Wednesday, December 31, 2008

High School Science.....Physical Science

Not many things bring about as much dread in the hearts of young homeschool parents than the thought of being responsible for teaching high school level science courses. I remember clearly having those very same concerns, back in the day, when my oldest child was still in elementary school. As 7th grade approached I attended a homeschool conference and sat in on a convention workshop which laid most of my fears to rest. I discovered through the wisdom of the presenter that I truly would not be responsible for pouring scientific knowledge into my child, but rather a good curriculum should guide them with me as their mentor.

Understanding the concept of mentor rather than all knowing teacher is easy when you take a look at Highschool Physical Science in Your Home. In fact, according to author Bridget Ardoin, “That's the reason I wrote these curriculums designed for the homeschooling family. They are designed to be academically challenging for the student and parent-friendly for YOU!” Ardoin also carries High School Biology in the Home and High School Chemistry in the Home on her website,

Ardoin’s wealth of experience stems from a degree in microbiology obtained from Louisiana State University, being the mother of 5 and a homeschool parent for 12+ years and teaching high school level science courses in private schools and tutorially since the early 1990’s. Ardoin designed her high school level physical science course to teach students by guiding them through a process of research, experimentation and discovery. It is not a typical textbook, but rather a student manual filled with questions ready to be answered. A lab manual is also included with experiments to be completed on a weekly basis that support the topic being studied.

When I first looked at the text it reminded me of a blank textbook waiting for the information to be filled in by the student. The student manual is divided into two semesters of work with 12 weeks of topics in the first semester and 13 weeks of topics in the second semester. Ardoin has provided a great deal of flexibility with her curriculum by only including 25 weeks of topics, allowing students the opportunity to focus on a particular topic for longer than one week if they desire.

Evaluation of the weekly essay questions and experiments is easily completed by utilizing the teacher’s manual that includes an answer for all questions and samples of lab reports for the experiments. Students are encouraged to work independently four days a week then meet with Mom or Dad for discussion on the fifth day. Keeping this sort of schedule is a great way for high school students to learn time management with their studies. Weekly or bi-weekly quizzes are included for additional evaluation along with two semester final exams. Samples of the student and teacher manuals including quizzes can be viewed here

High School Physical Science in Your Home retails at $79.99 for both the teacher and student manuals. Homeschool parents may choose to purchase all necessary lab supplies on the website for an additional $55.00. Once all supplies are in the home, physical science study will come to life through research, discovery, experimenting and reporting.

My 14 year old son helped me with my review by using the curriculum briefly. I wanted a student’s opinion of the course to accompany my teacher’s perspective. He was an extremely reluctant volunteer because he has already completed a high school level Biology course and is half way through his high school Chemistry class. Jonah has aspirations of becoming an attorney, not a scientist, but was able to find a topic of interest to satisfy me. He chose the second semester week 5 topic of “Computers”.

His first assignment was to answer 10 different questions for his student manual page which would lead him to an understanding of the history of computers and a greater understanding of computer science terminology. Jonah spent an hour and a half searching out answers to the first question which asked him to research the history of modern computers by identifying a list of 18 individuals, the machine they invented and how their invention impacted the development of computer science. He chose to use the internet although the curriculum encourages use of a variety of research materials including library books, a standard textbook, journal articles, etc. to answer the questions. This curriculum fits hand in glove with families wishing to make the most of “living books” for their student’s education.

The heavily based research format of science education is very different from the standard textbooks we have used to date for Jonah's high school level course work. Textbooks were designed with students like him in mind. I, however, love living books, hands-on education and the entire pursuit of knowledge. As you can imagine our very diverse learning styles have caused just a bit of friction over the years.

Bearing in mind, Jonah’s love for traditional textbooks I asked him his opinion of this non-traditional curriculum. “It seemed really time consuming”, he said. “I don’t like answering questions that seem complicated and take a long time to answer”. As his teacher I realize he didn’t enjoy this very hands-on approach, but my main concern was not whether he was entertained, but rather did he learn from the process. When I asked him if he thought he remembered anything from his “time consuming” effort, he replied, “Yes, I do”. Aha! Real education had taken place despite his resistance.

I believe Jonah remembered because he was a part of the knowledge seeking process. Rather than simply reading and absorbing information temporarily he was challenged into finding information and organizing it. It is a proven scientific fact that the more senses engaged in the learning process the greater the retention of the knowlege gained. High School Physical Science in Your Home takes full advantage of this fact through their hands-on approach. I am very impressed at the depth of topics and creative method of engaging the highschool level students Science for High School uses.
As I reviewed this curriculum many great memories came to mind of unit study days past when our family would “live” a topic through reading, crafting, exploring and dramatic play. Through this process we created memories too numerous to count, and developed a knowledge base that ran deeply from those memories. I realize this educational approach may not fit into the lifestyle of every homeschooler, but High School Physical Science in Your Home deserves high praise for their unique curriculum which enables parents to mentor the challenging subject of high school level sciences.

Kinderbach....piano lessons for pre-schoolers!

It is a standing rule in our house that you must be 8 years old before you can receive any formal instruction in music. I suppose my opinion on this matter is a bit hypocritical since once upon a time I begged my grandmother, a professional music teacher, to give me piano lessons at the tender age of four. She tried to fend me off, but eventually caved to the pressure as any grandmother would. Like a firecracker on the fourth of July, however, my piano education was short-lived and I will forever blame my youth as the reason I so quickly lost interest.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, “rules are made to be broken”. Kinderbach Learning Center, a web-based keyboard instruction curriculum, is designed to teach children aged 2-7. Lessons are provided through video, printable activity pages and games with great appeal for the pre-school set.

Kinderbach video lessons are very engaging reminding me of an episode of “Blues Clues”. Kari Gregor, creator and founder of Kinderbach, acts as the teacher standing in the midst of a cartoon room. Cartoon characters, “Frisco”, a young boy, and “Dodi”, a donkey, introduce various musical concepts, and locations of notes on the keyboard as early as Lesson 1. The mix of cartoon life and real people drew my young ones into each lesson. Four year old Aidan adored hunting down all the pairs of black keys on our piano that in his mind were simply the locations of “Dodi’s house”; a game provided in Lesson 4 of Kinderbach.

Parents interested in Kinderbach may use the site free of charge for the first two weeks. Those wishing to continue can for a fee of $14.95 a month or $85.95 yearly. Membership to the site gives you access to 60 weeks or two school years of instruction. According to Gregor, the lessons cover “the topics of piano, music theory, note reading, rhythm, ear training, hand position and much more.”

As I logged onto the website for the first time, a short instructional video immediately popped up. I easily came to understand all the symbols, options and concepts of the site. The first game of Lesson 1, “High and Low” designed to help children recognize the concept that some notes have a high sound and some have a low sound, brought forth lots of giggles from my daughter Sierra, age 7 and son Aidan.

Each weekly lesson included with Kinderbach consists of four parts with instruction being provided through individual videos. Children or parents have the opportunity to print off fun activity pages and crafts related to the topics discussed in the lesson. We saved all of these papers in a three ring binder, creating a keepsake notebook to review as often as desired. The total time to complete all four components of the weekly lesson for us was about 20-30 minutes. This made it possible to complete an entire lesson during one sitting if desired.

I am a hard sell when it comes to music instruction and I discovered I had a few criticisms as we worked through the first four lessons. The music we heard was all generated by a keyboard synthesizer. While the sound quality was fine to the untrained ear of a pre-school child, I couldn’t help but think how much nicer it would be to have full rich tones of a stringed piano or more traditional instrument. Secondly, one of the theme songs contained lyrics that were unintelligible over the instrumental sounds. I felt since this was a curriculum dedicated to music instruction the music and lyrics should be a bit sharper as they came across my computer.

Aidan and Sierra loved the lessons we tried. They eagerly ran to the computer when I told them it was time to complete each “piano lesson”. Aidan especially enjoyed the video instruction even talking back to Kari, on occasion, when asked a question. The coloring and craft exercises were also a big hit. “I just like them. I like coloring and printing out the papers!”, remarked Aidan.

In addition to the on-line instruction, Kinderbach offers Kinderbach at Home, a DVD option of the same program offered through the website. There are many different options to purchasing Kinderbach at Home with the most economical being the entire Year 1 (lessons 1-60) collection of 6 instructional DVD’s, 6 activity e-books, 6 audio CD’s, 4 songbooks in e-book format and 4 corresponding audio CD’s for $217.75. Individual songbooks, containing music for 15-16 songs, are available on the Kinderbach website too for $21.95.

I asked Sierra what she thought of the Kinderbach lessons and her response was, “I like them. I like learning about the piano. I like seeing Dodi’s house on the piano”.

In an effort to advocate for all pre-school musicians hoping for piano lessons Aidan gave Kinderbach one final recommendation. “I love it because it’s very sweet and because we could do it day after day after day. It makes my heart so happy!” Who can argue that?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Peterson Directed Handwriting.....handwriting with movement!

I never understood clearly the importance of handwriting study. Perhaps, it stems from haunting memories of frustration centered on second grade handwriting practice. Long ago, my school teacher, although very kind, was firm in her resolve to make sure my letters were of a particular legible standard. My mother, being a former school teacher herself, made handwriting a constant priority of my time at home in an effort to help me succeed with this onerous task. I will never forget the despair in my heart when I returned to second grade after Christmas break, finally feeling confident in my manuscript printing ability, only to hear the announcement that our class would now embark on the wonderful adventure of cursive writing. Can you still hear my cry of agony?

Perhaps, my little second grade heart would have filled with joy at the thought of additional handwriting practice if my teacher and mother had known about Peterson Directed Handwriting. Peterson Handwriting has been helping teachers teach handwriting since 1908. Why is handwriting so important in our modern world? According to information on the Peterson website, “studies have proven that handwriting fluency is a powerful link between all language skills, spelling, composition and reading”.

Peterson Directed Handwriting is different from other handwriting options on the market because their curriculum is movement based. The science and research of this movement based method is available for free study on the extremely informative Peterson website. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to watch a 20 minute adobe presentation on the site titled appropriately, "The Peterson Method in 20 Minutes". The presentation given by Rand Nelson, Director of Training, Research and Development for Peterson Directed Handwriting, details the importance of teaching rhythm and movement with handwriting. According to Nelson, movement and rhythm are necessary for development of muscle memory for the child which in turn will develop fluency. Much like a dancer must learn basic steps to develop muscle memory and fluency of movement for advanced dance combinations, a child must develop basic directional movement and understanding of letter shapes before being able to easily pull them together for ease with spelling or composition.

The Peterson method can be broken down into four basic steps. They are:

1) Illustrate and Describe
2) Write in the air and say
3) Finger Trace and say
4) Write and say

Each of these steps and the supporting parts of the curriculum are explained in the Adobe presentation which although a bit “heady” at times is still fascinating and very informative. The entire approach is so different from traditional handwriting curriculum choices that it rapidly caught my attention and begged me to give it a try.

My favorite aspect of the curriculum is definitely the little chants students are given to support the movements they must make to form letter shapes. Peterson Handwriting offers a unique tool, “Animated Letter Cards CD Rom” which I think supports this portion of the curriculum beautifully. The CD Rom allows students and parent teachers to watch letters form on a virtual flashcard. While watching the letter being written, the memory cue chant rhyme appears as well. For example, letter a appears on its flashcard along with the memory cue, “hook, around, small down”.

Each letter has its own unique memory chant to accompany the movement required in forming the letter first in the air and finally on paper. Letter d has the memory cue of “hook, around, tall down”. Letter b, however, is “tall down, roll around”. Learning the chants and making the movements while chanting ensure an elimination of letter reversals as children develop their writing skills.

Peterson Directed Handwriting kits are reasonably priced and available on the Peterson website. A complete Grade 1 homeschool kit, for example, retails for $38.55 before shipping and handling. It includes one teacher handbook, one pupil book, two finger fitter pencils and two self-adhesive position guides. The teacher’s handbook is filled with helpful information regarding teaching the Peterson way and day by day lesson plans with step by step instructions for 36 weeks of school. When you order a kit, be sure to add on a specialized pencil sharpener for the triangular shaped pencils at $3.98, so that you can sharpen them. I did not receive a sharpener from the company and found their unique shape does not lend itself to traditional sharpeners.

I highly recommend Peterson Directed Handwriting. The lessons are short, interesting and easy to implement into your homeschool. I love the fact that they are movement and rhythm based as I am a firm believer that most children learn best through movement and action.

Peterson Directed Handwriting has convinced me to make handwriting practice a priority for my little ones. The helpful Peterson website filled with resources, educational videos and excellent customer service provided by Rand Nelson will encourage you to make handwriting practice a regular part of your day. It really is too good to miss.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Math Mammoth

When I first considered home education the only thought that created great fear in my heart was the realization that I would have to teach math. I have never been, nor will I ever be a mathematician. I have consistently related to mathematics during my lifetime like oil to water. Fourteen plus years ago, I knew I needed a really great curriculum to help explain to me how to teach my children mathematic principles and lead them to higher level computation and critical thinking.

Luckily, Saxon Math came into our lives during my first year of teaching 4th grade and even though many find it too labor intensive I have always counted it among our blessings. Our testimony currently resides in my eldest daughter, the engineering student who during her first year of college has tutored Calculus students and completed her entire math track for her engineering coursework. Believe me when I tell you she didn’t inherit that from me!

But wait! I did write, 4th grade, didn’t I? What have I used for math for grades 1-3? That is a good question because as great as some curricula are for older kids with rigorous training, etc., I have found them too much for little ones. I honestly don’t want my 7 year old spending an hour a day on her math schoolwork. It is just too much.

Welcome Math Mammoth to my homeschool repertoire! It is my newest discovery for math curriculum for the little guys. Math Mammoth is a traditional basic math curriculum geared mainly to grades 1-5 delivered to homeschoolers in a very non-traditional format.

Math Mammoth is available for purchase through the Math Mammoth website by downloading a PDF zip file of the entire text, purchasing a CD of the text or the more traditional format of a black and white bound hard copy of the text. Customers willing to purchase the e-book format option of a PDF download for their curriculum are rewarded through price and flexibility. Single topic downloads are priced around $3.00 per topic while entire curriculum downloads are merely $27.00.

Math Mammoth is written by Taina Maria Miller. She describes herself as “a math teacher turned housewife, homeschooler and website and book author.” She holds a master’s degree in mathematics with teacher educational studies and minors in physics and statistics and has teaching experience ranging from University to vocational school to classroom and private tutoring settings.

Miller has divided Math Mammoth into topical study allowing teachers to choose to purchase an entire topic at a time for their child (The Blue Series) or a complete curriculum for the school year (The Light Blue Series). Workbooks with worksheet exercises, but no textbook explanations, are available as well for grades 3-8 and Algebra 1. These worktexts are called the Golden Series. Winterpromise, a company specializing in unit study curriculum, is currently the only place customers can purchase black and white bound hard copies of Math Mammoth’s Light Blue Series for $52.00.

I selected Math Mammoth’s Light Blue Series Level 1A and 1B for my review. I was already familiar with Math Mammoth from a rave review I read last summer on the Winterpromise website. Math Mammoth promised to be a sensible basic math curriculum that took the time to properly explain and master topics before moving the young child onward in their mathematic studies. Because I struggled my entire life with math, I found this philosophy to be comforting and good common sense. Miller states in the foreward of Level 1A, “the curriculum aims to concentrate on a few major topics at a time, and study them in depth. This is totally opposite to the continually spiraling step-by-step curricula…”

Topics covered by Math Mammoth for first grade students include addition, subtraction, addition and subtraction facts, place value to 100, clock reading for the hour and half hour, measuring length in inches and centimeters, shapes and coins. The curriculum contains eight chapters with anywhere from 4-15 lessons per chapter each lesson containing one or two work pages. A wonderful tool called the “worksheet generator” is also included in the package. Because my computer is always connected to the internet I was able to access the worksheet generator web page through the live link written into the e-book. Magic!

The worksheet generator should be used if your child still appears to be struggling with a specific topic after completing the lessons. Say, for example, you are studying “The Clock” and your son, “Einstein” just can’t manage to grasp the concept with the lessons provided in the curriculum. Simply click on worksheet generator, choose the topic “clock” on the webpage, follow that up by clicking on the subtopic “Tell the time to the whole hour”, then choose between worksheets for “Draw the time on the clock face (whole hours)” “Tell the time to the half hour”, or “Draw the time on the clock face (half hours)”.

Once selected, clicking on your favorite subtopic will automatically produce a pop-up window with a worksheet ready for printing along with a secondary link for “answer key” which when clicked opens another pop-up window with the answer key page to match the newly generated worksheet. For the cost of a $27.00 curriculum you also receive a wealth of related resources to help make you the teacher of a gifted math student instead of a frustrated math student.

The complete curriculum includes tests for all 8 chapters plus an end of the year test which Miller warns is very long and should be broken up over several days. The tests are provided in Word, Adobe, and PDF formats or as a live link to a webpage. I found the web page format to be more colorful, appealing and easy to access.

My first grade math student has completed three of the lessons for chapter 1 since late November. We do not have a math lesson every day and usually only complete one or two brightly colored work pages in one sitting. Each printed page has between 12-15 problems most with colored pictures of items to count or add. The pages take Sierra between 10-15 mins. to complete, and review with me. I have not witnessed any frustration on her part with the curriculum, but after 15-20 mins. of concentrated math study she is usually ready to play a game or move on to another learning experience. I am not sure exactly what the recommended pace of the curriculum is, but I am very happy with our results thus far.

When I asked Sierra for a recommendation regarding Math Mammoth she was enthusiastic in saying, “It’s nice, because it can help me learn about math”. Pressed further for greater insight she replied, “I like the plusing and equaling. I think there are just enough problems on a page. I like the pictures, especially the dice”.

I didn’t think I would like having to print off my own math book for school, but now that I am in the midst of it, I do like it. I guess it is a bit of the “green eggs and ham” philosophy---don’t knock it until you try it. Yes, printing a hard copy of my e-book consumes ink. Yes, I need to be organized and find a three ring binder to collect the sheets in for my daughter. Yes, I sometimes forget to print out sheets ahead of time, or the printer is acting up, etc. and we skip math that day, but……Math Mammoth is easy to use, extremely teacher friendly, colorful and cute. It pleases the student and the teacher and from a math phobic writer like me that’s really high praise.

Critical Thinking Press... Building Thinking Skills Series

I hate workbooks. I really do. You can only imagine my enthusiasm as I opened my mailing from Critical Thinking Press and found two hefty workbooks to review, Building Thinking Skills Primary for grades K-1 and Building Thinking Skills Level 3 Verbal for grades 7-12. I knew I needed help in opening up my mind, so I immediately gave the workbooks to my less judgmental children and asked them to use a few pages and get back to me. Interestingly, both young and old (children) gave Critical Thinking Press two thumbs up for, and I quote 14 year old Jonah, these “pretty fun” workbooks.

Both texts I received from Critical Thinking Press, a company dedicated to “teaching thinking in core subject areas”, are classified as “new” in their 60 page catalog of offerings and considered to be a part of their “core curriculum”. Founded in 1958, the company’s products have received numerous awards including “Dr. Toy Best Toys” award and the “Informal Education Product of the Year for 2004”. I have received their catalog many times over the years, read the description of their curricula offerings, been intrigued, but never purchased their products due to my aforementioned lack of enthusiasm for workbooks.

Sierra, age 7, grade 1, tested Building Thinking Skills Primary for grades K-1. Unfortunately, Critical Thinking Press forgot to send us the necessary colorful attribute blocks and interlocking cubes so we were unable to make use of the first half of the worktext, pages 1-122, dedicated to math skills. After looking over the math pages, however, I thought they looked very interesting and readily appealed to my “hands on” preference of education for little people.

If you choose to purchase the workbook for $29.99 you will want to factor in the need for the attribute blocks priced at $20.99 and interlocking cubes for $11.99 also available from the Critical Thinking Press catalog or website. Suggested lesson plans and an answer key in the form of a PDF document is available for download from the website after typing in the product number of your purchased product. After looking at the lesson plan PDF I thought it would appeal more to a classroom teacher than a homeschool teacher, but a great resource to have access to nonetheless.

Sierra completed 5 pages of the verbal section of the workbook giving her practice with listening comprehension, analytical skills, copy/trace work, handwriting and reading. Page 124 for example, titled, “Describing Family Members” asked me to read a description of a person and then have Sierra circle the correct photograph of the person described. Subsequent pages building on the family theme had her copy words like young, old, child, adult and then link those words to similar photographs of a grandmother, grandfather, toddler boy or girl, mother, father, boy or girl. All photographs were labeled with the correct word encouraging reading practice.

I was not impressed with these seemingly boring, simple exercises, but Sierra enjoyed them. On the practical teaching side, the description I was supposed to read for page 124 was buried on page 262, but Sierra was supposed to look at the photograph on page 124 as I read the description. This was physically impossible due to the construction of the workbook which could easily have been resolved with perforated tear out pages. I also found the workbook, due to its 260+ page size difficult to manipulate because the pages would not lay flat. Again, perforated tear out pages would have made me happy, but none of these issues seemed to bother little Sierra.

Sierra was able to complete all workbook pages by herself after we reviewed the instructions together. This gave me 5 mins. of uninterrupted time to run and change the laundry, answer another child’s question, etc. I noted that the workbook would make a great educational supplement for days when Sierra needed to have a quick activity to stay occupied, say at a waiting room of a Dr. office, restaurant, dance studio, etc.

When asked her opinion of the book, she was very positive. “I really liked the pictures and the writing and the copying the writing. I like to see real people in the pictures.” She also agreed that the book would be perfect to keep for times when she tends to be “so bored!” I liked that the workbook could challenge her to develop valuable thinking skills and not just entertain her.

Jonah, age 14, 9th grade student, tested Building Thinking Skills, Level 3 Verbal. Jonah loves logic and simplicity with his schoolwork. He has plans to become a lawyer, a perfect career path for his type A personality. He found the pages he completed in the workbook interesting and engaging. He completed pages 1, 5, 24 and 25 easily in a span of about 20-30 minutes one afternoon.

All the work pages within the text, obviously, focused on verbal thinking skills. I noted how important success with these types of questions might be in developing thought processes for future ACT or SAT tests. Page 1 had a list of 12 different words and asked him to choose the appropriate antonym. Page 5 followed the same format, but asked for the synonym of the word. Pages 24 and 25 built on synonym practice, but with a unique twist making use of “word benders”.

Word benders begin with one word and “bend” it by replacing a single letter one step at a time changing the original word into new words. For example, beginning with a simple word like “dark”; the line below dark has a dash for each letter of the new word plus a clue for the meaning of the new word. You must choose the new word based on its meaning and by spelling it with only changing one letter of the old word. The word underneath“dark” has dashes representing four letters and a clue…a synonym for playground. Change the D in dark to a P and you have a new four letter word for playground, “park”. You have just completed round 1 of the word bending exercise. Each page of word benders asks the student to determine 16 different new words all stemming from the first. Word benders truly feel more like a puzzle game than language arts practice. As Jonah noted, “The word benders were different from regular English assignments. They were fun!”

All answers for the work pages of Level 3 Verbal are in an answer key conveniently located in the back of the student text for easy grading. The 350 page work text retails for $29.99 and considering the skill practice gained from working through it, I see it as a real value. Jonah will definitely continue using this workbook a few pages a day as he edges closer and closer to those dates for the ACT.

Critical Thinking Press has a lot to offer home educators with over 50 years of expertise, 74 award winning products, and a multitude of curriculum offerings for grades pre-school to high school. Their products are designed to help students “achieve better academic results with highly effective lessons that sharpen the mind as they teach standards-based reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history.” The company guarantees success or your money back. You can choose to sample products on-line at including activities and software. While on the Critical Thinking Press website you will want to sign up for their monthly newsletter that promises exclusive special offers, free activities and more.

If you are a self-professed workbook hater like me I encourage you to open your heart and mind to Critical Thinking Press. You won’t be sorry. They guarantee it!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

All About Spelling

I love non-traditional education. Our family embraces learning based around great literature and activities filled with dramatic play, cooking, and games. Home education to me should be filled with memory making moments carefully crafted to make learning an exciting, fascinating adventure.

Unfortunately, over the years there are certain subjects that I have just never mastered at making fun or even remotely interesting. Spelling is one of those subjects that have slipped from my priority radar recently, and quite honestly, I gave up teaching. I found that no matter how much time I dedicated to traditional spelling curriculum, my worst speller still couldn’t. After comparing notes with other homeschoolers, I surmised that Spelling was definitely one of those subjects where you either got it or you didn’t. I decided some of my children would be doomed to a life of horrible spelling issues and uttered defeat with, “God bless spell check!”

I recently discovered its time to revive the fight! All About Spelling, designed by literary expert Marie Rippel, is a FANTASTIC, multi-sensory approach to spelling education. Throw away the workbooks, strap on your fun hat and be ready to make spelling the favorite subject of the day.

When I opened the shipping box from All About Spelling, it took me about an hour to prep the curriculum. I located all the various dividers and cards, cut them apart and organized them. I found this to be a bit of a negative since time is precious at my house. All About Spelling intends to produce future packages of their curriculum with perforated cards, so no cutting will be necessary; simply tear and go.

Once organized it took me 10-15 mins. to read through the introduction of the program and be ready to begin with Step 1 of Level 1. Reading through the directions reminded me of reading the rules and procedures for a new board game. The bright colored pieces, the friendly teacher manual, the magnetic tiles were all so intriguing and interesting that my seven year old daughter Sierra and I couldn’t wait to get started. I think this is the sign of a great curriculum. If you can open the box when it arrives, look at the contents with excitement and then maintain that excitement while you discover the ins and outs of using the curriculum, you are guaranteed to want to use it for days on end. Sierra and I fell in love with AAS from the moment we opened the box and gazed at all the colorful letter tiles and cards. It’s a love affair that continues now two months. Spelling is her favorite part of the school day.

Beginning with the very basics of our language, All About Spelling is based on learning the sounds (phonograms) of our language first. Gone are the typical lists of words, drill and tests. This spelling program teaches students the intricacies of the English language through lessons based around games and activities designed to support visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning.

The lessons, called steps, are scripted for the teacher; a great plus for any mom plagued with interruptions. Level One requires students memorize 32 phonograms by the end of 24 steps. They begin step one with only 26. Each phonogram has its own colorful flashcard with the
letter printed on the front and a phonetic description of the sound along with a helpful key word to aid in pronunciation on the back. Sierra loved rattling off the phonogram sounds of the first 26 as most were familiar to her. Encouraged by the simplicity of the program I challenged her to see if she could have more in her “mastered” pile than I had in my “review” pile. Quickly, mastering the phonograms became a game and a few minutes of phonics based study a treat. The total lesson time took 10- 15 mins., but the best part for Sierra was the end of the lesson as she got to place a sticker on her progress chart, provided by All About Spelling!

Step 2 of Level 1 introduced the concept of segmenting words or pulling words apart by sounds; the opposite of blends. The experience reminded me a great deal of the phonics based approach to learning to read. Segmenting practice was accomplished by using colored disks to push across the table for each sound. For example, using a three sound word like “pig” the student says “P” then slides one disk, “I”- slide, “G”- slide. Sierra, a true kinesthetic learner, enjoyed the process of using her body to reinforce the phonetic sounds she was hearing and deciphering as she segmented the words. I could almost see her brain making the necessary connections as she completed the exercise. As I watched I couldn’t help but think how refreshing it was to actually have a curriculum designed to teach young children in the way they learn best. Spelling would not be an abstract concept for Sierra, but something she saw, heard and touched through this experience.

Step 4 introduced the Sound Cards of the program using the same 26 sounds from the previously mastered Phonogram Cards. At this point the student listens to the sound and selects the colorful magnetic tile that matches the sound heard. All consonants are blue and vowels are red for visual reinforcement to connect to the the concept that vowels are “special”. When the child can match sounds the next activity is to write the sound on paper or some other format while you recite them. Rippel, reminds the teacher in the manual of the processing in the child’s brain that is happening while this activity ensues.

“It is important for the student to say the sounds of the phonograms as he writes them down. Doing so involves the three pathways to the brain: visual (seeing the phonogram), auditory (hearing the phonogram spoken aloud) and the kinesthetic (feeling the process of forming the letters and feeling the vocal cords as the sound is repeated).”

Rippel recommends using rice, sand, plush fabrics, etc. for the child to write their letters on “to maximize the kinesthetic experience of the curriculum”. Sierra loved writing on top of a bag filled with green dish detergent. The potentially labor intensive drill for a 7 year old became a joy-filled experience leading to giggles because of the unusual writing materials used for practice. The age appropriate activity proved so play oriented that Sierra skipped happily away from the table at the conclusion of the lesson. She had enjoyed every moment of writing practice. Wow!

Currently, the program offers curriculum in four levels complete with a teacher’s manual, letter tiles, magnets for the tiles, flashcards, and a phonogram CD-ROM. Two more AAS books will be added in 2009 bringing the series to completion and the student to a high school level of competency.

The Level One set retails for $29.95 with additional material packets available for $12.95. Sample lessons and a scope and sequence of the curriculum can be viewed on the All About Spelling website. The company offers a 100% one year money back guarantee to all customers.

All About Spelling is the smartest, most creative and child friendly spelling program I have ever come across in my 14 years of home education. I never thought I would be excited about a spelling curriculum, but this one sends me singing on the mountain tops. All About Spelling speaks to the child in the way she learns best. It’s fun, it’s teacher friendly, it’s easy to facilitate, and most importantly, its effective!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Play is the work of all children. Parents know their child learns, processes, and discovers their world through play. Unfortunately, as children grow and mature time for learning through play is often squeezed out by other activities. Puppetools, the brain child of Jeffrey Peyton, is a website designed to help teachers rekindle the power of play in education. The site assists teachers "master the principle of play” through the world of puppets. Peyton’s culmination of 30 years of research, resources, experimentation, and examples of puppet and play based education are all available on his membership only website, Puppetools.

Puppetools offers a brief showcase of videos on their homepage to assist potential customers in fully comprehending the concept of the site. The 9 videos provided demonstrate puppets in action in the classroom. I found them interesting and inspiring as ideas began to form in my mind about future puppets for our homeschool.

Once membership to the site is established visitors will have access to specialized teacher, parent and student sections. A video library to watch puppets in action in classrooms all over the world, a members-only forum, and 37 puppet patterns are all included on the site. The video library has 295 samples of teachers using puppets and 118 samples of students' puppets. It is quite extensive.

I found a parent teacher area of the site very encouraging and helpful for the homeschool teacher. A series of three brief videos detail the purpose and philosophy of using Puppetools. Peyton describes one purpose of puppet making to help build creativity in your kids. An example given was to make a puppet for your child’s favorite storybook to read along with him.

Another video I saw demonstrated an entire 7th grade class reviewing atomic structure with various puppets. Patty Proton, for instance, powered by one student shared with the class the properties of protons. The end of the video revealed the entire class with their puppets singing a newly written song, "The Atoms Family" (click, click) I thought this demonstrated well that puppets can aid all ages of student in developing creative presentations and other public speaking skills.
The building block of all puppet design used by Puppetools is the paper hinge. The hinge is fashioned through several simple folds of a standard piece of construction paper. Members to the site can watch a 30 second video demonstrating the folds needed to make the paper hinge or download a one page PDF file with written directions. Puppetools encourages use of simple materials like construction paper, glue and markers when making puppets. They believe simplicity will lend itself to more opportunities for children to explore their creativity and continued interest in the creation of puppets in the future.

Membership to the site is available on a 60 day trial basis for $20. A one year membership for up to 30 users is available for $99. The one year membership would be ideal for a co-op or school. Teachers can train themselves to give workshops to others and earn money selling Puppetools subscriptions. The Puppetools affliate program is offered to interested parties for a $25.00 fee.

For those with doubts that puppet play really does lead to greater creativity and more productive education, Peyton shares encouragement by stating, “the secret to play based learning is to just get out of the way and let it happen……..allow your students to lead you to more playful learning”.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Core Learning--- Crayola Art Studio Computer Program

As a kid, my favorite part of going back to school every year was shopping for a brand new box of Crayola crayons. I would always hold my breath as I begged for the really big box with the sharpener in the side. Usually my mom would understand the need to have at least 64 colors with sharpener at my disposal and the box would be mine. I had a "back to school" flashback when I opened the Crayola Art Studio program published by Core Learning for the first time. The colors, the possibilities, the potentially endless hours of fun!

Core Learning, an educational publisher of software, books, multi-curricular projects and on-line learning has a mission of “providing effective learning solutions for the development of fundamental knowledge and skills to support higher order thinking and life skills”. Their products are targeted for elementary and middle school, although the Crayola Art Studio I received for review could satisfy creative urges in people from 3-100.
Aidan's Animals by Aidan age 4
The software requires Windows 98 and up, 96MB RAM, 400MHz, CD-ROM Drive, 125 MB hard drive disk space, VGA display, and 16 bit color with 800 X 600 resoultion. Luckily, my "old bessie" computer could meet the requirements and after a few minutes the program was loaded and ready to go.

The first order of business for me was to take the program's "Quick Start Tour" tutorial, but I have to admit my curiousity won out first over the practical and I began creating with the program before I had actually received my tutorial education. Testing and playing with the different art media is half of the fun of this program as my kids demonstrated too when it was their turn to use the product. My 7 year old artist in residence heard my "oohs and ahhs" when I first began using the program and was instantly drawn to my side asking, "Can I try it?"

After leaving her to discover and create for 15 mins. I asked for her opinion of the Crayola Art Studio. She replied, "I thought it was pretty cool! I got to put lots of colors on the paper. I like how it has decorations (stamps and stickers) for the paintings. I will play this again!"

Sierra's Colorful Creation-- age 7

Crayola Art Studio offers digital artists the opportunity to draw, paint, sketch, design, and color in as many ways as your imagination will take you. The software allows you to choose between paints, color pencil, markers, oil pastels, charcoal and crayon to create your art work. The colors mix on the page just as non-virtual products would if held in your hands. The process is extremely gratifying as no real mistakes can be made. Color choices appear nearly limitless as well. The opportunity to try new techniques is encouraged by the ability to simply click "undo" to rid your paper of them if they present unworthy. After reading through the "Activity Guide" included in the program I discovered use of the computer program could easily be adapted into a full fledged art curriculum for the homeschool.

The "Activity Guide" provides basic lessons in using the paint program for the creation of digital art along with basic drawing lessons. The first few lessons of the guide are especially helpful in familiarizing students with all of the tools and options of the program and their hidden potential. Other activities include:

*Learning to draw with the mouse
* Exploring color and the color wheel
*Using patterns, shapes, and stamp buttons in the program
* Using proportion in drawing
* Repeated patterns
* Light and color
* Drawing Using Foreshortening and Drawing Grids
* Perspective- using vanishing points and horizon lines
* Light and Color in nature
* Human Figure- Advanced Drawing and Coloring Features
* Human Face- More about Drawing with Proportion
* Keyboard shortcuts

I was amazed at the ease of use and sheer entertainment value contained in this little program. The user friendly nature of Crayola Art Studio, its instant kid appeal, the hidden art lessons within, the no fuss, no mess nature of creating with digital art and the ability to save a portfolio of your child's art work in files in your computer are just a few benefits for the homeschool teacher. I am not a computer savvy person, but this program brought virtually no frustration to me as I worked away; believe me when I say that is amazing. Even better is the built in confidence and self-esteem boost of correcting any "mistakes" within your masterpiece with a simple click of the mouse.

Crayola Art Studio sells for $24.95 and is available on the Core Learning website. You will want to take the time to preview other Core Learning products on-line. They include software to aid kids with mathematics, language arts and health education. The Crayola Art Studio in particular is a wonderful value which has lit an artistic spark in my family since our first use. Personally, I haven't had this much fun with a Crayola product since the last time my Mom bought me my brand new box of 64 colors with the built in sharpener.

Micah, age 11

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I was at a baby shower a few weekends ago visiting with family I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Updates were being given regarding my kids when the expected question came forth, “How do you teach those difficult subjects in high school?” I found myself explaining about independent learners that seek knowledge without it being handed to them easily, finding a good curriculum and utilizing friends with various areas of expertise to fill in the gaps. As I spoke I could tell that most of my audience was a bit unconvinced that it truly was possible to homeschool for high school. Their eyes told me they were seriously considering the thought that I must hold some sort of super power. I wish I would have had my computer because I could have taken them to the ALEKS website and a glimmer of understanding would have instantly shone in their eyes.

ALEKS, Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces, is a phenomenal web-based assessment and learning tool with tremendous potential to help home educators through the rough and rocky subjects of math and science. ALEKS provides specifically targeted individualized instruction to each subscriber. Through the technology of artificial intelligence it offers a "consistent cycle of assessment and education for students".

ALEKS currently offers tutoring/curriculum in math for a variety of ages and a few science courses designed at high school level. ALEKS is completely on-line and therefore accessible from any computer with internet access. The service provides information to enable customers to compare the curriculum content of ALEKS with their State’s standards. Teachers can access detailed information of their student’s progress; making record keeping and evaluations a snap!

If you have ever doubted your ability to handle middle or high school level instruction than you have just found your new best friend in ALEKS. ALEKS offers instruction and tutoring for:

Math for Level 3, 4, 5, and 6 (think grade school)
Middle School Geometry
Middle School Math 1
Middle School Math 2
Middle School Math 3
Foundations of High School Math
Algebra 1
Algebra 2
High School Geometry
Math Prep for the California Exit Exam
Math Prep for the TAKS Exit Exam
AP Statistics (Quantitative)
Math Review for AP Calculus
Math Review for AP Physics
Fundamentals of Accounting (sole proprietorship)
Fundamentals of Accounting (corporation)
Business Math
Adult & Continuing Education classes in Behavioral Science and Science

I had Samantha, age 17, self-professed math hater, test drive ALEKS for my review. She had just completed a textbook version of Algebra 2, but she chose to use ALEKS to review for an anticipated ACT test. The registration process took less than 5 mins. and was followed by a brief 4 min. tutorial regarding how to use the keyboard for Algebraic exercises. Sam worked through all of this without assistance while I sat and took notes.

The first step with ALEKS is to be assessed for future study. The program provided Samantha with a 30 problem assessment test which took her about an hour to complete. She was instructed to use pencil, paper and calculator when necessary then type in or click the correct answers.

Upon completion of the assessment a pie graph divided by topic appeared. This provided a quick visual display of her strengths and weaknesses thus alerting us to her success and mastery of the topics contained in the Algebra 2 course. The pie is the heart of the ALEKS program which only requires you to work on areas still needing mastery. There is no need to spend precious learning time reviewing mastered concepts with this program.

Holding the cursor over a particular area of the pie provided more detailed information regarding the topic. For example, one area titled “Graphs and Functions” listed a subtopic of “graphing lines” with “determining the slope of a line given its graph” in blue. When Sam clicked on the blue link it took her to a sample problem demonstrating the concept with the option of choosing a sample practice problem to complete or an “explanation” option.

When she chose “explanation” the word “slope” was highlighted in the title of the practice/explanation page. Clicking on this word provided instant access in pop up screen format to a detailed dictionary page with definition, explanations, and sample problems. Within just a few moments Sammi had received a bevy of specific information for the math concept that apparently she still needed to master. ALEKS had provided her with assessment, practice and instruction and specific tutoring with a few simple clicks of the mouse. If she desired further practice she would have the option of printing out a 16 question worksheet designed specifically to test her mastery of a topic she wished to review.

"It was easy to learn how the program functioned. I think ALEKS is a good program for anyone that needs help or review in math, because it targets the areas you are struggling with. It also helps you spend less time in the areas you are stronger making it a great study tool", Samantha remarked.

If you still have doubts that ALEKS could help your homeschool they offer a free two day trial on their website. The company has provided me with a one month trial to share with all of my blog readers. Simply click here to access the link. Once you have sampled ALEKS a subscription costs $19.95 per student per month, $99.95 every six months or $179.95 every 12 months. A family discount program is also available and can be viewed on the ALEKS website.

So never fear.... ALEKS is here! There is no need to doubt your ability to conquer even the greatest herculean task of teaching your children chemistry and Calculus. You really do have a secret super power at your disposal and its name is ALEKS.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trigger Memory Systems

“Education through imagination” is the promise of Trigger Memory Systems. Their products offer a fresh approach to the teaching of mathematics, organization and cleaning, science, home economics skills and preschool. I received their zone and bedroom cleaning and laundry for kids clean and flip charts, and Times Tales to review. My children embraced the laundry and cleaning flip charts, but we struggled a bit with Times Tales.

I admit I’m a messy by nature. I love the idea of a clean house, but many times I simply feel overwhelmed by the vast tasks set before me in keeping up with the laundry and cleaning responsibilities of a household of eight. When my family was smaller and my older children younger I did a great job of training the kids for household tasks. As the older children’s educational needs grew along with my family I began to lack inspiration and slid into the habit of “just doing it myself”, because it was faster. The dilemma of how to find the time to properly teach necessary household skills comes to an end with the fantastic Flip and Clean Charts available from Trigger Memory Systems.

Our family made use of the Bedroom Zone cleaning chart last November when it became necessary to clean and organize five bedrooms in one weekend for house guests. My 17 year old daughter was in the midst of a three month long tour with the Continental Singers and my oldest daughter was away at college so all I had left on my cleaning staff were untrained workers. I knew in order to complete the job at hand I needed help and I sought out the Flip and Clean Chart as inspiration. With the step by step instructions provided on the chart I was able to delegate most of the cleaning of the five bedrooms to my 14, 11, and 7 year old. They in turn recruited their 4 year old brother to help with minor tasks and I was left to handle the heavy duty organizing and laundry. Within three days we had thoroughly cleaned and organized all five bedrooms, washed a small mountain of linens and were ready for company. Fantastic!

We took advantage of the Zone Cleaning Chart the other evening by testing out the kitchen portion. I had made dinner after a long day and wanted no part of cleaning up after the meal. I assigned Micah age 11, Sierra age 7 and Aidan age 4 to handle the task with the aid of the Zone Cleaning Flip Chart. Although the 11 year old found it necessary to become “captain” of the small cleaning crew the three were able to complete the task quickly and without any help or coercion from me.

When asked about her experiences Micah replied, “I liked it a lot because, the chart was organized and sometimes I forget to clean things. All I had to do was check things off and read what to do next. It was easy, because I didn’t have to remember and it was all written down for me”.

The spiral bound 8.5” x 5.5” laminated charts come complete with dry erase marker for easy checking off of duties completed. They are reusable as the dry erase marker can be removed easily with a swipe of a cloth. They are available from Trigger Memory Systems for $17.95 each, $22.95 for bedroom and zone cleaning or $29.95 for the set of three which includes the laundry cleaning chart. There is no doubt in my mind that kids love them and they work!

Times Tales

Times Tales offered through Trigger Memory Systems is a math teaching aid like none I have ever seen. The concept of Times Tales is to introduce the more difficult portions of the multiplication tables in story format. Who doesn’t love a good story?

Children learn the stories associated with different numbers and combinations of the numbers and easily learn multiplication facts along the way. The stories consist of a brief one or two sentence description and picture depicting the description (see sample below) They address the concepts of: 3 x 6, 3 x 7, 3 x 8, 3 x 9, 4 x 6, 4 x 7, 4 x 8, 4 x 9, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, 6 x 8, 6 x 9, 7 x 7, 7 x 8, 7 x 9, 8 x 8, 8 x 9, 9 x 9.

Because my older children have mastered their multiplication tables I tested Times Tales with my 7 year old daughter. She was not ready for understanding the concept so I cannot give you a personal recommendation.

I do believe that if a child were struggling in math this unique approach would give them a wonderful new way to look at numbers and their relationships. I love the idea of personifying numbers and learning a few of their life adventures. As a math phobic child I would have loved this product. In a letter from the publisher I was warned to “not try and figure the product out” before using it. Like immersion into a second language, the child eventually begins to just “get it” and becomes fluent in the language of mathematical times tables.

Times Tales is available in easy to use and re-use flip chart format. The flip chart is sent with a separate teacher guide filled with directions, story prompts and flash cards for $29.95. A deluxe version that also includes a 3” x 5” mini flip chart for child review is available for $34.95.

Opening up your imagination to Trigger Memory Systems will provide parent/teachers with numerous aids to assist in the teaching process. From the practical and concrete to the abstract concepts of mathematics, their approach offers children wonderful memory aids on their road to success.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time 4 Learning On-line Curriculum

Time4Learning reaches computer savvy kids in a way that holds their interest while they venture through standard benchmarks of most graded curricula. Time4Learning offers instruction in Language Arts and Math for Pre-K and K, adds in science and social studies for 1st grade-8, plus an Odyssey Writer program for students working at grade levels 3-8. Homeschool parents could conceivably purchase their entire year’s worth of curriculum through this on-line resource. Time4Learning is highly recommended voted no.1 by and according to their homepage has received a variety of recommendations and awards. Because it is computer based, the curriculum may be customized to fit the particular needs of each student, easily track student progress for parent/teacher record keeping and allows for school to take place wherever your computer and internet service are provided. I believe the flexibility and computer technology are both extremely appealing to homeschoolers who traditionally love and need their children’s education to be non-traditional, flexible and custom designed for each child.

Since I am so unfamiliar with on-line curriculum resources, I found the brief tutorial provided for me after logging into my parent account a must to help me understand the full scope of the program. It took me about 25 mins. to easily read through the slide show presentation and learn how to navigate the site to its full advantage. During this tutorial I learned about progress reports, lesson plans, answer keys for all lesson plans, the Odyssey Writer program, a Parent Forum for chit chat and networking with other Time4Learning families, and the ability to change the educational level of my child from subject to subject. I found this last aspect extremely appealing since I learned long ago that no two children ever grow or learn alike. For example, your son or daughter could easily receive instruction in language arts at a 5th grade level while studying mathematics at an 8th grade level and work on writing skills at a 4th grade level. The price of $19.95 a month for the first child and $14.95 for each additional child never changes regardless of how many levels you need to access. I think this could be a real savings for parents since they would only be purchasing one curriculum no matter how many changes were required throughout the year to meet the needs of their child.

Our family tested out Time4Learning at 3 different age levels. Micah utilized sixth grade math and language arts, Sierra tested 1st grade science and math and Aidan looked at Pre-K language arts, math and the playground! A unique aspect of Time4Learning is the playground. Parents set a time limit for children in the “lower school” to work on their lessons. Once that time is complete they will have access to the playground for a pre-determined time limit set by the parent. Children in the upper school are not timed during lessons, but are timed on the playground. This allows the parent/teacher, if they are not sitting beside their child, to have confidence that lessons will be completed before access is granted to the easy fun educational games. I had set a limit of 15 mins. of playground time and when Aidan and I were playing a railroad game it did cut us off in the middle of the game once the time had run out. The time limits really work.

I found that Micah could navigate and work through her lessons with virtually no supervision. She signed into the upper school with her account user name and password and then proceeded to choose to work on math or language arts. She chose math and then chose from a list of topics on the next screen. After selecting graphing, a cute cartoon teacher appeared along with catchy music and graphics to teach her the lesson on graphing. The lesson time which included allowing her time to practice the principle and corrected her if she made a mistake took around 12 and half minutes. After listening to the lecture portion of her class she could then choose one of 6 different topics to study more in depth. Each of the exercises took her about 5-7 mins. to complete along with an additional “show me” section which played for 10-15 mins. All the presentations were made with both male and female voices and the bright, clear graphics flowed smoothly keeping student interest high. Two brief quizzes were presented for her to take which timed out at 4 mins. each. I liked that the quizzes offered her a variety of ways to demonstrate knowledge by asking true/false questions, type in the answer and click on the answer options.

The sixth grade Language arts lesson she chose was based on an excerpt of the book Far North by Will Hobbs. A “before reading section” to complete gave Micah background of the novel through an animated slide show and audio script drawing her attention into this intense adventure novel. After completing the slideshow lesson we printed out a KWL worksheet which allowed Micah to graphically organize what I Know, what I Want to know and what I Learned. She was instructed to use this before, during and after reading the literature selection. We printed a PDF file of a vocabulary worksheet for her to work through a vocabulary activity, also to be completed before reading. The activity consisted of the student filling in the worksheet while being taken through a visual vocabulary experience slideshow. Each word had its own slide, could be listened to by clicking on the word, read in a sentence and the opportunity to watch the word, especially in the case of nouns, through a photograph or graphic. I thought the use of traditional worksheets integrated with the computer technology was a wonderful use of integrating old school learning with new school technology.

My only complaint with the sixth grade curriculum I actually perused was that the literature was only an excerpt and not the entire book. Students could choose to read silently or have the selection read aloud to them. As a teacher of literature based home education, however, I cringe at the word excerpt. I love whole books, but for many this may not be an issue. I am equally sure there would be nothing to stop a student from checking the entire book out of the library after being enticed through the Time4Learning exercises.

Sierra, grade 1, chose to study Earth Science after logging in and clicking on lesson time. From Earth Science she chose the subtopic "Water Cycle". As the program loaded she was “entertained” by the computer asking her 4-5 simple questions. A simple presentation of the water cycle commenced followed by a small game activity where Sierra had to put the “parts” (words for the different stages) of the water cycle in order. This was followed by a brief quiz to test her memory of the different cycle events. I was a bit unsure whether the information was truly being absorbed by Sierra, but when I asked her for her opinion she said, “I liked learning about the water cycle. I liked using the computer”.

Sierra’s math lesson was a bit more dramatic in presentation. She chose the topic of capacity from 18 different options of math topics. Within the topic of capacity she had the option of choosing 4 different lessons, selecting customary units. I noted an accompanying worksheet, The Potion, which printed out easily to use after computer time was up. Because we had worked for 15 mins. on lessons, when Sierra clicked on The Potion, it instantly took her to the playground which allowed her to play a matching game with shapes. I thought this was interesting as I had set the limit of working for no longer than 15 mins. on a lesson without a break. Integrating play with learning is one of the selling points of Time4Learning. Once Sierra’s playground session expired an interactive video presentation instantly began without prompts teaching her the concepts of liquid capacity utilizing the U.S. Customary system. The video was very cute with a silly monkey and gorilla dressed as scientists, lab coats and all. They were placed in a lab setting complete with containers filled with green bubbly liquid and a smiling venus flytrap plant. A short 5 question quiz completed the lesson, but I used the previously printed worksheet as a review for her after she had completed her work on the computer.

Aidan, age 4, is a computer geek in the making. He loves, loves, loves all things video so I knew he would really enjoy his Time4Learning lessons. We looked at a math lesson titled Different Fish after logging in under his account. He needed very little help from me understanding clearly the directions spoken to him through the program. He was required to identify, then create different fish through the use of a basic paint design program. He seemed to really enjoy and understand this, however sometimes a gentle reminder from me to “click here” or “finish this first” was necessary to keep him focused on the task at hand. I’m not sure if he was just wanting to create his own activity or if the topic was a bit too repetitive for him and boredom was settling. Although I was not impressed by the sound quality or the graphics of this particular lesson, Aidan seemed extremely enthusiastic and uttered a series of “Yeah”, “Yes!” and high fives with me as he answered questions correctly. The best experience for him was a “fireworks” display at the very end of the lesson to show us it had concluded successfully. Aidan said, “I love it when I win!”

I also spent some time looking at two Pre-K language arts lessons. One covered the concept of over and under and another explored the sounds of A and D. Both lessons seemed a bit repetitive to me with similar graphics and sound quality of the aforementioned Different Fish lesson. Interestingly, however, the things which did not impress me did impress my 4 year old son, so I encourage parents of preschoolers to take advantage of Time4Learning’s 14 day free trial option. It was great fun viewing the site through the eyes of my son and watching him play the different educational games. If you need another recommendation you couldn’t have a better one than from Aidan. When asked what he thought of the Time4Learning website he said, “I would use it all the time!”

Schoolside Press...The Little Man In The Map

“A blank map of the U.S.A.
Plus your imagination
Are all you need to learn the states---
All fifty in our nation.” E. Andrew Martonyi

The Little Man In the Map written by E. Andrew Martonyi, illustrated by Ed Olsen and published by Schoolside Press is a picture book designed to aid school age children in learning the geography of the United States through clever rhymes and picture aids. The book is acclaimed with a Silver Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, Independent Publisher Book Award for Most Original Concept, and a finalist in Foreward Magazine’s Book of the Year and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Martonyi is described in the book jacket as “using his affinity for travel, his constant search for new things to see and his granddaughter’s fascination with his trips” as the catalyst for this unique book.

The Little Man In the Map is available at Schoolside Press’s website for $19.95. An accompanying laminated wall map measuring 38 x 22 for $21.95 adds to the MIM experience for your homeschool classroom. Currently, a free holiday shipping offer is available on the website along with a special combo price of book and wall map for only $35.00. Schoolside Press has plans to release a State Capital book which will make learning the Capitals as much fun as learning US Geography with MIM. The author keeps a blog at for kids and parents to share in his journey as an author and to keep track of future creative endeavors.

Because The Little Man In the Map comes to you in a beautiful 64 page hardcover picture book format, I first read the book to my 1st grade daughter to check out its kid appeal. I was already thrilled with the book and loved the concept as I am always searching for unique ways to share education with my kids. I soon discovered that The Little Man In the Map may be disguised as a little kid’s book, but its rich content is definitely a greater value for the older set. Sierra enjoyed the cute and colorful illustrations, chatted about the images revealed in the map of the States, but really had no idea or understanding that she was studying a map of the United States. I had to remind her several times that the United States was the country we live in, but when you are seven the concept of State, Country, etc. is a bit abstract.

The real test for The Little Man In the Map came when I read the book to my 9th grade son Jonah and his 6th grade sister Micah. These were students who understood the concept of their country, who should know or at least study U.S. Geography. My son was extremely pessimistic when I told him I would be sharing the book with him as from the cover it appeared to be a “children’s book”. When I assured him it would only take a few minutes of his time he slumped into a chair and appeased me.

We soon discovered that The Little Man In the Map is actually a character designed by the author made up of the States of Minnesota, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. His full name is MinIow MisArkLou, but his nickname is MIM (Man in Map).
The strangeness of Mim’s full name set my older kids into giggles and satirical comments like, “Well, that’s not too confusing”, but I patiently continued to see if MIM could work his magic.

At the conclusion of the book I asked 14 year old Jonah for his opinion and he shared the following:I already knew most of the States so; it didn’t help me too much. It was kind of strange because some of the rhythms didn’t actually rhyme. Some of the things they chose for the States didn’t really make sense like Ohio being a drinking cup”.
But……Jonah did keep reciting MinIow MisArkLou several times throughout the afternoon to make his sisters laugh. Perhaps MIM had made sense to Jonah in a non-traditional way.

Micah, age 11, found greater value in her reading experience. She said, “I think it was pretty cute, but some of the things were a little hard to remember at first. It was really hard to memorize all those States at once. It was a good idea to make a man out of the States”.

When I asked Micah if the book helped her to see the map of the USA in a new way so she could memorize where the States are located she replied, “Yeah, kind of because, when you see all these pictures in your mind you think, oh yeah, that’s the mitten that is Michigan or that’s MIM’s face”.

I admit after several readings of the book I agree with Jonah and Micah’s analysis that some of the pictures and rhymes are a bit hard to relate to at first. However, the ingenuity of this book is its use of the creativity and beauty of art and poetry to connect students to the rather dry, dull topic of geography. It engages your mind in a way no regular map ever could. I love that it is in picture book format, taking just minutes to read and enabling older kids to use it as a tool for memorization. It is a book which when read over and over can only enrich your education of US geography in a delight filled way.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Spears Art Studio--a Homeschool Art Curriculum for high school!

According to Howard Gardner, educational research scientist, fine arts instruction leads to better brain development in children. If a child’s education is lacking in the arts it will diminish his education in creative thinking, problem solving, discernment, etc.

Our family has always agreed with the findings of Gardner and valued arts education for our children since they were small. Dance, visual arts, and music instruction have ranked very high in our educational expenses budget. While most would consider them extra curricular, my husband and I have always believed the arts to hold the same value as math, science and language arts.

Unfortunately, in 14 years of home education I have never found a high quality, intelligent and user friendly visual art instruction curriculum designed to be used in the home. This being the case I have had to out source this part of my children’s education; never an easy task due to time and financial constraints.

Frustration has ended with the discovery of Spears Art Studio Christian Art curriculum. Diane S. Spears, Doctor of Christian Education and artist has developed a thoughtful, user-friendly step by step approach to art education offering it in two age appropriate levels. Customers of Spears Art Studio can choose from K-8 or high school level courses to teach their children. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the high school survey course on CD-Rom to review along with the help of my 17 year old daughter, Samantha.

The high school course consists of 36 lessons divided into seven units. The program covers art elements, principles of design, perception skills, drawing, painting, sculpture, fiber, printmaking, and graphic design. The seven units are divided under the topical headings of line and shape, shape and space, space and volume, color, color and texture, form, and the printing process and graphic design.

Each lesson contains a scripture to reinforce the concept of art with a Christian worldview, a brief art history commentary, a sketch book assignment, vocabulary words to define and visual memory exercises. Also included are student evaluation sheets, complete lists of supplies needed to be purchased separately, a brush chart, question and answer section, glossary, unit tests and answer keys. A detailed description of how to teach the course, evaluate student work and award high school credit is given in the introduction section of the course and is described as a “must read” for all teachers.

Spears Art Studio high school level survey course is a full year program that can easily be extended to two if desired. If dividing the course, Spears recommends completing the first 18 lessons consisting mainly of drawing exercises the first year and then saving lessons 19-36 for more in depth study the second school year. Spears states, “The goal is for real learning to take place and not to simply rush through the work.”

I had Samantha, a talented dancer and singer, but self-proclaimed non-artist of the visual arts test drive the curriculum. Surprisingly despite her resistance to learning to draw, she gave it rave reviews.

“I found it to be a very user-friendly curriculum. The activities are interesting and worthwhile. I liked the creative activities the most. It really gives you the ability to develop your own unique style with the projects.”

Sammi really liked Spears’ recommendation to pace yourself through the curriculum enabling the student to keep a balance in their schedule with other academics and activities. “It really doesn’t seem like this course would consume large amounts of time”, she said.

But what is a typical lesson like? The first lesson titled “Art Element: Line and Shape” begins with brief instruction regarding drawing and the importance and definition of line. The first section of the lesson lists a scripture citation, in this case Psalm 119:73. Two thought provoking questions are asked relating to the scripture for the student to answer in his journal below his copy of the scripture. A vocabulary section follows with six words which should also be defined in the journal. Next, a small art history section is written with three simple hands-on research projects requiring the use of the library or internet for completion. Now the student is ready to tackle the sketchbook assignment which in this lesson consists of using the newly learned concepts to create a decorative cover for their brand new sketchbook. The last sections of assignments are filled with visual memory exercises. These are designed to train the student to see as an artist sees. These particular assignments for lesson 1 utilized working with the student’s signature and initials to experience and experiment with the different types of line. The appendix of the curriculum contains additional visual memory exercises which are completed by staring at a design for a specific period of time and then attempting to reproduce the design in your sketchbook without looking at the original design. It sounds easier than it is and both my daughter and I thought this quick and painless activity very interesting.

Other sample lessons for both the elementary and high school level curriculums are available at Although Spears recommends purchasing art supplies locally she does have a handy shopping device on her website for those wishing to purchase on-line. Simply click on the Diane Spears wish list and it will link you directly to art supplies store. The entire supplies list for K-12 will appear on your screen and you can then decide how much of each item to purchase. Simply click “add to shopping cart” and you have purchased all the necessary art supplies in record time. Dickblick also offers free shipping for orders over $200.00, a real plus in my book.

The cost for the curriculum is minimal. A CD-Rom version of the high school curriculum is available for $29.95. Every student will also need a hard-copy, but the CD-Rom is printer ready. If you prefer to let someone else print your copy you can purchase a combo pack of hard copy and CD-Rom for $84.95. For those not wanting to have the CD-Rom at all a hard copy of the curriculum is available for $69.95.

My daughter is excited to incorporate this art curriculum into her future studies and I am thrilled to have it available to us. I think Sammi summarized our family’s experience with the Spears Art Studio best by saying, “This curriculum could help anyone interested in an art education. It is for the beginning student or someone who already has a passion for art. It will help everyone with the basics of art in order for them to pursue whatever media they want to study in the future”.