of an experiment, but have you thought about using the camera itself for learning?

Some projects we have used our cameras for (and a few we plan to do some day):


  • Studying light and dark, shadow, texture, and composition. All of these can be done inside using everyday objects or outside on a walk or series of walks.
  • Learn about the different ways an artist creates the illusion of perspective and demonstrate through photography
  • Experiment with different lighting effects to change the mood of a photograph

snowflakes dark inside snowflakes dark outside


  • Nature study-capturing images of different plant and animal species for later research/study (can be more convenient than a sketchbook, especially for littles)
  • Take a photograph to record the location where a specimen was found that you are taking with you
  • Study vision and how the eye works by creating optical illusions
  • Study permanence and how it causes the illusion of movement in film by creating a stop motion film

Language Arts and Critical Thinking

  • Create a photo journal
  • Write a story using only photographs (think comic book style)
  • Take mystery pics and exchange photos---who can identify the most objects, who came up with the real stumper

mystery6I’m sure you can think of more, but this will get you started thinking.

While a film camera can be used for most of these, I think you’ll find using a digital camera much more rewarding, particularly for things like stop motion animation , nature study and art study. Your little learners will get immediate feedback, can see what is working and what isn’t, can take as many shots as they need, and they won’t break the bank with film processing. If you’re nervous about letting them use your camera, consider investing in a real, used camera for their use. The cheap, clunky kids’ camera tend to disappoint with inferior pictures. A decent point-and-shoot, used digital can be had for around $50 (I’d spend more than that in film and processing in a month with my kiddos).

Here’s a bonus: I’ve got some awesome 100% free resources for you to add to your toolbox:

The Museum of Vision has three free curriculum guides: Eye Openers: Exploring Optical Illusions, Art and Vision: Seeing in 3-D®, and Animal Eyes. These are all very good.

Cindy Downes has a free to homeschoolers unit study on Digital Photography (this is for grades 7-12, but could be easily modified for younger children).

Check out the current Tuesday's Toolbox.

What tools have you been using from your toolbox lately? To participate in the meme, please sign MckLinky with your post for Tuesday's Toolbox. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Tektoma---Game Tutorials for Kids

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free 3 month subscription to Tektoma's tutorial website for kids in exchange for reviewing it on my blog. I received no other compensation. My review reflects my family's personal experience with this product.

OK, our family is a bunch of computer geeks. Not solid, knowledgeable, save the bacon when your motherboard fries geeks, just geeky enough to have a "healthy" interest in how computers work and to spend a bunch of time making ours work. So when we got the opportunity to try out a site devoted to teaching your kids how to make games using GameMaker software, my 9-year-old was all over it. And still is.

Tektoma provides a series of videos that will show your children (ages 7-17) step-by-step how to create their own 2-D video games using the free to download GameMaker software by YoYo Games. The free version of this software apparently lacks some of the capabilities of the paid version, but is sufficient for the completing the Tektoma tutorials (and it's definitely not crippleware).

In addition to several short tutorials covering specific topics, there are 5 complete game tutorials:
  • How to Make a Racing Game
  • How to Make an Arcade Game
  • How to Make a Memory Game
  • How to Make a Platform Game
  • How to Make a Fantasy Adventure Game (RPG)
These tutorials are about 1 to 2-1/2 hours in length, divided neatly up into shorter, organized segments, making it easy to pick up where you left off. While the video time may only be a couple of hours, the time actually spent building the game could be much greater depending upon how much you decide to "make it yours." All told, there are a little over 10 hours of video tutorials on the site. There are also options to share games on the site that you have created or play games created by others.

The videos are nicely done, with a voice explaining the next step and the video displaying exactly what you will see on your screen, with highlights to show you where exactly to look. It is a bit awkward to watch the videos on the computer screen, pause, switch to the GameMaker software, do that step and then switch back to the video, but after a while my 9-year-old got the hang of it.

9-year-old David has had no trouble at all creating a couple of games using the subscription. The graphics quality of the games is not what we have come to expect in the year 2009 (it's more like the games we were playing in the early 90's), but that has more to do with GameMaker and fancy graphics can easily take your attention away from the immediate lesson at hand, mainly the nuts and bolts of creating the game. Tektoma will not teach your child to write code, GameMaker was designed so that you can create games without knowing how to write code.

So, if it doesn't teach code what good is it? Tektoma has value in the area of critical thinking and giving your child a background in understanding about how a computer program works through object programming. If your ultimate goal is computer programming, though, this is just a first step, but it's a solid first step. Think of it as a course in understanding the very basics of object programming, including:
  • what's an object, what's a sprite?
  • thinking out routines for those objects (thinking logically)
  • with immediate feedback (the computer plays out exactly what you tell it to do, mistakes and all)
  • learning about different object attributes (some objects are solid and can't be passed through while others are background, some move, how they move, etc.)
And when they've finished making their game, they can export it as an .exe file and email to the Grandparents. Or Dad at work.

While I like the service, the site is a little hard to navigate. You might expect, for instance, that your profile page would show you when your subscription expires, maybe even with a little reminder to renew? Not so, though it does show when you signed up, so keep track of how many months you've paid for. But this is fairly minor and does not affect your child's ability to use the tutorials.

Tektoma is available for a monthly subscription of $14.95/month or $140/year, but you can sign up for a free 14 day trial to try it out.

For reviews by other homeschoolers, visit the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Introducing Tuesday's Toolbox for Learning

Beginning next week, I'm adding a new weekly feature to my blog called Tuesday's Toolbox for Learning. Each week will feature something you probably already have in your home and how it can become a Tool for Learning, whether you homeschool or not.

And just for fun, I've decided to make it a weekly meme, because I know that you've all got plenty of ideas and I'd love to read about them! If you'd like to participate, grab my button and include it in your post next Tuesday. Link back to my post on that day and sign the McLinky you'll find there. Your post can be as simple or complex as you like whether it be a suggestion or a picture tutorial or...why don't you surprise me:-)
Here's the code:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Raising Individuals

Homeschooling is cool! Where else could a 9-year-old boy spend his time writing an adventure novel, learning to play the harmonica, and creating (from the ground up) an imaginary world inspired by the Lord of the Rings, complete with maps, phonetically spelled countries, and all different races of beings (and write a book all about it!), all while teaching himself how to create spreadsheets and learning about object-oriented game programing?

And a 5-year-old girl play fairies and dragons with her 4-year-old brother, just before doing her ballet instruction video (she takes classes, too), working on her "book" about Little House on the Prairie and practicing cursive writing?

There's a whole lot of learnin' go on...but will they know how to stand in line and stay with the herd?