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Friday, November 19, 2010

Our Week: Re-evaluating Math

Don't you hate it when you put a lot of time, money, and energy into a good program...and it turns out it really won't work in your situation?

I feel like I'm playing musical chairs when it comes to math programs. And the approach I like at any given moment just depends upon where I'm at when the music stops...or when Emma starts dismantling the book shelves again. Right now I'm really liking the independent workbook approach. Not really, since I know that workbooks really don't teach anything, at least not on their own. It's the independence I'm craving.

So, to re-cap. In September we started Mary on Right Start Level B and David on Right Start Level C. Hubby and I did a ton of research on math programs and decided that we needed to overcome David's math deficiencies. He has to potential to do well in math, but we need to get him past his feelings of inadequacy in that department.

Now let me clarify here...David is super intelligent when it comes to math, he gets concepts pretty well. But, while 90% of math is getting the concepts and making connections, there is still that 10% that involves memorizing the facts. This is his stumbling block. Timed drills don't work for him. They cause too much stress and lock up his brain. He just freaks out (I had the same problem with timed drills when I was in school, so I can relate). I have no doubt that once he has developed automaticity, timed tests will no longer be a hurdle.

There are also some small holes in his conceptual understanding (he's forgotten stuff). So, the hope was that a very one-on-one program with the emphasis on learning and cementing the facts through games and other activities would work for him. We like the idea of using the abacus to help with his visual learning, not as a crutch but a temporary scaffold.

So, we gulped, paid the cash and took him to Level C (he started with Transitions first, which is designed as a bridge for students coming from a different math program), which we knew would have a good bit of review. Ok, a lot of review. But once you've got the basics down, you can move on.

And since we want Mary to also have a strong conceptual understanding, we put her in Level B.

And this week we decided this really isn't working for our homeschool. The first problem: in early October, 19-month-old Emma decided she no longer takes naps. Not only that, she decided that since she no longer takes naps, she will just climb out of her crib, open the bedroom door and run on downstairs to continue to wreak havoc. Makes it a little hard to get all the one-on-one time in, if you know what I mean? And we have other things besides math that require one-on-one time. Like Mary's All About Spelling. And Peter's reading. Although I have had David work with him successfully.

Second problem: too much review, for both children. Mary is bored to tears with representing addition problems with pictorial base-ten cards, the abacus (she absolutely hated using tally sticks) and the like. Some of the lessons just seem, well, overkill. How many little bitty triangles can I honestly expect a 6-year-old to cut out to construct a 6-foot high Cotter Ten Fractal, even if we did it over a few days? And what does that really accomplish? And where would I put it, anyway? We have skipped over or abbreviated some lessons for both of them. And Mary has done some workbook pages, just because she likes workbook pages. Really.

Third problem: I'm sick of the spiraling. There, I said it. I think spiraling review is necessary, particularly for topics that won't be used often (like Roman numerals, and measuring), but if you can teach a 1st grader the 1/2 and 1/4 hours, you can certainly teach them to the 5's and even the actual time. Mary can certainly count by 5's. And if I'm going to show her how to add together 4-digit numbers using base ten and place value cards in lesson 30-something, why does she have to wait until lesson 90-something to do it on paper? She wants to do it on paper.

So, after having a heart-to-heart with hubby, we've decided we need a less formal approach for David that can be fit into little chinks and chunks of time as they come available. Hubby will be working with him in the evenings on mastering his multiplication facts. We'll continue to review addition and subtraction facts. Meanwhile, I'll peruse the rest of the RS book and see if there are any concepts he is missing. I'm thinking up some activities to reinforce that work. And none of them require the expensive Right Start manipulatives. The abacuses will come in handy, though.

For Mary, I'm seriously considering go to a (shudder) workbook, but using the workbook as reinforcement and concentrating mainly on getting her to memorize her addition and subtraction facts...she has drill-o-phobia, too. But, she'll write out math facts all day long if you ask her to, just don't put a time limit on it. We'll also be doing some less formal learning. Today, we were working on counting money. Quarters are hard, but she's got the dimes and nickels down.

What I've learned from this experience that I needed to know:
  • I am totally capable of teaching any and all of these concepts in my homeschool (we'll see how I feel when we get to Algebra 2). Even without a fancy math program.
  • Mary has trouble with spatial relationships (she can't visualize, for instance, that if she flips 2 triangles around the right way and puts them together, she'll get a slanted parallelogram, she just keeps turning them the same way), not something to worry about, since she's still young (almost 7) and girls tend to have more trouble with this area than boys, but something to work on.
  • Both children have very different learning styles. Mary doesn't even like manipulatives.
  • David understands more than I realized.
  • It's not the end of the world. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, he will get this. He won't be mathematically crippled for life.
What areas do your kiddos struggle in? What ways have you found to get them through?

Review: KB Teachers


Looking for a never ending supply of customized worksheets to keep the kiddos busy? KB Teachers has what you’re looking for, and they’ve thrown in some bonuses: web quests, free clipart, and plenty of pre-made worksheets on various topics from astronomy to ancient history.

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew I received a free subscription to KB teachers for this review. I received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Now you’re thinking: “Worksheets, what’s the big deal, there are tons of free worksheets available all over the internet.”

And that’s true. Given the plentitude of free resources out there, many of them made by teachers and other homeschooling mamas (and papas), any service that provides worksheets for pay has got some pretty stiff competition. It’s going to have to be really good. How does KB Teachers measure up?

The site is easy to navigate. There’s no search function, but this is intentional. The goal is to get you where you want to be within a couple of clicks and I like that. A well organized site that doesn’t require me to scan through of couple of pages for possibles saves me some valuable time.

There are numerous premade worksheets waiting to be printed off. One thing that struck me was the number of worksheets for older students (middle school and high school) for history and geography. Worksheet sites tend to be mostly for the elementary grades, so I was impressed by this.

Most of the science worksheets could be used for multiple grades. There are sheets on marine biology, human anatomy, plants, nutrition, astronomy, geology, weather & climate, and dinosaurs. A nice mix of topics, not a curriculum by itself, but nice little extras to add to whatever you are using. The answer keys are complete, so some of these could even be used independent of a curriculum (perfect for when one of the kiddos announces he wants to study octopi on a rainy day, for instance).

Graphics on the worksheets tend to be pretty low-tech, this is not necessarily a negative (really nice graphics would drink up tons of ink, after all), just an observation.

Alphabet and picture counting worksheets will keep your preschool to K kiddos busy while your elementary students work on sheets you’ve created from the handwriting and math worksheet generators. You can choose print or cursive (solid or dotted) fonts, in color or black and white.

Looking for something to do on a rainy day? Check out the calendar for this month’s web quests. For November, there were web quests for Charles Schultz’s birthday, peanut butter fudge day, Veteran’s Day, Marie Curie’s birthday, Thanksgiving and many many more special topics.

What did I like?

KB Teachers is a handy “go-to” site to quickly print off a few pages without doing a bunch of hunting around. I really liked the option for making worksheets using ASL and Morse code…unusual and cool! And having the option of printing many of the worksheets in black and white or color is perfect. Sometimes you want a little color and sometimes you want to save on ink.

What could be improved?

I found the offerings to be fairly limited. I would like to see more font options for the handwriting worksheets. There are free handwriting worksheet generators out there with more options.

The web quests need to be updated. Out of the half dozen or so that I checked the links on, all had at least some dead links, and a few had no good links. The web is a dynamic place that is constantly changing…in order for web quests to work, they need to be constantly updated.

What don’t I like?

Although I applaud the designer’s desire to remove a need for a search function, I would like the option of a search function.

Seasonal pages are only linked to the menu “in season,” so without a search function I can’t go looking for Christmas in July.

No save function---I realize this is to protect the company’s interests (why renew your subscription if you’ve saved their content to your hard-drive?). Your subscription entitles you to print from their site, not to save files from their site. However, pdf print drivers do work on this site.

I hear that KB Teachers is in the process of remodeling their site...there may be changes on the horizon.

Would I recommend it?

If you like using worksheets in your homeschool KB Teachers is worth a look. We don’t tend to use very many worksheets, though I have used them when I need to keep some people busy. In my case, it probably wouldn't make much sense to have a subscription, but for someone who uses more worksheets, the price for KB Teachers is quite reasonable.

How much?

You can actually print most of the worksheets on this site for free…if you don’t mind a very obvious, somewhat obscuring “watermark.”

kbteachers watermark

Yes, it really does print with that light blue lettering across it.

For a premium membership to KB Teachers that removes all watermarks, the price is $29 for 12 months or $49 for 2 years. It comes with a 30-day money back guarantee.

For more reviews on this product, please visit the TOS Homeschool Crew blog page.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Catholic Toolbox

I just discovered this blog purely by accident, great resources including printables, lesson plans, and file folder games for Catholic homeschoolers: The Catholic Toolbox.

Review: Corps of Re-Discovery


After trekking through 47 of the 50 United States, one homeschooling family was inspired to share our nation’s heritage through hands-on learning with all of us who can’t take off in a 32-foot RV to explore it all firsthand…and Corps of Re-Discovery was born. On their site, you’ll find an interesting assortment of crafty kits and and doodads to add some memorable moments to your American history studies.

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a Fringe Pouch Kit to review. I received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

fringe-pouch-1__75814_zoomMary (age 6) was very excited when this came in the mail: something to sew! Here she is, getting ready to stitch together the pre-punched suede. october 2010 052

(Picture to the left is the stock photo, colors will vary from kit to kit.)

The Fringe Pouch Kit comes with everything you need to make one pouch (except scissors): pre-punched suede leather pieces, leather cording, waxed linen, a needle and instructions.

october 2010 043The kit was very easy to assemble, in fact, once I got it set up, Mary was able to do this almost entirely on her own.

october 2010 054

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october 2010 056october 2010 058

What we liked:

Quality materials and a simple project that really is doable in an afternoon for a 1st grade or older child. Mary’s sense of accomplishment was wonderful!

What could be improved:

I would like to see clearer instructions with better (and more) illustrations. At least one illustration was labeled incorrectly, or at least, the instructions referred to a label that was not on the corresponding illustration. The instructions for threading the drawstring had me scratching my head for a minute, too. In the end, I figured it out by trying it on one side while showing Mary, but I can imagine that someone without sewing or crafting know-how might have some difficulty.


This was a good experience. I’m thinking about ordering another one of their kits. While the boys would probably like the Tomahawk, I’m leaning more towards the Patchwork Quilt or Weaving Loom.

The Fringe Pouch Kit is currently available for $11.99 (on sale) from Corps of Re-Discovery.

Prices on other kits vary.

For reviews on other kits, please visit the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: The Write Foundation


When homeschooling mama, Rebecca Celsor, took on teaching writing in a co-op, she searched high and low for the just the right curriculum. It should be easy to follow and take the kiddos step-by-step through the process of developing their writing from the foundations up…but when she couldn’t find it, she found herself writing her own curriculum: The Write Foundation.

This complete writing curriculum is divided into 3 levels:

  1. Sentence to Paragraph Writing (ages 11-13)
  2. Paragraph Writing (ages 12-15)
  3. Essay Writing (ages 14-17)

Each level contains a total of 30 lessons, which can be taught over the course of a year, or take 2 weeks for each lesson and stretch the course over 2 years. The complete curriculum includes the spiral-bound instruction manuals, loose worksheets and a cd-rom containing teacher’s presentations (example worksheets for teaching purposes), reading lists, grading sheets, word games, check lists, and weekly assignments. You will also need to purchase a 3-ring binder, 8 dividers, 6 different colored highlighters, and Mind Benders from Critical Thinking Co. (MB is optional, but a worthwhile addition). You will also need a Thesaurus and a dictionary.

For this review I received Level 1: Sentence to Paragraph Writing Lessons 1-15 to use with 10-year-old David. David is a strong writer for his age. He has a good grasp of language and sentence structure, but needs some help with organizing his thoughts…a paragraph can run to a whole page, if you know what I mean. He also tends to be a bit reluctant about writing…he’s grown out of this some the past year or so, but writing things out, especially with paper and pencil is generally not his idea of a fun time (unless it’s his idea). The Write Foundation is specially geared towards reluctant writers, so I thought this would be a good fit. Having known students when I was in college who needed to visit the Writing Center every week for remedial tutoring, I know how important it is to get the right foundation.

What we like:

David is enjoying this curriculum. When I first told him we would be starting a new writing program, he groaned. Now that he’s writing silly sentences and creating concrete and acrostic poetry, he’s not demanding to do it every day, but he’s not complaining about it (always a good sign). The assignments are pretty fun and encourage him to expand his vocabulary by using a Thesaurus and a dictionary. He likes that the final assignments to be graded must be typed (handwriting is still an issue for him).

I like that the program is incremental, so he doesn’t have to try to wrestle a paragraph into shape right away. We began by marking up sentences for subjects and verbs, and learning how to add more interesting language to his sentences. We’ll eventually move on to outlining ideas and finally writing full paragraphs.

The forays into poetry add variety and an appreciation for language. The poetry in the Write Foundation is not what you would call high art. I do have a little bit of concern about this…I don’t want to foster the idea that a poem is just something that rhymes, but I also don’t want poetry to seem like some inaccessible thing not to be enjoyed. I know from experience that poetry writing can have a very positive impact on a writer’s other writings. We’ve learning about alliteration (an effective tool in other writing, too) and how the physical shape of a poem can convey a message.

The teaching sessions are a joint effort---David likes that we are working together---to cement the idea, then he does his “homework” (independent work) on his own. The technique here is almost perfect. Personal experience has shown me that telling the kiddos how to do something, or even showing them how to do something, is not really enough to ensure that they get it. We need to do it together. And not just 1-2 examples, but several times so they are comfortable with what they are doing. The Write Foundation gives you plenty of examples to do with your kiddos (almost too many, really, but you don’t have to use them all). By the time I send David off to do his own work, I know that he knows what he’s doing.

What we tweaked:

Ms. Celsor does state in the introduction that you should change the curriculum as you need to …do not feel you are a slave to it. Of course, she knows that this is what homeschoolers do best.

Keeping in mind that this curriculum really was designed for a co-op, there are some things that we found weren’t necessary in our home situation. The 8-dividers were a little confusing at first, but I’ve found that we really don’t use all of them (I grade assignments right away, for instance, so no need to have a separate section for things waiting to be graded).

Some of the suggested activities don’t really work as well in a home situation, (like interviewing other students in lesson 3), but alternatives are sometimes offered.

I found some of the independent assignments to be too long, partly because by the time David gets to doing the independent work, he’s already done the bulk of the teaching session’s work (with some input from Mom). Here’s an example: For Lesson one, one teaching session involved writing several silly sentences using alliterating words. While David and I technically did this together, the sentences came from him, I just wrote them on the whiteboard, he copied them and then he highlighted the parts. The independent assignment required him to write 10 more sentences on his own. Since I already knew he got it, this seemed a bit too much, and I didn’t want a rebellion on my hands, so I assigned 5 sentences. He surprised me by having so much fun with it that he wrote 8 sentences.

What needs improvement:

While the overall curriculum is well organized and progresses logically, the week to week lessons are a bit of a jumble. The information to teach is presented in one order, but when you get to the assignment page at the end of the lesson, the days are laid out in a different order. For example, in Lesson 2, Concrete Poetry is presented last in the teacher’s notes, and yet the assignment schedule has it at day 2 for the week. The flipping back and forth and trying to figure out where I was at simply didn’t work for me, so I just worked from the teaching notes and ignored the assignment page. Worked ok, except the teaching notes don’t always have all the assignments to be given…oops! That’s another inconsistency.

I also found a number of typographical errors, some grammatical mistakes and so forth, things that require an editor’s eye. I wouldn’t give a curriculum a thumbs down on this basis alone (I know how easy it is to make these mistakes, blush), but it is distracting in a curriculum designed to teach writing. There were also some gaffes in the teaching notes where answers were being given for worksheets (verbs that were supposed to be highlighted, but weren’t, for instance) and inconsistencies between what at least one worksheet had on it and the the manual said it had on it. Minor little things, but they might be obstacles to someone who’s not confident in teaching this subject.

The curriculum was shipped with the worksheets loose…and a teeny bit crumpled. I’d like to see these packed more carefully.


I like the idea of the program and what the author is trying to achieve. While I don’t think the execution is spot on, The Write Foundation is definitely a worthwhile program and I can see that it’s accomplishing the goals in mind. We will continue to use it. I don't know that I would purchase lessons 16-30...the price seems a bit steep for the materials included, but I’m a cheapskate. UPDATE 11-15-10: The Write Foundation has reduced their prices (current prices reflected below) and the author is revising the curriculum to make it more homeschool friendly.


The Write Foundation Curriculum Bundles (Includes instruction manuals, printed worksheets, and cd-rom with additional resources to print):

Level 1 complete (includes lessons 1-30): $100 $69.95 plus tax and shipping

Level 1 (lessons 1-15 or lessons 16-30): $65 $39.95 plus tax and shipping

You can also purchase the instruction manuals and worksheets separately.

Sample lesson plans available here.

Also available: Level 2 and Level 3

See more reviews of this product and of levels 2 and 3 on the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog.

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free copy of the product reviewed in order to review it. I received no other compensation. The opinions expressed are my own.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It was time...

I haven't lived in the Midwest for over a year. I'm not originally from the Midwest. It was time to drop the hastily chosen nickname that I've outgrown. I thought about coming up with a clever new one, but well, I'm just not feeling so clever these days. I hope you don't mind if it's just plain me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Book Collector Pro 7.0


From oversized picture books to a set of encyclopedias to cheap paperbacks, we have thousands of books in our home. What homeschool doesn't? In fact, we are setting up a library of sorts. But organizing it all is a bit daunting…I admit that I’ve found more than one copy of more than one book while in the process of unpacking, and sometimes even on the same shelf.

How many many times have I gotten an idea for a great unit study, scoured the local library’s shelves looking for resources, only to find the perfect book “shelved” behind the sofa? Or in the toy bin? How many times have I racked my brain trying to think of that history book I was saving for 6th grade…and trying to find it amongst those double-shelved shelves?

And lest you think this is simply a lack of personal organization (and I admit, some of it is), my shelving of books in my home library is not alphabetical or Dewy Decimal for a very good reason: lack of space and aestheticism. A library has the luxury of shelving books of the same subject or author, regardless of the physical size and appearance of the books, but a bibliophile simply has to keep trade paperbacks together, over-sized books together, and so on…unless I’m going to add free-standing stacks to the middle of my library. Not going to happen.

I need a system to organize our books that doesn’t require physically organizing them beyond making the most of my available space. Book Collector Pro from Collectorz is just the thing.


Adding your books into Book Collector is easy peasy. If you have a scanner, like the cuecat (I don’t), you can scan barcodes, but if not, typing in a 10- or 13-digit isbn for each book is not at all taxing with a numberpad. I was able to enter stacks of books in no time at all. Just type in the isbn, click search, and Book Collector will search its online database for your book, pulling up all the relevant info, including a cover image. Don’t have an isbn? Books and magazines can be entered with an LC (Library of Congress) number, by title and by author. Your search will bring back a list of “likely suspects” to choose from. In the event that your book cannot be found, titles and info can be added manually. Cover image wrong? You can search for the correct cover for your edition or even upload your own image! This feature is super cool for me…I’m pretty visual, so knowing what a book looks like helps me tremendously when locating it or even when trying to remember what it’s about.

And this is what really sets Book Collector apart from other book database programs I have seen: it is so customizable! Each book has its very own profile where you can categorize it by subject and genre, choose it’s format (paperback, comb-binding, e-book, etc.), add notes as to its actual physical location (whether it’s a bathroom book or a bedroom book), give it an owner (create different owner designations for each family member), keep track of it if you loan it out, and more. You can even input books you don’t own one your “wishlist.”

Being able to categorize the books by their binding, or lack thereof (I’m thinking of the myriads of e-books I’ve got stashed on my hard-drive and various flash-drives, ahem), is a definite plus. Being able to note each book’s location, perfect! I’m seriously considering numbering each of my bookshelves and giving it a designation in Book Collector. It would make it so much easier to locate wayward books. Plus, for every e-book, I can note which flash-drive or hard-drive it is on, what folder, etc. I’m really pleased with this. Maybe this will push me to finally organize all my stuff.

You can add your own genres and subjects, too. And since all your books can be sorted by subject or genre (or title, or author, or…), it’s quite easy to create your own categories to “browse” when you are looking for the perfect resource. I could for instance, categorize books as homeschool books, 1st grade math, science unit study, whatever floats my boat…and makes it work for me.

If you are prone to double-buying books, ahem, there’s also an iPod app available to export your book list from Book Collector Pro to your iPhone or iPod Touch for $9.99.

Can you tell I like it?

Download the free trial of Book Collector and give it a try (you can input up to 100 books with the free trial).

Book Collector Standard is available for $29.95.

Book Collector Pro is available for $49.95.

What’s the dif? The Pro version allows you to use the iPod app, keep track of book loans, create customized lists, adds extra user defined fields (even rename fields if you like), and more. Check the site for a comparison.

Available for Windows and for Mac OS X.

Disclosure: This is a TOS Homeschool Crew review. I received a free license for this software for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: The Skin Map by Stephen R. Lawhead


What would you do if you found yourself in an unfamiliar part of town and out of the shadows stepped your great-grandfather…the rogue who abandoned his wife and family long before you were ever born and simply vanished. Except that if this man really is your great-grand, he’s well over a 100-years-old if he’s a day, yet he’s a spry one for all those years. He starts talking to you about ley lines and traveling through time to another place where things happened a little differently than in the world you know. And how he needs your help. Would you take his hand, take a chance and enter an alternate reality?

This is the dilemma that faces Cosimo Christopher Livingstone (Kit, to you) at the beginning of The Skin Map, the first book in Stephen R. Lawhead’s Bright Empires series from Thomas Nelson. Before it’s over, he and his girlfriend, Mina, will find themselves becoming regular time-travelers searching for the coveted Map, a series of intricate tattoos preserved in the skin of a man who has long been dead. They hope it holds the secret to knowing where they are and where they are going. They know that if it falls into the wrong hands, their own lives are forfeit.

And by the end, you’ll be wondering when the next book is coming out.

I enjoyed The Skin Map. At first, Kit came across as a loser and Mina sounded like someone I really just don’t want to care about. But they grew on me, foibles and all. And they grew up a good bit over the course of the book---it seems they just needed the right impetus to snap them out of their gray lives. Lawhead very carefully weaves together several narratives, showing you glimpses here, snatches there of the overall story from different perspectives. You’ll meet the original bearer of the map and his chief adversary who will take it at any cost. You’ll journey through different times and locations and ponder the ethics of changing history in alternate reality where that history hasn’t happened, yet, and may never happen. And you’ll care about whether Kit, his great-grandpa, and Mina will get out alive.

I really do want to read the next book.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson for review purposes. I received no other compensation. This review reflects my honest opinions.

Review: Columbus Terra Political Globe


CSN Stores has all kinds of household goods, but did you know that they have high quality educational products for your homeschool, too? Like this beautiful political globe from Columbus:

Terra Political Globe - 10' Diameter

This illuminated globe shows political boundaries when it isn’t lit, but when lit, it becomes a topographical globe:

globe plus grammy visit 002globe plus grammy visit 007

The stock photo doesn’t show it, but the cord comes out of the south pole axis, which does not in any way interfere with its rotation. The globe comes with a candelabra bulb installed and a spare bulb.

At 10” (globes are measured in diameter), the Terra Political Globe is large enough that you can read most of the names (though if you have tired eyes like mine, you might like a magnifying glass), but small enough that it’s not impossible to store when not in use (I have it on top my my fridge).

What we love about it:

The actual globe is a virtually unbreakable acrylic ball! For those of you have been reading me long enough, you know we don’t have a good track record when it comes to globes:

global destruction

I’m hopeful that the Terra globe will last for a good long while…or at least until all the political boundaries in the real world change.

The bulb inside is not indestructible, that might be a problem. Winking smile

What could be improved:

    • The entire thing is made of plastic, which is a selling point for use with kiddos (nobody can brain anybody with a plastic base), but also a drawback. The hollow base is not heavy enough to resist tipping when 3 kiddos are simultaneously spinning the globe. I may try weighting it with some modeling clay.
    • The legend for the topographical map is very faint (it only appears when the globe is illuminated) and hard to read.globe plus grammy visit 008
    • No political boundaries for the states in the U.S. This is not an American maker, so I wasn’t actually surprised by this. The map is labeled with the names of countries and cities.

Overall, I’m very pleased with our new globe, and so are the kiddos…it’s helping to feed their enthusiasm for geography and the world we live in…definitely a worthwhile tool for our homeschool.

The Columbus Terra Globe is available for $49.95 at CSN Stores and it ships for free!

Disclosure: I received this product for free from CSN Stores for review purposes. I received no other compensation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: K’NEX Education Intro to Structures: Bridges


Building your way to understanding the laws of the universe…sounds like a perfect plan for those kiddos who would much rather be building anything than sitting around reading textbooks. What better way to understand forces than by building structures and witnessing first hand how those forces impact the structures we live in, walk on and even drive across? K’NEX Education sets are not just toys, but tools for education.


K’NEX very generously sent me for review Intro to Structures: Bridges for grades 3-6. This set comes with 207 K’NEX rods and connectors, a divided case for keeping the pieces organized, an instruction booklet, and a teacher’s guide on cd.

I was impressed the instant I opened the case. I’ve had plenty of science and building kits in the past that came in nothing more than a cardboard box, leaving me to figure out how to store the bits and pieces until next time. Something always falls out of the box and gets lost, rendering the set unusable until you come up with a replacement. Definitely not a problem with this set. Unless the baby gets hold of it while the lid is off.

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Number of times the 18-month-old dumped the whole works? One.

As you can see, I need to play with this setup a bit more (but I’m too lazy to take it apart), to get those long green ones to fit. There was no suggestion for divider placement included (the dividers need to be assembled), so I winged it. I could have planned it a bit better. The divided sections make it easy to spot the pieces you need without having to sort through them. Fabulous!

The 207 pieces are just what you’ll need to build any of the 7 different styles of bridges included in the instruction booklet, from a simple beam bridge to an arch to a suspension bridge. Each type of piece is color coded, so you can see at a glance which pieces you need for each bridge. I found the instructions to be clear and easy to follow, but my 10-year-old said he would have preferred a more step-by-step approach. He had no trouble assembling any of the bridges, however, and his 6-year-old sister was even able to help. There is a paragraph on the type of bridge included with each set of instructions that can be read by a child at a 5th-6th grade level.

But what really makes this more than just a fancy, well-organized building set is the teacher’s guide, 94 pages of background material, lesson plans, worksheets, and web-links to investigate (always a plus in case you want to expand your study). My children (ages 5, 6, and 10) all learned about tension, compression, torsion and shear using the simple yet effective demonstrations suggested in the guide. The 10-year-old was able to build and test bridges and investigate what factors make a stronger bridge.

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A Bascule Bridge

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A Cable-Stayed Bridge

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Demonstrating a Cantilever

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A Suspension Bridge

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Testing an Original Design

We spent two weeks on this unit and enjoyed every minute of it. I love the clear lesson plans, the materials lists, extension activities and the thorough background material. As someone who enjoyed studying physics in school, I still didn’t have a clue where to start with the topic and K’NEX Education took away all the guesswork. No hunting around for experiments to use to demonstrate torsion, no thumbing through the dictionary or a giant textbook to define a word, it was all there for me. I also felt free to pick and choose from the lessons, rather than follow a strict schedule, giving me the flexibility to concentrate on areas we had not yet explored on this topic and to choose activities that could also engage my younger children.

That said, keep in mind the the teacher’s guide is definitely written with a classroom in mind. In addition to the expectation that you will have several students working in teams of 2-3, there are some materials required for some of the activities that the average householder won’t have lying around. Like 2 bathroom scales. Or a calibrated weight set that goes from 10 grams to 1000 grams. Some things you can probably borrow so you can do these activities in your homeschool. Others, you can definitely improvise.

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Testing a Beam Bridge

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Testing a Truss Bridge

Activities that require students to work in groups (there are also some demonstrations that would require a group of students) can be modified or skipped. This would be super for a co-op, as long as your group was able to afford multiple sets (you would need one set for every 2-3 students).

One caveat on the teacher’s guide: It is a 63 meg file (that’s huge, most e-books are less than a couple of megs), due to it’s graphic intensive nature. Some of those graphics are unnecessary, like the very professional page backgrounds and borders that look nice, but would drink up a lot of ink if you chose to print out the file. K’NEX obviously did consider this: the worksheets are very plain and simple, so have no fear there. The obvious solution is to read it off of an e-reader, but the large size makes it a memory hog and slow to load on my Kindle. Reading it directly off the computer, while doable, might be much less convenient unless you have a laptop. Another possibility might be to have it printed at an office supply store. I think I just might go ahead and print the whole thing on my B&W Laser printer which will minimize the cost.

Overall, I give Intro to Structures: Bridges an enthusiastic thumbs up…and I’m seriously thinking about buying another set from the K’NEX Education series.

Intro to Structures: Bridges is available directly from K’NEX for $34.00. That’s an awesome deal!

Other sets from K’NEX Education include math and geometry models, DNA models, simple machines, and more.

Disclosure: I received this product for free from K’NEX for review purposes. I received no other compensation.