Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: My Access! (Vantage Learning)

Many incorrectly assume that good readers will equate to good writers. I haven't met a writer that also doesn't love to read, and it is natural to point out the correlation. As a result, homeschoolers make sure their students have a solid reading foundation and then follow up with quality literature. This approach is often a successful method to model proper sentence structure, vocabulary usage, and organization in a way that naturally engages the child.

However, it is not always true that all those who love to read, or have been exposed to quality literature, are natural and gifted writers. Many kids need specific instruction, guidance, and lots of practice. Furthermore, writing isn't just a self-contained subject area to study; it impacts all other subjects.

Vantage Learning, the developer of My Access!, a subscription based writing program, understands the importance of students learning to write, then writing to learn. From the website:
While writing is a unique skill unto itself, it is also closely linked to all areas of learning. Often referred to as "writing across the curriculum", as you combine writing instruction with other areas of study, you'll better understand how well students grasp information and where they need more instruction.

How is My Access! different from other writing programs?
  • completely web-based
  • can be used with any curriculum
  • self-paced
  • utilizes artificial intelligence technology for instant feedback
  • individualized
  • multiple tools, e.g. graphic organizers, are available
For a detailed list of everything that is included with a subscription, go here.

How does it work?

My Access has 90 pre-loaded writing lessons for three different ages: 8-10, 11-14, and 15-18. Specific writing topics can be assigned to each student through the parent account. A student can be assigned topics of varying levels. A parent can also create a topic of her own for the student.

When the student logs in, they may select from the topics assigned. Once a topic is selected, they may choose to "start course" or "begin draft". Each course matches the level and writing style of the assignment. For example, a topic in the age 15-18 category reads as follows:

Psychologists have argued for centuries regarding the influences of nature (genetic influences) and nurture (environmental influences) on the human personality. There is evidence to support both views, but the question is ultimately, which of the two, nature or nurture, plays the greatest role in shaping our personality? Write a multi-paragraph essay in which you state and defend your position. Be sure to include specific details and examples to support your argument.
The courses are short and are presented with graphics and reading (no sound). The course assigned for the above topic covers the basic elements of persuasive writing, discusses organization, and reviews terms (hook, thesis statement). Material is reinforced with matching exercises. The course closes with tools for evaluating work and leads the student to start brainstorming with a graphic organizer.

The area where students write their draft has a box to type text and includes access to several writing tools (outline, a word bank, original course). Once a draft is submitted, the essay is ranked as "below proficient", "proficient" or "advanced proficient" in the following areas:
  • focus
  • organization
  • content and development
  • language use
  • mechanics and conventions
The My Editor tab will show potential errors and suggestions for improving the first score. Students can continue to edit and submit their essay for a better score.

Each task, whether it is a lesson or submitting a draft, earns the student points. Parents are able to set up a point goal and reward as a means for motivation. From the parent account, submitted essays and progress can be viewed. Finished essays can even be put in a published format and emailed to friends and family.

How did it work in our home?

With both a reluctant writer and a talented writer, we are likely a good test-run family for this product. I first started with my 10-year-old reluctant writer. I selected several simple topics from which he could choose. The first issue arose when he tired of the course and wanted to take a break. There was no option to save his progress through the lesson. He unhappily finished the rest of the lesson, in an effort to earn points and not have to reload the lesson from the beginning.

The next day, I had him start his draft. Because he needs solid direction on his writing, the suggestions weren't all that helpful to him. His writing skills simply are not where they need to be to use this program. Instead of using the writing prompts, I created my own writing topic and submitted an already completed writing assignment. We had worked together on this particular assignment, using our current writing program. While short, the paragraph was grammatically correct, used varied vocabulary, and an appropriate length for my son. The resulting score from My Access! was very low, likely because of the short length. My son simply isn't ready for this program.

I was excited to try it with my12-year-old gifted, independent, and verbose writer. Short pieces were not going to be an issue for her. While My Access! is a bit more useful to her, it does have its limitations. She found the lessons not very challenging, though I used writing prompts from both the 11-14 and the 15-18 age categories. She didn't care for the presentation and didn't find the matching exercises useful. Some of this may be because she already has a very solid foundation on the concepts being taught.

As for the editing tools, she expressed that she wished the text box for the draft composition was a larger area. She found some of the suggestions created with the My Editor tab to be helpful, but did note that they weren't always relevant and "not concise enough". Also, she felt the terminology in some of the suggestions may have been too advanced for many students. The examples included were helpful though. She didn't like that the program sometimes flagged things that weren't really errors, e.g. calling a non-recognized word a spelling error. These "errors" result in a lower overall score of the essay, which she found frustrating. Other times, the score was higher than it should have been. She even commented that a first draft of a "choppy" and "poorly written" essay she submitted received too high of a score based on her own self-evaluation.

My daughter is very strong in grammar and mechanics. Her concerns with the program were mostly because the program didn't give her the type of feedback that she's seeking - that of content. However, there were several features that she did like, including the graphic organizers. While there were issues with many of the suggestions, she did find some to be helpful for mechanics issues she overlooked. Because of this, she thought My Access! may be useful as a self-editing tool for papers already composed. "I might use this to look over a paper before turning it in as a way to check for unnoticed errors."

Suggested Improvements

I tried out the program with an article I had written and came to mostly the same conclusions. As a self-editing tool, it was a quick way to flag potential errors. Users will need to be able to have enough background to interpret the suggestions and discern whether or not they apply. One improvement both of us would like to see is the ability to add words to the spell check. I found the point earning system to be useless because it was driven by number of submissions rather than improved work. Most children would figure how to accumulate points by submitting unchanged work or doing the same activities over and over. The point system needs to be either modified or discarded.


For our family, this program is more of a writing tool than an instructional program. That may be a result of having two children on extreme ends of writing ability. We'll continue using it as a self-editing tool for papers written with other programs. The instructional value may be higher for families with students that are average writers and/or weak in the area of grammar and mechanics.

Each 12-month subscription to MY Access! Home Edition includes one parent account and your choice of three ($99.95) or six ($129.95) student accounts. Vantage Learning has a variety of other products. You can visit the Vantage Online Store to learn more.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: The Amazing Bible Timeline

Note: Presence of a review on this blog does not mean I endorse a product. I try to provide enough information for the reader to discern whether or not a product will be a fit in their home, in addition to providing my personal opinion of the product.

If there is one learning tool that homeschoolers love, it's timelines. Whether made from scratch, purchased premade, hung along the perimeter of the room, or contained in a binder, timelines are often used to supplement history learning. It is even more interesting is when multiple timelines are combined in one resource for a broader view of what was going on concurrently around the world.

The Crew was sent the Amazing Bible World Timeline for review. This timeline, which traces the origins of each nation to Adam and Eve, includes over 1000 references from the Bible and world history from the start of time to 2000 AD. A Creationist perspective is taken on this timeline.

I have to confess that my attempts to implement timelines into our homeschool have never been very successful. I've purchased materials for the kids to make their own timelines as well as premade timelines for reference. It isn't that I don't see the value of them. I do. The larger issue is that we are often a bit, well..., sporadic, in our history studies. With one child needing extra time in the 3Rs and the other with some heavy duty coursework in other subjects, history studies end up being more enrichment. While some history-loving homeschoolers can't imagine such an approach, such is the case in our household.

Now that you know my dirty little secret about our history studies, I can share our experience with this particular timeline. The first thing I noticed was this timeline is absolutely huge. At 37" x 45", it doesn't fit on any surface in our school area. It barely fits on our dining room table, which is where it first landed when pulled it out of the shipping container. Unlike typical horizontal timelines that either fold or run the perimeter of your school area (or down the hallway), this timeline is presented in a circular fashion. Blue, pink and yellow color-coding help with tracking families, nations and related events. Christ is presented bottom center, splitting the timeline in half with B.C. on the right and A.D. on the left. Basic information on sources and how to use the outline is located in the upper left corner and both the right and left lower corners contain the index.

The size, unique display, and sheer volume of information of this timeline was initially impressive. I found it an interesting product and I, the sporadic history teacher, started looking over the information. Even though I'm rather limited in my history knowledge, within a couple of minutes, I found some information that seemed questionable and commented to my husband about my curiosity of the sources used.

I soon found out the variety of resources that make up the information on the Amazing Bible Timeline. The information that originally caught my eye was from the Book of Mormon. While a variety of resources will need to be used for a product as detailed as this, I find this particular resource troubling. I further discovered that the producers of The Amazing Bible Timeline also have a LDS version of the timeline available on a separate website. There is no cross reference between the two sites. I've found three different sites for the non-LDS version of the Amazing Bible Timeline and am including them here as they have differing supplemental information.

The list of resources for the two versions of timelines is essentially the same.

Crew version
LDS version

The creators of the timeline have stated that the LDS references on the timeline the Crew received, which was created from the LDS version, were left on the timeline in error. Given the amount of time this timeline has been circulated, that fact brought about questions for me on the accuracy of the rest of the content. A follow-up communication was sent to the Crew after questions of the sources and doctrine were raised by some of the Crew members. You can read an explanation here.

While I am not opposed to using multiple resources as tools for learning, even those with which I may disagree, I only do so in those areas that serve educational purpose, are well-defined, and allow clear explanation of various viewpoints to my children. The Amazing Bible Timeline does not meet this criteria. I'm sure there is plenty of solid information to be gleaned from this timeline, as it was created from many resources. However, with my limited knowledge on the content of the timeline, I do not feel that I would be able to appropriately discern what might be questionable among the volumes of information with this particular product.

There are several layers to my concern that are beyond a few questionable resources, but do revolve around the discovery itself. In fact, I feel a little misled as there is no reference to a LDS version or sources on the website, though to give credit the sources are listed on the timeline with the entries. Because my own faith is very different from the teachings of Mormonism, in combination with history not being my strong suit, this isn't a product that I'm comfortable using in my home. This is especially the case with other similar resources readily available. If you are Mormon, indifferent to Mormon references, or a history buff, it may be more appropriate for you.

Outside of the content, I did have my kids look at the timeline in terms of visual appeal and readability. The text is quite tiny in order to fit everything in the space. Younger kids especially will have difficulty with the text size. My kids are more familiar with a horizontal timelines and at first didn't understand how to read it, though they caught on rather quickly. My daughter mentioned that the addition of pictures would be an improvement. However, the inclusion of pictures would have further added to the one feature that was the biggest obstacle to using this timeline – its size (pun intended). Finding a place that was both large enough and accessible for display would be no easy task. The dining room table may be an option for those doing school there. Otherwise, you would need to find a low space on an empty wall accessible to your students. See the picture below for an idea of the mammoth size of this timeline.
The Amazing Bible Timeline is not a product my family would purchase, both on content and usability. If you would like to explore this resource more to see if it may be a fit for your family, please visit the Amazing Bible Timeline website. The timeline can be purchased for $29.97 plus $6 shipping and comes with a 60-day money-back guarantee. Purchase includes two download products, Interactive Maps of the Holy Land and Digital Amazing Bible Timeline.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: Sue Patrick's Workbox System

For the last six months or so, I've been hearing rumblings in the homeschool community about workboxes. I had a general idea of what it was all about and thought about implementing something similar in my own home, but really didn't give it a whole lot of thought.

Then, a couple of months ago, Sue Patrick's Workbox System User's Guide ebook arrived in my inbox. One of the things I love about being on the Crew and reviewing products is it forces me to try things that I would never get around to on my own, whether I didn't think it would be a fit or just didn't have the time or gumption. After reading the ebook, I moved my mind from thinking about implementing a workbox system to actually doing it.

What is a Workbox System?

The 122-page Workbox System User's Guide gives the reader background information on Sue Patrick, her educational philosophy, and details of exactly how the system looks in her home. In addition to detailing the actual system, Sue discusses areas such as what a typical day would look like, includes ideas for centers, and targeting problem solving. You can read a sample of the book here, which includes the a complete Table of Contents, Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2.

For those of you unfamiliar with workboxes, this is not a curriculum, but a system. It is a way to organize your current school material and schedule. The ultimate goal of the system is for your children to become more independent, work more productively, and enjoy school work more with added variety. To learn a bit more about the system, please watch the video on Sue Patrick's site here.

Essentially, the workbox system is a visual schedule of assignments that need to be done. Work is broken down into 12 segments that readers and non-readers alike can follow. There are other layers to this system, such as "centers", "work with mom" cards, "help" cards, and "quiet" cards that are detailed in the book.

How did this look in our home?

Sue Patrick is very adamant that new users first attempt the system exactly how she has laid it out. She sincerely believes that she has tweaked the system to the point of maximum effectiveness. She may be right...for her home. However, I've been tweaking programs to fit my home during all eight years of homeschooling and will not stop tweaking now! For starters, the physical structure of the system was not to my liking - so I tweaked. The labeling of boxes didn't work with my new physical structure - so I tweaked. Some of the cards she suggests to use seemed a bit, well, oppressive - so I tweaked. Work centers...not for us and tweaked right out. Soon enough I came up with a Sue Patrick inspired system that works great for our household. Below is a picture of what it looks like.

I don't use clear boxes or a wire rack. I did like the idea of students being able to see upcoming work, so I selected these wire file holders instead. They fit perfectly in the cubby space in our school room. Previously the cubbies held a variety of school books that may or may not have been in current use. I moved those to the shelving unit on the left to accommodate the 12 file folders. Under each file folder, you'll see a white label. Those labels are the box number, four per cubby. When each "workbox" is completed, my son turns it around to the enclosed side, as you can see with the first two boxes in the picture, and marks the completed boxes on the schedule hanging from the magnetic strip on the wall.

This is not exactly how Sue Patrick has detailed her system, but this is what works for us. I have to say, I am very happy with the results and it has solved a couple of problem areas in our homeschool. First of all, my son tends to be easily distracted and the visual boxes seem to keep him more focused. He can see his work getting completed and we have less lost time in between tasks because he knows exactly what he needs to do next. The system as I have it allows me to move subjects around if needed. For example, if he's having a rough morning, I may rearrange his boxes to allow less-demanding work at first. On days that the boxes don't get finished (yes, that happens), I simply move the unfinished boxes to the first spots for the next day.

This system has also helped me as a teacher and parent. I think I need the visual schedule just as much as my son. We are both on the same page, I don't have to dig around for materials since that is part of the process when setting up the boxes, and our day goes forward with less bumps.

I didn't intend to use this system with my 12-year-old since she is already extremely independent. I normally just give her a written schedule and she follows it. However, after seeing her brother fly through his subjects with the workboxes ("He already has three boxes done!"), I thought it might be worth a try with her. Instead of 12 boxes, I used 6 boxes since her subjects are a bit more demanding. One of the best things I did was add a time card to each box so she could keep track of how long it took her to complete the work. Not only did it help me in scheduling the right amount of work, but it kept her accountable and signaled to me if she was struggling with some of the material.

Probably the thing my kids like the most about the system is I've tried to inject a bit more fun. With 12 boxes to fill, it might require a bit more creativity to fill them all. My son was pleased to find a geography card game, that I've had for years but have never pulled out, in one of his boxes. It has become a requested midday game and I'm thrilled my kids (and I!) are finally learning some geography.

Pros and Cons


I've already shared some of the pros of the system as implemented in my home. In general, I feel our homeschool runs more efficiently and we are getting much more done in less time. My kids know what is expected of them and what is yet to be completed at a glance. Sometimes it is the simple things that make a huge difference. For example, my son has some daily tasks that require him to log onto the computer. In the past, he'd report to me when he finished his previous assignment and then wait for me to log him to the needed computer program and give instructions. We did it this way because he usually couldn't remember the login information and each day the tasks were a bit different. However, if I was currently in the middle of something, my student would wander off and become occupied with something non-productive. When I implemented the workboxes, it prompted me to write a card out with detailed instructions on how to log in and how to navigate the program. That card stays in the box and is accessible each day. There have been numerous other efficient changes I've made since adding workboxes to our home.


Like Sue Patrick, I only have two children. For very large families, I don't see how Sue Patrick's exact system would physically work. Many homes simply don't have the space. It certainly can be tweaked to work for large families. It will also take some modification if your family does a lot of group learning, rather than children working independently. Some of the Crew members came up with creative ideas in these cases. I recommend you look through the many reviews to see solutions that were designed for individual families.

Worth mentioning to those thinking about getting the book is that Sue Patrick's system as detailed is very rigid. The educational philosophies presented in the book are done so in a way that may seem abrasive to some. We all have different ideas of how our homeschools should look and Sue Patrick is no different. It is important to keep in mind that she designed this system based on Division TEACCH, Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children, A Division of the UNC Department of Psychiatry. This is because Sue Patrick's son was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 2. While her system takes a rather rigid school-at-home approach, it is what has worked for her family. This doesn't mean the system can't work for children of all abilities and homeschools of all types. That has been proven otherwise. However, her system as detailed was designed and yes, tweaked, for a very specific child. In some homes it will work as is, in others it will need to be tweaked for your specific child(ren).

In the book, Sue Patrick makes comments that may simply rub other homeschoolers wrong. Comments like, "I find that there is way too much talking going on in homeschools," might cause the eyeballs of more relaxed homeschoolers to bleed. The suggestion that some homeschool moms don't take homeschooling seriously likely won't sit well with some. To get an idea of some of Sue's thoughts on the system and homeschooling, you might want to read the recent interview on the lovetoknow website.

To be fair, we don't all run perfect homeschools and what might be perfect to one, certainly won't be perfect to others. Sue Patrick does have some great ideas that can be gleaned. She is certainly passionate about the system and its effectiveness in her own home and the homes of others. My suggestion is to take what might come off as a 60-grit presentation and use it to take away the rough spots and smooth out a system of your own creation that fits in with your own philosophy and home.

What does purchase of the book give you?

At this point, you may be wondering what the point of the book is, since this seems like a rather simple system on the front or may not be an exact fit for your home. In the book, Sue shares her very detailed system, her reasoning behind it, extra ideas and download access to schedule strips, numbers, help cards, her typing program and various complimentary ideas. And while I didn't use all of her ideas, I found it helpful to understand why she set up her system as she did. Essentially, it was beneficial to see the original form of what it was that I was tweaking. It also gave me an immediate starting point with not only all the whys behind the system, but basic tools to get started. As always, each individual is different in what they find useful and why. For me, the book gave me a beginning point and I was easily able to discard what didn't apply to me. It was a worthwhile way to kick start me to begin a very effective system of my own that I had previously only thought about. All I needed to do was find the physical space and boxes...and tweak.

Sue Patrick's Workbox System User's Guide e-book is available for $19. You may also purchase a printed book for $19.95 as well as various starter kits and supplies. Browse the catalog for a listing of all available products. To learn more about Sue Patrick's Workbox System, including FAQ, history, testimonials, and pictures from those using the system, visit her website.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Review: Virginia Soaps & Scents

It is been a long and busy day with the kids. The temperatures are dropping outside and nothing sounds better than a nice, long, relaxing bath. You start the water, grab your detergent coated towel, a fresh bar of phosphate-laden soap and some bottled chemicals for your hair. Sounds great, doesn't it? It may not sound like the products of choice for relaxing, but if you are like most households, these are the types of ingredients you may be using on a daily basis. If you are going to pamper yourself, treat your skin and body to all-natural products it can recognize.

Virginia Soaps & Scents (VSS) is a supplier of all natural soap and body products. The company was founded in 2008 by the Spargurs, a homeschooling family of 11, as the result of a history project. They have since grown to offer a variety of different soap scents, all-in-one bars, shampoo bars, lip balm, powders, creams, and even dog shampoo. All products are handcrafted and made with only natural products, e.g. coconut oil, natural scents, olive oil, soy, animal fats and oil-based fragrances. They even have a holiday bar made with pumpkin and cinnamon!

When my review package arrived, I could tell immediately that this was not a math curriculum, writing program or educational product being sent my way. The package smelled entirely too heavenly for any of that! The Crew was sent a sampler that included three different soap scents, a shampoo bar, and a laundry soap kit. The soap scents were Fresh Orange, Oatmeal, Milk & Honey and Coconut Lemongrass. Ok, I'm familiar with soap, but what was this Ginger Lime shampoo bar and this curious bag of soap flakes and powder?

I started with the most familiar product – soap. It smelled great, lathered thick and left the skin soft. What more do you want in a soap? Homemade soaps always make me feel a bit pampered and the bars from VSS were no exception. My daughter tried out the orange-scented bar. Her first comment was that it felt like her skin was coated after her shower. She was correct; these soaps don't dry the skin and are made with oils to keep it soft. Since my daughter is very prone to eczema in the winter, I'm hopeful that these soaps will keep flair ups under control.

The next item to try was the curious item labeled a shampoo bar. The recipe for this item was developed by VSS by request of family friends involved in Civil War reenactments. The instructions suggest rubbing the bar directly on the head; I was surprised at the wonderful lather this produced. I skipped my normal conditioner to see how my hair reacted to the product solo. I first noticed how literally squeaky clean my hair was. It was a little more difficult to brush without conditioner, but after drying I was surprised that my hair still felt rather soft. Even more surprising was the shine and fullness it had. It was similar to the results I get with an occasional use of clarifying shampoo. My hair is fine, straight and just past my chin. I've found that I can get away with conditioning only every few days with no problems. After my trial, I convinced the rest of my family to try the shampoo bar.

Surprisingly, my husband became quite attached to this product. His hair is so short that the results didn't matter much, but it was all about the process. Efficiency is an aspiration of every man, right? The shampoo bar eliminates the fumble of bottles and lathering in hands. My husband just shaved 10 seconds off his morning routine. He's a happy guy.

My daughter gave it a try next. She has the same hair type as I do, but it is about a foot longer. I was a bit worried about tangles and suggested she condition the ends. After a couple of uses, she started sneaking the shampoo bar out of our bathroom. She likes how clean it makes her very long hair that tends to get oily. My 10-year-old boy took some convincing to give it a try. I suppose 10-year-old boys and soap don't always mix. He has a head of coarse, thick, shaggy hair that never really smells truly clean. After using the shampoo bar, my husband said, “What happened to his hair?” It looked and smelled clean.

Last on the list to try was the Laundry Soap Kit. I've heard of making laundry soap but never tried it because it seemed too involved and I wasn't sure I wanted to make the commitment of purchasing the items. This is exactly why VSS developed the Laundry Soap Kit. Purchasing the kit, which yeilds 2 ½ gallons of a heavy gel that should last for about 64-72 loads of laundry, gives you enough experience with homemade laundry soap to determine if you'd like to make a permanent switch. Included in the kit are premeasured grated laundry bar, Borax, washing soda, and instructions for making your soap. The process of making the soap was much easier than I expected and it cleaned as well as my normal detergent. I'm now inspired to make my own and save money in the process.

I really loved Virginia Soaps & Scents, so much so that I became a customer before the review process was even over. The shampoo bar was a favorite among my whole family and I'm happy to find a natural shampoo that is healthier for not only our bodies, but the water supply. I also ordered some more soap bars for myself and for gifts. The service was great and the shipment quick. I loved that I was helping to support another homeschooling family. The soap is $4.50/bar, $12/3 bars or buy 4 get 1 free. Shampoo bars run for $5.50/bar and the Laundry Soap Kit is $4.95. Be sure to check out their Christmas Scents for stocking stuffers and teacher gifts. Any of the products from Virginia Soaps and Scents will make excellent gifts, or a treat for yourself!

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Another First Board Break!

As predicted, it didn't take long for my youngest to catch up with my oldest with his first board break! It took him 12 days, to be exact. I was proud of his determination and control of emotions when he didn't succeed right away. This board has literally had his name on it and tonight was the fourth night he tried to break it. After some practice on the break-away boards, he nailed the wood board on the first kick. He's so proud of himself that he's talking about making a frame for his board, pictured below. Great job, Carter!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Sarah Books

When my daughter was about 8, she was extremely interested in the Underground Railroad. I don't recall what in particular sparked it, but her interest continued strongly for over a year. She was so intrigued on the topic that she started writing a research paper (at 8!) and we even visited an actual station on the Underground Railroad. It's too bad that author Jim Baumgardner hadn't penned Sarah's Wish yet; I know my daughter would have loved this perfect compliment to an Underground Railroad study.

While he had an interest in writing at an early age and his first magazine article printed at 19, it wasn't until the age of 59 that Jim Baumgardner published his first novel. Baumgardner's 9 grandchildren, all homeschooled, were his inspiration for his novel series, Sarah's Wish. The books contain no sex, profanity, or offensive material; Baumgardner never puts in material which he wouldn't subject his own grandchildren.

Sarah's Wish,
set in the 19th century, is about a recently orphaned girl who is dealing with her mother's loss while trying to maintain and keep secret the Underground Railroad stop her mother ran on their property in OH. Sarah encounters slave catchers, runaways, gypsies, and a riverboat captain during her hopeful wish-fulfilling travels and adventures with Doc and the funny actin' and tawkin' Granny. In the end, Sarah does discover her wish, but not in a way that she expected.

Sarah is strong in her faith and some might call this Christian fiction. Baumgardner likes to think of it differently.

The books have been referred to as Christian fiction. I prefer to describe them as Young Adult fiction written by a Christian author. Sarah’s faith is important to her and she lives by it, but the books do not try to convert the reader to anything. The stories do teach Christian principals of living a good life and treating others as you would have them treat you. I do not ignore the evil in the world and Sarah must confront it at times just as we all do.
The main characters are likable and the story gives a glimpse into the time and area. There is a glossary of terms in the beginning of the book just in case you aren't familiar with terms such as "light a shuck" and "slantindicular" or historical references like "Orphan Train" and "apothecary".

At 12, this 123-page book was a quick read for my daughter. She thought this story would appeal more to the 8-10 year old range, though still enjoyable for older kids. Also, there are two more books in the series, Sarah's Promise and Sarah's Escape, at 248 and 304 pages respectively, that may appeal more to the older crowd. If your child finds the first in the series enjoyable, they will likely to be up for the challenge of longer sequels. Additionally, this is a series that can grow with your child. Click here to read excepts of each book in the series.

As an added bonus, in the back of Sarah's Wish is a code to download an audio version of the book. Narrated by Eva Hamlin, the audio version provides 3 hours and 41 minutes of listening either from the computer or a MP3 device. Rather than have my 10-year-old son read the book, I had him listen to the audio while playing Legos. Since the cover of the book has a butterfly, I figured he'd be more open to the story in the audio version. He seemed to enjoy the story just fine and complained when it was time to turn it off for awhile to do something else.

We love audio books around here and I loved that it was included with the book purchase. Struggling readers could listen to the audio while following along in the book to strengthen reading skills while non-readers could just listen in. The audio version gives you options for multiple ages and levels within your family to enjoy Sarah's Wish. You can listen to an excerpt of the audio a (click"sample' under the book cover).

Jim Baumgardner sends out a quite enjoyable newsletter every month that includes history facts, a question of the month, letters from readers, and other tidbits. To sign up for the newsletter, send an email to with "send newsletter" in the subject line. Sarah's Wish can be purchased for $9.99 with free shipping and handling at the Sarah Books website. Each book comes autographed by the author and would make a great Christmas gift for young friends and relatives.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: Guardian Angel Publishing

Guardian Angel Publishing is provider of children's literature targeting the 0-12 age range. Each title is available in a variety of format options.

Welcome to Guardian Angel Publishing, Inc.- where our publishing goals are to lovingly create fun, affordable and educational eBook computer & print book experiences for preschoolers and primary age children. And to embed positive, loving and worthwhile meaning into these books.
I was sent five titles for review in the e-book format: Stubby's Destiny, Gifts from God, Hamster Holidays, No Bones About It, and Earthquakes!

Stubby's Destiny by Dixie Phillips

This 22-page story is about an orphaned donkey who desires to be in the royal service of the king but is discouraged that he doesn't look as regal as the stallions.
“I was born wrong. I'm just an orphan colt, who lived with chickens. Sly is a thoroughbred. He lived with peacocks. I could never be chosen for the king's royal service.”
In the end, Stubby finds himself in service of the King of Kings!

While this title has won a Best of 2008 award for literary excellence, Stubby's Destiny wasn't exactly my favorite title of the bunch. It reminded me of another familiar story but just didn't compare. I didn't care for the character development of the two main characters, Stubby and Sly. I found Stubby a bit too Eyeoreish and Sly a bit arrogant. Regardless, young children will likely still enjoy this story and appreiciate the soft watercolor artwork. In the end, this hopeless donkey found his devine destiny, which may be inspirational to young children. The publisher recommends this title for ages 9-12, but I would recommend a younger set of ages 5-8.

Gifts from God by Cynthia Reeg

Each 2-page photo art spread of Gifts from God has a scripture verse on the left side and an easy reader sentence about a gift from God on the right. For example, the first scripture is Genesis 1:3, “And God said, Let there be light and there was light.” The accompanying sentence is “God smiles at me.” The picture is of a little girl hula hooping in a field of flowers. Most of the photos include young children and babies and are enhanced artistically.

This title would be best for very young children. The words are few on the pictures vibrant. The recommended age is 4-8. I know when my kids were toddlers, they would have enjoyed looking at the pictures of the children in this title.

Hamster Holidays: Noun and Adjective Adventures by Cynthia Reeg

At the start of this 26-page book, nouns and adjectives are well-defined and explains that nouns appear in blue and adjectives appear in red throughout the story. Each page is devoted to a silly holiday for a month of the year with artwork showing how each hamster enjoys the holiday. My favorite, being a book lover, is Book Pal Day:

May 18th
In Page Town, how do hamsters enjoy
Book Pal Day?
Smiling Jennie reads happy books.
Frowning Carlos reads sad books.
Silly Billy reads foolish books with
corny jokes all around.

Each page has similar verse and rhythm.

Pages 15 – 22 are devoted to more noun and adjective examples, a story puzzle, a noun match-up, a crossword, answer key and suggested activities/games to play with your child.

The recommend age for this title is ages 5-12. Personally, I think the upper level of this range is set way too high and would suggest an age of 5-8. Older children will find this title too childish, though it certainly can give them a better understanding of nouns and adjectives if they are weak in this area. For the younger set, they are likely to find this a fun way to study grammar.

The Sum of Our Parts: No Bones About It! by Bill Kirk

This title is a rather humorous 30-page presentation about the bones of our body, from the bottom up. Each page has a Did you know? factoid section about bones and a catchy verse about the bone being studied on the page.

The rhyme is intended as a humourous learning and memorization tool. The following verse is for the pelvis bone:

Your legs keep you standing
On top of your feet,
While pelvis joins sacrum,
To help make your seat.

The illustrations give characterization to the bones with eyes and mouths. Most of these are just plain silly, but there were a couple that my kids called “freaky” and one that may scare small or sensitive children.

The book concludes with two pages of a full male and female skeleton, one page labeled and another blank. This title is recommended for ages 8-13.

Earthquake! by Susan Berger

This book isn't just about the why and how of earthquakes, but how to be prepared and the appropriate response should you find yourself experiencing one. This title also has a factoid section on each page. There are graphics on each page, but much more of the page is devoted to the text than some of the other titles I received.

Some of the questions and topics addressed in this title include:
  • what causes earthquakes
  • earthquake terms
  • prediction of earthquakes
  • how are they measured
  • what an earthquake feels like
  • locations earthquakes are likely to occur
  • how to prepare for an earthquake
  • what to do during an earthquake
  • how to help after an earthquake
The last of the 30 total pages in this title includes some charts and graphs, as well as preparedness lists. This title is recommended for ages 6-9.

I found this title to give kids a realistic view of earthquakes and preparing for them without scaring them. Being in MI, I can't say earthquakes are a big concern. The preparedness focus of the book was interesting, though perhaps not something we'd put into action here.

This title has enough general information on earthquakes to keep a science-oriented child interested. However, if you have a child that is concerned about earthquakes, this would be an excellent title because it explains to kids things they can do to be prepared.

At first I wasn't sure about the e-book versions I was sent. I am simply not an e-book fan and didn't see a practical application for colorful picture books. My kids actually slept with their books rather than stuffed animals as babies and toddlers. They were and are in love with printed pages! However, after I handed my son a laptop to read the books, it dawned on me we are heading into a new age. I can see how this might be a good way to travel with books to keep little ones occupied on road trips or in doctor offices with a laptop or book reader that you already carry around. E-books are cheaper and take up less space as well.

Each title is available in three formats. E-books cost $5 each as a download. E-books can also be purchased on a CD for $9.95 + $5.95 S & H. Print books of the above titles are available for $10.95 - 11.95 + $6.95 S & H. Soon many of the titles will also be available for iPhones and iPods as well. Guardian Angel Publishing also has a number of free musical e-books and downloads. To see a full listing of titles available, visit the Guardian Angel Publishing website.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Friday, October 9, 2009

First Board Break!

Both of the kids have recently hit a couple of milestones in their martial arts training. They've been studying Shotokan for a few years and added Kobujutsu about a year ago. Kobujutsu is a weapons system. I consider it "college-prep" studies, especially for my daughter! Perhaps she'll keep the out-of-line boys at bay if she carries around a pair of nunchucku with her? They might look great hanging out of her backpack.

Anyhow, they both earned their purple belt last week in Kobujutsu by successfully performing their next bo (a long staff, a bit taller and thicker than a broom handle) and nunchucku katas. Then, Jordyn successfully broke her first board with a side thrust kick yesterday. Woo hoo! Below is a pic of her newly prize possession!

My son gave it a try and I suspect he'll be successful fairly soon. He doesn't ever let big sister get too far ahead of him.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Nature Friend Magazine

Every year when relatives ask me what my kids would like for Christmas, I always suggest magazine subscriptions. They give all year, are clutter free, cater to individual interests, and are often educational. More importantly, my kids love them and look forward to new issues in the mail.

For review, each Crew member received two issues of Nature Friend, a Christian nature magazine geared toward the whole family, though six of the twelve issues per year are "gently nudged towards the older family members". Children from as young as 3 all the way up to grandparents will find something of interest in this magazine. Nature Friend does not focus on the how of creation, but rather the result of God's hand:
Since the doctrine of Divine Creation is the first and foundational one of Scripture, our children must be able to stand on it securely to withstand the undermining influences from our culture. Nature Friend has never chosen to be controversial or militantly confrontational about creation vs. evolution. Its policy has been to simply stand on the truth of God’s Word and to present it as enjoyable fact while learning about the creatures God has created. Nature Friend recognizes that God has planned for man to be wise stewards over His creation, and that He alone is to be worshipped, not His creation.
The first thing I noticed about this magazine is that the photography is absolutely gorgeous. In addition to the great cover shots and article photographs, a regular feature called The Story Behind the Photo discusses the events that led up to a particular photograph.

The second thing that immediate stuck out is the absence of advertisements, always a plus. Each magazine has grown since it is beginning in 1983 and is now twenty-four 8 1/2 x 11 pages.

The motto listed on the cover of every magazine is “Helping Families Explore the Wonders of God's Creation”. True to this statement, Nature Friend encourages its reader to carefully observe his surroundings, ask questions, wonder and explore. Readers are encouraged to mail in questions to be featured in The Mailbox and answered by Nature Friend or other readers. The Pictures and Poems section showcases drawings and poems sent by readers. Readers are even encouraged to send photographs for the Creation Close-Ups feature, adding to the already wonderful photography. Lastly, pictures drawn using the previous month's You Can Draw tutorial are arranged on a full page. One issue we received published 26 reader drawings; the second issue was a two-page spread with a whopping 56 reader drawings. Once a year is a special "Readers' Issue" that is comprised almost entirely of reader submissions. The magazine's interaction and involvement with the readers really fosters a love of exploration and inquisitiveness about the world around them.

There are plenty of activities and articles to accompany the reader contributions. Crosswords, scavenger hunts, search words, hidden pictures and drawing tutorials are mixed in among meaty articles and stories about God's creation. Each issue's In the Beginning introduces a unique animal; the screech owl and the weaverbird were featured in the two issues I reviewed. The Wondernose section addresses curious questions, e.g. “What bird can take the temperature?” and “What animal has both a hard beak and fleshy lips that cover the beak?” Any and all of God's creation is explored, not just animals. Articles on other nature topics, e.g. plants or the galaxy, also appear.

Subscribers have an option to include a Study Guide with their subscription. The Study Guide is attached in the center of the magazine and is 8-12 pages of additional activities and articles. The activities include acrostics, fill-in-the-blank, crosswords and research questions that reinforce the material in each issue. Permission is given to photocopy Study Guide exercises for classroom use. Both study guides I reviewed included photography instruction and writing inspiration articles. The Study Guide seemed to be a balance of reinforcement of the material and taking it to the next level. You can view a sample Study Guide here.

My kids both enjoyed browsing through Nature Friend. Both of them mentioned that the articles had more substance than other nature magazines they've seen. I think I was much more impressed with this magazine than my children though. In the past, we've been subscribers to another popular nature magazine for kids. I wish I would have known about Nature Friend as an option.

If you are a nature loving family that loves to wonder and interact with God's creation, Nature Friend may be the perfect find. I see this magazine being a perfect compliment to the nature walks and journaling of many homeschooling families. A one-year subscription cost $36. The Study Guide can be added for an additional $24. Use coupon code BLOG93 for a $3 savings on new subscriptions (offer expires November 30, 2009). If you'd like to see a copy before subscribing, sample issues are available as a PDF for free, or you can order a printed issue for $5. With Christmas coming up, this might be an item to put on a wishlist shared with grandparents for easy shopping. To learn more or to subscribe, visit the Nature Friend website. Of special interest is the Homeschooler's Guide to Nature Friend Website where you can see samples of individual magazine features and how they may apply to your homeschool.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: College Prep Genius

A few weeks ago I gave an introduction to COLLEGE PREP GENIUS, a SAT preparation course. You can view that introduction here.

The COLLEGE PREP GENIUS course consists of a text, a workbook, and a DVD course. The text is divided into eight parts:

Part I: Important SAT & PSAT/NMSQT Information
Part II: The Critical Reading Section
Part III: The Math Section
Part IV: The Writing Section
Part V: The Essay
Part VI: Scholarship Search
Part VII: Comparison Chart
Part VIII: Journal and Checklist for Success

COLLEGE PREP GENIUS is not an academic course; it assumes that the student already has a foundation of the academic material. What the course does do is reveal the patterns common to the SAT, the type of questions one might expect and a recommended method to approaching each question type. The end goal is a great SAT score that will result in numerous scholarship offers.

Jean Burk, COLLEGE PREP GENIUS author, starts the text by giving general information on the SAT and PSAT tests and how they differ from other standardized tests. The SAT is a test of reasoning and logic, rather than achievement or knowledge like the ACT. This is not a simple introduction; Burk includes everything students need to know about the SAT, from general information on the SAT to specifics of test day.

Next, questions from each section of the test are covered. Students are taught to make good use of their pencils by circling key words and crossing out obviously wrong answers. Time saving techniques, e.g. knowing where to look for information in passages without reading the entire passage, are also shared. Other helpful information, such as a lists of helpful prefixes and a table to 300 math terms, is also included.

Because it is a standardized test, the SAT has certain question patterns that it follows each time. Knowing these patterns will greatly improve your score and allow you to make better use of your time in showing your abilities. Each section gives a step-by-step explanation for approaching particular patterns and question styles. For each question type, Burk has created a unique acronym as a memory aid for the material taught in the text. Students are to diligently memorize the acronyms to utilize during the actual test. An example of one of the shorter acronyms is ROMAN, which is for the what Burk calls the “Roman Numeral Type Question”:

Remember to IGNORE Segment 2
Operate the question from every angle
Mark ALL correct answers on Segment 1
Analyze answers marked
Now match Segment 1 answers with Segment 2

There are about 25 acronym words covering the whole test. Some are strung together for one approach, such as HOT POWERFUL PAPER, which applies to the essay section.

The workbook has students actively apply what they've learned in the text with lists of the acronyms and practice questions for each section.

The DVDs cover all the material in the text verbally and through a sideshow presentation. There are four discs: Intro to the SAT (35 minutes), Critical Reading (1:33), Math (2:15), and Writing (1:15). The DVD course may be a better option for visual learners or to reinforce what is read in the text. The DVD set also makes this course available for group learning. (Note: All classroom participants should purchase their own text and workbook and are required to pay a small licensing fee).

As an accelerated middle school student, my daughter has already taken the ACT as a tool for yearly assessment rather than a grade-level standardized test like the CAT or IOWA. It was taken with little preparation except time management, some question exposure and bubbling practice. In our case of using such an exam as a diagnotic tool, extensive preparation is not always appropriate at this point. I was already planning to use the SAT for assessment this year and COLLEGE PREP GENIUS looks to be a great tool to prepare with sample questions and general exposure on what to expect.

However, when the stakes are college program acceptance and scholarship offers, more thorough preparation will certainly be part of the game plan, as it will be with the masses of other graduating high school students trying to wow universities. It is interesting to see the recommendations on how a student might truly prepare for such an exam when the stakes are high. Since my daughter's previous experience was with the achievement-based ACT, ways to approach a reasoning test like the SAT is also very beneficial.

To examine the effectiveness of this course, I started by having my daughter take a section of a retired SAT test in a study guide (available from the College Board, bookstores or your local library) prior to going over any material. This was the first time she had attempted any SAT questions and had no prior knowledge on what to expect. I then had her read through the corresponding section of the COLLEGE PREP GENIUS text two days in a row. The following day I had her take that section again with a different test version. I did this because I knew she would likely recognize the questions and recall some of her previous thought process of eliminating answers, perhaps giving an advantage. A fresh set of questions would better help gauge the effectiveness of the information. There was a 20% improvement in her score just from that one step. Next, I had her write down the acronym for use during the test. I did not have her memorize it, but providing it to her would give the same result had she actually memorized it. This time the score dropped from the second attempt, falling almost exactly between the first and second. I suspect the acronym was a bit distracting and she did better off intuitively using the information she learned in the text rather than referring to the acronym, at least at this point. Regardless of the acronym use, I have no doubt that the content in the text will help improve scores, especially after more practice.

Being in the Midwest, which at one time predominantly used the ACT, I personally had no experience with the SAT test. I learned quite a bit about the types of questions my daughter will see on the exam and how to coach her to best approach them. The general information on the exam is also useful as well as the the section on scholarships at the end of the text. I am a bit unsure on the acronyms. First of all, there are quite a few to memorize and some of the associations are quite a stretch and lengthy. For example, in ROMAN, the N stands for “now”. Most students could easily remember “now”, but the critical information is that which follows, “match Segment 1 answers with Segment 2”. To use the acronyms effectively, students will need to know the text information inside and out and spend significant time memorizing phrases for each letter in the acronym. To be clear, Burk does not suggest this is an easy process. In fact, she acknowledges this will be hard work and that the handsome offers of scholarship money will make it all worthwhile. At first introduction though, the acronyms as a way to remember the approach seem overwhelming. I'm not sure if I'll have my daughter memorize all the acronyms; based on our limited trial run, I suspect it may be unnecessary for her after sufficient practice with the different types of questions. Of course, the acronyms will be useful individually for particular sections that are more troublesome or need a boost.

As far as presentation of material, I find the introduction materials (the first 38 pages) a bit scattered. There is quite a bit of repeating information and the presentation seems a bit disjointed. The content is interesting, but the layout and presentation of information could use some improvement. I didn't have this problem once the text moved into the actual SAT sections. Also bothersome were the numerous typos and formatting issues in the text, such as missing letters, a repeated paragraph, misplaced capitalization, etc. While a pet peeve of mine, it is more an annoyance than an impact on usability in this case.

Overall, there is plenty useful in this course to prepare a student for the SAT. The awareness of the question patterns and the most efficient way to approach them is sure to be very beneficial and better scores. As I stated in my earlier introduction, knowing the rules of the game is key.

The COLLEGE PREP GENIUS materials sell for the follow:

College Prep Genius Text
- $39.95
College Prep Genius Workbook - $15.95
"Master the SAT Class" DVD set - $59.95

For a limited time, you can purchase the above three items as a package for $79.00, which is 30% off the regular price.

With some SAT prep courses costing in the thousands, this is a more economical option to prepare students to take the all-important SAT with hopes of wonderful scholarship offers. To purchase or learn more, visit the COLLEGE PREP GENIUS website. Jean Burk also has several informative articles posted on her website that may be of interest.

Visit the TOS Homeschool Crew's blog to read more reviews on this product and others.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.