Friday, March 30, 2012

Crew Review: Amazing Animals by Design

Levi and I cuddled up on the couch a few days ago to read a new book written by one of  my Old Schoolhouse Crewbies:  Debra Haagen.  I'll take any excuse to cuddle up with one of my boys, and this new book, Amazing Animals by Design, was worth it!

The book was written to fill a vacancy in creation literature of the preK to 3rd grade range.  There are many books for older students which explain the basics of Intelligent Design/ Creation, but few that take the chance to explain it at an early elementary level.  I think Debra has done a great job!

The premise of this book is a family outing to a local zoo.  The children learn about many of the unique characteristics of the animals from the zookeepers and their parents in the context of a Creator.  Here's a passage:

At the end of the story, John and Sarah ask their parents why everyone has been using the word "designed" to describe the animals.  In this way, the reader learns the basics about intelligent design/ creation.

Levi and I looked at each other in surprise as we learned new information about some of the animals in the book.  We were really surprised to learn about this animal.  It is a caracal:
God surely is creative!

The book is sold at Tate Publishing for $8.99 paperback and $7.99 PDF e-book. After the April 3, 2012 official release date, it will be available at a number of real-life and online retailers.

Just a hint if you are not accustomed to viewing picture books on a computer with Adobe Reader.  Make sure your viewing settings are like this:

Go to: View Menu > Page Display >
Check mark: two up and show cover page during two up 

With these settings, your child will see the illustration that goes with the text you are reading!

If you want to follow Debra and learn what else is in store for the book (she's hoping to write more!) you can follow on facebook or the Amazing by Design blog.

To see what others thought of this book, please click on over the the Crew Blog:


FCC Disclaimer: Thanks to Tate Publishing for a complementary copy of this product in exchange for my honest opinion about it!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Testing vs. Portfolios

{I did not get my act together to write this for the Crew Blog Cruise in time, but since I had some thoughts on this, I thought I'd go ahead and make this post.  To see other people's thoughts, Click on the button below!}

Since Ben's 4th grade year, we have been voluntarily using standardized tests.  Luke's participated in a standardized teach each year since kindergarten.  Despite, this, I do not use standardized testing to fulfill my state's requirement to demonstrated educational progress each year.  I prefer to submit the boys' work to a trusted registered teacher (who is a home education advocate and has graduated her four children from homeschool) to assess their actual progress.

I have local friends who think this is silly -- to go through the expense and hassle of two evaluations.  These friends really hate the state's interference in parents directing their child's education (a sentiment I share).  So, they do one or the other -- whichever is easier that year -- and are done with it.

And that is fine.  for them.

I have two purposes in using standardized testing with my boys:
  1. Standardized tests are a part of life in America. They need to get used to it:  college entrance exams, semester finals, career placement, even job placement tests.  They need to be comfortable in the situation and learn the strategies and methods for test taking. 
  2. I over-analyze the tests. Before sending the tests in for grading, I take a detailed assessment of the boys' answers to see what areas of weakness they may have.  So, instead of  just getting back a list of subtests and percentiles (like, "Mathematical Reasoning:  85%ile"), I look at the types of errors they made.  How were all the addition questions?  subtraction?  multiplication?  fractions with addition?  Did they only miss inferential reading comprehension questions?  If so, what type -- main idea, cause/ effect, or some other type?   Please understand that although I do this I do not change any answers nor do I tell my kids what types of mistakes they made. 
 After I do this quick survey, I try to figure out if it matches what I've seen in their day-to-day work.  I did this on Ben's last standardized test --6th grade -- and it confirmed what I'd seen with Ben's understanding of decimals.  This helped me to feel more confident that the test would actually represent his skill set.
I've been blessed to have a woman that I just love do Ben's assessments.  Since she's been doing Ben's assessments beginning in 1st grade, we've certainly built up a great rapport.  I appreciate that I'm getting an authentic assessment using his real work across the school year.  She has actually read is work!  She's seen his daily progress in math and (ugh!) spelling tests.  

But, I also love this sort of assessment because it helps me.  I get in my "speech-langauge pathology diagnostic testing" mode and write up a full description of our year -- the good and the bad -- and discuss where we've made progress and what we still need to work on.  I critique myself as well as the boys.  I prepare a portfolio of their work (which is really just a monstrously sized 3-ring binder with practically every paper they've done that year) and tag pieces of work that especially show their abilities (both areas of weakness and strength).

I could -- of course -- prepare this whole end of the year assessment for just myself and pass in our standardized assessment results and be done.  But honestly, I know the written assessment would not get done and I'd have all these disparate thoughts running around in my head.  In meeting with our evaluator I get the opportunity to close out my year, give my kids the benefit of an authentic assessment of their skills, and get to visit with a dear friend for a few hours. 

I honestly come out of our assessments encouraged for the following year -- after a much needed summer break, of course!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Crew Review: Action Alert Internet Filter

As part of the TOS Crew, I received a complementary maximum protection copy of Action Alert, an internet safety tool.  God certainly answered prayers about this, because I had wanted to update our parental controls, and using Action Alert  has been very painless and easy.

Before I go further I want to encourage you to use a filter starting NOW with your kids. Your children are never too young to have a filter on the computer, because there is just awful stuff out there.  Action Alert has a free internet safety version to download that I recommend you try NOW.

Action Alert manages the following tasks:

Action Alert is available for $29.99.  They have a 30-day money back guarantee.  You can view their FAQs here.  The difference between the free and the paid version is that the paid version is fully customizable and you can set up multiple users (which is what I did).  It also monitors social networking sites, but since I do not have kids who use social networking sites, I didn't have an opportunity to assess that part of the program.

Our Experience:  We did not have any trouble with Action Alert.  Installation was a snap.  I decided to create a log-in for each of the kids, so I set the filter to work only on their log-ins. Action Alert suggests that you do not install the filter on the administrator's log-in because it can slow down your computer/ programs.

The kids experienced times when they went over their allotted computer time for the it worked.  I also liked that I could review the screen shots of what they playing on the computer.  This came in handy to keep a child (who will remain nameless) accountable for the amount of computer game usage.  Using Action Alert did not slow down our internet use.

You can set up the program to send you an email and/ or text message if your child tries to do something on the computer they are not supposed to.  And, you can log on (via the web and your password) to disable the computer if you are away from home or even on another computer in a different part of the house.

You will want to read the user manual here.

In all, I'm really pleased with this filter and very happy that it is a one-time charge, not an annual fee.  

You can read what others thought of this product here:


FCC:  In exchange for a maximum protection version of the product, I agreed to provide my honest opinion about this product.  No other compensation was received.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Crew Review: Progeny Press Literature Guides

Seventh grade for Ben has meant a bit of a bump in expectations of the amount of work and the quality of work that is expected of him.  For example, this year he has had to be accountable not just for his history class readings (we have a history discussion session weekly with a couple other students), but for his literature readings as well (because we have been having lit. discussions).  I'm being more intentional about teaching literary analysis.

Progeny Press Study Guides for Literature  are a tool that many use to accomplish this goal.  We used the guide for Across Five Aprilsan historical fiction piece that was part of our Tapestry of Grace reading. Progeny Press sent me a copy of their interactive PDF, but the guides are also available as a bound, paper guide and on PDF on a CD.

The emailed PDF file is $16.99, on CD is $16.99.  The booklet (paper) guide is $18.99 and a combo booklet/ CD is $23.99.  The guides can be ordered at the Progeny Press online store as well as many other vendors. {The PDFs are not instant access, but are emailed to you within one business day.}

I've resisted using these guides over the past few years because they just seem too "school-y" for me, but after having the opportunity to really interact with one, I can see their value!

The guide had the following sections:
Notes to Instructor
auhor biography
Background Information
Pre-reading Activities
Activities During Reading

After the preliminary information (above), the actual guide divided this book into chapter pairs (Ch. 1 & 2 were together, etc.).  Although each chapter pair's sections were different, they seemed to each include:
Thinking About the Story
Dig Deeper
Some chapter sets had sections Connections to History as well as  optional writing sections and discussion suggestions at the end (although not all the writing and discussion sections were optional!).

After the chapter specific studies are done, the guide has an Overview section.  Here's where you really do some deeper plot analysis -- things like discussing the rising action, main conflict, and climax.  Finally, a Biblical worldview is used to assess the book's themes and motifs as a whole -- to focus our students on eternity, not earthly pursuits.

Here's some things I really like about the guide we were given:
  1. I love the type-in, save-able PDF.  (Just make sure you "save as" with a different name so you have your original.) Although Ben and I aren't totally set up to make this work right now (a computer of his own is in the near future), that he can type vs. write is huge and something that makes work less ..... work-like.
  2. I liked the questions that Ben had to define the word in context of the passage, and then look up the word in a dictionary {we used an online dictionary since we were doing this part on the computer}.
  3. The "Question" section deals with comprehension and story development (and some literary devices).  Some questions were straight short-answer questions that asked Ben to summarize a section of the story.  Summarizing is something that is so important to practice again and again!
  4.  I thought the discussion of literary elements was at an appropriate level for Ben.  Although we've not done a comprehensive literary analysis of 1 book, we've looked at bits-and-pieces across a number of books this year.  The terms were explained and defined in a middle-school friendly way (not too simplistically, but I didn't think the discussions were over Ben's head).
  5. Writing from a Christian worldview, these guides incorporate Biblical verses to help students think from a godly perspective about people, issues and situations.  I LOVE this part.
  6. For this piece of historical fiction, the guide incorporates many suggested learning activities to really incorporate history into this book.  I think these guide would be huge helps for those families who wish to have a literarture-rich learning environment.  Since Across Five Aprils is about the Civil War, there were activities for mapping, outside report writing, learning about battles during the war.
  7. Although we did not do any of the writing assignments, for my son these writing assignments would definitely be a challenge -- in a good way.  The persuasive writing assignment asks the student to reflect on a Biblical element of growth and share an opinion about it {this relates to the novel because one of the themes of Across Five Aprils is that of coming of age and maturity}.  The guide gives a general outline of how to write a 3-paragraph essay {intro, supporting details, conclusion}.  This is Ben's first year of writing persuasively, so this sort of assignment would be helpful.

I just want to point out the recommended use of this guide. It is suggested that the student read the entire book first (in a week), and then work through the guide.  I can certainly see a benefit to doing this because you already know where the story is going to take you.  This was a new approach to literary study for Ben, who is used to reading a section of a novel, then completing a literary study on that section only.  He didn't wholly care for this new method, but he can be a fuddy-duddy in his willingness to try something new.  Could we have done the guide just as well if we'd read a section and then answered the questions?  I definitely think so.
    How did this work for us?  I'll be totally honest:  Ben didn't like it, but this was mostly because he didn't care for the novel (which I was shocked at!).  He and I had read this book before as a read aloud (and enjoyed it), so I thought he'd like it again.  But that didn't happen. I think the book just clouded his view of the guide, so please don't let Ben's feelings sway you against the guide.  As a teacher/ mom, I really appreciate the thoroughness of this guide and will plan for ways to incorporate these into our main literature program.

    To see what other families thought of Progeny Press, please click on the banner below:


    FCC Statement: Thanks to Progeny Press, who furnished a complementary copy of this resource in exchange for my honest opinion about it.  No other compensation was received.

    From the Mouth of {one of my} Babes

    I think Luke just made my day.

    He was reading Romans 3:22:

    We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.  And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

    So we taked about what it means to be made right with God and what it looks like to believe in Jesus -- and even what that means.  We talked about sin and Christ's resurrection for the dead, and how that gives us hope not just when we die, but as we live or life.  It was a good discussion, and {praise God} he understands a lot.

    Then he quips, "Mom, you sound just like a pastor."

    I guess I am doing my job well today.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    March Update: a bit of this and that

    Weather:  It has been a busy spr-inter.  Winter came to New England three times:  Halloween (October), a bit of an icy storm at the beginning of January and then on March 1.  It felt like we were living in New Mexico again!

    Sports: Finished skiing in mid-February with the homeschool program.  Luke and Ben ski way beyond my comfort level.  Levi is reading to be cut free from Mom.  He advanced two levels this winter and next year, Daddy will ski with him.  I'll be the mom cruisin' the blues with the other moms next year!

    It's now spring sport registration time.  We'll need to have a family pow-wow and decide what to do for the next couple months.

    School:  Everybody is flourishing in math.  I'm grateful that everyone is reading.   I'm so glad we're using Easy Grammar for Ben, and I'll switch over to EG for Luke next year (4th grade).  History is the Civil War.  I'm starting to work with Luke to be able to read some of his own history and literature books (Luke is using the Upper Grammar level TOG books since I already had them from Ben's pass-through at this level).  Ben's writing class is almost over -- the last unit is a research project on a famous writer.  They will present their research by play-acting their chosen author.  Ben is working on JRR Tolkein.

    Speaking of play-acting, Ben will be debuting in his first play in May.  He's been waiting to participate in this homeschool theatre group for a number of years and finally hit the magic age of 12!

    The biggest news of all is this:

    Baby boy lost his first tooth!  We didn't even know his tooth was loose.  The adult tooth erupted behind his baby teeth.  He has such a tiny mouth, so we know some lucky orthodontist is going to have fun in his mouth.  His baby teeth were smashed tightly together in his lower jaw, so not only did he loose one tooth he now has three additional loose teeth!

    Monday, March 12, 2012

    Crew Review: The Art of Argument by Classical Academic Press

    Classical Academic Press has put together an engaging resource for teaching informal logic to middle school-age students (roughly grades 7-9) and those high school student who have never been exposed to informal logic -- or the logic of fallacies.  In The Art of Argument (Ben loved the title of this: "Yes!  I'll learn how to  argue with you."), you as a teacher will be well prepared to not only teach the subject but engage your student to make informal logic practical.

    The pieces of the program:

    Art of Argument student book: $21.95
    Art of Argument teacher book: $24.95
    Art of Argument DVD set: $54.95
    Art of Argument basic bundle (one of each above): $88.95

    For this review, I was sent the student book, teacher book and the first DVD of the series (there are 5 DVDs in the set).

    You might  be asking yourself what informal logic is -- a very good question.  Informal logic is learning about everyday arguments and reasoning present in everyday language.  In informal logic, you study fallacies of reasoning -- the bad reasoning that we are surrounded by everyday:  political ads, persuasive commentators, advertisements, billboards, and commercials to name a few.

    Art of Argument studies 28 fallacies divided into 3 categories:
    • Fallacies of Relevance (such as ad hominem personal attacks and red herrings)
    • Fallacies of Presumption (such as begging the question)
    • Fallacies of Clarity (such as making sweeping generalizations)

    The Student Work Text contains quite a bit of reading material.  Ben and I have been reading the chapters together so that we can talk out what we're reading.  There are answers to fill -- and we've done a fair amount of completing this part orally as well as in writing.  Some sections also offer the opportunity to complete some longer writing/ research projects to expand and deepen learning.  We've chosen not to complete these writing assignments.  One of the teaching methods used in the book is a dialogue between Socrates and a 21st Century student named Tiffany.  I've been having fun reading this aloud with Ben (he wanted me read as Socrates, so we changed Tiffany to "Tim").  I have to say that this resource is helping us to have interesting conversations that spill over into non-school time.

    A favorite part for Ben is to look through the many illustrations of faux advertisements for fake products:

     Each one illustrates several fallacies that we encounter daily (even hourly!) in our media-rich world. We've really enjoyed talking about these!

    The Teacher's Guide is a complete copy of the student book with answers written in.  At the back of the book are chapter tests (there are 6 chapters) and unit tests (all answers are provided) and a glossary (which is in the student book, too, and is very helpful).  There is a helpful chart to show you when to administer the tests, which might help you to plan how to use this course in a school year or semester.  There are no suggestions on how to implement the course or schedule the materials.  I do wish there had been some thing like a suggested schedule to help me with pacing and planning.

    We were also sent the first DVD in the Art of Argument's five DVD set.  The CDs provide a discussion with real students (four of them) and two of the authors (Joelle Hodge and Chris Perrin)
    There is an introductory segment (which I think is better to have watched after you read the 24-ish pages of introduction in the text), then there is a segment for each of the 28 fallacies.  Here is a sample from The Art of Argument DVD teaching set:


    I chose to use the DVD after we had read through chapter materials.  I think the adults do a great job of re-explaining the fallacies and eliciting dialog amongst the 4 students.  I found the DVDs to be very complementary to the text -- while it didn't teach new information, it expanding on examples and real word situations where we encounter fallacies.  For me, I want this information to be useful to my children and not just "head knowledge."  Towards that end, I believe these DVDs are very helpful.

    If you'd like to read what others think about this product, please click on the link below.


    FCC Statement: I received the basic bundle from Classical Academic Press in exchange for my honest opinion about this product.

    Thursday, March 8, 2012

    Crew Review: Creek Edge Press' Task Card Approach

    Luke and I have been stuck in astronomy for a while now. We excitedly began our study last spring when he was in 2nd grade, but got sidetracked mostly by a need to refocus on the basics with him -- primarily reading.  So when we began our new school year last fall (2011), I was de.ter.mined. to stay strong in Astronomy and finish it up and move on out.

    We've only made it to Jupiter, I tell you.

    So, we needed another "break" from our two-planets-a-month grind and jumped at the chance to explore physics with Creek Edge Press.

    Now, Amy Kate Hillsman at Creek Edge Press had a really novel and unique idea:  meld Charlotte Mason's reliance on narration and living books with the neo-classical home education model of vocabulary (grammar) and reading and whole-year studies of science topics (biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space) with Montessori's education's ideas of a prepared learning environment and child-directed, open-ended learning opportunities. All this and you get:  Task Cards.

    The task cards provide a week or so of "work" that your child engages in to learn about a topic.  Here's what mine look like for Physics and Digital Science ($18 for each of the four science sets, or $65 for the entire science curriculum):

    My set of Task Cards included 30 cardstock-weight task cards, each with a different physics/ digital science related topics.  It also came with a 13-page, comb-bound instructor's guide.  The guide includes a brief explanation of the philosophy behind the task cards, suggestions for use with emergent readers, fluent readers, and co-ops or groups, and suggested books to use.  She also provides suggestions on how to approach the tasks on the cards.  Generally, the task cards include tasks such as:

    • encyclopedia research
    • additional research
    • term definitions
    • sketching and labeling key concepts
    • summarizing information
    • presenting information {small booklets, collages, posters}
    Instead of hoping online and purchasing a bunch of books, I decided to really use this as an opportunity to dig-in to the nonfiction section of our public library with Luke.  I did have to to purchase a general physics encyclopedia book.  I cannot go wrong with an encyclopedia in this house.  The boys love them.
    How it worked for us:  We are still plagued with a hyper-focus on reading fluency and instruction here, so science does not get done everyday.  But we've used the Task Cards for a little while, and I have to say, I enjoy exploring the books and resources with Luke.  I can see lots of benefits to this approach:

    1. Since I don't have set resources to pull out, we fall back into the pile-of-books method of learning.  What does this look like?  Well, we grab all our science books (we're working on simple machines right now), sit on the couch, and page through them to see if it relates to our topic.  Luke's learning about tables of contents, glossaries, and the index at the back of the book.  This week we had to write a definition of a "wedge," so we paged through a couple books to find one that would help us the most.  Then I worked with him to identify the best description of a wedge, and he crafted it into a sentence.  Just in this one exercise, the learning opportunities multiplied exponentially for my guy!
    2. I really appreciate that drawings and photos are encouraged on the task cards.  This opens up additional avenues for processing and thinking about information.  Here's Luke's explanation of the relationship between the force needed to move up a ramp and distance:
    3. I love the idea of putting together larger projects to assimilate lots of different information.  When we finish our work on simple machines, we'll put together a booklet about them.  I cannot wait to see what that looks like for Luke!
    4. Although I'm doing the work alongside Luke (he's not an emergent reader, but he isn't independent either), I can see that this style of learning can have huge benefits to increase and foster independent learning.   
    5. I can see this as a very kid-friendly way to encourage progress through academic goals.  The cards have check-off boxes for each task as well as a finite number of tasks to complete.  It's as if you are handing the scope and sequence directly to your child and they can see their progress.
    The Creek Edge Press store has sets of Task Cards for Science, History, Art, and Music.

    Science and History/Geography/ Culture sets are designed for grades kindergarten through 8th. Science card sets are $18 each, History/ Geography/ Culture cards are $20 each. Topics are:


    A set of Grammar Reinforcement cards is also available ($18 and designed for grades 2 - 6).

    The Art/ Artist Study and separate Music/ Composer set ($32 each) are actually three sets of task cards in one.  It is designed for all ages and includes guides to help make it worthy of high school credit.  I really love this idea, so that a multi-aged family can be working on the same activities together!

    If you are intrigued by this novel approach to learning, I'd encourage you to look at other reviewer's perspectives at the Crew Blog!

    FCC statement:  Thanks to Creek Edge Press for a complementary set of Task Cards in exchange for my honest opinion about this product.  No compensation was received in exchange for my thoughts and opinions.