Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Budgeting, saving, spending, earning; all of these terms slip in and out of my daily conversations with my husband. I am a firm believer in making the most of teachable moments, but never thought our discussions of finances were the perfect "teachable moment" for eavesdropping children until I was asked to review FamilyMint.com. FamilyMint is a FREE website co-founded by IT experts, engineers and businessmen Jeff Eusebio, Bob Masterson and Brad Frederick. The trio, with the help of a group of financial experts, designed the site to teach children the art of money management.

Eusebio thought of the idea for FamilyMint after becoming frustrated with a lack of quality materials available to help parents teach their children about money management, allowances and interest. "We've heard over and over how young adults enter the world of fiscal responsibility without the skills to succeed. FamilyMint is a natural, easy way to get kids ready for this future", states Eusebio on the FamilyMint website.

My oldest daughters are 18 and 20 years old, work part-time and pay for their own college expenses. When they were young we made it a priority to teach them the importance of money management on a weekly basis with allowances, budgeting and saving. Back in the day of their youth we used old peanut butter jars to hold various "accounts", and although primitive in design they worked. FamilyMint takes the concept of the "peanutbutter jar" and revolutionizes it with technology. It is very, very cool!

Creating an account on FamilyMint is FREE and easy. Upon registration the banker/parent names their family bank and adds as many users as desired. Ideally each child in the family will be a separate user. Instructions for set-up are clear, easy to follow and take only minutes to implement.

FamilyMint's focus is to help children use their money to:
  • Plan
  • Organize
  • Motivate
  • Educate
Planning is accomplished by creating various accounts for each child to deposit money. Spending goals are set by either choosing a typical goal suggested at the site or creating a unique goal. Users choose an amount to contribute either weekly, bi-weekly or monthly to the savings goal and the program displays an end date to anticipate when the goal is met. Each spending goal created becomes a separate labeled account.

An added "Savings Plan" feature enables users to pre-determine percentages of deposits for each savings goal. For example, my 15 year old son created a savings goal of paying for his plane ticket for a National Bible Bowl tournament this summer. Making use of the Savings Plan option allowed him to determine that 35% of all of his deposits would be allocated to his Bible Bowl account.

Organizing occurs as users make consistent deposits to the family bank. FamilyMint suggests literally having children hand over their piggy bank stashes to the banker/parent as one option, but the important thing is to make sure money is deposited and allocated as pre-determined. Our family chose to make virtual deposits leaving the physical money in the hands, or wallets of each child. Yet another suggestion of FamilyMint is to include gift cards in the mix and record them as money deposits. The principle concept is to track and manage all money through the magic of the FamilyMint site.

Motivation is easy when using FamilyMint. Parent/Bankers can reward interest payments at any rate they choose for deposited money. Interest rates can be adjusted as the need arises, but only by the Parent/Banker. FamilyMint encourages the use of allowances to help children "think about money as a limited resource that must be used wisely". A "matching deposit" option is provided for extra incentive too. As parent/banker I chose to offer a 50% matching deposit to each college savings account for our children to demonstrate my value of this goal.

Education is natural and frequent with the creation of a FamilyMint bank and accounts. Because the site offers a visual component to a sometimes abstract concept of money management even my 2nd grader is comfortable in discussing percentages, interest and budgeting. Discussing FamilyMint deposits, accounts and savings goals is fun, engaging and feels more like a game than a lesson on finances.

I love FamilyMint, but the true test of any educational product is met when the kids use it. I asked the users of the Spoerndle Family Bank to share their honest opinions for this review. This is what they said:

"I like how they organize the money. I like how it shows you if you don't have enough money when you will if there is something you want to buy. For example, I want to go to the American Girl store in Chicago. This costs a lot of money. Now, I know how long it will take me to save the money and I don't have to keep asking my Mom when we can go."~Sierra, age 8.

"I like how it's set up in a way that's easy for me to understand. I like how it explains to you how close you are to your goal. I think this makes it a lot more exciting to save money this way. It's a lot easier than trying to figure it out myself. I feel more professional when using FamilyMint. I feel like I know more about banks and how they operate". ~Micah, age 12

"I like how you can work with your own account and add in deposits on your own without your parents help. Parents can just approve the transactions later. The account records look very official which is helpful for tracking details regarding your money. I would definitely recommend FamilyMint"~Jonah, age 15.

FamilyMint is a hit with all ages of our household. I especially appreciate being able to personalize all aspects of our bank and accounts. Step by step instructions, a users forum for questions, answers and tips and a blog are all accessible on the website. With very little effort on my part, my children have developed a new understanding of financial responsibility and money management in a short time. FamilyMint.com is the perfect product for parents in search of making the most of financial teachable moments.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Math Galaxy

Ever wish you had a math tutor for your child? Math Galaxy offers its services by promising to help K-12 students "connect abstract concepts of math to concrete experiences with graphical illustrations at each step..." Our family received a free download of Math Galaxy's computer program Whole Numbers Fun in exchange for this review. My second grade daughter, Sierra, assisted me in discovering the best and worst of Math Galaxy.

Whole Numbers Fun is one of six computer programs offered by Math Galaxy. Other programs include:

  • Fractions Fun
  • Decimals, Proportions and Percentage Fun
  • Word Problems Fun
  • Pre-Algebra Fun
  • Algebra Fundamentals

Unlike my version, customers receive programs on CD for $29.95. Math Galaxy is currently offering FREE SHIPPING for any programs ordered.

With all the "FUN" mentioned by Math Galaxy in the titles of their programs I expected great things. Math has NOT been FUN for Sierra this year. With the promise of changing her experience we put Whole Numbers Fun to task.

Whole Numbers Fun is a very basic computer program. The graphics included are simple. There are no cute characters, rocket ships, sound effects, etc., just basic shapes and numbers.We could not discover an instructions page or help link, but most of the program was intuitive. Not realizing at first how very basic the program was, I double checked my computer's speakers to determine if the sound was off. It wasn't. There are NO sound effects or audio cues to guide students in the learning process. Math Galaxy programs are strictly visual.

Upon opening the computer program Sierra chose to practice addition and clicked on the button to let the fun begin. Next, she chose which whole number to use for addition practice, typing in number 6. The next screen presented an option of "random" or "in order" practice of addition problems related to number 6.

When testing a portion of the Adding section of Whole Numbers Fun the screen displayed large basic shapes at the top of the page and numbers organized in a number sentence directly below the shapes. A faint white box sectioning off ten of the shapes gave the visual cue to help students build awareness of the ease of organizing ones into tens for addition.

Unfortunately, when Sierra typed in her first few answers we couldn't find them on the screen. We typed the answer several times, tried to find a cursor with our mouse, but nothing showed up. Without a help icon or other instructions Sierra and I became easily frustrated. Fortunately, within a few minutes, we discovered the answer had appeared at the bottom of the screen not near the number sentence problem as anticipated. Sierra's previous typing attempts displayed an incorrect answer, and even though we tried to backspace to delete it, the program wouldn't let us. We finally solved the problem by hitting enter on the keyboard, which allowed us a second attempt at solving the problem. Math Galaxy teaches to mastery and will not allow students to continue to other problems without solving each one correctly.

When a problem is solved correctly a giant red message of CORRECT! appears as a reward. In addition, (pardon the pun) students are rewarded with "robots" for correct answers during a drill. These robots are used in the Labyrinth, a separate game aspect of the program. The games in the Labyrinth are reminiscent of early Atari games in design. They begin with a page of instructions/directions, but we still struggled to get the games to operate correctly. Many robots died in the Labyrinth due to our sad game playing ability.

Sierra summed up our game experience quite well when asked for her opinion."I kind of liked the robot game a little bit", she said. "I liked the different caves, but I didn't like it when we couldn't get the robot to move", she added.

Although the design of Whole Numbers Fun is not high-tech the material covered is comprehensive. Topics in the program are typical of grades 1-4 math curricula. They include:

  • Adding
  • Subtracting
  • Multiplying
  • Dividing
  • Place Value
  • Rounding and Estimating
  • Patterns and Sequences
  • Time
  • Money Length
  • Area
  • Volume
  • Pictographs
  • Bar Graphs
  • Probability
  • Riddles

Games on the CD designed to stretch critical thinking skills include:

  • Word Problems
  • Word Jumbles
  • Bridge the Swamp
  • Riddles
  • Labyrinth
  • Word Jumbles
  • Bridge the Swamp
Whole Numbers Fun, offers a relatively inexpensive option for math drill practice. By nature, computer programs usually last through multiple children making the initial investment a true bargain. Customers are offered a 30-Day money back guarantee at the company website, www.mathgalaxy.com. Coupled with the FREE SHIPPING offer I would encourage anyone interested in their own test market experience to give it a try.

Although I am not a fan of Math Galaxy, my experience with computer programs and children is that even the most basic are worth a child's time. What I view as simple is rarely met with as much skepticism by my younger students. Sierra summed up her experience with Math Galaxy by pointing out her favorite aspects of the program. "I like how they show you the problems with shapes to help you solve it. I liked typing on the computer too."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Children's Bible Hour

Children's Bible Hour Ministries is dedicated to providing"excellent media resources to evangelize and disciple kids and their families". Children's Bible Hour radio programming was founded in 1942, by Rev. Gil Crosselman and three other pastors after Crosselman was asked by his niece, "Why are there no radio programs for children talking about Jesus?

Children's Bible Hour radio programs were replaced with Down Gilead Lane in March of 2001 in response to meeting the needs of contemporary children. It is four of the original Children's Bible Hour stories that have been adapted for the Seasons of Faith picture book series. Each book in the series, which retails for $10.00 plus shipping, comes with a CD of the story narrated by "Uncle Charlie" VanderMeer, Ambassador-at-Large for Children's Bible Hour ministries.

I received CBH's new Seasons of Faith picture book series in exchange for this review. Paperback with a stapled binding, the books are 8.5" x 10" with warm, child-friendly illustrations with the appearance of watercolor and marker media. All four of the
Seasons of Faith books are designed to be read aloud to children in one sitting. Each "season" shares a different faith developing topic reflective of different aspects of a Christian faith. Faith elements are shared easily and naturally through the characters conversation and actions. Scripture references in the books are provided in the New King James Version of the Bible.

The Season of Faith series includes:

Spring: Race With Midnight: Becky takes a spring break
vacation to visit her cousin Sarah on her ranch in Montana.
Besides learning to ride a horse, Becky shares the gospel with her family who come to know Jesus as Savior.

Summer: You Can't Come In: Adam and his new friend Zack
decide to build a secret fort for summer fun, but stumble onto a
perfect object lesson to demonstrate the cleansing power of Jesus Christ.

Fall: Seventy Times Seven: Doug learns a valuable lesson of forgiveness from a broken sign, and a chewed up baseball cap. The parable of the ungrateful servant from the book of Matthew, chapter 18, is brought to contemporary life in this story of two friends and a Christian businessman.

Winter: Braving the Storm: Thomas's grandfather guides him in understanding that God is still present even during the storms of life. Encouraging and not preachy, this story will speak to children of all ages.

I was not familiar with Children's Bible Hour before receiving these books. Part of my college education was spent in radio broadcasting, so I was anxious to learn more about this unique ministry and its offerings.

The first book I read, Race With Midnight, felt a bit stereotypical in plot and language as I read it out loud. My older daughter listening in even made the comment, "That's awkward" when hearing me read the dialogue of Becky's mother offering witnessing advice to Becky before leaving on her trip. I had my doubts that the Seasons of Faith series would really speak to our family culture and truly be a reflection of contemporary childhood to my kids. As I continued reading through the series, however I discovered what a treasure these picture books truly are.

My younger children and I were very excited to note Akron, OH as the setting of You Can't Come In. We visit Akron on a regular basis, but never see this amazing city mentioned in works of literature. I loved the carefully designed plot of Seventy Times Seven and thought it extremely relevant. Finally, Braving the Storm spoke to my heart with honest encouragement making it a title I will recommend over and over to families and children facing one of life's storms.

"They were good, great and awesome", said Aidan age 5, when asked how he felt about the Season of Faith books. "My favorite book was Braving the Storm. I liked when they planted the tree together".

"I think they were good", commented Sierra, 8 year old horse enthusiast. "My favorite book was Race with Midnight. I like when they get to ride the horses."

For more information on the Seasons of Faith Series or Children's Bible Hour Ministries, visit their website at www.cbhministries.org. Readers of this blog post will receive free standard shipping when purchasing the Season of Faith series and using code FREESHIPAPR15 at the time of checkout. This free shipping offer is valid March 17-April 15, 2010.

Seasons of Faith picture books are worth the small investment of $10.00 per book. I know I will use this series as a staple to share with my children as we navigate the seasons of our Christian walk.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pandia Press: History Odyssey

I am a huge fan of unit studies having used them exclusively our first 7 or so years of homeschooling. The age of my oldest children drew us away from unit studies as curriculum available on the market at the time was designed for elementary use. I tried finding time to research, plan and write unit studies for my teens, but the time required to do so was all consuming. Our once strictly unit study based homeschool slowly evolved with textbooks in an effort to keep pace with the educational needs of Jr. High and High school.

Kathleen Desmaris, homeschool Mom to four children ages toddler to teen, author and owner of Pandia Press has created excellent unit studies for the Jr. High and High School level student. I received History Odyssey: Modern Times, a literature-based study guide combining history, geography, and writing from Pandia Press in exchange for this review. Modern Times is created with an unit study model based in the classical style, is written for grades 7-10, and covers world history from the 1800's-21st century. It is a unit study loving homeschool Mom's dream come true.

Modern Times Level Two is one of 10 offerings in Pandia Press's History Odyssey series. Modern Times Level Two serves as a complete study guide offering a unique mix of literature discussion, history study with mapping and timeline work, research and hands-on independent projects for upper level students. The Modern Times study guide includes:

  • 99 detailed lessons written for independent use
  • Reading assignments
  • Writing assignments
  • Map work assignments (they provide the maps in the unit--yeah!)
  • Timeline instructions (timelines are also included--double yeah!)
  • Research instructions for further study and assigned essays and reports
  • 23 Custom World Geography Maps
  • Worksheets
  • Primary Source writings
The text of the study guide is laid out in a day to day format with clear expectations. For example, Part I: Introduction to Modern Times covers a review of world geography based around the novel, Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Lesson 3 assignments from Part I, which are recommended to be completed in one to two sittings, are simply:

  • Read Chapters 15 to 20 in Around the World in Eighty Days
  • Label places visited by Fogg on Map 1
  • Add destinations to travel log
Students are provided with small check off boxes as they work through assignments. There is no ambiguity in these lesson plans, nor any reason to offer an excuse for the inevitable question of "Why is this assignment not completed?" Students can work independently with home teachers acting as mentors or guides throughout the study. In our homeschool, independent study for 7th grade and up is a preferred commodity.

In addition to mapping and timeline work to plot the where and when of history; writing assignments sprinkled throughout the lessons provide opportunity to develop outlining and research skills. Writing assignments vary in complexity and focus, but correspond with the work of literature chosen to support the history topic. Students compose one major research paper in MLA format throughout the year long course.

Pandia Press guides are written to a secular market with this explanation. "Our courses are secular, they are not written from any particular religious point of view. We hope that customers of all faiths will be comfortable using our materials. History Odyssey courses begin at 6000 B.C., therefore evolution is not applicable...."

Most homeschool families struggle with finding the perfect curriculum and occasionally purchase items that after a few weeks are destined to be dust collectors for bookshelves. Pandia Press, offers a unique "try before you buy" program to help customers avoid purchasing a curriculum that doesn't work for their family. The first few weeks of each History Odyssey guide and the company's R.E.A.L. Science guides for elementary grades are available in PDF formats on the Pandia website. The company encourages customers to freely use the curricula from the website, then purchase and download the e-book formats of the desired curriculum once they are sure it meets the "kid tested, homeschool Mom approved" standard.

To take advantage of the "try before you buy" opportunity click here http://www.pandiapress.com/History%20Odyssey%20Modern%20Times%20%28level%20two%29%20Preview.pdf

History Odyssey: Modern Times is available on Pandia's website for $33.99 in e-book format. For those not thrilled with an e-book option, paper copies can be purchased from select vendors. A list of vendors with direct links to their sites can be viewed at www.pandiapress.com

Our short review time with History Odyssey: Modern Times provided us only a glimpse of this one year curriculum. I believe it will be a very good fit for future study for my older students. My 7th grade daughter, Micah shared her perspective with me of the first unit.

"I think it's a good curriculum because it helps you to understand more about the story (literature) by having you look at the maps and find where the person was. I think by writing down all the details in the Travel Log it helps you understand the story more and really know the plot", she said.

As I suspected she did appreciate the independent study nature of History Odyssey. She shared her enthusiasm with the following comments:

"It's easier to do things by myself and on my own time with this curriculum. All you have to do is read the instructions then complete the assignments. It explains everything for you. I really like this because I don't have to wait on my teacher to help me."

Pandia Press fans can join the History Odyssey yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/history odyssey/members to share ideas, information and teaching secrets with other users. To read more reviews of Pandia Press science or history curriculum for elementary, Jr. High or High School level students visit the Crew Blog at www.homeschoolblogger.com/thehomeschoolcrew

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Homeschool in the Woods- Revisted

From my experience, time in the woods brings about relaxation, refreshment and renewal of spirit. Founded by artist Amy Pak, Homeschool in the Woods offers products which will visually enrich your homeschool bringing refreshment and renewal to tired old lessons. Offering timelines, timeline figures, maps and unit studies with lapbook elements designed by Pak, Homeschool in the Woods products are educational works of art.

As a member of TOS Homeschool Review Crew I received a free download of Homeschool in the Woods Olde World Style Modern and Historical Maps: United States and Olde World Style Modern and Ancient Maps: World Maps for use in my homeschool in exchange for this review.

The maps are available on the Homeschool in the Woods website, www.homeschoolinthewoods.com as instant download zip files for $18.95 each or on CD for $19.95 each. For customers wishing for both sets of maps, a downloadable combo pack sells for $28.95 while the CD combo pack sells for $29.95. I received the instant download zip file maps, easily extracted the files and was ready to preview and print the pages I desired. I am not usually a big fan of e-books and computer based curricula, but I found the convenience of scrolling through the various maps and then printing specific quantities to supplement our history lessons a refreshing option to old school copying from books.

Each Olde World Style map selection comes with five separate files which include:
  • Acknowledgement/ Introduction information plus color or black and white cover pages for notebooks
  • Grouped Map Sets
  • Individual Maps
  • Notebooking pages
World Map notebooking pages include Country Fact Sheets, Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Geography Page, and Brochure template to enable students to create a brochure of specific countries. US Map notebooking pages include fill in the blank pages for each state, teacher key and full color State flags ready to be cut and added to the pages for each state.

Mapping activities usually fall off the radar in our homeschool. Even with a history curriculum which recommends mapping activities to enhance study we always seem to run out of time or interest to follow through. Homeschool in the Woods Olde World Maps cured us from missing out on this valuable activity. Since we are studying World History of the middle ages this year, I chose to print a number of maps from Olde World Style Modern and Ancient Maps: World Maps. A map of the Sui and Tang Dynasties of China, Paul's Missionary journeys, the British Isles, France, India, Japan and Korea allowed my kids to visually plot their history lessons. Pak explains in her introduction of Olde World Style Modern and Ancient Maps why mapping activities are an integral part of the learning process of history.

"History is made of stories and legacies from a different time and place. Each story taught is like a puzzle piece--it has its own shape, size and image, but may pose a challenge when trying to connect it to other stories, making it a random happening or isolated event. In order to make sense, these "happenings" need to go from random to concrete, and that's where these two important elements come in. Timelines are used to plot the "when" in history.....and mapping, in turn, plots the "where", says Pak.

Our test marketing crew agreed with Pak's analysis of the importance of partnering mapping with history study.

"I liked how there were maps for each one of Paul's missionary journeys. It helped me figure out where he was in the world at this time. If he was stranded or if it was hot somewhere, etc. Using the maps really helped me understand more about the stories I read", said Micah, age 12 and 7th grade history student.

Jonah, age 15 and 10th grade history student appreciated the quality of the maps included with Olde World Style Modern and Ancient Maps: World Maps.

"They are very informational. I liked all the detail presented on each of the World maps. They were easy to use because the printing was clear and well defined. These maps made geography study of my history lessons easy,"he said.

Due to our current world history studies our family did not take advantage of all the Olde World Style Modern and Historical Maps:United States had to offer during this testing period. We did however, print out all the information for the State of Ohio to send back with a flat traveler visiting us from Canada. With a detailed State Facts sheet, State Flag and maps of Ohio we created a small booklet of detailed information of our beloved home state to send home with our flat visitors. I found the design quality of each of the maps and the facts page to be superior. Everything printed easily and quickly from the PDF file.

Never again will geography lessons slip off our homeschool radar. Homeschool in the Woods
has enhanced our history lessons with beautifully designed resources. I encourage everyone to visit the company website and breathe deeply of the rich resources that await your homeschool.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Old Schoolhouse Magazine...coming events!

If you're looking for homeschool encouragement, resources, and fun, check out all that is going on at The Old Schoolhouse!
March Madness and Win Big in the Schoolhouse Store. During March Madness, over 240 items are 10 to 40 percent off! Click here to read the details.

  • Customers 139,000, 139,500, or 140,000, you will win over $348 in prizes.
  • Prizes include a 5 year subscription to TOS (U.S.only)
  • Scripture Sleuth literature series
  • Guitar lessons on CD, and more!
Hurry, the Old Schoolhouse just recorded customer #137,818.

And........The BIGGEST news of all

The Schoolhouse Expo 3-Day On-line conference is coming this May!

Pre-register now through March 31st and save $5!

Conference speakers include:
  • Diana Waring
  • Sue Patrick
  • Mark Hamby
  • Kim Kautzer
  • Amanda Bennett
  • Davis Carman of Apologia Ministries
  • Todd Wilson (The Family Guy)
  • Susan Wise Bauer
  • Jill Novak
  • Malia Russell
  • Andrew Pudewa
Convention Topics include:
  • Multi-level teaching strategies
  • Family life
  • Workbox systems
  • Language Arts/ Writing
  • Classical Education
  • Character training
  • Unit Studies
  • History
  • Much more....

Pre-register today for only $19.99 through March 31 and receive over $300 in free gifts. Registration and full conference details are available at http://www.schoolhouseexpo.com

Monday, March 8, 2010

Homeschool Library Builder--re-visited

Literature-based homeschoolers and bibliophiles this review is for you! Homeschool Library Builder offers new and used "living" books at bargain prices. Whether looking to stock your shelves, planning a unit study or simply looking for bargains to fill out booklists for popular curricula like Sonlight or Beautiful Feet, Homeschool Library Builder is an awesome on-line store ready to meet your needs.
I reviewed Homeschool Library Builder last year for The Homeschool Review Crew. You can read that review here. I was impressed the first time with all the site has to offer customers and was anxious to note any changes when they appeared on our vendor list for this year.

Homeschool Library Builder has added a few changes to their site since last year which I think benefit customers. A WONDERFUL "Spotlight on the Season" section is ideal for planning unit studies. Complete with ideas and book selections related to future holidays, seasons or special events this portion of the site is an information treasure. Live links lead to either sale pages for necessary books or websites with detailed information, crafts, recipes and photos on the topic selected. A detailed "calendar of events" contains topic links for nearly every day of the month. For example, a unit study for March 6th could include Michangelo's birthday or the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. Very cool!

To test out the current value of Homeschool Library Builder I chose to shop books through their handy curriculum shopper option. I chose "click here to search by curricula"on the homepage of the site which directed me to choose between Ambleside, Beautiful Feet, Five in a Row, Heart of Dakota, Sonlight, Tapestry of Grace and Veritas Press. Most familiar with Sonlight products, I chose Sonlight from the list which directed me to choose between Cores to shop. After choosing Core 7, my browser was directed to two pages of titles currently available, new and used, through Homeschool Library Builder. As of this date bargains available for Core 7 included:

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
New Softcover Retail price: $14.95 HSLB price: $5.99

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Good/Very Good Condition former library cover edition

Retail Price: $16.95 HSLB price: $4.25

Leonardo Da Vinci by Diane Stanley
New Hardcover with Dust Jacket

Retail Price: $18.99 HSLB price: $9.99

There were two pages of bargains listed for Sonlight's Core 7, so one-stop shopping would not be possible at Homeschool Library Builder. However, for frugal families willing to invest in a little bit of time, a potential savings of $30.66 for three books might just be worth the inconvenience. Finding Homeschool Library Builder 's offerings of well-organized bargains require a small investment of time, but deliver great dividends in value.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Graphics Toolbox

At a local homeschool support group meeting one night a member coined the phrase, "tool in our toolbox" to describe an opportunity from which she had benefited. I remember thinking it a great phrase to share as all homeschool families do not look alike. Curriculum, field trips and other opportunities which seem amazing and irreplaceable for some may seem boring or frivolous to others. Graphics Toolbox is an incredible graphic design program currently being marketed to the homeschool community, but it may or may not be a "tool for your toolbox".

I received a free copy of Graphics Toolbox as a member of the Old Schoolhouse Homeschool Crew in exchange for this review. Initially overwhelmed by the program I had the opportunity to attend an extremely informative training session offered by program creator, Lynda Holler. The training was offered to help me ease through the learning curve of becoming a graphic designer. Holler recorded her training sessions with the crew and offers them free of charge on the Graphics Toolbox website, http://www.greatsoftwaretools.com/.

"Graphics Toolbox is my brainchild. I worked for over 25 years in NYC's fashion industry and I used the apparel and textile software Colour Matters for all my design and presentation needs. I also used it for all my personal graphics needs, like making invitations, thank you notes, photo editing and more....About three years ago a lightbulb went on and I realized that most people didn't own a professional-level graphics program that was easy to learn and use", said Holler in a recent press release.

"I began working with William Tsao, the developer of Colour Matters to create Graphics Toolbox. We removed most of the fashion features leaving the intuitive and creative graphics tools, while adding new functions that could benefit the personal user like our Daily Life Color Cards, Fancy Lines and Colorful Ribbons"
, she added.

Graphics Toolbox is a comprehensive design program that operates with a raster graphics editor. This means Graphics Toolbox is similar to Photoshop and Paint programs which work with a grid-like template enabling users to design in pixels. According to Holler, Graphics Toolbox works at a 300 dpi; a very high resolution equal to a photographic quality resolution. Controls and design options within the program are extremely visual making use of symbols instead of words. Holler explained this was purposeful so students would not have to be familiar with design terminology in order to use the program.

In addition to helpful training videos on the Graphics Toolbox website, a complete training manual is included with the program. Users only need to right click their mouse to find a help message linking them to page 2 of the users manual; a PDF file linked to various topics. For example, if struggling with re-sizing an image, right click, choose "re-size image" in the index, click on the topic and instantly access the portion of the user manual which explains how to complete the task.

When I first looked at Graphics Toolbox I had a hard time imagining using it in our homeschool. Even after my helpful training session I felt overwhelmed and a bit intimidated. I understood Graphics Toolbox could help my children create wonderful school reports, play with photos, design personalized invitations and other stationery and even be used for blog design elements. I was however, having a hard time embracing the technology so I did what every smart homeschool Mom does and assigned my 12 year old daughter to the task.

Micah is our family's designated card maker, bread baker, and constant source of creative entertainment. She loves to work with digital photography to create unique still photos, gift cards and mini movies. Feeling helpless to offer instruction I simply told her to visit the Great Software Tools website for training. She watched three different videos and chose to create an invitation as her project. She cut an image from an old photo, added ribbon elements and shadowed text to test out the aspects of Graphics Toolbox. It took her 3 1/2 hours to create her custom invitation shown below.

I interviewed Micah so she could share her experience as a student with Graphics Toolbox.

How would you compare this program in relation to traditional scrapbooking or card making ?

"I could have done most of this project with scissors. I guess the only thing I couldn't have done is save paper and ribbon".

Do you think you will use Graphics Toolbox again for projects?

"Yeah, I think so, because I can access everything really quickly like the pictures and ribbon and words. Some things I could have done on Microsoft Word, but Graphics Toolbox lets me do everything in one program".

What aspects could you not have done with Microsoft Word?

"Cutting out images, adding a shadow effect to the words, things like that"

What do you think about the learning curve needed to become familiar with Graphics Toolbox?

"I guess it really isn't that hard, but finding the right buttons and the right frame took me some time at first. Some things were a bit overwhelming until I got the hang of it."

How long would a project like this take you next time you used Graphics Toolbox?

"I'd say about an hour now that I've learned how to use the program. When I got stuck in certain parts it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing wrong and find the answer. I think that's why it took me so long the first time."

What is your overall impression of Graphics Toolbox?

"I like that you can cut out certain pictures. For example you could have a human head on an animal or you could put people in photos who weren't really there. My little brother loves Ben 10 so I could use this program to put his head on Ben 10's character for his next birthday card. I also like all the colors and choices for ribbons. It's definitely worth using Graphics Toolbox for projects for school and making cards for other people".

Graphics Toolbox retails for $149.00 on the Great Software Tools website. Its unique features can be put to work for business or school use. For those interested in trying before buying, Great Software Tools offers a FREE 30 day trial of the software accessible through instant download.

Although I am still struggling to understand how to incorporate Graphics Toolbox into our homeschool my children are not. They are ready to make it a "tool in their toolbox" as they bring fresh ideas and creativity to their school projects.