Thursday, November 13, 2014

You Will Love This Game!

Our family loves to play games. We have such a good time together! It's a great way to connect, and we're always looking for a new game to try. We were recently given the opportunity to review the game Snake Oil from Out of the Box Games, through the Schoolhouse Review Crew.

This game, intended for ages 10 and up, is simple to play. You need at least three players: one to be the Customer, and the others to come up with products to sell. The Customer chooses a customer card, which tells you to whom you are selling. Each player gets six word cards, and when it's your turn to sell, you combine two word cards into your product, and then market it to the Customer. The Customer chooses the product they feel will best suit them, and the winning salesperson collects the Customer Card. The player with the most customer cards at the end of the game wins. Each game takes 20-30 minutes, depending on how many people are playing; when I played with my two girls, I think our playing times were shorter than that.

We laughed so hard when we played this game! When I chose my word cards, I thought I knew how I would combine them–until one of my girls chose a Customer card. When I had to sell something to specific person, everything I thought I would do went out the window. Since you have no control over the cards you get, this can make for some VERY interesting salesmanship. I was the first Customer, and my card was Executioner. One of my girls tried to sell me Diamond Spit, and the other tried to sell me a Sun Pony. Diamond Spit was very sharp and could take care of an execution for me; the Sun Pony shot laser beams from its eyes. See what I mean? (I chose Diamond Spit, in case you wondered.)

My younger daughter was the second Customer, and she was Santa! I tried to sell her Snow Silence, so no one would hear her coming, and my older daughter tried to sell her Power Soap, for a refreshing burst of energy before heading out for a long night of delivering gifts and climbing up and down chimneys.

Not only is Snake Oil fun, it inspires some creative learning. You have to be able to think quickly and be flexible enough to work with whatever comes up. Also, even if you have the best card combination for a "product" that will suit your "customer," if you can't market it well, you will lose. Communication skills are important, too, because even if you think the product you came up with is a bit ridiculous, you still have to make your "customer" want to buy it.

My girls and I had a blast playing this game, and we agreed that it would have been even more fun with more players. If you're looking for a great game to add to your family collection for Christmas, or to give as a gift, check out Snake Oil (19.99)! If you have younger children, consider Snake Oil - Party Potion for ages 8 and up (14.99). In addition to these great party games, Out of the Box Games has some classroom games that look fantastic (most only need 2 players; one game needs 3 to start) and helpful information for educators.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

A New Book for Christmas!

I love Christmas, and I love Christmas books. I am always looking for new-to-us stories to read to my children. Even my teenagers look forward to the box of Christmas books coming out every December!

This year, I received the opportunity through the Schoolhouse Review Crew to review If He Had Not Come from David Nicholson. The story was originally written by Nan F. Weeks, published in an anthology in 1938.

David Nicholson is a retired schoolteacher and short term missionary. He has shared this story with his own family for years. He's now republished it in a beautiful hardcover book, for ages 6 and up, with lovely illustrations by Charles Jaskiewicz. The font is clear and big - wonderful for, ah, older eyes that don't do well with tiny letters anymore.

The story is about a little boy named Bobby, who, while reading the Bible with his father, is struck by the words Jesus said: "If I had not come" from John 15:22. When he goes to sleep, he dreams that Jesus had not come to earth. It should be Christmas day, but all the businesses are open. There is no hospital or homeless shelter to help the sick man he comes across while searching for his parents. Where there was once a homeless shelter, he finds men gambling, and when he asks for help, they're mean to him. There is no orphanage where he remembers there being one. His church doesn't exist. Everywhere, he sees the words, "If I had not come." Eventually he wakes up, and realized he had been dreaming, and he's SO glad Christ really did come.

Mr. Nicholson has included some discussion questions for families or Sunday School teachers. There is also a "Going Deeper" section with some great, though-provoking questions, such as "What would it mean for us spiritually if Jesus had not come to earth?" All of the Going Deeper questions have Scripture references to aid in your discussion. Mr. Nicholson also presents the Gospel in the back of the book, and there is page with instructions for drawing a Christmas tree with information on the symbolism involved, like "The star on the top of the tree represents the star that led the wise men to Jesus."

My kids enjoyed hearing this story. I enjoyed it, too. I know it's a book we will enjoy together for a long time, and because my girls liked the story, they will be willing to read it to my son. He does love spending time with his big sisters, and they love activities, like reading, that don't involve "ninja moves" or "sword practice."

It's a different story line than most other Christmas books. It's rather tense, with Bobby finding only annoyance and anger from the people he encounters. I suppose that is the point; the world without Jesus is not a nice place. Of course, there is a happy ending, when Bobby wakes up and realizes that it's all been a dream.

If He Had Not Come is available as a printed hardcover for $18.95, and as an ebook for $3.99.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

REVIEW: When London Burned Audiobook

I love audio books. I discovered them years ago for myself, as something to do while working in the kitchen. I can't skip any words - no skimming when someone else does the reading. When I started spending a lot of time in the car with my children, audio books made a nice change from listening to the Wiggles or Elmo. We have listened to lots of great stories together. It's also been a nice option on long road trips. I was recently given the opportunity through the Schoolhouse Crew to review When London Burned by G.A. Henty as an audiobook, with the accompanying study guide, from Jim Hodges Productions.

G.A. Henty was a military correspondent and prolific British author who lived in the mid to late 1800's. He wrote 122 books of historical fiction about both British and American historical events. His storytelling began with telling stories to his four children after dinner. His stories are historically accurate, and exemplify noble character. His books are recommended for ages 10 and up.

When London Burned was set in London in the 1600's, around the time of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. We are studying the Renaissance and Reformation in history this year, so it was a great book for us. The story is about Cyril Shenstone, son of Sir Aubrey Shenstone, a knight who fought with King Charles II to help him regain his throne from Oliver Cromwell. Sir Aubrey dies when Cyril is only 15, leaving him to find his way in the world on his own with no money and no estate, Sir Aubrey having sold it to help finance the King's campaign. The story tells of Cyril's adventures in London, and he is portrayed as a young man of great faith and character. When the Plague hits London, for example, rather than hiding in his house, he goes out to see how he can be helpful to those who are afflicted. Although I occasionally thought Cyril was a bit too good to be true, one part of the book affected me particularly. Cyril's pastor preached about showing compassion to those afflicted with the plague, which was in sharp contrast to most other preachers of that time, who said the plague had come down on them in judgement for sin. Cyril took those words to heart, and rather than hiding in his house to try to avoid illness, he went out to see how he could be of helpful. He ended up working as an assistant to a doctor, who appreciated Cyril's level head and willingness to work.

Each Jim Hodges audio book comes as an MP3 CD, which means it will not play in a standard CD player. You could rip the CD onto your computer, though, and put the audio book onto an MP3 device. The books are broken out into chapters on the CD, which makes it easy to find your place if you schedule your listening time.

When London Burned is a long book - the total listening time is 13 hours and 21 minutes. I have to be honest: my kids and I kept wondering when London was actually going to burn, and we were glad when we finally got to the point of the story. I had not read anything by Henty before, and I have heard people say he wrote excellent historical fiction, and other people have said his books were a bit dry. I probably fall in the "bit dry" camp. I'm not sure I would have made it through this book without the audio. Mr. Hodges does a good job differentiating voices between characters, and pronounces things clearly. His narrating style is a little dry, perhaps, but overall it was a good listening experience.

When London Burned Study Guide
Because we listened to the book in the car, we weren't able to utilize the study guide much. The best thing about tit, for me, was the vocabulary list provided for each chapter. That was great, because there are a lot of nautical terms and I didn't know very many of them! If I were going to present this book to my children, we would definitely use the study guide to go over vocabulary. There are some excellent questions in there, which ask more than just recalling details from the book. We were encouraged to learn more about Puritanism and Oliver Cromwell, find out where the original site of St. Alphage's Church was, and compare the French baton to the English singlestick, just to name a few of the topics. The study guide encourages further research and fleshes out this period in history.

I enjoyed listening to this audio book. It was a good first experience with G.A. Henty's writing. If we

When London Burned is available from Jim Hodges Productions for $24.99 for the MP3 CD, or as a digitla download for $18.00. The study guide is also available as a PDF download for $12.00.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

You NEED This Pencil Sharpener - Really.

It's the little things that can make days go so much better, isn't it? As homeschoolers, we use (and lose) a LOT of pencils. I have been on a hunt for a great pencil sharpener for a long time. I've tried electric ones (nope) and small hand-held ones (those nice silver ones are great, but messy), and I even have one of those old metal ones that we all used to have in school when we were growing up. It's loud, but it's worked the best so far. Unfortunately, in this house, I have yet to find a good place to mount it. We've lived here more than 4 years.

I recently contacted Troy Decoff of  Classroom Friendly Supplies, and he kindly sent me one of his amazing pencil sharpeners, in the lovely shade of Firehouse Red, to review. I had heard about them from another blogging friend of mine, and wanted to see for myself how they measured up.

As soon as my sharpener arrived in the mail, I hunted down all the pencils in the house that needed sharpening and set to work. I could not believe the point that came out on these pencils! Not only does it sharpen perfectly every time, but the it stops when the pencil is done so you don't grind your pencil down to a stub. I don't normally do that, actually, but I do have a young someone in my house who thinks sharpening pencils down to nothing is great fun. This sharpener doesn't allow that to happen. Also, it's quiet. That is a huge benefit when you have a child who can't tolerate any noise when they are trying to read. I may or may not have one that fits that description...

These pencil sharpeners come with a clamp to allow mounting it to a table or counter. You can also purchase a mounting plate if you want it to stay in a permanent location. Sometimes we do schoolwork in our school room, and sometimes we work at the table, depending on the subject, so it's nice to be able to bring the pencil sharpener along with us.

One great thing about this sharpener is that the blades are replaceable. You can order one set of replacement blades for $14.99, or a set of two for $22.99. It's easy to get the sharpener apart to replace them, too. My 7 year old got it apart on the first day we had it, and told me he "broke" it. That was not the case, thankfully, and it did show me that replacing the blades would be simple should the time come when it's necessary.

The one issue I have with this sharpener is that it only sharpens standard-sized pencils. My little guy uses big pencils sometimes, and we have some fat colored pencils, too, and those won't fit. The good news? Classroom Friendly Supplies now has a Large Hole Sharpener! It's the same price as the other sharpeners, and works on standard size pencils, too. It doesn't mount to a surface, but that is just fine with me. It only comes in black at this point, which I also don't mind.

Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it?
This pencil sharpener is amazing. AMAZING, I tell you. You need one - you might need several. The good news is that one sharpener is $24.99, and you may purchase three for $53.97 ($17.99 each,a 30% discount). If you're ordering for a school (they do accept purchase orders), you may purchase an entire case of 36 sharpeners for just $13.99 each. If you have a homeschool group, or know enough people who want them, you could order together and get a nice discount. Be sure to check out their website, and connect with them on Facebook, where they share giveaways.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

REVIEW: Middlebury Interactive Languages

For this school year, I'm doing something we haven't done before: exploring options for online classes. My oldest is in high school now, and there are some areas in which I could use some extra support. I haven't been consistent in teaching foreign language. I couldn't decide what to teach; I took a fair bit of French in college, but I wondered if Spanish would be more useful; I wanted to teach Latin but wasn't sure how I wanted go about doing that; etc. We were recently given the opportunity to review a six month subscription to Middlebury Interactive Languages, and I was excited to try it out. I had my oldest daughter, who is in 9th grade, enroll in their high school French Courses

They offer courses in Spanish, French, German and Chinese, for students in grades K-12. Note that only Spanish is offered for the K-2 grades at this time.

We were a little confused when we first logged in, but once we figured out what was going on, the program was very easy to use. Upon logging in, we saw this screen:

Honestly, I wondered what on earth we were supposed to do, but we did finally notice the little arrow at the bottom right of the screen in the "Up Next" section. 

When you put in your start date for the course, a calendar is automatically set up for you with the lessons all scheduled. Middle school and high school lessons are scheduled 5 days per week, for a total of 90 lessons per semester. 

There is also a Table of Contents, where you can see all the lessons listed. When you click on a lesson folder, it opens up so you can see each part of the lesson. In the semester overview, you are able to see what will be covered in your lessons.

The course begins with an explanation of Student Resources, which walks you through what you need to know about using the course. My daughter and I appreciated the information they provided on typing in accents on the Mac, particularly. That was very helpful. Another useful option is the ability to print each unit's vocabulary list. When you click "Print," you get a lovely PDF file with all the words and the translations listed for you. VoilĂ ! (My recommendation is to print the lists and put them in a notebook, minimally; ideally the student would copy them into a notebook. Physically writing things out makes a BIG difference in retention, in my experience.)

Each unit has 5 lessons, and each lesson incorporates varied activities that help the student connect with the language they are learning. Each day's lesson is a little different, so it's never boring. Students learn vocabulary and grammar, and also a bit about the cultures in the countries where French is spoken. Activities include short videos, listening, reading, writing (typing), and interactive games. The typing activities include filling in blanks with vocabulary words, but also short journal entries. I was impressed with how quickly students are assigned to write a few sentences in French, using what they've learned in the program. Each day's lesson takes up to about a half hour, depending on how quickly the student moves through the activities.

My daughter found the Speaking Labs to be particularly helpful, because you listen to a native speaker pronounce what you're learning and then you record yourself repeating the word or phrase. You can then compare your pronunciation to the native speaker's and see how well you've done. It can be tricky to produce sounds correctly in a foreign language, and this feature shows students where they need the most practice.

From a teacher's perspective, this is an incredibly easy program to use. A high school student logs in independently and works independently.  The program automatically takes them to where they left off when they log in again, so there is no confusion about that. You can easily use this program with a computer or tablet, which makes it portable. There is a grade book which shows you the scores they've received on the work they've completed. 

My only concern about the program, and this applies to most online courses we've tried, is the lack of physical writing assignments. Typing is fine, but physically writing things out helps make an important connection in a student's brain. I have Emma write things in a notebook. I realize there is no way for an online course to grade that kind of thing, but I still think it's important.

I am impressed with this program and think it's an excellent online language course option for homeschoolers. You can purchase courses for $119 per semester. If you'd like to learn more about Middlebury Interactive Languages, click here for some videos about their programs (you will be asked to enter your email address. 

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

REVIEW: Standard Deviants Accelerate

We were given recently the opportunity to review Standard Deviants Accelerate Homeschool Courses through the Schoolhouse Crew. This was good timing for us, as they have a biology course, and we are studying biology this year. The topics covered in SDA's course videos seemed as though they would go along with what we're studying quite nicely. We received a one-year subscription, with the ability to try out any course, for the purpose of our review.

Standard Deviants Accelerate began more than 20 years ago, when a couple of college graduates came up with the idea of recording core academic subjects on video and making them entertaining for students. They've made some DVDs, and now they offer their courses online. With these web-based courses, students can access them from anywhere - they can use a desktop computer, laptop or tablet, anywhere they have internet access. SDA offer courses in 14 different subjects for students as young as 8 years old:

  • Earth Science (6th grade & up)
  • Nutrition (6th grade & up)
  • Biology (7th grade & up)
  • Chemistry (9th grade & up)
  • Arithmetic (3rd grade & up)
  • Fundamental Math (4th grade & up)
  • Algebra (7th grade & up)
  • English Composition (9th grade & up)
  • U.S. History (9th grade & up)
  • AP Biology (11th grade & up)
  • AP Chemistry (11th grade & up)
  • AP U.S. Government & Politics (11th grade & up)
  • AP U.S. History (11th grade & up)
  • AP English Composition

What did we use?

We used the regular biology program. I had my 8th grader watch the videos and do the lessons.

How does it work?

First, you have to make an account for your student. When they log in, they see their courses:

When you click on your course, you see all the available topics:

Each lesson has a video, vocabulary section, quiz, and a written answer. Some sections have a diagram, such as the ones we saw of an atom and a cell.

Each video is about 10 minutes long. There is a text box available for the student to type notes and save them online. I had  my daughter write notes in her science journal, because there is an important connection between writing something down and retaining knowledge. There is an option to print the full transcript of the video, which I liked; it made it easier to take notes and review the information once the video was over. Also, if you have a child who prefers reading to listening or watching, they will appreciate that feature.

The vocabulary list has an audio clip available for each word, and the list with definition is printable. The diagram has drag-and-drop words to match, and the quiz is multiple choice. Pretty simple.

The "Thematic Question," though... That's a different story. For the biology course, the thematic question was "How does form follow function in biology?" Students are instructed to think about this after each lesson, and answer the questions: "How does the perspective of the thematic question inform your understanding of the topics covered in this lesson?" and "How does what you have learned in this section provide new dimensions to your understanding of the thematic question asked above?". I am not quite sure what to make of those questions myself, much less how to explain them to my students. There is a grading rubric for teachers, but any grading would be completely subjective depending on what the teacher thought the answer to the question should be. The good news is that you can skip that part of the program and it doesn't count against the student's grade.

Grading Rubric for the Thematic Question

What did we like?
  • The videos are a nice reinforcement to our biology studies. I enjoyed watching them. They reminded me of a PBS program - educational and entertaining.
  • The lessons were short, and therefore easy to fit into our school week.
  • I liked having the diagrams of things like cells for the visual reinforcement.
What didn't we like?
  • My daughter didn't care for the way the speakers kept changing, rather than having one person present an entire lesson. She also felt that she was being spoken to as a young child, rather than a teenager. She the information was presented effectively, but she found the presentation "annoying."
  • At the end of each lesson, there is a button that says, "Take Me to the Next Topic." That's great, except that it does not take the student to the work that needs to be completed; it takes them to the next instructional video. When I went in to check my daughter's progress, I could not figure out why it showed 0%, until I realized she'd been clicking the "next topic" button. In order to complete the quizzes for each topic, the student needs to click on the tabs at the top.
  • Grades and progress reports are not available in the same place. You have to look in one spot to see grades, and in another spot to see how far along your student is in the course.
  • Nothing indicates lessons that are completed, and there is no ability to stop in the middle of a video and come back to the same place if you exit out of the page. It would seem logical to have the links at least change color once they have been clicked on, or somehow show that the lesson has been completed, or at least begun.
  • The grading process is not terribly simple, and that's one of the things that tends to draw me to online courses - the grading is done for me, thereby taking something off my plate.
One note: These are secular courses. Evolution was one of the topics in our biology class. I don't have a problem with that, but it's worth mentioning for those who prefer a creationist approach.

Overall, I felt that the biology course was an acceptable supplement. We didn't find this to be one of our favorite online courses, simply because of the somewhat awkward setup. However, if you have a student who is struggling with biology, this would be a good way to reinforce the information they're studying. 

Regular courses are available from SDA for $99 for a year's subscription, or $24.95 per month. AP courses are available for $14.95 per month, per student. They have a special offer right now - through November 15th, you can get a six-month free trial! 

Also, if you'd like to learn more about their programs, click here to sign up for a free webinar, during which a live representative will walk you through all the features and benefits of their programs.

Connect with Standard Deviants Accelerate: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Consider This by Karen Glass

This post contains affiliate links.

My homeschooling journey started 10 years ago, when I could not bear to send my oldest child away for a full day of kindergarten. I was blessed to be introduced to homeschooling by a fellow ballet mom, who told me about The Well-Trained Mind. From there, I found my way to the WTM forums, where I made some wonderful homeschooling friends. Those wonderful ladies (and a few gentlemen) helped me learn how to teach my children, as well as what I could reasonably expect from them (note - NOT that they would be independently working at the age of 5). They also helped me become a better parent, and I will be forever grateful for that.

However, as I tried implementing neo-classical homeschooling, something wasn't quite right. There was a lot that was excellent - the living books, of course, and more, but something was missing. I was tremendously blessed to be introduced to Charlotte Mason by some local moms, who had a small family co-op we were able to attend, and it changed our lives for the better. I have been trying to learn more about Charlotte Mason's principles ever since, and while I still feel like a newbie in some respects, I can't imagine educating myself or my children in any other way. As Charlotte Mason herself said, "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

One thing I've learned is that Charlotte Mason was, in fact, a classical educator. She did some things quite differently than many classical educators do these days, but her methods and principles are firmly founded in the classical tradition. It's hard for me to explain that to other people, though. I am SO EXCITED to be able to share with you Karen Glass' new book, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. I have been waiting and waiting for this book to be released, and it's finally here! I ordered my copy today, and the best part? Through the Amazon Match program, if you purchase a paperback copy you can get the Kindle version FREE, so I can start reading today! I cannot express to you how happy this makes me. Also, through October 31, 2014, you can download Karen's study guide for the book for FREE.

Karen Glass is a member of the Ambleside Online Advisory, and has taught her children, ages 10 to 24, using Charlotte Mason's principles from the beginning. I first read the article she wrote for Susan Wise Bauer's website, The Well-Trained Mind, and appreciated her wisdom. She has been researching CM for 20 years, and I can't wait to read what she has to say in her book. Karen's book is more than enough on its own, but the introduction was written by David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, a wonderful book on classical education and one that the Ambleside Online Advisory used in putting together their wonderful curriculum.

Here's the book trailer video. Enjoy, and then head over and order your copy of Consider This!