Friday, October 1, 2010

Review of Vocabulary Cartoons

The latest item we were asked to review as part of the TOS Homeschool Crew was a book called Vocabulary Cartoons, Elementary Edition. Vocabulary Cartoons is based on mnemonics:

Vocabulary Cartoons works on the principle of mnemonics. A mnemonic is a device that helps you remember something by associating what you are trying to remember with something you already know. A mnemonic device could be in many different forms like; rhymes, songs, pictures to name a few. For example, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two" is a classic mnemonic rhyme which helps you remember when Columbus discovered America.

Following the mnemonic principle of association, Vocabulary Cartoons link together an auditory (rhyming) word association and a visual association in the form of a humorous cartoon. These powerful mnemonics help students retain the meanings of words longer and with less effort than trying to memorize definitions straight out of a dictionary.

Let me first say that I never would’ve thought that vocabulary could be fun. From the moment we started using this text, my kids couldn’t wait to do their next lesson!

The first word we learned was abduct. The cartoon shows a picture of a bandit running off with a duck. Because abduct sounds similar to duck, student will hear the word and recall the image thus allowing them to remember the definition. This process works amazingly well! Each day, we read the word, definition, and sample sentences and studied the cartoon image. We didn’t go back and review it later. But, any time I ask my kids what abduct means, they immediately yell out “kidnap – like when the bandit stole the ducks!”

My children are 6 and 8 and both of them are able to recall the definition of any words we have studied so far. Better yet, when they see that it’s time to use the book, they are genuinely excited.

The elementary level book is for grades 3-6 and includes 210 words. The complete word list can be viewed here along with sample pages. It is available for purchase for $12.95 and is well worth it!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Schleich Review

We were pleasantly surprised the day we received our package of Schleich animal figurines in the mail. As part of the Homeschool Crew, we were lucky enough to receive a set of seven animals to review. This set included the Gnu, Gnu Calf, Indian Elephant Calf, Donkey, Przewalski's Horse, Okapi, Swabian-Hall Pig, and Dartmoor Pony. Out of the package, I immediately noticed the company’s commitment to detail. The animals are so lifelike! The molds used to form these figurines include the smallest details: hair, nostrils, and eyes so shiny they look alive! The horse has silver horseshoes, the pig’s tiny foot is split…they are just amazing. They are durable and the perfect size to handle for children of all ages. As soon as I unpacked them, my 5 year old daughter was playing with them. I assumed that my almost 9 year old son would not be interested in them but I was wrong. Within minutes, they had an entire town set up and the animals were the main attraction. We have never owned or played with Schleich products before and we really were missing out on something special. A toy that requires nothing but your child’s imagination…that’s a great toy! In addition to the animals that we received, the company offers a large variety of play figures including people, dinosaurs, farm animals, knights, vehicles…the list goes on. Prices range from $3 on up to $180 for some of the more expensive play sets. They can be purchased at several local retailers such as Target, Barnes and Noble and many online retailers. While pricier than standard toy figurines, they are worth the extra cost. The attention to detail and durability along with the wide assortment of products makes them well worth the price. These are toys that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Salem Ridge Press Review

My next review as part of the Homeschool Crew is for Salem Ridge Press, a young company with old values! The goal of Salem Ridge is to locate and re-publish quality children’s books from the 1800s - early 1900s…books that feature positive role models that reflect and uphold Biblical standards. Each book is carefully selected by homeschool-graduate and founder, Daniel Mills. Daniel selects only the books that he feels reflect good moral character. Where necessary, books are edited to remove offensive language or other inappropriate content or behavior.

I received Soldier Fritz and the Enemies He Fought, a soft cover book available for purchase for $10.95. This book is geared for ages 8+ and features a young boy who aspires to follow the lead of Martin Luther and be a soldier for the Lord. In e-book format, I received Mary Jane Her Visit ($12.95), the second book in the Mary Jane series geared for ages 6-10. In this book, you follow Mary Jane’s activities while visiting her grandparents. I also received The American Twins of the Revolution ($12.95) a true adventure story from our nation’s history.

Based on what I have read in their books and on their website, I think any parent can feel confident in their purchase of a Salem Ridge Press book. You will receive a quality product that reflects wholesome living. I do recommend that you adhere to the suggested ages as the language of the books is sometimes difficult to understand. I found myself stopping to explain certain passages to my 6 and 8 year olds and in some instances; they lost interest because we could not read at a smooth, uninterrupted pace. Regardless, the books and our children are worth the effort!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review of Pyramath

We were recently given the opportunity to review Pyramath, a math card game from I See Cards. This card game was designed to reinforce basic math skills: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The Pyramath deck includes 54 colorful cards that are clearly labeled with numbers, math symbols, and numerical translations in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, roman and French.

We opened the deck and became skilled players within 5 minutes! The instructions are clear and easy to follow. The basic game begins with 5-7 cards laid out in a row. Using two adjacent cards, you add, subtract, multiple or divide to see if the card you’ve drawn from the deck correctly solves the problem. If so, you play that card and begin to form your pyramid. The first player to create their pyramid wins.

One of the great things about this game is that it is customizable for any age or skill level. My 4th grader was comfortable with all methods of play but my 1st grader felt competent only in addition and subtraction. So, when I played with her, we only used the skills she was competent in. While proficient in math, neither of my children enjoys it. So when I brought out the deck and explained that we would be playing a math game, I expected to hear simultaneous groans. But, both children seemed interested right away. Now, they ask to play over and over again. I can’t ask for more than that in a math game.

The company’s slogan says Pyramath is a game you can’t afford not to buy. I wholeheartedly agree with that. It’s a fun and interesting way to reinforce math skills as well as foreign language development, strategy, and memorization. We love this game and it will be well-used in our homeschool!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review of America's Math Teacher

The next port of call on our homeschool cruise was American’s Math Teacher, an online math tutoring program that covers basic math thru algebra. This subscription based service cost $195 per year and provides 24/7 math tutoring via online videos and assessment tests. As part of the homeschool crew, I was given free access to this program for 60 days. I used this program with my 8 year old son who is just finishing 3rd grade. We used the Basic Math Course which covers:

Starting with Whole Numbers, you watch a series of 5-10 minute videos. The videos are mainly a computerized white board where the instructor discusses the topic and works the problems out on the screen. It is a no-frills presentation which I felt allowed for easier instruction. There are no flashy graphics or distractions…it’s just your child and their online math tutor. After completing a video, you download the associated worksheet for your child to complete. I found that the worksheets did not clearly correspond with the lesson titles so it was often difficult to know which sheet to complete. I felt that most of the information was review so my son had no trouble completing the worksheets.

In addition to the videos and worksheets, there are speed drill wheels. These computerized, timed speed drills were a lot of fun for my son. He like the physical structure of the wheel and competed to beat his times.

Because this is an online program, I think the structure of the website is important. AMT's website is very organized and easy to navigate. Like the videos, there is nothing flashy, and I like that you can quickly find what you are looking for.

Summary: As much as I like the physical layout of the program and the simplicity of the presentations, I struggle to find the value in this program. We completed many of the assignments but I'm not sure it benefited my son. He is not struggling with math so perhaps that is why I don’t see the value. The videos are clear and concise and ideas are reinforced so I do not fault the content or presentation. I just don’t have a need for this program in our homeschool. The biggest negative I see with this program is the price. I wouldn't spent this much on a complete math curriculum so I know I wouldn’t spend it for supplemental math tutoring.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Peterson Directed Handwriting Review

I was given the opportunity to use and review Peterson Directed Handwriting. This unique program of handwriting uses, what they call, a movement-based strategy. Unlike other handwriting programs that rely on memorization of images that are copied from a visual guide to paper, Peterson relies on muscle memory to learn handwriting. There are four steps involved in the Peterson method:

Step #1: Illustrate and Describe: demonstrate the start point and direction of movement using specified action words

Step #2: Air Writing: form letters in the air using hands, arms, elbows, etc. to create muscle memory. Using the action words, students fall into pace with the chanted instructions.

Step #3: Finger Tracing: trace the letter with fingers while chanting the movements

Step #4: Write and Say: use a pencil to create the letters. Chanting of action words continues in this step.

To begin using the Peterson method, I attended a 1 hour online presentation directed by Rand Nelson. This presentation was to explain the method and deliver the PDF By Hand E-Workbooks for Print Steps 1-3. After introductions, Rand launched into explaining the method and I was immediately lost in technical jargon such as threading, anchoring, muscle memory, goal-orientation, etc. I watched the demonstration but must admit feeling lost. I received the downloaded materials and waited a few weeks before opening and using them. When I opened the files up for the first time, I was expecting to see a layman’s instruction manual that would explain the methodology and technique. But again, you are immediately presented with the same foreign terms of threading, anchoring, grammar of action, etc. Rand had told me that if I had any questions, I could refer to the many presentations available on the website or chat live with him. I visited the website and watched several of the presentations which took about another hour. After watching them, I felt I understood the method and technique.

I am intrigued by the research and believe that the Peterson method does work. Prior to Peterson, my children learned to copy images from a visual cue without memorization of the movement. This resulted in letters started from the bottom rather than the top and/or backwards. Peterson’s method commits the motion of the letters to the brain before a student ever picks up a pencil. Additionally, I think the exaggerated action of forming letters in the air is fun for students and children learn better when they enjoy what they are doing. You are not limited to air writing, you can trace in sand, too! Any large movement that helps to create the muscle memory is beneficial. I really liked the E-Workbook because it allows you to print the workbook pages as many times as you like. Unlike a traditional handwriting workbook, you can review a letter over and over again until you’ve achieved mastery.

The only complaint I have regarding the program is the frustration I felt trying to understand the method and technique. It seems to be geared toward handwriting specialists who are already familiar with the aforementioned technical terms. As a homeschooler, I was not familiar with these terms. I believe this is an obstacle to overcome. If I was shopping for a handwriting program and someone directed me to the Peterson website, I would probably spend about ten minutes there and leave. The website is full of information but is not laid out in a manner that takes the layperson to mastery. It required a lot of digging to understand what I was looking at and what they were offering. I did this because I was asked to use and review the product as part of the Homeschool Crew. As a homeschooling mom with limited time, I doubt I would take the time to understand this product. If I had struggling writers and someone recommended the program to me, perhaps I would, but if I were just shopping for a handwriting program, I would probably pass this one over.

Pros: I think it is a great product. I believe in the research and technique and that it provides a creative and interesting approach for student and teacher. I like the E-Workbook format and the price of $19.95 is quite affordable. Customer support is a click away and Rand is a nice guy to work with.

Cons: The instruction manual does not impart a basic understanding of the product for homeschooling moms. The website is confusing to navigate when you are new to the product and unsure of what you are looking for.

Summary: I would recommend the product and suggest that you rely heavily on the website materials and Rand Nelson for your initial support.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Review of The Schoolhouse Planner's June 2010 Module Travel the World!

Fasten your seat belts as you prepare for a trip around the world in The Schoolhouse Planner’s June 2010 module entitled Travel the World! This high-tech, geography-themed unit study is chock-full of facts, maps, pictures, puzzles, lapbooking activities, lesson expanders, on-line activities, and more!

As part of the 2010-11 Homeschool Crew, I was given the opportunity to use and review this product with my first and fourth graders, ages five and eight. I read through the entire module first and printed out the worksheets located at the end of the PDF file. The only items I found necessary to have available were a computer with Internet access, globe and map. We gathered around the computer and began the lesson. I immediately appreciated that the study was written so that I could read directly to my children without rephrasing. This saved a lot of time! As we read, we could click on links that took us to the Internet for visual aids, interactive maps, and games. This mixed media approach proved interesting to the kids and they really enjoyed taking control of the mouse and driving for awhile! I found that the content of PDF file was basic enough for elementary aged children to understand and that the hyperlinks took you to more in-depth information. We visited all of the hyperlinks and reviewed the information; however, some of it was more advanced than they were capable of understanding. So, I refrained from covering some of the material because I knew I would lose them. That is not to say that this module was not age appropriate because we could easily spend weeks exploring all of the material offered. The beauty of this module is that it can be adjusted to suit all age groups while still providing a wealth of information. It even includes a special high school expansion section which we did not use.

Through using this module, we learned about the earth’s form and movements. We studied the continents, bodies of water, mountain ranges and other important areas of geographic interest. We learned mapping skills and were offered lots of review opportunities through games, worksheets, coloring, and puzzles. The lapbook activity provides you with a finished product to display.

Pros: Travel the World! Is an e-book that can be purchased and downloaded immediately from the Schoolhouse Store for only $7.95. There is a tremendous amount of information included in this unit study and it is laid out in a clear and concise way. It can be simplified or expanded based on the age of the children and the time you are willing to devote to it. It is very flexible! The mixed media approach is interesting to both teacher and student. I found all of the hyperlinks relevant and available.

Cons: I honestly don’t have any!

Summary: An interesting and affordable geography study for computer-savvy homeschoolers!

Travel the World is just one of 12 supplemental monthly modules available from the Schoolhouse Store and can be purchased together as a group for $83.95 or individually for $7.95. I was given this product for free in exchange for my objective review.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Review of The Old Schoolhouse’s WannaBe Series, When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Firefighter

I was given the opportunity to review The Old Schoolhouse's product entitled When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Firefighter. It is one of ten titles offered in their WannaBe series of unit studies.

I used this product with my children whose ages are five and eight. In this unit study, we learned about the history of firefighting and the development of equipment. From the days of the bucket brigades up to the use of spiderbots to detect and fight fires, we were fascinated to learn the evolution of firefighting. The requirements to become a firefighter are discussed in detail along with life at a firehouse. My children think that the life of a fireman is exciting but were surprised to find that it has its share of normalcy. Fireman cook meals, clean toilets and make their beds at the firehouse just like we do at home. We learned about firefighters' salaries and how they vary depending on location, rank and years of experience. We especially enjoyed reading about the origin and use of firehouse dogs. We learned about the reasoning for and importance of building codes. There was also an extensive section on the origin of robotics and how that relates to modern day firefighting.

There were ample opportunities to review the information contained through Q & A, word finds, crossword puzzles, fill in the blank, copywork and storytelling. I really enjoyed the story starters that prompted the kids to think about a situation and write about what they thought or how they would handle it. Unit studies are designed to cover an array of educational subjects while relating to a theme and this study really does a bang up job of doing that. We covered math, reading, writing, creative thinking, history, science, art, health, physical education, home economics...I don't think anything was excluded. The use of graphs, charts, and word problems made the worksheet portions interesting.

Overall, I think this product does a thorough job of relating the subject of firefighting and does so in an interesting and entertaining way. The only complaint I have is that the language was unnecessarily advanced for the target ages of 4-10. Using words like dwelling instead of house, apparatus instead of firetruck...competent, evacuate, rouse, etc. required me to stop every other sentence and explain what they were talking about and disrupted the flow of reading. While there were important new vocabulary words to learn as part of the study, this was more of a problem of using a "big" word when a "little" word would be more appropriate.

This product is available for immediate download from The Old Schoolhouse website for $8.95.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review of The Old Schoolhouse’s Download N Go Expedition Australia

Review of The Old Schoolhouse’s Download N’ Go Expedition Australia

As part of tryouts for the Homeschool Crew, we were offered the opportunity to use and review The Old Schoolhouse’s Download N Go Series product entitled Expedition Australia. The Download N Go series combines thematic unit studies with lapbooking to provide a fun and complete hands-on learning experience.

Expedition Australia was designed for grades K-4 and is used over a five day period. Prior to beginning the unit study, we visited our local library to borrow books suggested from the reading list. While a couple of them were not available, we found ample age appropriate substitutes. Additional items needed for the lapbook portion are file folders, brads, glue sticks and crayons. While it is not suggested, I chose to use cardstock for the lapbook projects as it is more durable than regular paper.

The days are broken down as follows:

Day 1: Where on Earth Is Australia?

Day 2: Some of the Special Places in Australia

Day 3: A Bit of Australian History

Day 4: Cool Things to Know About Australia

Day 5: Fun and Games in Australia

Each day provides a location to study, geographic feature, indigenous animal, Australian word and a historical point. Mediums suggested for study are books, online videos and websites along with worksheets contained in the document. The information is broken down into small study periods followed by a worksheet or lapbook activity. There is a fair amount of repetition within the material which aids memorization.

I used this product with my children who are in grades K and 3. We began the unit study, by learning about continents. Continents were defined and then labeled on a world map along with a list view to be inserted into the lapbook. A color-coded map was also used to visualize the division of the continents. We studied the Great Barrier Reef and the animals that live there. We began a map of Australia where we labeled major cities and geographic locations throughout the week. Lastly, we took an in-depth look at koalas. On day two, we learned about the six states and regions of Australia. Ayers Rock was presented as a unique geographic feature and the animal of the day was the kangaroo. Days 3 and 4 covered history, flags, wombats and platypuses. On day 5, we learned about the outback, boomerangs, Tasmanian devils and national anthems. A discussion of our favorite topics over the five days provided an opportunity to review what was learned.

The unit study is peppered with poetry, additional facts to explorer and supplemental books and links. Learning Australian words along with their pronunciation provided fun opportunities to speak like a real Aussie throughout the week!

Pros: This was a thorough study of the country considering its target audience and timeframe. The cost is very reasonable at $7.95 and it is available via immediate download. I liked the mix of traditional and digital materials used throughout the study. Hyperlinks within the document take you directly to the worksheet or URL needed so you don’t have to search to find what you need. I thought the jockeying back and forth between teaching and hands-on activities was perfect for this age group. It kept things moving along and interesting. The lapbook provides a finished product of what you have learned and can be included with your portfolio and as a cherished keepsake.

Cons: There was a fair amount of writing that was sometimes frustrating for my five year old. Some of the websites contained information that was beyond the target age group and required me to simplify it for my children. There were a few technical glitches such as hyperlinks within the document that didn’t work and one external link to a website that was no longer available. Some of the items used in the lapbook did not line up or fold properly. A veteran lapbooker will have no problem fixing these but a novice might be confused. A final layout of the lapbook was not included and would have been helpful. None of these are showstoppers but I felt obligated to include this as part of my review.

Overall, I thought it was a great product and well worth the time and investment.