Homeschool Posts

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Review: The History of the Medieval World

hmwSusan Wise Bauer is already known for the engaging conversational style of her popular series of history books for children, Story of the World. Her latest work, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, is the second in a series of books written for adults.

This is definitely not just a dry recital of the facts. Bauer weaves an intriguing narrative, attempting to capture the real people behind the tumultuous period some call the Dark Ages. You’ll catch glimpses of the personalities and characters of the men who claimed a divine right to rule, and the personal and political influences that drove them. The book attempts to juggle events throughout the west, middle east and the east to give a full picture, and the use of timelines throughout helps to keep track of all the parties involved.

What I like:

The relatively short chapters are a bonus for someone like me with a kid induced short attention-span. The inclusion of timelines to show me what’s happening in various parts of the world at the same time and frequent maps was a tremendous help.

I love Bauer’s conversational style and her ability to “paint a picture” as she fills in the details for a clearer understanding of not just the who and what of what happened, but the how and why.

And what’s not to like?

Over 800 years (from 312 – 1129 AD) of history full of wars and upheaval is a lot of ground to cover, even in over 700 pages. I found myself wishing for two volumes and a fuller understanding of the people involved. While the background information and details given put a human face on events, it’s not really enough to provide a full understanding. After a while, the text still tends to read like a blow-by-blow description (this happened, then this happened, then this happened…). It’s intended as an overview, and the book accomplishes that goal nicely, but it’s really only a starting point for studying medieval history. Overall, a good way to get a handle on events and to use as a quick reference. Would work well for a high school history course.

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer is available in hardcover from Amazon and from Barnes and Noble.

I received a digital copy of this book for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The New Plan

Ok, the mid-year “Are they learning anything?” panic has set in here. Lately, I feel like a slave driver, pushing the workbooks, grasping at quantifiable evidence that, yes, we really did spend the year doing school, not goofing off. My children don’t like me and I don’t like me…it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture, so hard not to make comparisons and to envy the reams of workbook and coloring pages they would come home with if they were in school. Are their portfolios going to be big enough? Yes, I know that “paper” doesn’t prove anything, but after a childhood spent in a “traditional” school setting, it’s very hard to shake those preconceptions, they seem to be at the core of my being. It really takes a tremendous and sustained effort. The irony is that when I become lazy about my mental cobwebs, I’m liable to work all the joy out of everybody.

So, it’s time to take a deep breath and take an honest look at where we’re at and where we’re going. This week I sat down with the older kiddos and we worked out what their personal goals are. They never cease to amaze me. Their ambition, their interests in such a wide variety of subjects…I don’t have their permission to share their goals with the world at large, but I’ve thrown out the plan, the schedule (again). I guess this is what you call “delight-directed” learning. My focus for the remainder of the school year is to help them achieve their goals. It promises to be a fun and fulfilling spring. I’ll post about their progress along the way.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: Beehive Reader 1 from AAS


Last year when I reviewed All About Spelling, I was excited about the possibility of using it not only to teach spelling, but also reading. Little did I know that this year I’d be holding the Beehive Reader in my hands.

For review purposes, I received a free copy of Beehive Reader 1 by Marie Rippel from All About Spelling. I received no other compensation.

If you’ve ever tried to pick up an easy reader from your local library, only to find that it’s full of “sight” words that your beginning reader cannot decode, this book is for you. With over 150 pages of charming pencil drawings accompanied by just a few lines of simple, yet entertaining text on each page, this hardcover reader is a treasure for any child’s bookshelf. But more than that, you’ll love the decodable text.

Mary (age 6) has been reading for a while, but lacked confidence in her reading. It seemed she always ran into words she couldn’t sound out or recognize as sight words, so we’ve been working on her fluency by “taking turns”---she’d read the simple words and I would read the more difficult words. Her fluency was improving, but she was still frustrated. She was dying to read on her own. With the help of the Beehive Reader, Mary has become an independent reader. The stories start very simply and slowly become more difficult, adding compound words and consonant blending, but sight words are kept to a minimum and the words are models of the rules. She loves the book and reads it just about everyday, which is helping her fluency. I’ve also had her copy sentences out of the book for copy-work, which has helped reinforce her reading and spelling skills.

I only have a couple of caveats:

  • If your child is like mine, always wanting to get to the end, she may not want to put it down.
  • There are several instances in the book where sentence punctuation is used for a sentence fragment. This is not uncommon in literature, and there’s nothing wrong with it, I only mention it as a possible issue when you are teaching proper sentence structure.

Beehive Reader 1 is available from All About Spelling for $19.95.

For reviews of this product by other homeschoolers, please visit:


Tuesday's Toolbox

Ok, I admit, I'm cheating a little today. This is a resource that I blogged about here, but I guarantee it's worth checking out, just make sure you've got a full load of ink and a pack of cardstock on hand: Canon Creative Park. You'll find oodles of free downloadable pdfs for making models of just about anything you can think of. It'll make your fingers itch. Don't get too carried away, though, many of these are pretty complex, so keep in mind the fine-motor capabilities of your kiddos, unless you don't mind getting your own fingers stuck together with glue.

View previous installments of Tuesday's Toolbox here.

To participate in the meme, please sign MckLinky with your post for Tuesday's Toolbox, and feel free to use an old post if you like. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Math Mammoth

157001Math is one of those subjects that finds many of us wondering if we really are up to teaching our kiddos. If you feel like hiding behind a workbook when it comes to math, Maria Miller had you in mind when she designed Math Mammoth.

Math Mammoth consists of 4 series:

  • The Light Blue Series is a complete math curriculum available for grades 1-5.
  • The Blue Series offers worktexts by topic rather than grade (covers the same topics as the Light Blue Series), perfect for some extra practice of remediation in a weak area.
  • The Golden Series (grades 3-8) offers worksheets (no instruction) by grade, good for extra practice.
  • The Green Series (grades 3-7) offers worksheets by topic (no instruction), good for targeted extra practice.

For review purposes I received the Light Blue Series 1A-B (1st grade) to try out with Mary. I also received Multiplication 1, Division 1, and Geometry 1 (all from the Blue Series) to try out with David. I received no other compensation. I had the opportunity to review Math Mammoth's Light Blue Series 2A-B last year, you can read that review here.

I received these as pdfs and am free to print as many copies as I need for my family’s use, and this is one area where e-books really shine. After your initial cost, if you choose to use the books with subsequent children your only investment is paper and ink. Of course, if you’re feeling really thrifty, you could just have them copy the problems off the computer screen.

All of these books are “worktexts.” What that means is that instead of having a hardback textbook and then a workbook, the instruction and practice problems are combined into a single text. Explanations of the concepts are followed by copious opportunities for practice. One thing I love about Maria’s texts is how she explains the same concept in more than one way. She also uses plenty of simple illustrations and encourages the student to “draw” the problem (including word problems) so that they understand it. The illustrations are not ink intensive and, though they are in color, can be effectively printed in black and white.

Math Mammoth does not bombard the student with multiple topics at the same time. In fact, the Light Blue Series 1st grade curriculum only covers a handful of topics: addition, subtraction, place value (tens and ones), time, counting coins, shapes and measurement. The emphasis is on mastery, developing a strong foundation, one topic at a time, and yet showing how topics are connected. Even in the beginning stages of addition, the background is being laid for subtraction by having the student supply the missing addend, for example, or splitting a number of balls into groups.

If your child “gets” something quickly, you may find that there is too much practice here. That’s ok, you have permission to skip some pages, or every other problem, or even try a chapter test and move on. But if your child doesn’t get it, there is plenty of practice and the download includes a link to worksheet generators, so you really have an endless supply of problems to draw from. This worktext includes other supportive materials, including chapter tests, an end-of-year test, answers to all the worktext problems, a unit on Canadian money, and a unit on European money. There are also various links given in the worktext to free internet resources and some suggestions for games to play to reinforce the concepts.

Mary is enjoying her worktext very much, in fact I’m amazed at how much 1st grade material my kindergartener already knows. But she loves workbooks, the real test is with my 9-year-old workbook hater, David.

David is very bright when it comes to understanding math concepts, but has a lot of difficulty with automaticity, so we are really working on drilling math facts this year. What I love about the Multiplication 1 book is not only how Maria explains multiplication in more than one way, but how part 2 is all about memorizing the multiplication tables (the book even includes flashcards). This is something that most math texts seem to gloss over, as if to say: here are the facts, memorize them. Timed drills do not work for everyone. Math Mammoth offers a systematic way of combining audio, visual and kinesthetic sensory activities to memorize the math facts in a way that just seems to connect all the dots. I really think it’s going to get over that block David has had with memorizing these facts.

The Division 1 worktext complements Multiplication 1 well by emphasizing the division/multiplication connection. When he’s had a little too much of division and multiplication, David takes a break with the Geometry. And he’s loving it. So far, Math Mammoth has given him plenty of hands-on opportunities exploring angles, and perpendicular and parallel lines, and he’s excited to learn all about area, volume and much more in this 134 page worktext. Explanations are clear and while David could read these on his own, I’ve elected to read them aloud with them, at least when a concept is new to him. The books from the Blue Series also contain plenty of links to free online resources, like games and even online lessons to help reinforce the material.

If you think Math Mammoth might be for you, I highly recommend signing up for Math Teaching Emails or Math Mammoth Tour. You’ll receive a download of 280 sample worksheets, and a series of emails, so you can try it out firsthand.

Placement tests are available. You can also contact Maria Miller for advice in placement.

Pricing on Math Mammoth varies according to product and format.

For more reviews of Math Mammoth by other homeschoolers, please visit:


Not Me Monday

We all had a great time visiting with my Mom and her friend Beve on Sunday.

Mom knows just how to entertain littles, offering plenty of finger foods for lunch and all the chicken nuggets they could hold.

My children are always well behaved when visiting someone's home. Especially the baby.

Emma would never play in the dog's water bowl. Or seek out the cleaned and hidden away dog food bowl, pull it out of the cabinet, chew on the steel rim and then put it on her head. And then drag it across the entire kitchen floor. And I absolutely would not blithely stand by and watch her do it with a smile on my face. Not me!

We really wanted to get home early to get the kiddos to bed. So we left for the restaurant quite early. We would not attempt to go out to dinner with a party of 8 with no reservations. I certainly have more sense than that! I would realize that we would end up waiting over 45 minutes for a table (even after arriving as early as 5), only to discover that the "table" was 2 back-to-back booths. And then proceed to wait 40 minutes for our food to arrive (eating out is highly over-rated---I do not miss it, at all, folks). Visions of carry-out and everyone sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk did not enter my head, even for a moment.

Dinner was totally uneventful. I did not have to watch Peter trying to eat applesauce with a soup spoon, I always bring normal-sized spoons with me for little mouths (what is it with restaurants that only have one size of spoon...and it's the soup spoon size! Wouldn't a plain, ordinary teaspoon make more sense, people?! Oh, yeah, sometimes they'll have an ice-tea spoon, gives the kiddos plenty of leverage for flinging their food across the table).

What's your favorite part about eating out with the kids?

Now check out what others are not doing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: Zeezok Publishing


As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, Zeezok Publishing sent me Handel at the Court of Kings, Robert Schumann and Mascot Ziff, their respective study guides and an accompanying cd for review purposes. I received no compensation. This review reflects the experiences of me and my family.

I never really thought about doing a composer study, or rather, I thought it would be something for my children when they were much older. Then I received Handel at the Court of Kings and Robert Schumann and Mascot Ziff, both living biographies written for young children by Opal Wheeler. The children sat, wide-eyed, listening as I read to them about how George Frederick Handel learned to play the spinet in the attic, wrapping the strings in strips of cloth so that his doctor father would not hear and stop him from becoming a dreaded musician. Not exactly dramatic material, but it's little stories like this that bring the young Handel alive on the page in a way that children can relate to and they were genuinely interested in what would happen next.

The accompanying cd contains recordings of various short pieces by the composers in this set. The music for each selection is also printed in the books, with the idea that children might actually learn to play some of the pieces. The sound quality is good, though I found that I had to turn the volume all the way up. The pieces here are so very short that they are not really sufficient to give an overall “feel” for the composer’s work. I would highly recommend adding a cd or two from your local library so you can the right atmosphere of appreciation. My kiddos’ reaction to the cd was “what’s all the fuss about?”

The study guides contains timelines, discussion questions and interesting “tidbits,” which give more information about the composer himself, as well as background information about the time and place. The tidbits add a lot of value to Wheeler’s simple narratives which tend to lack any real strife or conflict. You could leave these out for younger children, but then the boys might enjoy hearing, for instance, about Handel’s button saving him from a dueling sword.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable set, and good place to start for an informal composer study.

The Handel at the Court of Kings/Robert Schumann and Mascot Ziff Special Offer set is available from Zeezok Publishing for $35.80.

You can also purchase the books separately. Other composers as available, including Chopin, Schubert, and Hadyn.

For reviews of other products from Zeezok Publishing, please visit:


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Debra Bell’s Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling

ultimate homeschooling

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of the latest edition of The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling by Debra Bell from Apologia Educational Ministries, Inc. I received no compensation for this review.

One book simply cannot cover it all, but if you’re considering homeschooling (or even if you’ve been in the trenches a few years), I highly recommend The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling as a starting point. There are sections on determining your child’s (and your) learning style, deciding what to teach, establishing yearly goals, deciding on curriculum, using the internet as an educational resource, and, of course, the advantages of homeschooling (it doesn’t hurt to have a little assurance even if you are a veteran homeschooler). Throughout, the emphasis is on learning to follow and surrender to God’s will for us in all the things we do, including educating our children.

This is an honest book. You won’t catch Debra trying to sell you a land of milk and honey. She talks at great length about the challenges of homeschooling (more on this later) and how to determine if you have what it takes to do it successfully.

What I love about this book:

  • Debra will walk you through the importance of having a family mission---I know I have a tendency to get mired in details and lose sight of the big picture. I might have to reread this book every year for this section alone.
  • The section on determining your goals for the year---you won’t believe how much you really did accomplish this year if you have something written to refer to.
  • The plethora of resources! This book is just a beginning---there are numerous books to ponder (and check out from your library) on just about every topic covered here.
  • It’s a quick, fun read, even at 500 pages (the type is big and easy on the eyes). Headings and sidebars will point you to where you want to go.

Of course, not even the “Ultimate Guide” is perfect. While the section on the challenges of homeschooling offers valuable insight, remember that Debra doesn’t know your family and is not the ultimate authority. I know successful homeschoolers who would not have fit her description of what it takes to be a successful homeschooler. Ok, I make that a little stronger, I don't know of anyone who would fit the criteria laid out in this section. I certainly didn’t fit it when I started, and still don’t fit, it’s a role you grow into. And be careful reading about the achievements of Debra’s children, it’s enough to make anyone feel inadequate.

Debra also talks about using a number of resources that simply aren't available, are unaffordable or simply won't work for many families. Co-ops and expensive classes, for instance. I can't afford to homeschool the way she did it, but overall I consider the book a valuable resource to have in my library.

The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling is available from Apologia for $20.

You can read reviews of this book by other homechoolers here:


Wordless Wednesday: My Private Rainbow


Check out more Wordless Wednesday Pics.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Abominable Snow Beast Pics

back door

That would be our back door.

Sorry to take so long getting these up.

And I thought Maryland had mild weather compared to Missouri!


Yes, that is a chain-link fence covered by the snow. The weight of the snow, is actually separating the chain-link from the frame and bending the frame. That picnic table is on top of a raised patio, or it would be covered.

neighbors house And that is our neighbor’s house under all that snow.

good neighbors

And that’s my crew, shoveling her driveway!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

Flashcards. Sewing cards. Felt board pieces. Paper dolls. Tangrams. Manipulatives. Pokemon cards. Let’s face it, homeschoolers have got a lot of little bits and pieces to organize. Here’s an easy way to make an “Envelope File” to organize some of your goodies. I just made this up from things I had on hand when I needed to organize my coupons. Hubby pointed out that it would be perfect to add to my Toolbox.

envelope file front

You will need:

  • envelopes---number depends on what you are organizing. Business size works well for coupons, but you could use smaller envelopes or even manila envelopes, depending on what you are putting into them.
  • 2 or 3 brass brads
  • a hole punch---a heavy-duty adjustable multiple-hole punch would be ideal, but you can do it with a single if you got strength in your digits.

envelope file edge

Punch 2 or 3 holes along the bottom edge of each envelope (make sure they all line up when you stack them). Put your brads through the holes. Fold back each envelope about a half inch from the fastened edge (if you have many envelopes, fold the front half forward one at a time and the back half backward) to form a crease---this will give your envelopes room for “expansion” and will make it easier to flip through them. Write on each flap what goes into that envelope and…you’re done.

envelope file upend

What have you got in your Toolbox this week?

View previous installments of Tuesday's Toolbox here.

To participate in the meme, please sign MckLinky with your post for Tuesday's Toolbox, and feel free to use an old post if you like. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

This post has been linked to WFMW at We Are That Family.

Review: Eclectic Education Series

Dollar Homeschool Banner
As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of the Eclectic Education Series collection from Dollar Homeschool for review purposes. I received no compensation.
A K-12 curriculum for $159? No kidding? Dollar Homeschool presents a trip back in time to education the way it was from 1865 to 1915, before colorful workbooks and standardized tests. The Eclectic Education Series (EES) collection includes Mathematics (all levels of Ray’s Arithmetic and White’s Arithmetic), History (Thalheimer’s histories, Progressive Reading Course, and more), Science (from First Year Science to Norton’s Elements of Physics and more), Grammar (Harvey’s Grammar, Pinneo’s Grammar, and more), and all of McGuffey’s Readers. You can see a list of the book’s included in the EES collection here.
Most of these books are out of copyright and therefore in the public domain. If you do a quick search online, you’ll find a number of them available for free download. But many are not available online, at least I couldn’t find them. It all depends upon whether someone has taken the time to scan them page by page and post them. Hundreds of pages.
Dollar Homeschool has gone a step or two further. The books come to you in pdf format on cds. Each category (Arithmetic, History, Science, Grammar, and McGuffey’s Readers) comes on it's own cd. When you open one book on that cd, an index opens in the left sidebar in Adobe Reader, linking you to all the other books on that cd. For the most part, the books are listed in the order in which they should be taught. Ray’s Primary is followed by Ray’s Intellectual, which is followed by Ray’s New Elementary Arithmetic (and no, I didn’t know they came in that order until I received this product---another advantage). The pdfs are all searchable, but not clickable, so if you are looking for a particular topic you should be able to find it with relative ease, though you cannot search through all the pdfs in the index simultaneously, or jump to your desired page from the table of contents.
I first heard about Ray’s a few of years ago when I started homeschooling. It sounded attractive, especially as my oldest is extremely anti-workbook. The idea of something very simple, that’s been used for over a hundred years (and free or cheap) was appealing, but the scans I’d seen of Ray’s online confused me. Ray’s Primary Arithmetic sounded like the place to start, but there was no instruction, just pages of math problems. Do we to do these orally, with manipulatives, on paper…? I was missing a key ingredient. I had my “aha” moment after digging into EES---Ray’s Manual of Methods! It’s here and explains how the program is intended to be used.
There are other gems in this collection I know I would not have stumbled across in an internet search. First Year Science is a very thorough elementary science program, although I’m a little hesitant to rely solely on a science text written in 1915, there have been advances. They did discover Pluto. And call it a planet. And then say it wasn’t a planet…maybe a 1915 science text isn’t so far off the mark? Inaccuracies could be used as learning opportunities to show how man’s understanding of the world is inadequate and constantly evolving, provided you recognize the inaccuracies when you find them (but this could be true of many modern science texts). The Progressive Course in Reading, an alternative to McGuffey’s, will take you from beginning reading through vocal training. The 746 page Cyclopedia will fill your head with (possibly) useful knowledge.
I’ll be honest, the EES collection panders to the bibliophile in me without adding to my already overloaded bookcases. I’ve just added over 100 books to my library without having to buy another bookcase or adding any boxes when it comes time to move. And with the entire collection at my fingertips, I can pick and choose what I’d like to use, and print or not print…though I would love to actually have the original books in my hands. It is fatiguing to read so much from a computer monitor. One disadvantage to having these massive books on cd: they are much slower to load than they would be if they were resident on your hard-drive. But the entire collection would take up a couple of gigs of hard-drive space. Transferring them to a flashdrive would be a possibility, though you still may experience some lag.
A main selling point for me with this type of product is the quality of the scans. All the scans are black and white. The text is clear, with good contrast. Line drawings are also crisp and clear. Unfortunately, some of the other illustrations do not fair so well. The charming illustrations in the McGuffey readers are, for the most part shapeless blobs in these scans, making it impossible to discuss the pictures at all.
While I don’t really consider this a complete curriculum, it’s nice spine of general knowledge to build from as you fill in the gaps for the past 100 years of history and knowledge.
The Eclectic Education Series is available as a complete collection from Dollar Homeschool for $159 (free shipping).
You can also purchase each of the cds (Ray’s Arithmetic, History, Science, Grammar, and McGuffey’s Readers) separately. Prices range from $39 to $59.
All files are pdfs and should be compatible with any system that can run the free Adobe Reader.
To read other reviews of this product by homechoolers, please visit:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

GrapeVine Studies Has a New Website!

The official announcement is coming next week, but you can click on the banner above and check it out today (psst...they are having a sale through the end of the month).

Review: Young Minds – Numbers and Counting



As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of Young Minds – Numbers and Counting from Math Tutor for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Math Tutor has produced a truly beautiful DVD just for the little ones: Young Minds – Numbers and Counting. Set to music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, and Vivaldi, Young Minds explores the numbers 1-10 with brilliant photographs of animals, vehicles, fruits and other common, everyday objects your kids will easily recognize. There are also some short videos, time-lapse photography, and some sound effects (animal noises, mostly) sprinkled in…just enough to keep their attention. Photographs have been enhanced (I’ve never seen bananas quite that yellow), but in a good way---you feel like you can almost reach out and grab those oranges as they zoom-in, they are better than life.

Each number is presented separately, first a “one” segment, then a “two” segment, and so on. You can choose a chapter to play, play the whole video, or put it on “repeat.” Bonus material includes, puzzles, dot-to-dot and guess the animal. The movie, not including extras, runs a little over 30 minutes.

My kiddos all know their numbers and how to count to 10 (except the baby, of course), but they all (ages 9, 6, 4 and 10 months) love this DVD. The music and pace are soothing. The voice-over is done by a young child, counting the objects and saying a little about them (“these oranges are orange”). The photography is excellent. Very high production values.

The extras are not truly interactive, but you can fix that. For the dot-to-dots, for example, the puzzle is presented, but the video pauses only briefly before doing the dot-to-dot for you. I would recommend pausing the video before the answer is given and allowing your child to trace the correct route with their finger on the screen.

Overall, a good gift for a family with little ones!

Young Minds – Numbers and Counting is available from for $19.99.

Here's a sample of the video

To read reviews of this product by other homeschoolers, please visit:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

If you are getting buried in snow where you live, why not take a field trip…to your backyard? Investigate snow crystals in their infinite variety, and while you’re at it, take a bowl with you to collect fresh snow as it falls, you’ll want it later.

We’ve all heard the saying, “No two snowflakes are alike.” It’s true. Thanks to the work of a man named Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), the The Buffalo Museum of Science has an impressive digital collection of slides taken of actual snowflakes…and no two are alike. If you’d like to try to catch a few of your own, check out these instructions for making your own snowflake catcher. Then, take out your magnifying glass and see how they compare to these snowflakes viewed under a microscope. When you’re done, find out how snowflakes form and about different types of snowflakes.

Now, go retrieve your bowl of snow and make a treat for everybody: Snow Ice Cream. Yum! That’s what I call uncommon learning.

View previous installments of Tuesday's Toolbox here.

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 an old post if you like. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who Me? No, Not Me!


My dear husband left the care of our precious kiddos to me on Thursday morning as he traveled south for a 3-day conference (it rained buckets there while we faced 2 feet of snow). That first night, the youngest boy did not yell down the hall, “Mommy, the potty’s stopped up!”

And Mary did not excite the baby into swinging her whole body around while I was holding her. Nope, I’ve never been taken unawares by baby fingernails in my eye. And I’ve never experienced the excruciating pain of a scratched cornea. Or the sensation of tears pouring down my face, nose running, spasms forcing me to squint.

“Mommy, wipe my butt!” Did not happen.

Nope, you won’t have to picture me holding a wet towel over my injured eye with one hand while wiping my four-year-old’s bottom with the other. Or plunging the toilet, repeatedly. It’s never even crossed my mind that maybe the contractor of this house we’ve rented used substandard waste pipes. Plunging the toilets every few days is absolutely unheard of around here. Flushing while crossing your fingers? You’re kidding, right?

The next day was relatively uneventful. We just waited. for. the. snow. I never for a minute doubted the weather report. Never, not me. And then it came. And kept coming.

On Saturday morning we were up to about 18 inches. Peter was sick (we have had a cold making the rounds) and sleepy, so he slept, but the older kiddos begged and begged me to play in the snow. So, I sent them out in the backyard.

Let me be perfectly clear here. I did not put my waterproof boots on Mary and Daddy’s boots on David and tighten the laces super tight. The kids’ snowboots have definitely not disappeared in the blackhole of our move, I never lose or misplace anything, especially nothing as important as boots to keep the kiddos’ tootsies warm and dry. And if I had lost the snowboots, I would (yes, really) run out and buy new ones right away…I would never contemplate wrapping my kids feet in plastic wrap or plastic grocery bags instead. So, Mary and David did not clomped down the stairs and into the backyard in clown feet. Nope, didn’t happen.

And when they opened the back door to the garage and the snow came in and needed to be cleaned up, it did not suddenly dawn on me that the last time I had seen the snow shovel, it was laying in the grass in the backyard after the last snow. I did not frantically search the garage for it hoping that I was mistaken…not necessary! And I never panic. I always know where my important tools are!

The next day, Sunday, the kiddos were excitedly anticipating Daddy’s afternoon arrival. The drive still needed to be shoveled. My snow shovel was not still missing. I did not trudge through snow up to my knees to the shed in the back of our yard and retrieve our garden spade. I did not consider, even for a minute, spending the entire day trying to shovel our drive with a garden spade. That would be completely idiotic. (A garden spade does make a good snow shovel detector if used in the right way and it sure beats digging it up with your hands or a cardboard box.)

Hubby came home to a family very happy to see him and a shoveled drive. He also brought a special gift for the kiddos: their own snow shovel. Praise God!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Review: Kinderbach, Piano Lessons for Kids

About a year ago, our family had the opportunity to use and review Kinderbach, an online 60-week program designed to introduce kids aged 2-7 to the world of music. You can find my original review here (Please see below for updated pricing). We recently had the opportunity to try out the program again.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free 3-month subscription to Kinderbach's online piano lessons for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

The program itself hasn't really changed since my last review, but my kiddos have grown up some. Mary and Peter still couldn't get enough of these short, snappy lessons. While the lesson length varied, none are more than 15 minutes long. Every time I announced "It's Kinderbach time", they gleefully dug through my kitchen drawers and cupboards for "rhythm" instruments (why is that left to their own devices, children always concoct the noisiest contraption they can...think stainless steel bowls and metal serving spoons?). We watched a week's worth of lessons each time. It seemed as though they were just getting warmed up by the time the first lesson of each week ended...they always begged for "just one more." While Peter still doesn't fully have the rhythm thing down, at age four he was much more on the ball with this program than before. Mary has matured musically as well.

Last year, I had some difficulty with the activity sheet pdfs not downloading properly on each lesson page. While I was still not able to get these to download consistently off the week's page, they have added downloadable activity books for each level that can be downloaded and printed ahead of time. I was also able to overcome the logistical problem I had before with having 2 kiddos sit in front of the computer while trying to do coloring pages and banging away on rhythm instruments: I hooked the computer up to the TV so we were able to view the lessons on the big screen. Everyone had plenty of elbow room sitting on the couch and our clipboards came in handy for coloring.

Overall, it's a cute, engaging program for the kiddos, but I have a little trouble using it consistently simply because it is online. The extra step of having to shutdown my computer, switch the video cable, boot up and then go online causes too much of a break in our day. I have not seen a lot of retention of the lessons, but with consistent use, I might see more improvement than I have. The lessons are available on DVD, so it might be worthwhile to investigate that route.

The overall cost seems a bit steep given the length of the lessons---you could easily go through 4 or 5 weeks of lessons in a week and complete the whole program in about 3 months. There are no "outside" activities offered for reinforcing the lessons other than the printable activity pages, most of which are used during the lesson itself. However, the lessons are easy on Mom---other than printing the activity sheets ahead of time, there's really no prep required.

The cost has gone up a bit:
Get an annual subscription for $95.88 or pay $19.99/month.
They've added a 1-day pass for $5.95.

You can still access the first 2 weeks for free by providing your email addy.
Lessons are also available on DVD, with single levels (there are 6) starting at $40.45.
DVD value packages are also available.

For other reviews of this program, please visit:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: Worship Guitar Class for Kids


The guitar is not an easy instrument to learn to play, especially for little ones. Stretching those short fingers around the fretboard can be frustrating, especially if your adult instructor does it with ease. How to keep up?

Jean Welles has developed Worship Guitar Class for Kids, a series of short guitar lessons specifically for children ages 5 and up. The program includes:

  • A DVD with 9 Lessons, 2 1/2 hours long.
  • A downloadable eBook - over 30 pages!
  • A Practice Session for every lesson, that starts with prayer.
  • A Practice Chart you can photocopy.
  • Lessons are also available as streaming video on the web.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received unlimited access to the Worship Guitar Class for Kids lessons via video streaming and a free download of the accompanying book for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Mary (age 6) has been begging to learn to play guitar, and was blessed to receive a half-size guitar for Christmas, so she was eager to try this out. The weekly lessons are short, averaging 8 minutes long, and each lesson has an accompanying practice session (about 5 minutes) intended for daily use. The first lesson begins by explaining the various parts of the guitar, how to keep time with rhythm patterns, how to strum, how to “walk” the fingers on a string, 2 guitar chords, and how to play a simple song with them. Jean does a good job a speaking in an even tone in simple words a child can understand without talking down to them. There are plenty of close-ups showing finger placement and there’s plenty of repetition, demonstrating the moves at a regular pace and then more slowly.

At first, Mary seemed to feel a bit overwhelmed by the lesson. It was something new, and even with a half-size guitar, wrapping those fingers around the fretboard is not an easy task. But then Abigail appeared on the screen. Abigail is a 7-year-old girl featured in the lessons as a student who is learning right along with your child. Suddenly, Mary felt more up to the task when she saw someone close to her own age having a hard time reaching those frets and who wasn’t nearly as perfect as the teacher. Including a student on these videos was a brilliant idea!

The practice sessions begin with a prayer and continue by going through all the things learned in the lesson. These are quick and painless, and Mary enjoys doing them. Lesson 2 moves on to picking out a few single notes. Mary feels uncomfortable with this lesson and so we have not moved on, yet. She has a great deal of difficulty getting her left fingers placed correctly and feels like she’s not doing it right because she’s a lot slower than the instructor. So, she asked to go back to the first lesson. She wants to really get that one down before moving onto the 2nd lesson, again. And this is fine. With persistent practice, she is improving her speed and accuracy on the chords. The beauty of these lessons is that you can go at your own pace. We’ll move on when she is ready

The video streaming quality is about average, though I have to turn the sound way up for Mary to hear the lessons above all the other racket in our house. The buffer is more than sufficient, we’ve not had any trouble with the videos stopping or hesitating. I do find having to go online and stream the videos on the computer inconvenient. There are times during the day when I simply prefer to keep the computer off so it’s not a distraction, and other times when my older child needs the computer to complete an assignment or work on a project. If I were purchasing the program, I would prefer to have it on DVD.

Jean Welles Worship Guitar Class for Kids is available:

  • on DVD for $29.97
  • or as video streaming online for $28
  • or get both for $33
A sample from the first lesson and from the ebook is available for preview on the website.

For other reviews of the product or of Worship Guitar Class Vol. 1 (for older kids and adults), go to:


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

WFMW: The Family Bakery


Who says you can’t close school for the day and open a bakery instead? Every once in a while (ok, way more than once in a while) I need to remind myself that I’m raising children, not stuffing filing cabinets full of information. And part of raising children is giving them the skills they need to be adults…not just “productive” adults in the workplace, but adults capable of making it out there in that big, wide world. David will eventually need to manage his own time and Mary will eventually need to be able bake cookies for her own children (I hope).

So Monday, David was in charge of his own learning

2010 003and Mary baked!

Take a look at what she wrote on her hat (click on the pic):

2010 010 ("The chef is Mary and Mommy")

Isn’t that precious?

And the bakery is open!

2010 008 We made Snickerdoodles, Coconut-Chocolate Chip drop scones, Cinnamon rolls, Cinnamon-Oatmeal muffins, and french bread.

Here’s a little measuring tip for your aspiring baker: place the measuring cup in a bowl (see first pic) and have your angel spoon the flour (or sugar or whatever) into the measuring cup and then use the back of a butter knife to level it off into the bowl---no flour-coated kitchen. An apron is good, too, though Mary's has disappeared, so she wore an old jumper over her clothes.

This is what’s working for me, check out what’s working for other bloggers at We are that Family.

Review: factsfirst by Saxon Homeschool


As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received free 90-day access to factsfirst for review purposes. I received no other compensation. This review reflects the experiences of me and my family.

factsfirst is an online subscription program designed to review and practice basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts (up to the 12s). Math facts are covered in a systematic way, with each subcategory beginning with a pretest to determine which facts your child may already know. Your child will be directed to the next activity by the name of that activity being highlighted in yellow. The program is designed so that if mastery is demonstrated in a particular area, that area is skipped, though there will be plenty of review problems later.

When your child enters the program for the first time, he will be prompted to create an avatar who will appear on-screen as he practices:

screen_avatarMaker_smFrankly, I found the avatars a bit creepy. While it’s neat to be able to make them totally individual (there’s lots of options for changing skin-tone, hair color, clothing, adding braces and other accessories), the flat illustration simply didn’t appeal to me or my family much.

After creating an avatar, your child will begin his first pretest to see what he already knows. I expected that the first pretest would cover all the facts in that topic (ie, addition) to get a baseline for improvement. Instead, the facts are divided into subcategories (for example, adding 0, or adding 5) and there is a pretest for each. Problems presented in each session are divided up into “sets” so that your child will not be answering an endless stream of problems. There is an indicator at the bottom of the screen to show how many problems remain in the current set, but you do not know how many sets there are in a given activity (it varies quite a bit) until you have finished them.

After taking the pretest, if there are any facts he has not yet mastered, your child will be directed to those for practice. An explanation of the facts will be given (if you have the sound on, it will be read to him) and then some practice problems. Practice continues by mixing those problems in with some he’s already mastered. Again, the problems are divided into sets, but there’s no indication of how many sets there will be. Correct answers get a checkmark. Correct and very quick answers get a check plus. If he answers a problem incorrectly, a message comes up stating his answer was incorrect and giving the correct answer. After completing a practice session, your child will be given a 5 minute “game break.” He can either change his avatar or choose from a few different games to play, all require practicing the math facts he has already practiced.

His progress will be displayed for him as he completes each practice session so he gets visual affirmation of how he’s doing:


Each family account supports up to 4 users and all four profiles are accessed from the same main page.

factsfirst home pageAs you can see, there is a profile button for each child and a place for parents to check their progress. Parental input is minimal. You can view (and print) charts that show you which facts have been mastered and which facts need more work, but there’s no record of how much time has been spent on any of the activities. You can also adjust the amount of time your child has to answer each problem to show mastery or set it to “untimed.”

Overall, a well-thought out program for what it is designed to do. If your child understands the basic concepts but just doesn’t seem to be able to memorize the facts, take a look at the demo.

A 1-year household license (up to 4 users) for factsfirst costs $49.99.

To read other reviews of this products, please visit:


Monday, February 1, 2010

Tuesday’s Toolbox

Tuesday's Toolbox button

The paperclip was patented in 1899 by William D. Middlebrook of Waterbury, Connecticut. A nifty invention, the paperclip. While its original intent was to clip loose pieces of paper together, I’m willing to bet that, resourceful homeschooler that you are, you’ve come up with a few “off-label” uses for paperclips. They can be handy for hanging up timelines, diagrams or even precious treasures:

2010 011Paperclips are also a cheap, ready-at-hand tool for science experiments, whether you want to investigate surface tension, magnetism, or even designing a parachute.

Please pardon the brevity of this edition, we're feeling a little under the weather around here.

View previous installments of Tuesday's Toolbox here.

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 an old post if you like. Be sure to link back to this post so your readers can check out other ideas.

Not Me Monday


I did not just say: “Don’t lick the baby!”

If you’re thinking, “I didn’t think they had a dog,” you are right.

My oldest did not retrieve Lego pieces from the baby’s playpen this morning.

The baby did not pitch a fit when I put her in her crib to finish a project with her older sister. I did not ignore the racket and did not pray she would take a much needed nap, but:

emmabarsblog How do they do that?