Wednesday, July 31, 2013

REVIEW: Fascinating World of Birds DVD

Sometimes, a nice DVD can bring another dimension to a topic we're studying in school, or help fill a rainy afternoon. The Fascinating World of Birds DVD from Brainfood Learning sounded good - a DVD to pop in when you need a little TV break, and educational to boot! Everyone can learn a little something new about birds, right?

We love birds at our house. We keep our feeders filled and our entire family enjoys watching the birds as the visit. We've learned to identify several species just by having the feeders out. I was excited to receive a copy of this DVD to review.

The video first presents some characteristics that are common to all birds, and then moves on to teach about 10 specific birds, including ostriches, penguins, Canada geese, eagles, and more. The pictures and clips of live birds are beautiful. The program is set up in short segments, each giving some specific information. Following each segment, a vocabulary word is presented which relates back to what you've just learned. For example, after the segment on eagles, the vocabulary word is "raptors." After the section about hummingbirds, the word is "metabolism." My children and I particularly enjoyed the video of a young owl who was trying to turn his face upside down. We laughed and laughed at that! It was not only adorable, but a great illustration of how flexible an owl's neck is.

There is a four-part review at the end, progressing from the easiest topic (identifying specific birds) to the most difficult (vocabulary definitions). Multiple-choice answers appear on the screen after each question; both questions and answers are read aloud by the narrator, so even very young children can participate.

We learned some new things! Did you know that owls have those interesting flat faces for an important reason? They have facial disc feathers, which help them hear better, and they can move the feathers to channel sound to their ears more efficiently. I did a quick Google search and learned that barn owls have the most pronounced facial disc, and great grey owls have the largest disc of any bird. Thanks, Wikipedia! (You know you like to follow these little rabbit trails, too.)

The video program is basically someone reading facts about birds while we look at pictures and video clips. I would prefer to learn about the birds through a story, or perhaps a series of short stories, rather than a list of facts. However, this is just one resource. You certainly wouldn't expect to learn everything you wanted to know about birds from one short DVD program! I could see using this around a study of birds; many of the birds could be seen in the wild where we live, and special ones, like ostriches and penguins, are available to see at the zoo. That would be worth a field trip. We see lots of American robins and hummingbirds where we live, and sometimes we see Canadian geese. I will be sure to have my children watch for the things we learned in the video to see what they observe for themselves.

My children and I did enjoy watching this program. The kids had a good time with the review questions, shouting out the answers. Even Isaac participated, and he's not usually that interested in things like this.

The DVD is intended for all ages, and runs for about 44 minutes. It's available from Brainfood Learning for $14.99. They've recently added lesson plans for this DVD, and others, on their website. They are available here.

The Schoolhouse Crew reviewed three DVDs from Brainfood Learning.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

REVIEW - Circle Time

Have you heard of Circle Time? It's a concept I've tried to use in my homeschool, without having a name for it. It's a time when you gather all your children, and do some things together. My girls and I have been doing this for the last couple of years. We sit together and go over our daily Bible reading, memory work, and whatever books we we're reading together. Then, I send them off to do their independent work while I keep my son from destroying the house do some fun educational activities with my 5-year-old.

I want to include the little man. With a large age difference between him and my younger daughter - six and a half years - I haven't been able to see how I could make it work, though. I was intrigued by the opportunity to review the Circle Time e-book from Preschoolers and Peace, written by Kendra Fletcher. I have read her blog often over the years, and gotten tons of ideas to use with my children. I hoped to find inspiration on how to include Isaac in our morning together times, and I was not disappointed.

If there's one thing I've learned as a parent (repeatedly; one would think God really wants me to pay attention to this) it's that I need to be flexible. What works for one child, one moment, may not work for the next child - or in the next moment, for that matter. I don't know why I've been so stuck on what our Circle Time must include, but I've been quite set on doing specific things with the girls and letting Isaac wander off and do his own thing. That hasn't worked particularly well. I want Isaac to be able to participate, too. I think Circle Time will allow that, once I find the right components. In fact, just recently we were reading a book called Tunnel of Gold by Susan Marlow (review here), and Isaac asked each day if we could read it again the next day. The girls enjoyed the book too, which told me that it would indeed be possible to come up with Circle Time activities that we would all enjoy.

This book is full of encouragement and ideas. Kendra gives lots of suggestions for including each child, from oldest to youngest. She has 8 children from teens to toddlers, and she shares ideas from two other moms of several children as well, so you can see how their versions of Circle Time work. There are several questions answered, from moms who want to incorporate circle time in their day but wonder how to make it work in their particular situation.

Circle Time is a quick read at just 33 pages. It's not a curriculum; Kendra gives lots of ideas for what you might include, along with pictures of they things she does with her own children (very helpful). She has some printables, too, that will help you with your planning. She provides links to resources she mentions using, as well as to Circle Time posts on her Preschoolers and Peace blog and the Circle Time Pinterest board. This is a great resource for anyone looking to make Circle Time a part of their homeschool day.

The Circle Time ebook is available for $4.99 from Preschoolers and Peace.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

REVIEW: Kidcoder Web Series

My kids are amazingly tech-savvy. I shouldn't be surprised, since their father is a computer networking guru. I am not all that tech-savvy; I can use applications, and as long as they work as expected, everything is fine. As soon as something goes wrong, though, I call my in-house tech support.

Since I'm not able to teach much about computer stuff beyond the basics, I've been thrilled to see more and more homeschool-targeted resources becoming available, and I jumped at the chance to review Kidcoder Web Series from Homeschool Programming.

For the purpose of the review, I received an electronic copy of the Kidcoder: Beginning Web Design which included the student book and an installer program, which gave us all the pertinent documents. The program normally ships as a printed textbook and CD.

The KidCoder Web Series is a brand new product, released in May 2013. At the time of this review, only the first semester, Kidcoder: Beginning Web Design is available, but the second semester, Kidcoder: Advanced Web Design will be available in August. The Beginning program covers the basics of HTML, XHTML, and CSS. It's intended for students from 4th grade on through 12th grade with an interest in learning to build a website. It's expected that students will know the basics of using a computer; they should be able to select and open applications, use menus, and navigate the files on their computer (Windows Explorer on a PC; Finder on a Mac). They should have some experience with a text editor and an internet browser. The program uses software that comes free with your computer's operating system: TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (PC) as a text editor, and Preview/iPhoto (Mac) or MS Paint (PC) for some photo editing. You do not have to purchase any special software to use this program.

Here is what my husband, our guest techie, had to say about Kidcoder: Beginning Web Design:                                                  
"We received the The KidCoder web design course electronically. The student book is a PDF, which worked beautifully for our family, as it went onto iPads and allowed for convenient access. There were included installers for Mac or Windows that would install the "Student Menu" and/or the "Solutions Menu" onto the computer; we have a laptop for the girls to use. The Student package includes all the html snippets to support the instructions in the book. These snippets were very helpful, saving typing and preventing a potentially large number of typos. The Solutions package contains some tests and answer keys, as well as solutions to the extra activities encouraged at the end of each chapter. Also included is the Solution Guide which helps get the teacher up to speed with the program and gives some very helpful hints.

We recently went through a different programming curriculum with the girls, and this was a good follow-up to that experience. I worked through the book with the girls, slowly building a "Raptors" website as we progressed through the class. The instruction style in the book is to fully explain a concept and show examples, and then have a closing activity for each section to put what was learned to use. This reinforced the concepts that were presented, and I was very pleased at the speed at which things were explained. There was a logical progression of the building blocks of HTML. It was even good for some of us who once dealt with HTML but have been away from it for a while. I learned that some of my old HTML tricks *might* work, but there is a correct, standard way. For example, I used to use "br" in arrow brackets for a line break; now, standard practice is to type it as a closed tag. Who knew?

For good reason, the program did not explain all versions of HTML, but stuck to HTML4, XHTML and HTML5, and was careful to point out what would work, versus a best practice to make sure your HTML would continue to function moving forward. And to prove you can teach old dogs new tricks I got to learn about CSS style sheets! I had seen them before, but never took the time to learn them. Now I have.

The girls were able to do most of their work on their own, or get help from each other. A little to my surprise, the eldest seemed to grasp the concepts more quickly, and helped the younger one out. This was the exact opposite of the Logo experience, so obviously the artistic part of HTML caught the interest of the elder daughter. Yeah! The use of a single example website, and continuing to add functionality and styling to it through out the class was helped with the continuity. The girls built each new lesson on previous work, which kept the concepts fresh in their minds, and sometimes required them to review a previous chapter. I found this class to be a very good basic intro into HTML. It can seem slow at times, but the in depth explanations do help in the long run!


I decided to work through the program myself, because I learned some very basic HTML about 14 years ago, but haven't worked with it much since. There have been... a few changes. As Todd mentioned above, I learned the same tag for a line break he did, but now, the standard requires all tags to be closed. I also learned that all tags must be typed in lower case letters; I learned to type them in all caps, because it set them apart from the rest of the text in your HTML document. I thought that change was a serious bummer, actually.

The one thing I found difficult is there is a LOT of reading for this class. A 4th grade student would have to be very motivated, in my opinion, to read this much material. If I were working with a student that young, I would probably read it with them, and break it into small chunks. I learned a lot of great information: a little history of how the internet developed, how websites work, why it's good to know markup language rather than relying on design programs, etc. I breezed through the first 6 lessons, but when I got to chapter 7, we started digging into CSS, and I got very, very lost. I could not figure out what I was doing to save my life, so I didn't get any farther with my Raptors website. Just recently, the lovely folks at Homeschool Programming made the Instructional Videos available to reviewers, although they will not be ready for purchase until August - I found those to be extremely helpful, although I ran out of time to work on my website. I'm an audio-visual learner, and much prefer to learn while doing something. I would have liked more active things to do along the way, I think.

Conversely, my older daughter *loves* to read and did very well with reading the student book and doing the exercises at the end of each chapter. My younger girl is normally the more logical, programming-minded child, but she really doesn't like to read to learn. She ended up getting quite a lot of help from her sister, and was angry about that - she's used to being the one to give assistance.

Overall, I'm thrilled that my girls are learning how to build websites. I don't know that they will design web pages for a living, but you just never know when you might need to set up a website for something. Emma has a passion for photography; maybe she will create a website about that! Abbie is working on selling some scarves she's knitted, and now she could set up a site to showcase them. Also, I love the logical thinking that comes from learning things like this. I will not tell you how disastrous my college computer programming experience was, but let's just say it is not an area in which I excel. It's important for the girls to stretch their brains like this. (Well, I know it stretched my brain. They seemed to be having a good time.)

Quote from Lesson One: "Working on web sites can be a lot of fun, but it can get very frustrating if you are not organized." Why, yes, it can! I know that my struggles with this program came entirely from my own lack of patience and attention to detail. I need to slow down and go back over some of the material; everything I need to know *is* in the book. Also, they offer free, personalized technical support for their customers; why I didn't take advantage of that, I don't know! I know I need to learn more about current HTML standards and CSS; it would be so helpful with my blog.

Kidcoder: Beginning Web Design is available from Homeschool Programming for $70.00. The videos will be available in August, for $20 when ordered separately from the main program, or a package price of $85 for both. Right now, through July 31st, you can use the coupon code HSB4015 to save $15 off any KidCoder or TeenCoder courses. 

Homeschool Programming offers many different products. Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew, on KidCoder: Beginning Web Design as well as several other courses!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

MOLLY REVIEW - Christi the Coupon Coach

Have you ever tried couponing? If not, you've surely heard about it. There's even a television show about it. I've tried it in the past, became quickly overwhelmed, and didn't last long. When I was given the opportunity to review the book Couponing Made Simple from Christi the Coupon Coach, I was cautiously excited - I wanted to try again, and her book talks about "real couponing for real people." I can't do extreme couponing, but I can do normal coupon shopping. For the purpose of my review, I received a copy of the e-book.

Christi Bassford is a mom of four, with a desire to be a good steward of God's money. She started out doing what I usually do with coupons - using a few here and there, buying generic brands, and suffering sticker shock at the cash register. Once she discovered the tricks to couponing, she found she could save her family a lot of money, which they are they able to put to use elsewhere. Now, she wants to share her knowledge to help other families save money, too.

True to her word, Christi walks you through a very simple, efficient system for organizing and managing your coupons. I purchased three things: a hanging file box, a small index file box with a locking clasp, and an 8.5"x11" organizer, with pockets for full-size sheets of paper with smaller pockets on the front of each one. Christi uses an accordion file. I have one of those too, but I like this bigger one. It took very little time to set up the system, and less than an hour each week to get the coupons sorted and filed. It might take me a half hour to make a grocery list using a coupon match-up site, and then a few minutes to get the coupons together. It really is an easy system to use.

Her book also walks you through different places to find coupons. I buy 6 newspapers every Sunday (as long as there are coupons - you can find out about that online), but there are TONS of other sources. I also print a lot of coupons from online sites. You learn to keep an eye out, and it's amazing where you find coupons, and what you can use them to buy! Christi has a list of her favorite websites here.

Christi not only shares her couponing knowledge, but she also talks about other ways to save money. She talks about shopping for quality - sometimes things that seem more expensive can be a better value overall. She also talks about thrift stores and garage sales. I am getting really good at shopping for books at thrift stores. I'm working on starting a library of living books, and I have found some real treasures at our local thrift shops.  Paying $.50 for a book in good condition is even better than finding something for $.01 on Amazon - you still have to pay $3.99 shipping!

As I worked through the review period, there hasn't been a lot on sale that I needed to buy. That's just the season, though. We do a lot of our shopping at Sam's Club, so we have some things, like toilet paper, in mass quantities. Also, during my last coupon venture, my husband got a little frustrated with me. I tend to get excited about really good deals, and spend too much money. I'm going to work up to having him see that couponing is a good thing, and prove that I can stay within our budget, too.

On my first trip with coupons, I went to Target for laundry detergent and toothpaste. Big fun, right? :-) A coupon matchup site I like to use showed that 100 oz bottles of Tide were on sale for $11. When I got to my Target, they were full price - $11.99 - BUT when you purchased two containers of laundry detergent for $11.99 each, you received a $5 gift card, which brought the price per container down to $8.49 each. Whee! Now, these were BIG containers, so I didn't need twelve of them. I bought 4. I had a coupon for $3 off 3 bottles, another for $0.40 off one bottle, and 3 different Target e-coupons for $1.00 off Tide/laundry detergent. After all was said and done, and counting the $10 I received in gift cards, I paid $7.89 per bottle - that's almost 66% savings!

During the same trip, I knew we needed toothpaste, and Target had some on sale. Christi states in her book that she tries not to pay for toothpaste; she's found she can get it for free by watching for deals. However, because we were pretty much out at home, I had to buy some. I bought 3 tubes of toothpaste (2 Crest, 1 Colgate) on sale for $3.50 each (reg. $4.09). I had coupons for $0.75 off each tube, plus a Target e-coupon for $1.00 off one tube of Crest. I ended up paying an average of $2.41 per tube, for a savings of almost 59%. I will take that! It wasn't free, but it wasn't too shabby for a needed purchase on short notice.

Now, our Target store doesn't double any coupons, so if I can find a good sale at a grocery store that does, it's better to go to the grocery store. Still, you can definitely find deals at Target. There are coupon websites that focus on getting the most for your money from stores like Target and WalMart - do an internet search for them if you shop at those stores a lot.

Unfortunately, the store that has the best coupon deals in our area, in my opinion - Harris Teeter - left our town, probably 2 years ago now. I was SO bummed. That was another reason I stopped couponing. The store nearest me, Food Lion, doesn't double any coupons, and the other one I like, Lowe's Foods, used to only double up to $0.50. While looking up coupon policies, I did learn that Lowe's will double anything up to $0.99 now, so that was good news! I might try shopping there again.

Anyhoo, I went to our little Food Lion, prepared with my shopping list from a coupon matching site, and my coupons. Here's what I got:

One thing that makes me giggle when coupon shopping is the bizarre collection of items I have at checkout. Can you picture what a meal would look like with bananas, broccoli, pickles, and shredded cheese? Ha! Anyway, the total for my order, regular price, was $36.28. With my customer loyalty card and coupons, I saved $10.32, so about 28%. That percentage would have been higher if I hadn't purchased the bananas, which were not on sale, or the Little Debbies, for which I had no coupon, or the goldfish crackers my son snagged in the checkout lane, or the soda I purchased for my daughter who wasn't feeling well. :-D That impulse shopping will get you every time! I primarily went for the pickles. They were on sale, 2/$4, regularly $2.49. I had a 6 coupons for $.50 off one, bringing the price down to $1.50 each. That's about 60% savings!

Here is something to note: On my favorite coupon match-up site, it showed that Food Lion had pickles on sale for $1.50 for a 24 oz. jar, apparently all varieties. When I got there, my store had them 2/$4, and my favorites, the baby dills, were not included in the sale. Let this be a cautionary tale for you: it's important to pay attention to your local ads to be sure your sales are the same. I have been caught a couple times at the store, unable to find a sale because it was different for me locally.

I have been pleased with my shopping results using Christi's system. One thing I know about couponing is that it takes practice to get good at it, just like anything else. I hope to involve my children in this venture, so they learn how to be good stewards of their money, too. They will value that skill for a lifetime. If you'd like to get started couponing, this is a great resource. The price is $18 for the printed book and $4.99 for the Kindle version, and you will probably save far more than that using the knowledge you will gain.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

REVIEW: Picaboo Yearbooks

I love scrapbooking. Well, I loved it when I had time to devote to it, back before I began homeschooling! I have boxes and boxes of paper scrapbooking supplies, all neatly stored away. I have a little man who would not be able to stay away if I had those tempting things sitting out - scissors, stickers, paper, and adhesive are irresistible to young children (at least, to mine).

In recent years I've discovered digital scrapbooking. I much prefer paper, honestly, because I enjoy the fellowship of working with other scrapbookers, seeing their pictures, and sharing their memories. However, in the interest of time, I have made a few digital books for gifts using various sites. When the opportunity came to review Picaboo Yearbooks, I was excited to give their site a try! For the purpose of this review, I was given a 20-Page Softcover Yearbook.

If you've never made a digital scrapbook or photo album before, let me assure you that it's very easy to do. The hardest part for me is always selecting the pictures. I usually have a hard time paring the number down to fit within the parameters of the album I'm trying to create. Once the pictures are chosen, though, it's simple to upload them and start putting them in a digital layout. Picaboo has ideas and videos on their site to help you get started.

Making a yearbook is a little different than making a regular scrapbook. When you create your new album, you tell them the anticipated order date, how many you think you'll order (one is fine) and the expected order date. Once you've created your yearbook, you need to assign sections. When I did this, I created several sections, only to discover that you cannot change the pages allocated to them once they're created. If you need to change the number of pages for, say, your Sports section, you have to delete it and start over - and reassign the pictures to the new section. If I had been smart, I would have had only one section and just rearranged my pictures as I went along, or perhaps (ahem) planned ahead a little bit. Instead, I frustrated myself and deleted and re-added several sections until I figured out I didn't really need to do that. For my purposes, it made no difference if pictures from Sports ended up in the Science section; since I was the only one working on the book, I could put the pictures wherever I chose. Having individual sections would be important if a group were working together on a yearbook, and I would guess everyone would know how many pages they had to work with ahead of time. Once you've finished a section you need to "lock" it, which simply means clicking on the little padlock icon until it looks closed. It shows that all the sections are completed and no one wants to do anymore editing. All your sections must be "locked" before you can order your yearbook.

My list of sections for our yearbook

One thing I liked a lot was being able to see my page boundaries. It made picture placement simple, and I didn't have any unpleasant surprises when I received my yearbook.

I also enjoyed the different options for laying out pages - you can have one picture fill an entire page, for example, or use a picture as a background for a two-page spread. I was thrilled with the way the balloon pages turned out!

Another fun thing you can do is rotate your pictures and/or text boxes, if you'd like to angle them for a jaunty look. I didn't do that in mine; I usually like things to be straight on the page. That's just me, though. Also, you can lay pictures over the top of others so they look "stacked." I did do some of that, especially on pages where I had a lot I wanted to include:

Picaboo's Yearbook site does offer some nice background options for your pages, and some clip art you can use. I liked the background options, but didn't end up using any. I did use a couple of clip art images here and there, but I wasn't crazy about most of those. If you have your own digital scrapbooking embellishments, you can upload them and use them in your book. I didn't think about that until after I'd ordered my book. *blush*

Here are some pictures of my actual book:

I had my daughter take a picture of the some of the books we used for the cover of our book (upper left picture, above). I like how it turned out. For the pages on the bottom left in the above collage, I used one of the pre-made layouts Picaboo offers. I had a lot of pictures, and wasn't sure how the pre-set layout would work, but I loved it! You can still move things around or delete any extra boxes.

I enjoyed making this yearbook for my family! We have all enjoyed looking through it. I will definitely consider doing this again next year. We participate in a small, two-family co-op, and my friend Sara and I had discussed making a yearbook like this to document our co-op experiences. I am going to suggest to her that we let our older four children work on it next year. What a great project for them! They will learn design, photo editing, and writing skills - a bit like journalism, I suppose, as they will have to come up with text to go with their pictures. Emma loves to take pictures, so I know if I set her the task of making sure we document the things we do together this year, we will have some great stuff to work with. I'm looking forward to it! The only thing I would do differently next time is order a hardcover book instead of a soft cover. We love looking at our book, and the cover has already started to curl from heavy use. I think the hardcover will hold up a little better.

When you order a yearbook,  you can also order a FREE e-book of your album. Isn't that cool? I have mine on my iPad. It's handy for showing grandparents, and for talking about what we do in our homeschool with others. Plus, I like to show off my kids. :-)

Picaboo's yearbook pricing starts at $8.49 for a 20-page softcover yearbook; $18.99 for a 20-page hardcover yearbook. Shipping for one softcover yearbook is $8.99 at the time of this review. You can go to this page to check out their pricing calculator.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

REVIEW: 25 Truths book from Ed Douglas Publications

As I raise my children, I try to set a good example for them as one who claims to be a follower of Christ. I am more successful in some areas than in others, of course. Because we homeschool, they have walked with me through nearly every day, good and bad, and have seen how I've dealt with difficult situations and people. Sometimes we talk about what has happened, because I want them to understand why I handled a particular scenario as I did, or how I could have done better. I tend to lecture, to talk too much, in an effort to illustrate my point, particularly if I feel passionately about an issue. I was recently given the opportunity to review the book 25 Truths from Ed Douglas Publications through the Schoolhouse Crew, and was pleased to find some assistance in keeping the lectures short, along with ways to engage my children in discussion.

Ed Douglas retired in 2006 from being Chairman and CEO of Citizens Bancshare Bank, and now owns Ed Douglas Certified Financial Planning/Consulting. 25 Truths is his 3rd book. He gives financial seminars for adults and also speaks to students on financial issues. He's been appointed to statewide positions in the state of Missouri. He serves on boards and would be considered Important. He's the kind of guy who has the credentials to speak about how to be successful. (You can read his bio here.) He is also married, the father of three grown children, and a Christian. He has made his faith and his family priorities in his life, which means he's made some very different choices than many of the "successful" people you see on the news.

This book, 25 Truths, began as a list of life principles Mr. Douglas had put together and would share with family and friends. The list evolved into this book. Each truth is presented with a corresponding Bible verse or quote, along with a short reading, usually including a story from Mr. Douglas's experiences. Following each one is a summary, in which the chapter's principle is reworded and perhaps clarified a bit, and then the Workshop, which includes questions to encourage thoughtfulness and discussion.

When my girls and I went through this book together, we read one principle each day. Their responses were so interesting! From the very first truth - "Protect Your Reputation" - we had great discussions. They didn't think they had reputations at this stage of their lives (they are 12 and 13). As we talked about it, though, they were able to see that even as young as they are, they have reputations within our extended family, our church, and the groups in which they participate (choir, ballet, gymnastics, etc.). They could also see how easy it is to lose a good reputation, and how important it is to protect one's good name.

This book provides great material to spark conversation. Mr. Douglas has put a great deal of thought into articulating these principles in a clear, succinct way, making them easy to share and discuss. I enjoyed talking with my girls over the different points. There are some that were great reminders for me:

#11 - Take one step at a time
#13 - Make every day your best day
#14 - See the glass as half full

My very favorite? This one:

#21 - Get as much education as possible

Charlotte Mason put it like this: "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." In other words, we should all strive to be lifelong learners. (There is a great post on Charlotte Mason and the idea of character training here - in case you're interested.)

It's suggested that this book is best for grades 6-12, and I think that's pretty accurate. As I went through the book with my girls, I saw them making connections with the principles - in many cases, these were things they already knew on some level, but the simple phrases allowed us to bring them to the forefront for more careful consideration. This book would be a great tool for a youth group or college Bible study, or any group, really. Mr. Douglas mentioned using it with the high school tennis team he coached, and I thought that sounded like a perfect venue.

If the book were to be reprinted, I'd love to see more careful editing - I noticed several typos throughout, and thought the writing could be smoothed out in some places. Overall, though, this is an excellent way to spark conversation on some basic life principles with people at almost any stage of life, whether they are learning what it means to live life to the fullest, or perhaps need to be reminded.

You can purchase 25 Truths for $12.50 from the 25 Truths website.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

In Need of Hide-and-Seek Training

Isaac loves it when his Daddy is home on the weekends. He helps with whatever Todd might be doing, from laundry to house projects. He loves it best, though when Daddy can PLAY.

This afternoon, Isaac convinced Todd to play hide-and-seek. First, Todd hid behind the loveseat in the living room. When Isaac came in to find him, he looked (I thought) behind the loveseat from the left side, didn't see him, and went searching through the rest of the house. He finally came back down to the living room and looked behind the loveseat from the other side, and found Todd. Isaac cackled with triumphant glee, which sent me into fits of giggles.

Then it was Isaac's turn to hide. Todd sat with me on the couch while Isaac began searching for his hiding spot. He chose to crawl underneath the dining room table. I heard him say to his sister in the kitchen, "Don't tell Dad where I'm hiding, Abbie!" Our downstairs goes in one big circle and you can  hear each other from anywhere on the first floor. The silly boy didn't even whisper! Todd, Abbie and I were all quite entertained by this. Todd called out to Isaac, "Are you ready for me to come and find you?" Isaac replied with a cheerful "Yep!"

Hiding in the dog's crate
After Todd took his turn hiding and was found, Isaac went in search of another hiding spot. Apparently Daddy was taking too long, though, because he came out of hiding (behind the loveseat), went upstairs and asked Todd why he wasn't seeking. Todd told Isaac to come back down and hide, gave him a 10-count, and then found him trying to hide behind his train table, which sits out in the middle of the floor.

Then it was Todd's turn, and he high-tailed it upstairs to hide. Isaac giggled loudly when he found Daddy again, and then said, "OK! My turn!" and began to count, "One, two, three,"  then remembered he was supposed to be hiding - "Oh, wait!" -  and ran off.

The last time Todd hid, he covered himself with an afghan next to me on the couch. Subtle, right? Isaac did look around for a bit before he noticed the giant blue-and-yellow giggling lump, though. He said, "Oh, what is that big lump on the couch? I think I'll check it out. Hello, Fodder!"

Best quote of the day: "PUT YOUR HANDS UP!" when Isaac found Todd in the office. :-D

Isaac doesn't quite get the concept of hiding. At least, he doesn't seem to understand how not to give himself away. He counted, loudly, for Todd several times to make sure Daddy "sought" in a timely fashion. He will figure it out eventually, but he provides us with a lot of entertainment in the meantime. What a great afternoon activity for this rainy day!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

REVIEW - "Tunnel of Gold" from Susan K. Marlow and Kreger Publications

I was recently asked to review Tunnel of Gold from Susan K. Marlow and Kreger Publications, the second book in Ms. Marlow's Goldtown Books. I know very little about the Gold Rush era, and I love books, so was eager to see what I thought of this series. Last year for my girls' birthdays, we went gold mining in the North Carolina mountains with my parents, and it was a lot of fun - as well as hard work!

Susan Marlow began writing stories at the age of 10, and has published several children's books, from early readers to chapter books. She has visited gold mining sites and even done some panning of her own. Her knowledge comes through in the story; you feel as though you're with Jem, Ellie, and Nathan in their town as they face the possibility of the mine closing down, which would leave their town as a ghost town.

The Goldtown Adventure books are written for ages 8-12. They're not very long; Tunnel of Gold, 2nd in the series, has 144 pages and 18 chapters. We were able to read 2 chapters per day without anyone complaining. This was a great read-aloud! Every chapter makes you want to read the next one to see what's going to happen. Even my 5 year old  boy, who usually wanders off to do something else while I'm reading "long books," stayed and listened, and asked if we were going to read it again tomorrow. You can click here for a PDF sample of the book. We didn't need the first book to make sense of this one, although after reading this one, we want to go back and read the first story, too.

I liked Jem's character very much. He is the oldest of two children, and now has his cousin Nathan living with him. Although he's not above some teasing, he does his best to set a good example, to be kind to others, to think before he speaks. He wasn't perfect, but he showed regret when he knew he'd done something wrong. I'd say he's a typical young man who lacks judgement and learns the hard way sometimes, but he *did* learn from his mistakes. He had great respect for his father, and was respectful to other adults, whether he liked them or not. He had to make some tough decisions in this book. He stood up to bullies and protected his Chinese friend, even when the odds were against him. He stopped selling firewood to his best customer, as his way of supporting his father in an issue involving the mine, knowing he would lose most of his income.

Ms. Marlow offeres some nice resources to go along with these books on her site. There is a free study guide for Tunnel of Gold available, including a timeline of the Gold Rush, a recipe for Cook's donuts, historical information and more  - click here for the PDF. She also has lapbooks available for purchase; click here if you'd like to take a look.

Tunnel of Gold is available from Susan K. Marlow and Kreger Publications for $7.99. You may also purchase both books in the series for $13.99 and save a little money. She has two other series of books available: Circle C Adventures, for ages 8-12, and Circle C Beginnings, early readers for ages 6-9.

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sweet Summertime

I've seen lots of posts lately about what people do to keep their children busy during the summer. Since kids who go to school are done for the year, and most homeschoolers try to finish up their curriculum and have summers off too, there are lots of great ideas out there for fun activities you can enjoy with your children.

Here's the thing though - I just spent the entire school year driving my children hither and yon to activities, usually 5 days per week. We were busy ALL THE TIME. I'm really OK with just hanging around home for the most part, especially because it's so hot here in North Carolina. Also, we do go on vacation, so it's not like we do NOTHING.

We make our own fun, though. We have had a lot of rain over the last few weeks, and the kids have been having fun dancing in it. Even Grandma got in on the action when she was visiting, and Todd's always open to running amok with the kids:

Don't you love Isaac's rain outfit?

We've also been watching the butterflies on our butterfly bush by the front porch:

I know we have a tiger swallowtail (upper left) and a black swallowtail (lower right). I *think* the one in the lower left corner is a hoary edge. This one's pretty rough looking, but it is the only picture I found that comes close to what it looks like. It also kept its wings determinedly together while I was getting the picture, so I don't know what it looks like when it spreads them. The one in the upper right corner? No idea. I thought it was a Painted Lady or perhaps an American Lady, but it doesn't look like the pictures I found. If you know, would you tell me? 

I felt inspired, looking through pictures of butterflies we might find in North Carolina, to start paying more attention to the ones we see and start keeping a record. I might also try to plant more flowers to attract them, after reading about what different types of butterflies like to eat. That might be a project for fall, getting some new plants to attract butterflies, and then seeing what we get in the spring.

Isaac chose three tomato plants at the grocery store this summer, and he's been taking excellent care of them. This week, we had our first ripe grape tomatoes! He was delighted. We only had five, so Isaac got two and the girls and I each had one (Daddy doesn't like tomatoes, so we didn't save one for him) and they were delicious. There's quite a difference between home-grown tomatoes and store-bought, yes?

The girls entertained themselves one afternoon by trying to color Isaac's hair blue using sidewalk chalk:

Note they didn't want to color their own hair. Good thing their brother is pretty easy going when it comes to playing with his sisters!

So, we're not entirely bored around here. Somewhere, I have a nifty little book, sent to me by my friend Jenn, called something like, 101 things to do to be the most fun mom ever, or something like that. There were some neat ideas in there, so if I can find that, I'd like to try some. We also have some cool art projects coming up. And last, but not least, my darling girls are still finishing up their school work!

What are your favorite summertime things to do? I will post more, if I find anything especially fun, and simple. (Simple is good. I can do simple.)

Sunday, July 07, 2013

REVIEW - Prescripts Cursive Passages and Illuminations

Classical Conversations is an organization that helps train parents to provide their children with a Christian, classical education. There is a large network of communities that meet weekly during the school year, in 35 states and 5 countries. Founded by Leigh Bortins in 1997, the program has grown from 11 students to over 36,000. The curriculum covers history/timeline, Bible, English grammar, Latin, science, geography, and math. They have recently released their Prescripts series, including 4 handwriting books, designed to coordinate with their curriculum and reinforce memory work. The books combine cursive writing with art instruction, and encourage students to be more artistic in their writing, and make it easy for homeschoolers to integrate art instruction into their homeschool day.

For the purpose of this review, we received the  Prescripts Cursive Passages and Illuminations book,  intended for ages 9 and up (click here for a PDF sample). It's a nice, spiral-bound book, which allows the student to open it flat and work comfortably. If a student were working on cursive mastery, they could trace over the cursive lettering in the book. Otherwise, they can copy the passages into their own notebook. The copywork passages are taken from Classical Conversations' Words Aptly Spoken: American Documents book, which is a supplement to their Cycle 3. There are 67 lessons in the book, each with one page of copywork and one illuminated letter to draw. If you were to assign one page per day, you'd have plenty of work for your school year, working 4-5 days per week.

The art lessons in this book are centered around illumination, such as you might see in Medieval manuscripts. The students can copy the illuminated letters in the space provided in their copybook, or draw them onto their own sheet of paper. The illuminated letters require attention to detail, and assume some drawing skills, I would think. I confess, I'm a little confused why illumination was the choice for art in a book of copywork taken from American history documents, but they are lovely, and there is some good information about the art of illumination and suggested resources for further research on the topic if students would like to pursue it.

I gave the book to my daughter Abbie, who is 12. She loves to draw, and doesn't mind copywork. She chose to write the passages in a separate notebook, and drew the illuminated letters in the Passages book.

She did a beautiful job, didn't she? She chose to make some of her own illuminations, rather than simply copying each time:

These are lovely copybooks. I am an instant fan of anything that puts copywork all together in one place! Also, having art lessons that are easily available for children to do in the same book is VERY convenient. I am guilty of letting art instruction fall by the wayside, because I'm not all that comfortable with it and there always seems to be something "more important" to do.

Some things to note:
  • The Prescripts series teaches cursive writing; children will not learn printing.
  • The first three books in the series are consumable; the fourth can be used either as a consumable or non-consumable book. 
  • The first and third books in the series relate to the Classical Acts & Facts history cards from Classical Conversations' Cycle 2, which covers medieval to modern history; however, they are not necessary to use the books.
Each book in the series is available from Classical Conversations. The first book in the series, Cursive Letters and Coloring, is $11.99; the other three books are available for $12.99. Although they are intended to coordinate with and reinforce memory work with the Classical Conversations program, they would be nice copy books for any child to use. (Perhaps another day, we will discuss why it's beneficial for children to learn cursive writing first.)

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

REVIEW - Teaching the Classics

As much as I love to read, I have never felt comfortable with literary analysis. I have vague recollections of my high school English teacher, Ms. Nye, teaching us about symbolism in Macbeth, and I still have a paper I wrote about it (which I remember as being fabulous, but really isn't). In college, I took a "Great Books" class as a requirement for graduating with honors, and I sat in lectures, took notes, and regurgitated the professor's viewpoint into papers. If I could find a way to include women and/or minorities, I got an "A." I took a poetry class, too, and didn't leave there feeling as if I had any more of a clue than when I started. It's amazing how one can write papers without knowing anything about the topic, and still pass.

I was excited, therefore, to have the opportunity to review Teaching the Classics from Institute of Excellence in Writing. This program was developed by Adam and Missy Andrews, after they began homeschooling their six children and found that the literature curriculum scene was primarily dominated by workbooks. After working to pull material together for their own family, and at the urging of some homeschool friends, they combined their knowledge (he has a degree in history; she in English literature) and love of literature into a program they could use to teach their own children, and would allow other homeschoolers to do so. They did not want to add another thing to the load of a homeschool parent that would require starting from scratch - we've all been there, yes? Rather, this program enhances what we do as we teach our students how to think more deeply about what they're reading. For the purpose of this review, I received the Teaching the Classics program, which includes a set of 4 DVDs (around 6.5 hours of video) and a spiral-bound workbook (extra workbooks are available). Although the course is directed at teachers, I think older students might enjoy watching the videos as well. 

Teaching the Classics uses the Socratic Method to teach literary analysis. The Socratic approach, named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, involves asking questions and engaging in discussion with students, in order to stimulate critical thinking. The questions increase in difficulty, and are organized according to the classical stages of learning - grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. The course includes an introduction - "Why Literature?" - and 5 lessons, with a practicum at the end to practice all you've learned. Each lesson uses great literature to illustrate the concepts discussed:
  • Preparing for Literary Analysis - Paul Revere's Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Plot and Conflict - The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
  • Setting - Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rudyard Kipling
  • Character - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  • Theme - Martin the Cobbler, Leo Tolstoy
  • Practicum - Casey at the Bat, Earnest Lawrence Thayer
The workbook also includes a blank copy of the fabulous "story chart,"which identifies conflict and breaks out the plot of a story; a scope and sequence for the curriculum and suggested lesson plans; and appendices including the Socractic list of questions, reading lists for every age, and a glossary of literary terms. The one minor issue is, since the recordings were done at a live seminar, the audio varies in volume sometimes. I found this much less distracting when I watched it on the computer in my office, instead of trying to watch on our television. I'd also love to see an audio recording of the course. The videos are great, but I'd love to be able to move around a little more while listening, particularly as I review the material in the future.

Adam Andrews is an engaging speaker, and his passion for literature is infectious. I thoroughly enjoyed his lectures. He made literary analysis fun - something I thought impossible to achieve. He did an excellent reading of Paul Revere's Ride in the first lesson. I was ready to hang my American flag and sing "God Bless America" when he finished. He explained literary devices (onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, imagery, allusion, symbolism) and helped find them in the poem.  Now, I had read Paul Revere's Ride before, but I didn't know much about its context. Mr. Andrews defined context as the history of the time in which a piece was written, and personal history of the author. He shared three things about Longfellow, which he stated were easy things to learn:
  1. He was an American poet who lived in New England, from 1807-1882.
  2. He was fantastically famous in his own lifetime; when he spoke, he knew the nation was listening. He was a staunch Unionist.
  3. Paul Revere's ride appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in January of 1861, shortly after Lincoln was elected to the Presidency solely by the Northern states, and 7 of 11 states had already seceded from the Union.
Can you see how just knowing those three facts add an entirely new dimension to the poem? The information is easy to come by, which means you don't have to be a Longfellow biographer to find it. With little Googling, and a couple of good books, you can present excellent information to your students that will broaden their understanding of what they're reading. I've learned quite a bit about the significance of context in pursuit of a Charlotte Mason education for my children, and that one lesson clarified for me how important it really is, to know the context of a work. It helps students connect with what they're reading on a much deeper level.

Mr. Andrews is quite convincing as he encourages people to start teaching literary analysis even to young children. The premise is that if you teach them basic things early on, they will have a much easier time with more complex literary analysis as they get older. That is the one of the basic tenets of classical education - hanging knowledge on "pegs" for building of future skills. For example, Mr. Andrews stated that learning to recognize onomatopoeia would help a child learn to recognize symbolism more easily in the future. He suggests beginning with children's books and students as young as 8 or 9.

I'm not sure how I feel about starting with students that young. Children should be allowed to make their own connections with stories they read, and if I'm perfectly honest, it seems like it would take all the fun right out of reading about Peter Rabbit's escape from Mr. MacGregor's garden if I had to discuss conflict and plot with a young child. However, I think my girls (going into 7th and 8th grade) are ready for this kind of information, and as Mr. Andrews showed us so well in the course, children's books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit are a wonderful place to start because the concepts are so easily pulled from the stories.

After years of feeling like a literary goob, I have learned tools to teach my children about literary analysis! It's a great feeling. I plan to pull together books from the lists provided in Teaching the Classics and start working on them with my girls, perhaps once a week or so. I will go gently, because I do not want to tell them what to think about a story; I want to give them tools and vocabulary to discover more for themselves in what they read. I'm not sure how far we'll take it, but I am looking forward to introducing them to the vocabulary and ideas.

Teaching the Classics is available from the Institute for Excellence in Writing for $89.00. This is an excellent course to show anyone how to teach literary analysis. 

Click to read more reviews from the Schoolhouse Crew!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Ragamuffin - A Movie About Rich Mullins

There is something about music that moves us, stirs our souls, and inspires us. There are so many different kinds of music, surely everyone can find something that connects with them.

One of my favorite Christian artists is Rich Mullins. His music is real, challenging, and inspiring. His songs talk about issues that affect every Christian. He does not mince words, or try to hide behind his own spirituality - he shared openly about his own life in his music. Here is the video for my favorite song of his, and in fact probably my favorite song of all time, "Hold Me Jesus":

Here's one more, that I sing to myself often:

Let mercy lead, let love be the strength in your legs
And with every footprint that you leave
There'll be a drop of grace
If we can reach beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God, that foolishness will save
Those who believe
And though their foolish hearts will break, they will find peace
And I'll meet you in that place where mercy leads
-Let Mercy Lead, Rich Mullins

Unfortunately, he passed away in September of 1997, as the result of a car accident. He was only 42. His music lives on, though, and we listen to it often in our house. Everyone likes it, from my husband down to my 5-year-old. If you haven't heard him before, I recommend checking out his "Songs" album, which is a compilation of his "greatest hits." You can find it on Amazon, or on iTunes. I believe you will be blessed.

There is also a wonderful book by Brennan Manning called The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up and Burned Out. Brennan Manning was a Franciscan priest, and his calling was to "help sinners journey from self-hatred to self acceptance" (link to article on Brennan Manning, who passed away in April). He inspired Rich to a deeper relationship with God. This is a book worth reading. I'm reading it myself right now. Would you like to join me?

I just learned today that there is a movie about Rich Mullins! I can't wait to see it. Check out the website here; you can also find it on Facebook and Twitter. Here is a preview:

OK. I'll stop now. My heart overflows when I listen to his music - I can't quite find the words to express that to you, but I hope you will explore it for yourself.