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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. 

Connect with Middlebury Interactive Languages:

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

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+

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!


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!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

REVIEW: Apologia iWitness

I am always looking for good Bible study resources–books that explain questions I have had about the Bible, such as how history as we know it lines up with the history in the Bible. I was intrigued, therefore, by these three books I recently received to review from Apologia Educational Ministries' iWitness series:

What are they?

The iWitness books are intended to engage children in learning about the Bible, in a visually appealing and non-intimidating way. They have a reading level appropriate for around ages 11 and up. These books are presented as a series of hand-written documents with lots of pictures, which really do pique interest and invite further exploration. Doug Powell, Apologia's art director and author of the iWitness books, mentions in this interview that these are intended to be interactive books - the information is presented, and the reader is asked to think through it. He said these are the books he wishes he could have read for the answers to questions he had.

iWitness Bible Archaeology talks about the archaeological discoveries that correlate with or illuminate biblical history. There is some great stuff in here! We learned about the different accounts of the flood, Egyptian chronology, and where different manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments have been found, just to name a few topics. I was particularly interested in the part about all the places Hadrian had filled in, such as the cave where Christians believed Jesus was born, and then Constantine dug them all back out and had them protected.

Old Testament iWitness presented how the Old Testament books were chosen, the process for copying them. It was interesting to see how the Hebrew Bible is different from what I know as the Old Testament. We learned some new words, too. I had heard of the Septuagint, and the Torah, but we learned together about the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Nevi'im, and the Ketuvi'im, which are divisions of the Hebrew Bible along with the Torah. We also learned about the Apocrypha, what exactly it is, and why the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches include it in their Bibles.

In New Testament iWitness, we read about how the books in the New Testament were chosen, which books were not included, and why. We learned about early theologians, the church fathers, and the Apostolic Fathers. We saw a timeline for when the New Testament books were probably written. I knew some things we read, and we'd studied some of the people, but there was also a ton of new information presented in here.

How did we use them?

My teenagers were able to go through the books on their own, but in general, we chose to go through them together, along with my 7 year old, during our daily morning time together. We would sit together and look at the pictures, read the information and discuss, and the kids were free to take the books and look at them after. There is so much detail, and so many beautiful pictures, they're fun to go back to again and again.

What did we like?

These books were great family devotional material for us, and I could see them being fun for use with a youth group or Sunday school class.

I really like that the information is presented in such a way that the reader has to think through the material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. There is no "obviously, this is the truth" or "clearly you will believe this way after reading this book" here. That's why they make for such great discussions. Just looking at Egyptian chronology in the archaeology book kept us busy for quite some time.

I find that having this kind of historical information adds a new and helpful dimension to reading and learning what the Bible says. My children enjoyed reading through them with me, and I love that they (and I) have this information under their belts now.

What didn't we like?

There was very little about these books that we didn't like. The only issue we had was that my very visual daughter found them a bit overwhelming. Each page spread is presented as if it has several hand-written documents on it, which is interesting and cool, but can be difficult to read. These books were, for us, better taken in smaller chunks rather than reading straight through. It wasn't a problem, it's just that my visual child was not interested in looking through them on her own, so we went through them together.

Overall, I thought these were excellent books. Although they are relatively thin paperback books, there is more information presented in them than I could possibly share with you, and it's fascinating reading. They stand alone, or make a great jumping-off place for more research if you find you want to know more. Each book has a good bibliography in the back. You can follow lots of rabbit trails with internet searching, too.

In addition to the three books we received to review, there are two other iWitness books currently available: Jesus iWitness and Resurrection iWitness. There are also two new books planned for 2015 - iWitness World Religions and iWitness Heretics and Cults. Exciting stuff!

Connect with Apologia: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!



Sunday, October 12, 2014

Composer Study: Mozart

This post contains affiliate links.

I do love composer studies. I took piano lessons for years growing up, and that experience created a life-long relationship with music for me. I happen to prefer mostly Baroque and Classical, because it's orderly and melodic and lovely. I don't like dissonance much, so Romantic and Modern composers don't do much for me, although I do find the occasional surprise.

We are studying Mozart this term for our composer studies, because (a) I like him and (b) my daughter and I visited Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace, when we visited Austria this past summer with her choir. We happen to be studying the Renaissance this year, and I am focusing a lot of our studies (artists in particular) around things we saw on our trip. Mozart is not a Renaissance composer, but that's okay.

In a nutshell, here is how we do composer studies:
  1. Check the Ambleside Online Composer Study page for selections.
  2. Make a playlist on GrooveShark or YouTube.
  3. Set aside a weekly time, around 20 minutes, to sit down for careful listening. Perhaps read a bit of a biography, if I can find one, or share a little about the life of the composer, and a bit about the specific piece if I can find the information.
That's it! My goal is to have my children be familiar enough with Mozart that they can tell his music when compared to others, just as I want them to be able to tell an artist's painting style from other artists'. 

Here are some resources for a study of Mozart:

Artist and Composer Round-up

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Tree For Peter Back In Print!!!

I have really, really, REALLY, outstandingly good news! Kate Seredy's wonderful book, A Tree for Peter, is coming back into print thanks to the lovely people at Purple House Press. And the best news? You can PRE-ORDER a copy and have one for your very own! It would also make an excellent Christmas gift. This is, bar none, my favorite Christmas story. It's beautifully written and is simply a book you cannot miss sharing with your family.

My friends, Liz Cottrill and Emily Kiser, who run the Living Books Library in Abingdon, VA, have arranged for a special discount price if you order through their link. You can order a copy of this beautiful, perfect book for $9 +3.00 shipping through their link. (The regular price will be $10.95 + 3.00 shipping.)

>>>>>>>>CLICK HERE<<<<<<<< 
to order your copy! 

They will accept pre-orders through this link through 10/31.2014.

If you'd like to read more about this book, check out LBL's posts about it:


Library Sale Lovelies

This post contains affiliate links.

I love a good library sale. Don't you? If you are a homeschooler, and you love books, and you have never visited a library sale, you are MISSING OUT! Seriously, you will be amazed at what you can find for much less money than just about anywhere else. It is certainly less money than purchasing new books, even at the most expensive library sale. I am trying to start a library of living books, which means I need a LOT of books. The less money I spend per book, the more books I can purchase. Even if you just want to collect living books for your family, or find books for a child who is fascinated by a certain topic, you can't go wrong at a library sale.

Last Friday, I had the chance to go to a local library sale for an hour. One hour. Can you imagine? I had to be rather efficient! I took my 7-year-old, which made it an interesting trip. We started with the children's books, and he picked out several he just had to have. I think the one about steam powered vehicles is pretty neat, actually. We love Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and it will be interesting to see what other things were steam-powered.



I didn't find a ton of things I needed in the children's books, but I did find this treasure:


I don't know why it was just sitting there in the children's books and not over in the special section where they charge more money, but hey, I'm not complaining! I love Arthur Rackham's artwork.

I'm also excited about this book:


My girls and I have recently joined a book club, and we're reading C.S. Lewis books. We just finished The Great Divorce, and will read The Screwtape Letters next. I have a longer biography, but this one is perfect for getting a little more information to go along with our club readings. And, at 50 cents, if it's not fabulous, at least it didn't break the bank.

I found some books for my oldest daughter. She wants to learn German, and there happened to be sets of both beginning and advanced German courses on CD, as well as a dictionary! I got them all for a total of $5! There was also a bonus book on horses, which she will love as well.


I found one lonely book for my younger daughter, for whom it is MUCH harder to find books:



Some books for me, and some books for our French studies:


Those two French books cost $3 total, I think. They look like the same ones I had in college, in fact. God bless the French and their language institute - it means the dictionary is still pretty well up to date.

I found some wonderful books for my horse-loving niece:


And even a book for my husband! I don't often find books for him, because he has collected books the specific authors he likes for years. Usually the ones he's missing are older and harder to find, but this time I lucked out!


I hope I've sold you on the benefits of library sales! I missed a couple in my area over the summer, and I could just kick myself. Ah, well. There is always next year.

Have you found any treasures at library sales? Do tell!