Monday, August 31, 2009

Hank the Cowdog/ Maverick Books

I remember, soon after teaching my now 15 year old son to read, asking a simple question at my local homeschool support group. “What boy friendly series can you recommend?” I queried. Unfortunately, the answers I received were mostly blank stares and mentions of heavy duty Henty books, or not so contemporary Box Car Children. I needed a fun, adventure based series that could last a school year for my son. I wanted it to be full of contemporary thought, situations and all important boy-friendly humor.

I never did find that series at the time, but I am ready with a new recommendation when someone asks me the question. Let me introduce you to Hank the Cowdog! Hank the Cowdog, Head of Ranch Security, along with his faithful deputy, Drover (dog) currently has 54 different adventures available in paperback for $4.24 each or $12.49 for a hardback copy. In addition, Hank stars in 5 audio only stories produced by Maverick books, because author John Erickson, always intended his Hank the Cowdog series to be read aloud adventure for the whole family.

Erickson, a Christian ranch owner residing in Texas, writes the Hank books from a dog’s point of view; a dog that is all business. The flavor of the west, especially life on a ranch, shines through page after page. Readers will enjoy the sense of humor, slang, and obvious attention to detail the author provides making clear the really important things in life, according to Hank and friends. For anyone who has ever thought their dog might just have a secret life, this series is for you.

Once readers have become fans of Hank they will want to log onto his website at Fans can find an interactive map of the fictional ranch to explore, a special “meet the characters” section, 8 different on-line games related to the books including mad libs and tic tac toe, a “Talk to Hank” guestbook where messages can be left and of course a store full of everything Hank. Passionate readers can sport Hank the Cowdog t-shirts, purchase character puppets to reenact stories, and buy whole collections of audio, paper and hardback versions of the books. True fans can become members of Hank’s Security Force for only $12.95 for two years. Security Force members receive special access to “secret” web pages on the site, a subscription to the “Hank Times” newspaper chock full of contests, puzzles, book previews and special stories of Hank and friends, and a welcome pack complete with paperback book of choice, coupons, poster and bookmark.

Our family received adventure #8, The Case of the One-eyed Killer Stud Horse, Hank’s Tornado game, and a special sampler CD, “Tales and Tunes from Hank the Cowdog” as an introduction to the canine wonder. The 12 chapter book is written at a 3rd/4th grade reading level. Chapters are short and entertaining making it a great read aloud able to be squeezed in anytime with kids.

The sampler CD has excerpts from stories narrated by Erickson complete with character voices and sound effects. Unfortunately, without the complete story the CD leaves listeners wishing they had more. Also included are 9 original songs sung by the characters. “Tales and Tunes” is an excellent bargain at only $3.00 providing great car entertainment and instant insight to the character and nature of all the Hank books.

My kids pulled out the Tornado game one day last summer in between lazing in the pool and snacking. The game designed for 2-4 players focuses on the theme and chase of adventure #25, The Case of the Swirling Killer Tornado”. Players of the popular board game Trouble will see many similarities, however this game designed for travel stores very easily with spinner, and place markers/characters tucked neatly in its plastic case. The game retails for $12.99.

“It does look like a tornado when it turns”, said Micah, age 12 when commenting about the game’s spinner.

The kids took about an hour to play one game, but mostly because we had issues with our spinner that kept landing on number 5. This glitch brought about complaints from some, but Micah insisted, “the storyline seems very appealing and the characters are cute”.

Sierra, age 7 had a more critical view. “I thought it was so slow and a bit boring. I like the characters, but I don’t like the spinner.”

Aidan, age 5, a more enthusiastic participant said, “I liked it! It was very good and it was super awesome”.

Jonah, age 14, brought up an interesting point while watching us play the game. ”Wouldn’t it be easier to just read the story rather than playing it?”

“Yes, Jonah”, I told him. “It might, but I think you missed the point. There is nothing better than seeing your favorite book come to life, especially if you get to help the Head of Ranch Security in the process.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Web Site Design for Kids-- Click Drag Solutions

In my home we have a simple system. I take care of the kids, the homeschooling, the house and my computer consultant husband takes care of the technology. When I received Web Site Design for Kids (...and Curious Grown Ups!) by Click Drag Solutions to review dread and fear crept into my heart. Web site design and HTML programming were not a part of my realm of experience or comfort zone. Feeling extremely inadequate, I quickly asked my personal computer consultant husband, John, if he was up to the task to help me.

John has been the proud owner of his own computer consulting company, PC Consultants, for 17 years. Making good use of his bachelor's degree in computer science, he has written customized programs, designed networks and solved hardware issues for a multitude of businesses over the years. If anyone could lend a critical eye to a curriculum designed to teach web site programming I knew John was the guy for the job.

Brian Richardson, middle school computer literacy teacher and founder of Click Drag Solutions, states on his website his reasons for creating his course which he now offers to families through DVD. He states, "I asked myself what one valuable thing could I teach kids in my classroom that would have the potential of staying with them for the rest of their lives?" Web Design For Kids (and Curious Grown Ups!) is geared toward an audience aged 10 and up and sells on Richardson's website, for $40.00 regularly, but currently is available for only $19.99.

Richardson believes HTML programming instruction is a valuable life long tool for kids because kids can see results of their work immediately, programming helps train kids to pay attention to detail and most importantly it is easy to implement as all necessary software for creating a web page is present on most typical home computers. Web Design For Kids requires a computer with a Windows operating system, Notepad and Internet Explorer. Richardson explains students with MacIntosh computers can also learn from his course, but will make use of Text Edit and Safari instead. All instruction within the video, however, assumes you are working from a Windows based operating system.

Web Design for Kids is a one hour and 22 min. DVD that has the feel of a typical "how-to" course. Richardson states he tried to make the instruction as friendly as possible by replacing some of the typical high-tech language with "Sesame Street language". For example, the term "nestled tag" is replaced with Richardson's self coined word, "sandwiches" encouraging comprehension for even the most timid computer phobic student. Instruction covers six different subjects related to HTML programming in six different lessons. Topics covered include:

*10 Basic Lines of Code

*Coloring background and letters

*Making letters move across the screen

*Designer backgrounds

*Changing fonts

*Adding pictures

Customers purchasing Web Design for Kids should note they are supporting a philanthropic company. Richardson states one of his reasons for creating his company is that he believes "embracing technology is an act that empowers people unlike any act in the history of mankind". He further explains he desires the company will "play a part in helping bridge the digital divide..."

Richardson created the Click Drag Foundation which provides DVD's and instruction to select at risk youth programs in urban neighborhoods across the U.S. and world. Additionally, the company donates a portion of their profits to five charities on a regular basis including The Smile Train, Ronald McDonald House, Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Children's Miracle Network and American Foundation for the Blind.

I sat down and watched lesson 5 of Web Design for Kids while my husband reviewed it with my 12 year old daughter, Micah. Micah's experience with HTML programming was zero so I was curious how well she would follow along. She and I both agreed that the tempo of the DVD was much too fast. Richardson's pace felt breakneck at times causing me to feel lost and confused. My husband agreed that students would definitely want to sit with remote in hand and make good use of the pause button in order to successfully comprehend instruction and keep up with the creation of their web page design as shown on the screen.

The sound and video quality of the DVD was superb. I thought the use of frequent screen shots to show students what their web page should look like as they progressed was an excellent visual instructional tool. In addition, sound effects and visual flip of video was used to signal transition from instruction to a more detailed explanation of a topic. Two middle school aged students appeared in the video with Richardson, but we all agreed their interaction appeared scripted and forced. The students questions and comments, however, did serve as gentle review for the student working alongside at home.

When I asked Micah for her final word regarding Web Design for Kids she said, "I thought it was a good program because overall it was easy to understand and he made it fun. It was sometimes hard to understand because the pace of the video was a little fast".

The real test however, was to find out Mr. Computer Consultant's expert opinion. He gave Web Design for Kids two thumbs up and said, "It's a very short course, but it does give kids a great start in understanding how to program in HTML. There is a lot more to it (HTML programming), but this is a good start. I think Web Design for Kids does a great job in demystifying the process of web page design while engaging kids in the process."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Grapevine Bible Studies

From the moment I opened the box containing Esther: A Chronological Study of the Book of Esther by Grapevine Studies I knew I was holding a special treat. Wrapped in white paper with an adorable stick figure and the words "Welcome to Grapevine Studies" hand printed on top, my 49 page teacher's manual and three 29 page student manuals appeared to me as a special gift waiting to be opened. Grapevine's company purpose is "to provide believers with the tools they need to
know God's word and disciple others" and I couldn't wait to see if they would live up to their commission.

Grapevine offers 5 different topical Bible study programs broken down into 7 different age groups. Studies are available in e-book or traditional paper book formats with prices ranging from $7.95- $25.95 for student books and $7.95- $48.95 for teacher overview books. Pricing is dependent on length of study and format choices.

The first lesson of every Grapevine study guides students in creating a visual timeline of events using stick figure drawings drawn by the teacher on a white board and then copied by the students in their individual workbooks. Grapevine describes this methodical order of study as "teaching the Bible as if it were a puzzle". The timeline is the frame and the individual pieces once placed throughout the study will enable the student to understand the "context of the whole puzzle or Word of God".

Our family chose to complete Esther, an 8 lesson mini study, but most Grapevine Studies Bible curriculum is designed to last an entire school year. Each study is designed around Grapevine's unique "reading, drawing, review" method because publishers John and Diana Wiebe believe that "students who are taught using reading, hearing and drawing will have a higher retention rate...." I am in complete agreement with the publisher and smiled when I read this in the teacher's manual knowing I was in like-minded company.

Every lesson of Esther began with specific scripture of the book of Esther being read aloud. Next a breakdown of events of the scripture was reviewed requiring students to take time to draw a stick figure representation of each event. Although Grapevine recommends the use of a white board, our family adjusted the process by my holding up the book as a visual while my three students copied the stick figure drawing in their books. Five or six discussion questions followed up the drawing session as yet another review. My favorite question at the end of each lesson was "What can we learn about God from this lesson?"

My students ranged in age from 15-7, so the challenge to communicate an effective study to this age group was great. Although the stick figures seemed juvenile to my 15 year old son I believe they were an important factor in helping my 7 year old retain information. After the first lesson I asked a discussion question and even the 7 year old was able to tell me that the Persian Empire stretched from Ethiopia to India at the time Esther was queen. I was impressed that the process of drawing the story had obviously cemented detailed comprehension for my youngest student.

Each lesson took us about 30 minutes to complete with the longest being the first timeline lesson taking about 35 minutes. Unfortunately, we did not have access to a quality Bible dictionary or encyclopedia; a must for looking up vocabulary words drawn out of the scripture. Making use of vocabulary study would ensure enough depth for older kids and adults involved. Esther being one of Grapevine's multi-age studies is designed for an age range of 7 and up.

Each day of our study brought giggly comments from someone regarding how "thin" Esther and company were; a definite dynamic of being a stick figure. We worked on memorizing scripture from the book of Esther as a family, discussed the events and implications of them, but most importantly applied the scripture to our understanding of the power and character of God. This multi-age study lived up to its claim of "providing us with the tools to disciple" one another.

I have always held firm to the belief that the more senses engaged in an activity the greater the chance of creating long term memory of it. How valuable this approach is when utilizing Bible study where the goal is to "hide God's Word in our heart" not simply read and move on.
Grapevine Bible Studies has developed a method to engage young minds, hands and hearts in Bible study through the use of stick figure drawings, maps to label, vocabulary research, reading and discussion of scripture.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Quarter Mile Math Computer Software

"The Quarter Mile is dedicated to you! We believe that you are capable of incredible personal improvement and that you will have great fun blowing the "limits" away!"

Positive reinforcement is the name of this math based game produced by Barnum Software from the moment of signing on. Quarter Mile Math is designed to aid students with increasing their ability to quickly recall basic math facts through the use of timed drills. Traditional time tests are brought to the 21st century by taking full advantage of computer generated racing games which are powered by students correctly answering math facts based on a specific math topic. Topics include math concepts traditionally taught in grades K-pre-Algebra (8/9th grade) based on State standards. Students race against the clock solving math problems in an effort to move either a race car or wild horse toward a finish line. Correctly answering the math facts moves the car or horse faster. Scores are recorded as the number of seconds required to complete the race.

According to the producers of Quarter Mile Math this computer resource is "designed to increase your skill level through self-competition". As students begin playing Quarter Mile Math they will race against "Fast Eddy", a computer generated racer designed to lose by staying at the starting line a bit too long. Fast Eddy competes with cars or horses in five of the six lanes shown on the computer screen, but his racers will slowly be replaced by replayed versions of the student's fastest times. This method allows students to always compete against themselves, building confidence as they build speed.

Self-competition is friendly and confidence building but lets face it some kids want more. Quarter Mile Math Deluxe offers those wishing to flex their math muscles an opportunity to participate in tournaments with other users. Students have the opportunity to compete in tournaments with other users across the room or across the globe. The tournaments make this math drill product unique and are designed to keep energy and excitement alive for kids as they study their math facts. The software offers suggestions for up to 12 different types of tournaments including "Round Robin", "Individual Tournament" and "School Tournaments" cleverly created to multi-function as a fundraiser.

Upon completing a race students have two options for recording their scores. Option 1: "Race with Everyone" allows the student to continue to compete with himself by keeping track of the top five average times completed successfully and if participating in a tournament with other Quarter Mile Math Deluxe version users, access to check their score for ranking against other students.

The second option, "Track Your Progress Over Time" simply allows students an opportunity to keep record of their top five scores. If the new race falls short of these times it remains unrecorded.

I must admit I used very little of Quarter Mile Math Deluxe version, but three of my kids used it a lot. I didn't have to play the game, however, to see evidence of progress for as a parent/teacher I have access to each of my registered student's scores by logging into the review screen during sign in. I can check to see a list of every topic in which a particular student has raced, how many races they have run and their scores. The program monitors progress for me acting as my personal assistant in math instruction.

When asked for her opinion of the product 12 year old Micah, ready for grade 7, had this to say, "I think it is fun, but if you pick the wrong topic it might be too hard for you. I don't like it more than time tests on paper".

Micah thought it unusual that all students, no matter what grade level, had access to the same math topics. For instance, her 2nd grade sister could easily attempt a fractions race if desired. Personally, as a teacher, I thought this option a good one allowing gifted students to soar ahead and math strugglers time to get there without pressure.

Second grade Sierra was less critical and said, "I thought it was fun. I liked learning while watching my horses run".

Quarter Mile Math Levels 1, 2, 3 bundle Deluxe version is available in Windows or MacIntosh versions. Customers can subscribe at Barnum software's website for $2.95 per family per month, $19.95 per family per year or $34.95 per family for two years. The program is instantly downloaded to your computer, but an optional CD backup can be ordered for $5.00. A standard CD version of the program, which does not include tournament play, can be purchased for $39.95-$89.95 depending on range of grade level.

Barnum Software is offering TOS Review Crew members and their blog readers a special $5.00 off Deluxe or Standard versions by mentioning referral code 7D7H7. This special offer is good until September 30, 2009.

Make math drill time play time this year with Quarter Mile Math. It is one race everyone will want to win.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Great Eight by Scott Hamilton

The Great Eight
How to Be Happy (even when you have every reason to be miserable)
by Scott Hamilton with Ken Baker

Scott Hamilton, international skating star and cancer survivor shares his life struggles and triumphs as a framework to reflect and encourage others in finding happiness for their life. Making use of figure skating analogies, Hamilton reveals through eight easy to read chapters simple steps to maintaining positive thought filled with Christian principles even in the midst of tragedy.

Hamilton's principles which begin with "Fall, Get Up and Land Your First Jumps" and conclude with "Stand in the Spotlight" are encouraging and well-written. Although I was not struck by profound wisdom while reading The Great Eight I did feel each time I read a chapter as if I had just spent time in the company of a good friend with wisdom to share because he had been there. Hamilton sums up the spirit of his work best with his conclusion.

" More than anything, I hope that this book will serve as your fourth angel and that the great eight secrets of happiness I have shared will help you be happy and experience the life God intended for you to enjoy".