Monday, December 19, 2011

A Chance to Win a Package from Pear Educational Products!

Tomorrow night Hands of a Child is having a Facebook Christmas party and will be giving away a package from Pear Educational Products as a door prize.  This is the same package I offered a month of so ago as a giveaway here at Chatter, Clatter, and Things that Matter, so here is a second chance to win!

You can join the Facebook party here.

You will have an opportunity to win the following:

A complete package of lapbooking products containing:

(1) Fold-up Project Base
(1) Fold-up Extended Project Base
(2) Adhesive Strips
(1) Blank Project Book, 6 x 8
(1) Blank Project Book, 9 x 11 1/2
(1) Blank Project Book, 12 x 12

Please visit Pear Educational Products to get a good look at all the goodies in this package, and then head on over to the party tomorrow night!

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The House of the Scorpion

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
imageThe House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer ($9.99; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; April 27, 2004) is an original science fiction/fantasy young adult novel, set in the not-too-distant future in the country of Opium, which is a collective of poppy farms lying between the United States and Aztlan (formerly Mexico). The largest farm is the Alacran estate, which is surrounded by bodyguards and the Farm Patrol, who watch over the eejits, humans with computer chips implanted in their brains to make them only capable of basic tasks, such as harvesting crops, until they have been worked to death. Eejits are captured illegal aliens escaping from Aztlan or the United States who have been surgically altered.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, but follows the fortunes of Matteo (“Matt”) Alacran, a clone of the rich estate landowner, El Patron. Matt lives on the family estate, but is shunned by most humans because he is a clone. The book details generations of twisted Alacran family relationships. Meanwhile, Matt puzzles out how he fits in this world, a world in which time has stopped. The estate is held in a time-suspended state, as life was 100 years ago in El Patron’s village in Mexico. Celia, Matt’s caregiver, cooks on a wood cook stove and the Farm Patrol ride horses, not hovercrafts.

The House of the Scorpion is a compelling, page-turning coming-of-age novel about what can occur when an evil individual has the money and power to clone himself, resulting in everlasting life. The book is full of well-developed, interesting characters with detailed histories and fabulous, plausible plot-twists. It’s understandable then, why the book has received so many awards, including the National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature, the Newbery Honor Book, and Printz Honor Book.

At 400 pages, the book is substantial and worth the money. It is divided into sections: Youth: 0 to 6, Middle Age: 7 to 11, Old Age: 12 to 14, Age 14, and La Vida Nueva (The New Life). The novel contains a cast of characters and an Alacran family tree at the beginning to help the reader sort out the characters. It is quite useful for the first few chapters, but unnecessary as the reader becomes engrossed in the story.
The violence is mainly hand-to-hand combat or beatings, but there are also some pitiful medical experiments and drug-induced deaths, as well as alcoholism and mild animal cruelty. Additionally, there is some mention of adultery. The story is appropriate for upper middle school and high school readers. Students who are studying bioethics, socio-economic classes, environmentalism, or communism would find this book a worthwhile complement. The House of the Scorpion is unique and believable, as well as thought-provoking, and I recommend it strongly with five stars (out of five). Science fiction lovers will not be disappointed with The House of the Scorpion.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review & Giveway: Night of the Living Dead Christian

What kind of monster are you? Matt Mikalatos' Night of the Living Dead Christian, published by Tyndale House, will help you realize your inner monster while at the same time causing explosive laughter.  While seemingly an odd mix, it is quite reflective of Makalotos' exploration of spirituality and transformation in a unique, campy style that has been described as Monty Python meets C.S. Lewis.

The video below is of the author explaining the allegory and book.

Having read Mikalatos' first book, Imaginary Jesus, I knew I was in for some laughs and self-exploration. I was not disappointed.

The story starts out with Matt, self-appointed Chief Office of the local Neighborhood Watch, patrolling his neighborhood when he runs across a mad scientist and his side-kick android conducting an experiment with a machine that will bring werewolves out of their hiding.  Not only does the machine work, but it calls out a horde of zombies as well.  After being chased by zombies, then nearly taken out by a werewolf, who is then wounded by a monster hunter, Matt and his new friends run for safety and contemplate the new status of the neighborhood, concluding the first chapter.  It left me thinking...very entertaining, in a B-rated movie sort of way, but just where is Mikalatos going with this?

Next, enter Luther. Luther has a problem.  His lack of control of his anger turns him into a monster, a werewolf to be precise. He's desperately looking for a transformation from his state of lycanthropy. He's seeking a cure for his inner monster and he thinks Christianity may be the answer, even though his upbringing under a fanatical father makes him not want to associate with Christians. Yet, he's looking for answers - for salvation - to cure him.  Hence the beginning of his quest, with the assistance of Matt, the mad scientist, and the android.

One of the first stops is visiting a church unknowingly full of zombies, people who lack original thought and are unaware of their undead state, yet try to infect you with their disease. Between the zombies trying get the victims to listen to podcasts and breaking out in song and dance to a blend of polka and 1980s praise music, this chapter was by far my favorite in the book.

And so the quest continues, and the introduction of other monsters, too.  A neighbor is a vampire, intensely selfish creatures that steal the life force of others for self-preservation.  Matt eventually explores his own inner monster, that of a mad scientist, a person who thinks they have "the answer" to any problem and tries to fix the world. Androids are beings with stunted emotions and relationship issues. It seems monsters are everywhere. Eventually the group learns what it means to be truly transformed.  The ending isn't all neat and tidy, and shows that transformation is a process.

Night of the Living Dead Christian is an allegory about transformation and become the person Christ intended.  I love humor in this book and appreciate Mikalatos' willingness to approach a serious subject in such a manner, all the while digging deep down.  I never thought a book with singing zombies would cause much self reflection, but I found a monster or two hiding within me.  There is even a monster guide in the back of the book for a "layman's self-diagnosis".  I look forward to future titles from Matt Mikalatos.

One lucky reader will win a certificate to claim their very own copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian. See below for how you can enter.  Please make sure to leave a way for me to contact you, should you be the winner.

Mandatory entry:
  • Just let me know that you are ready to discover your inner monster and that you'd like to win.
For additional entries (leave a comment for each):
  • Follow this blog through Google Friend Connect
  • Subscribe to this blog (rss or email)
  • Like Chatter, Clatter, and Things That Matter on Facebook
  • Follow Chatter and Clatter on Twitter
  • Leave a comment on another post on this blog.
  • Post about this giveaway on your own blog, Facebook, Twitter, or others (please specify in your comment).  This will count for two entries for each! Make sure you leave two comments.
The giveaway will end on January 6th at 6 p.m. EST and will be chosen by a random number generator. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of the above title from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for my honest review. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Auslander

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
The Auslander by Paul Dowswell is a different kind of German WWII novel ($13.13; Bloomsbury USA Childrens; August 16, 2011). Typically, German WWII novels are narrated by those fighting or escaping the Nazis. This book tells the perspective of a fanatical Nazi family, a “100 percenter,” as they are called in the book.
The tale is about an orphan, thirteen-year-old Peter (Poitr) Bruck from Poland, who is sent to a poor orphanage when his parents are killed by a tank. Peter is Volksdeutsche, of German descent. When a German doctor from the Nazi Race and Settlement Office comes to the orphanage, Peter is “repatriated” to the Fatherland and placed with a German family, who are fervent Nazi believers. Peter tries to fit into his new family, but as the book progresses, he becomes more estranged from them, which explains the title of the book The Auslander, The Foreigner.

What is intriguing about this book is the fact that the reader sees what it was like to live among those who strongly believed in Hitler as Germany’s savior. The reader sees descriptions of Swastika Christmas tree decorations and Nazi textbooks with questions like “The iniquitous Treaty of Versailles, imposed by the French and English, enabled international plutocracy to steal Germany’s colonies. France herself acquired part of Togoland. If German Togoland covers 56 million square kilometers and contains a population of 800,000 people, estimate the average living space per inhabitant” (Dowswell 59).

The Auslander is an exciting book, with well-developed characters and interesting plot twists. The story is well-researched, with locations and times at the beginning of each chapter to help the reader place the story within the context of history (“Warsaw, August 2, 1941”). The book would make a great complement for students studying bioethics or genetics because it tells a lot about the Nazi perspective on race and “pure blood.” It gives arguments about how the Nazis were trying to “strengthen” their people by eliminating the weak and discusses some of their race research projects. Peter’s perspective makes it clear to the reader that what the Nazis are doing is wrong, but the 100 Percenters are so rational in their arguments of “the ends justify the means” that it is useful for teaching students about propaganda and how even the most evil plans can be made to sound benign. The Auslander describes some unsettling medical experiments and deaths, as well as some deaths resulting from the Allied bombing. However, the violence is not overly gruesome. It is appropriate for mature 7th graders and up.

The only thing that I dislike about this book is its point-of-view narrations. The book is told mainly from Peter’s perspective, but every so often a minor or major character narrates a few pages. If Dowswell had been consistent in this perspective change, starting a new chapter for every new point-of-view, this might have been OK. As it stands, though, it is clumsy and forced, as if Dowswell didn’t know how to introduce a new character without shifting to his/her perspective. It would have been better if Dowswell had simply introduced characters through their actions, mannerisms, and dialog as they interacted with Peter. This would have meant that he had to leave off some plot twists (when Peter is not present in the scene), but I think the story would have flowed better overall.

However, this is a minor quibble and does not greatly mar the story. For the unique perspective and solid historical content, I give The Auslander four stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Early College and Lessons Learned

I mentioned earlier in the year that I was nervous about my daughter's first day of college.  What I didn't talk much about, however, was that this semester was very much an experiment, a testing of the waters.  While taking a college class or two isn't that unusual for high school students, we decided to pursue this option a bit earlier than most.  While my daughter is only 14 and a freshman in high school, I felt that she was more than academically ready.  What I wasn't entirely sure about was whether she would fit in with her older classmates.  Now that the semester is over, I've discovered my worries were very much unfounded.  So, I'd like to share our experiences thus far in case others are in a similar situation.

I had considered very early college a while back, but ultimately decided that the caliber of the local community college was not at the level of what I could find with rigorous high school courses online.  I decided we'd try a class or two later in her high school career just to show a variety of experiences on her transcript, but would pursue other choices that were a better academic fit in the meantime.

Last spring, however, someone on local homeschooling list shared info about dual enrollment at a small university down the street from where my husband works.  I had explored this university before, thinking it would be better than a community college, but the tuition, at $486/credit, made the classes out of reach.  What I didn't realize was the drastically reduced tuition offered to non-degree seeking, dual-enrolled students.  I called the admissions officer to ask if a 9th grader could be considered for dual-enrollment and to my surprise they were very open to it, and extended the discounted tuition to us as homeschoolers.  In fact, the admissions officer was homeschooled K-12! After I sent along ACT scores, she was quickly enrolled for her first college course in the fall. Doing so changed my original plans for 2011-2012 upside down. Lessons Learned for Mom: Don't be afraid to ask and be ready to quickly change plans.

Academically, the course, College Composition I, was too easy.  I knew it wouldn't be difficult and selected this course for its likely success, but I was very surprised at the low level.  This isn't a top university, but I did expect more from both the students and instructor at the university level. The professor was an assistant adjunct professor, so perhaps it wasn't the usual level for the class. Yet, many of her classmates struggled in the class.  While there were other capable students, dd was appalled that some of her classmates didn't know certain things, such as the proper use of there/they're/their or how to paraphrase. Lesson Learned for Dd: Dd got a taste of teaching to the lowest common denominator and discovered true boredom. It wasn't a good feeling and gave her appreciation for more challenging coursework.

My initial worry wasn't academics, but social implications.  I was not worried about dd's maturity, but instead concerned that she would be treated differently simply because of her age.  When I look at her, she looks like a young teen.  I assumed this would be obvious.  I was wrong.  Through most of the semester, her classmates and instructor assumed she was 18 or 19. The only reason it was discovered otherwise was because she actually did fit in quite well and spent time getting to know the other students. Eventually she was asked questions like, "Where did you graduate high school?" and "Do you work?"  It wasn't until the third to last class that some of her classmates discovered she was still a high school student.  I told her to be prepared for the age question the following week, after her classmates had a chance to process she was not 18, but in high school.

Sure enough, the following week a classmate asked her if she was a high school senior.

"No," dd answered.

The classmate worked her way down the grades until she landed on 9th.  Dd just quietly smiled and her classmate said,

"That's cool."

However, one of the boys in the class overheard the conversation and loudly exclaimed,

"You're only 14?!  You can't even drive and you are doing better than me in this class!"

All true, though I don't know what driving ability has to do with academic ability.  In fact, it seems to have an inverse relationship in our household. (smiles) The classmate shared his disbelief loudly enough that my dd soon found every head turned toward her, with the exception of the instructor and a student conferencing. Some would be mortified, but my dd just smiled with a shoulder shrug.

So, the cat was out of the bad, but at least it had good timing.  Dd had already proven herself and been accepted by her peers at this point. Lesson Learned for Classmates:  There isn't much difference between a mature young teen and older teens. Of course, homeschoolers are already aware of varying abilities within ages.  And now a classroom full of college students realize this too.

All in all, dd's first semester at college was successful. At some point she may try a different university, but for now the situation is ideal.  The university has been very accommodating, the classes are small (18 max), and she can even catch a ride with dad on the way to work.

She's enrolled for two classes next semester. Her instructor for College Composition II is the department head of the Journalism Department and we've been told that he'll push her.

"I certainly hope so," was dd's response.

I'm hoping for more academic learning next semester. Even so, while she may not have learned much as far as composition this semester, there certainly were lessons learned.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Who Knew I Could Be Crafty! (Personalized Earring Holder)

Martha Stewart, move over.  Ok, I'm no competition for Martha, but I did feel rather successfully crafty when I recently made an earring holder for a young family friend.  Let's just say that "successful" and "craft" usually don't appear in the same sentence in my world.

I actually completely stole this idea from Etsy while looking for the perfect gift.  Yes, I'd rather purchase crafty items over making them. However, the one available wasn't to my liking.  In fact, it looked a little chintzy.  When I thought, "Even *I* can do better!" I decided...hey, why not? Here is the end result (sorry, no in-process pics to share):

What you will need:
  • Wooden letter
  • Decorative wood pieces
  • Glossy craft paint
  • Matching ribbon
  • Screen material
  • Craft glue
  • Staple gun
I purchased the letter, decorative pieces, and paint at Micheal's.   The paint colors and hearts were selected based on the theme and color scheme of the recipient's room. My materials total came to around $8, with $3.50 of that being the letter.  There were a variety of letters available.  I went for a larger one with a finished surface, which also had predrilled holes for hanging.  Depending on what you already have at home, your biggest investment might only be a couple of dollars for the wooden letter.

The ribbon was purchased at Walmart for a couple of dollars. While shopping for the ribbon, I came across a heart earring set that just happened to have the exact colors of the ribbon. Perfect! The rest of the items I had at home.

Assembling was fairly easy.  The first step was to paint the hearts. I decided on double wooden hearts to provide extra weight to hold the screen material down, but it also gave me the option to add some more color.  While the hearts were drying, I cut my screen material.  If you didn't want to do the two separate pieces, you could do one larger piece across the entire letter.

The ribbon down each side of the screen was a bit of an afterthought, and I wish I had tested the ribbon with my glue first.  I used Tacky Glue, but it soaked through the ribbon a bit and made parts darker where it dried. I had bought the last of the ribbon available, so there was no turning back. If I had another chance, I think I would try hot glue instead. Once the ribbon was attached, I used a staple gun to attach the hearts on the end of each screen strip.

The bow took a bit of finagling, but I was finally able to produce something presentable. I put a stitch in the center and ran a piece of left over thinner ribbon through the center to use to tie it to the letter.  I wanted the recipient to be able to remove the bow if she didn't like it.  I used hot glue to place the wooden heart on the center.

One tricky part was to make sure the screen strips were straight.  To do this, I first attached them with a dab of hot glue, then held up the piece level against a wall, adjusting and regluing as necessary. Once satisfied, I attached the pieces permanently with a staple gun.

You can completely customize with different colors and decorations.  I spent some time looking at embellishments in the scrapbooking section, and also considered hand painting designs on the letter.  You could even include the matching paint with the gift for a "design your own" option.

No matter what you decide, if I, the craft challenged, can pull it off, you can too! This turned out to be a fairly inexpensive and stress-free craft that was well-received.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Your Eyes in Stars

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Your Eyes in Stars by M. E. Kerr is one of those books that does not know what it wants to be. Is it a prison-break mystery novel? A Great Depression coming-of-age story? A Jewish Holocaust tale? A WWII German freedom fighter saga? A love story? The reader cannot tell. Your Eyes in Stars ($6.80; HarperTeen; January 3, 2006) begins interestingly enough: “I don’t believe anyone was actually afraid of the prison” (Kerr 3). However, by the end of the book, the reader is left scratching her head, wondering, “What was that all about?”
The story begins in the early-1930s in a small town, Cayuta, in upstate New York. The central feature of the town is the prison, known as The Hill, where the father of the protagonist, Jessica, is the warden. When the family across the street is unable to pay the mortgage on their home, they rent it to a visiting German professor and his family. The professor’s daughter, Elisa, and Jessica become fast friends. This part of the story is entertaining and, for the most part, believable. The girls, while young acting for their ages (high school), are interesting enough. They become obsessed with a “lifer” at the prison, Slater Carr, who plays the bugle and other instruments in the prison band. There are several intriguing subplots regarding Jessica’s brother Seth, her father, the inmate, and other townspeople. The characters, even minor ones, are quirky and memorable. There are quite a few plot twists, which gives the story some pizzazz.

And, yet, three things bother me about this part of the book. One, the girls are overly obsessed with literature. They discuss T.S. Eliot, Constantine Cavafy, and Sara Teasdale. Having spent a lot of time with well-educated high schoolers, I find this forced. When I hear high schoolers discuss literature, it is usually to say how long-winded Emerson or Hawthorne was, not to recommend this poet or that essayist, especially not lesser-known ones.

Second, the story is mainly narrated by Jessica, but every few chapters the inmate Slater Carr narrates two or three pages. This is incongruous. If the chapters by Carr were better developed, perhaps the construction would work, but they are not. Carr remains too underdeveloped to be a main character, and yet he is supposed to be one. The reader cannot relate to him and the chapters by him stick out.
Thirdly, this part of the book concerns itself a lot with suicide. Jessica writes about contemplating suicide, and the girls discuss it. Later on, (spoiler alert!) a minor character commits suicide. This would be OK for a high school book, but the rest of the book is too short and immature for high schoolers. It strikes me as a middle schooler book with high school themes, a bad mix.

About three-fourths of the way through the book, there is an exciting climax with several plot twists, including the sudden death of a main character. If the story ended there, I might give it three stars (with a warning regarding the suicide obsession), but it does not. Here is where the book goes haywire.
The rest of the story — about fifty pages worth — is “told” in letters from Jessica, Elisa, and a couple of minor characters who suddenly take center stage. The letters span 1934 – 1946-- twelve years! What??? The first 176 pages of the book cover less than eighteen months! (Spoiler alert!) Elisa moves back to Germany, just as things are heating up for WWII. She writes about the changes in her homeland, including joining the German Youth Program. Jessica, who has been a tomboy the entire book, suddenly falls in love with a minor character. Other minor (and major) characters disappear, never to be heard from again. The prison, which is such a key feature in the first part, is hardly ever mentioned. A Jewish German family from Cayuta goes to Berlin to give a concert and is treated as one would expect. (I find the fact that they would visit Germany in 1935 utterly unbelievable. A lot of news regarding the treatment of Jews may not be escaping Germany in 1935, but certainly enough was to give Jews pause about visiting.)

It is as if the author suddenly wanted to “cram” all sorts of other historical events — WWII Germany, the Jewish Holocaust, US fighting in the Pacific in 1942, and others — into an already complete book. The result is a mish-mash and a great detraction and distraction from the previous 176 pages. While the beginning is quirky and witty, and the middle has clever plot twists, the end spoils it. Thus, I give this book two stars (out of five).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: Medieval Machines Pack (Pitsco)

Two of my son’s favorite words are “build” and “projectile”. As you can imagine, he was super excited when the Medieval Machines Pack from Pitsco arrived for review.

Our pack included:

  • Trebuchet Kit
  • Catapult Kit
  • Mass Plates
  • Siege Machines Book

In addition to the above Medieval Machines Pack, we also received:
The first machine we built, by the request of my son, was the trebuchet.  Punching out the pre-laser cut pieces from the wood was no problem; in fact, some of the pieces had already come loose during shipping. 
I was a little concerned that the wood pieces would not be very sturdy, but this was an unfounded worry.  While lightweight, the wood strength was up to the task at hand.

The instructions were very clear and my son was able to put the trebuchet together almost completely on his own.  The requirements to 2read and follow directions during the building process, measure (twice) and cut (once), and be precise were great learning exercises.  The most difficult part of putting the trebuchet was the sling portion, which involved a piece of nylon and thread that needed to be attached both to the nylon and the machine, with the end result of thread of equal lengths on either side of the sling.  A bit tricky, but not difficult with some patience.  Patience, however, is not something that comes easily to my son, which is also the reason we opted to use Super Glue to construct our machine rather than wood or Tacky glue that might take a bit longer to dry.

We built the kits on two different days, but doing both in the same day is completely feasible. While the trebuchet took us a bit longer, construction of the catapult was less than an hour. My husband joined in on the catapult construction. (As a side note, these kits are great for getting Dad involved with homeschooling!)  Again, the construction for the catapult was simple, aside from a very tight-fitting dowel.  Wood glue was used for the construction this time, and I found that to work better.  On the trebuchet, I ended up regluing a couple of pieces together.

Both kits have survived a fair amount of play battles.   My son set up a battle field of pewter figurines, and needed to adjust either the size of his projectile, the distance of the machine from the target, or the load used in order to hit his target. While the included Siege Machines book has experiments and activities to do with the kits, free play alone has provided a natural learning experience.
4The Siege Machines book includes a history section among its 32 pages, in addition to the science behind them, hands-on experiments, and math integration. The last few pages are devoted to the standards addressed from three national education organizations, such as NSTA, ITEA, and NCTM. As a testament to the focus of learning through play of this product, we discovered this same kit is also distributed in the Lego Education catalog. As a Lego fan, that made my son love the kit even more!

Overall, I found this kit to be an exceptional value of building, learning, and playing and a wonderful blend of educational and just pure fun.

The Medieval Machines Pack can be purchased from Pitsco for $21.95. Be sure to check out the many other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related items available or request a catalog.

 See what others have to say about this product by visiting the official TOS Crew blog!

 Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. 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, November 29, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: In My Hands

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
It’s always a thrill to find a book that is signed by the author, so I was tickled when I opened my inter-library loan copy of In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke ($7.99; Laurel Leaf: 2004) to find the author’s signature tucked inside the cover. The book was addressed to someone, and then donated, I suppose. A signature makes the reader feel closer to the author. At one point, Irene Gut Opdyke touched this copy of the book. It’s exhilarating to contemplate. After reading her memoirs, I’m convinced Opdyke would be an interesting person to meet.
While I have read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, all of them—except The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom—have been from the Jewish perspective, the perspective of the person being saved. In My Hands is different, then, because it is from the perspective of a Christian Polish woman who risks her life to save a dozen Jewish people from the hotel complex where she works, right under the noses of the German officers housed in the complex. In the pages, the reader can feel her fear and concern for her refugees, as well as the heart-wrenching suspense where even a cough can result in discovery and death.

This quote from the book is one of my favorite parts:

I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this? Every step of my childhood had brought me to this crossroad; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself. 

You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence. Now I was making plans to get a dorozka, a wagon, from the farm where Helen lived, and to transport in secret the Morris brothers and their wives....I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. The Nazis did not distinguish between leaving food under a fence and smuggling four people in a dorozka, and so I did not either (Opdyke 142-143). 

One of the intellectual pleasures of this book is contemplating how the reader would react to the situation. Would you hide Jews or other refugees in your home? Would you risk your life repeatedly to bring Jewish strangers food in the ghetto? Would you drive to a seemingly deserted forest alone and leave food for strangers? Would you sleep with the enemy in exchange for your friends’ lives? They are intriguing questions without easy answers. And, it may be, that none of us would know what we would do unless we were faced with such a situation. Still, it is fascinating to consider....

As you would imagine based on the subject matter, the book has some horrific descriptions of Jewish executions and other atrocities. Although these descriptions are not overly detailed, they are too raw for a youthful audience. This book is well suited to 10th – 12th graders and adults. The book has a dozen black-and-white photos of the primary people mentioned in this segment of Opdyke’s life. There are pronunciation guides for the Polish and German words and two maps of Poland to help track Opdyke’s travels.

And yet, there were parts of the book that I didn’t like. I wasn’t overly fond of Opdyke’s partisan adventures, where she lives in the forest with Polish rebels, fighting for her country’s freedom. Although the cause may be admirable, it pales in comparison to her other brave actions to save the lives of more than a dozen Polish Jews. Moreover, the years spent living as a resistance fighter, sabotaging the Germans and the Russians are not as well described as the years Opdyke spends helping her fellow human beings. For this reason, In My Hands isn’t one of my favorite WWII memoirs, but I still enjoyed it greatly, and I energetically recommend it, giving it five stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.

Monday, November 28, 2011

10% Off All About Reading Level 1

All About Learning is running a special through December 6th.  Purchase All About Reading Level 1 and get 10% off, PLUS you'll also receive A Taste of Outer Space for FREE!

If you have a student that is ready to learn how to read, now is a good time to buy and save!  These products don't go on sale very often, and this special is only good for a week.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Chains and Forge

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Laurie Halse Anderson is one of my favorite historical fiction novelists. Although she has only written three “historical thrillers,” as she calls them, they are exceptional, and I can’t wait to read more. I am eagerly awaiting the next book in her “Seeds of America” series, which I am hoping will be released soon. The first two books, Chains ($6.99; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; January 5, 2010) and Forge ($11.55; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; October 19, 2010) are fabulous, comparable to Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and Lynd Ward.

imageThe series begins with Chains, set in New York City in 1776. The protagonist Isabel, a thirteen-year-old slave, and her sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist couple, after being promised freedom by their dying mistress. Spirited Isabel will do anything to secure freedom for herself and her mentally-handicapped sister, including spy for the Patriots. She is a well-developed character, with strengths and weaknesses, not just a caricature who acts for the sake of teaching about a historical period, as some characters do in young adult historical fiction. In fact, most of the characters in the novel are well-developed.

Every chapter begins with a quote from a primary source document, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and or a Revolutionary War journal. The book is well-researched and steeped in history. I like the way each chapter is dated, such as “Friday, June 7, 1776,” in an old-fashioned typeset on rough-cut paper. The book details life as it was lived in the Colonial Period, including common chores, which adds to the realism and usefulness as a teaching tool. For example, Isabel says,
“I was stuck on the back steps with a pile of dull knives and a whetstone. It was a dreary job. First, spit on the stone. Next, hold the knife at the proper angle and circle it against the stone; ten to the left, ten to the right, until the blade was sharp enough to slice through a joint of beef like it was warm butter” (Anderson 53). 
 Isabel’s desire to escape builds throughout the book, increasing the suspense and making for a climactic and unpredictable ending. While there are some horrific parts to the book, including a “branding” with a hot iron, overall it is suitable for 5th – 10th grade. Chains is a wonderful supplement to the study of the Revolutionary War, as it demonstrates the shifts in power between the Loyalists and the Patriots in NYC.

The story continues with Forge ($11.55; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; October 19, 2010).
However, in Forge, the point of view and setting change. The protagonist is now Curzon, a young male slave and Isabel’s friend introduced in Chains, who has been sent to fight in the Revolutionary War in his master’s stead, with the promise of his own freedom when his military service ends. When it becomes clear that promise will never materialize, Curzon plots to escape. The majority of the book takes place in Valley Forge during the winter of 1778, and a nice map of the encampment of the Continental Army at Valley Forge in 1778 is included in the front of the novel. Forge, too, begins each chapter with a primary source document quote. While I have read accounts of the winter at Valley Forge before, Anderson’s book makes the experience come alive. The descriptions of the hardships suffered by the soldiers are much more moving than in other young adult literature I have read. In describing firecake, the primary food eaten by the soldiers that winter, Curzon says, “I’d expected to smell bread, for bread was little more than flour and water. Instead, the firecakes gave off a scorched smell, like damp charcoal. The thinnest of the smears caught fire right atop the rock” (Anderson 83).

At first, I was put off by the change in narration. I liked Isabel, and it was hard to switch to Curzon in the second book. Also, Anderson seems to take a few chapters to warm up to this character, as if she is not entirely certain of his “voice.” However, eventually I came to be fond of Curzon, as well. Readers would be wise to persevere, as it is worth the effort.

The only other qualm I have about Forge are the sections titled “Before.” In an apparent attempt to make Forge a stand-alone book and to answer some questions that readers may have about Curzon’s past, Anderson has chosen to put these flashbacks into separate chapters. While it might help struggling readers to be able to distinguish between past and present, the constructions are awkward and jarring. I think they would have been better had they been woven into the main storyline, through a flashback, Curzon’s thoughts, or a conversation with another character.

imageAs in Chains, Forge contains some violence, but it is not excessive, and seems appropriate to the story. It, too, is suitable for 5th – 10th grade. I heartily recommend both Chains and Forge. I give Chains five stars (out of five) and Forge four stars (out of five). If you are looking for a great “living books” series on the American Revolutionary War, look no further. The Seeds of America series will more than satisfy.

Please note that I have not read Anderson’s modern novels, and I don’t think I will, as I don’t care for books that focus on school. I mention this so readers of this review won’t assume that my endorsement of Anderson’s historical novels are endorsements of her other books, including Speak and Catalyst. Her modern-era books address raw problems, like rape and suicide, through the eyes of high school student characters submerged in mainstream culture. If you would like to learn more about Anderson and her books, visit her website at Her website, especially the part on censorship, is very interesting.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Restaurant Quality Possum Stew

My husband and I were driving down a suburban freeway this past weekend when we saw this: 
"Delivering restaurant quality meats to your family at wholesale prices"
I hope this is just someone hauling an old second-hand freezer. The thought that someone would really purchase meat out of a rusty cooler from the back of someone's rusty pick-up truck is frightening. We were speculating that there might be some possum from the side of the road in there.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pear Educational Products Giveaway Winner!

Congrats to LeAnn for winning comment number 34 on the Pear Educational Products giveaway! Enjoy your lapbooking products!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sneak Peeks K.E. Weeks: Milkweed

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
I found the book Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli ($8.99; Ember; March 23, 2010) in the Tween section of the local library. Tween is typically classified as ages 9 – 12 years old. Oftentimes, tween books are shorter than teen books, too, which, at a little over 200 pages, would include Milkweed. It quickly became apparent, however, that Milkweed is not a book for tweens, or even thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds. It is a book about children for older teens or adults. It is an artistic, sophisticated book, but not one that anyone under fifteen would enjoy.
The narrator is a tragically naive, uneducated, borderline crazy eight-year-old orphan boy coming of age in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. He knows nothing beyond cold and hunger. He thinks that the march of Nazis into Warsaw (Jackaboots, as he calls them) is a parade. He has never seen a camera and doesn’t know what one is until it is “shooting” his friend. He doesn’t know about medicine, birthday cakes, hardboiled eggs, or even what “happy” means. Surprisingly, he doesn’t even have many survival or intuitive instincts one would expect from a street urchin, such as to hide in the face of danger.

He lives in city rubble by luck, theft, and the kindness of others. At the beginning, he does not have a name. An older boy, Uri, takes him under his wing and asks, “What’s your name?” The narrator answers: “Stopthief.” Uri names the boy Misha. Uri thinks Misha is a gypsy, but Misha ends up in the Jewish Ghetto anyway. Misha smuggles food into the Ghetto because he is small, fast, and able to squeeze through a two-brick-wide hole. Eventually, he is “adopted” by a little Jewish girl and her father.
The book unfolds as a tale of Misha’s WWII experience, but without prior historical knowledge, a reader would not be able to decipher Misha’s descriptions. As the book progresses, the narrator describes more graphic details, including beatings, starvation, illness, hangings, and death by flamethrower.

Seven-eighths of the way through the book, Misha ends up on a farm where he waits out the remainder of the war working as a farm hand. He lives on the farm for three years, and yet the experience barely encompasses two chapters. This is where the story gets truly strange. (Spoiler Alert) After the war, Misha becomes a carnival hawker, saves enough money to buy a ticket to America, and then becomes a street hawker. He marries a woman, fathers a daughter (though he doesn’t know it), gets divorced, goes crazy, and then ends up in an armchair in his daughter’s living room comforting his granddaughter after a fall and reaching a sense of peace. The ending is utterly incongruous with the rest of the story and comes across as “tacked on.” Spinelli is obviously a talented author, but the conclusion gives the reader the impression that he lost interest in the story or did not know how to end it. The conclusion is confusing and disappointing.

After I wrote the bulk of this review, I checked out the ratings of the book on Overall, the ratings are overwhelmingly excellent (4-5 stars), which baffled me. While the book is well-written, it is bizarre and too artsy, almost pretentious. However, when I dug deeper, and read only the low rated reviews (1-2 stars), I noticed a pattern. All of these were “Kid Reviews.” It confirmed my initial findings. This book is not one young people would enjoy.

There are so many better WWII Holocaust fiction and non-fiction books for young adults—such as Black Radishes, Number the Stars, Escape from Warsaw, and The Diary of Anne Frank—that I cannot recommend this one. Although I appreciate the interesting, “flawed narrator” perspective in Mlikweed, I do not like the book. It reminds me of going to the opera; I can appreciate the artistic elements and work that goes into it, but I am never swept away by the performance. I rate Milkweed two stars (out of five) because the ending is terrible, and the book fails to be appropriate or satisfying for its intended audience.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: VocabCafe Book Series

Do you have a college-bound student? If so, you are likely well aware of the importance of your student doing well on the ACT or SAT in order to receive the best scholarships and gain admission into the top colleges.  You have probably also discovered that some of the prep materials for these exams are a bit dull, and likely not the highlight of your student’s day.  In an effort to minimize boredom, I’m always in search for a more creative approach to SAT study.

When I first heard about the VocabCafe Series books by College Prep Genius, I was very intrigued. I received the complete series, which currently includes four titles, with two more scheduled to be released soon.  The titles that arrived in my review package were: 
  • IM for Murder
  • Operation High school
  • Planet Exile
  • Summer of St Nick

The purpose of the the VocabCafe series is to introduce SAT words within a “modern novella”.  The SAT words are in bold text, with the definition of the words included at the bottom the page.  The books are meant to both expose students to SAT words, as well as save the student time in looking up words in the dictionary. Each book includes about 300 SAT words.

The College Prep Genius website says the following about the content:
VocabCafé books help students easily learn SAT-level words while reading an original wholesome story.
These modern novellas contain no foul language, no illicit sexual themes, and no sorcery!
With one high school student that will soon be starting regular prep for the ACT and SAT, and one middle school student who could use a little boost to his vocabulary, I really liked the idea of these books. However, while a great concept, I wasn’t as thrilled with the execution.

VocabCafe was written with an intended audience of high school teenagers. However, I feel the interest level is well below those needing to prep for the SAT.  The educational value of introducing new SAT words is a bit lost with a more juvenile storyline and quality of writing. On the other hand, while there is no foul language, illicit sexual themes, or sorcery, I wouldn't call them "wholesome", making them more questionable for a younger audience. 

For example, IM Murder, probably the most “dark” of the four titles, is about a serial killer that utilizes the Internet to find naive teenage girl victims. When the main character discovers the murderer’s secret and is involved in protecting a friend, he soon becomes a target. Following several threats, such as the beheading of the family cat, the police get involved and have a plan for capture. After deciding to secretly get involved in the plans to capture the murderer, the main character and his friends visit a weaponry supply, located in a remote area, to purchase weapons as protection. They soon discover the murderer, whom they did not realize is the owner, is in the secluded warehouse. The murderer eventually captures them (with no blood shed, despite open access to swords) and tortures them with a Taser before forcing them to dig their own grave.  They are saved from death just in the knick of time when the police come in for the rescue. IM Murder is pretty tame (no blood, no fatalities, and no traumatized victims) in its description and has sort of a B-rated Hardy Boys feel to it.

The other titles involve terrorists, secretive children, and evil rulers as part of the plot, but are more tame than IM Murder. All of the titles have a happy and all-is-well ending. I did see attempts to hit the wholesome criteria in other titles, e.g. grace before dinner or detailed scenes of church-going, but it seemed a bit intentionally placed in an effort to appeal to a variety of audiences.  I don't shield my kids from mature themes, but I prefer a bit more substance and purpose in doing so than I'm seeing with these titles. 

Exposure to SAT words is definitely accomplished, and I enjoyed learning some new words. The SAT words integrated into the story, clearly bolded on the page, and defined at the bottom of the page are all very nice features.  SAT word usage sometimes seems a bit forced and not quite a fit contextually. Granted, I realize that fitting some of these words, many that aren’t used in normal conversation, was an ambitious task.  There is a fair amount of success, just some miss the mark a bit.

Aside from the content, there are many typos and grammatical errors throughout the books. While I can overlook a few errors (and I hope my readers do the same!), when a single title contains errors in the dozens, I have a harder time ignoring it.

Sadly, while the concept behind the books is fabulous, this book series just isn't a fit for my family. I love the SAT word exposure, but there are too many trade-offs in the delivery for me to give a general glowing recommendation. As each family and student is different, I suggest that you read more reviews from the TOS Crew and explore what others thought.

The VocabCafe book series is available as a set for $38.85, or as individual titles for $12.95. College Prep Genius is also offers a complete SAT prep course on DVD with options to schedule a local session. Visit the College Prep Genius product page for a list of all available products and options.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. 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, November 13, 2011

Review and Giveaway: Christmas Lodge

 The Christmas decorations and music hit the stores weeks ago. Thanksgiving is right around the corner. And last week there was even SNOW.  Are you looking for some decent family movies to get you into the Christmas spirit?

I was recently given the opportunity to review Christmas Lodge, presented by Thomas Kinkade.
Thomas Kinkade presents Christmas Lodge: a place where a heart-warming past and loving future meet for one remarkable group of people. During a weekend trip to the mountains, Mary (Erin Karpluk) finds herself at the now- dilapidated lodge where she spent the holidays with her family growing up. She becomes determined to restore the building to its former glory. Inspired by her grandfather and guided by her grandmother in heaven, Mary throws herself into the project, and during the process finds herself drawn to Jack (Michael Shanks), a handsome man who loves the lodge as much as she does. Historically unlucky in love, this chance encounter allows Mary to renew her faith in life and discover her one true love. For an uplifting story about the importance of faith, family and the true holiday spirit, go to the Christmas Lodge.
You can watch a trailer below, or visit to learn a bit more about the movie and see a "behind the scenes" clip.

I thought this was a very sweet movie with themes of family, tradition, determination, and love all revolving around the holiday spirit.  While faith is not a central theme, the family does say grace before dinner, talk to loved ones in heaven, and has other examples of a faith-filled family. It is a DVD suitable for all family members.  The storyline is a little predictable, but of the variety that even though you know what might happen, you want to just keep watching for the warm and fuzzy feeling in the end. It is the perfect movie for a family movie night during the holidays.
Giveaway! (Now Closed. Congrats to Valerie, comment #4)
I have one copy of Christmas Lodge to giveaway to one lucky U.S. reader. See below for how you can enter.  Please make sure to leave a way for me to contact you, should you be the winner.

Mandatory entry:
  • Leave a comment telling me your favorite family-friendly Christmas movie.
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  • Post about this giveaway on your own blog, Facebook, Twitter, or others (please specify in your comment).  This will count for two entries for each! Make sure you leave two comments.
The giveaway will end on November 28th at 6 p.m. EST and will be chosen by a random number generator. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How Many Workouts Does it Take to Lose a Pound?

I recently rejoined the YMCA with a friend.  If it weren't for her, my renewed membership probably would have been largely unused thus far.  She sets the time and day, and makes me accountable to actually show up. We use the elliptical machines for about 45 minutes while we gab, vent, and sweat.  At the end of each workout, the machine tells me that I burned approximately 375 calories. We've gone at least 12 times so far.

12 x 375 = 4500

According to my sources, to lose one pound, you need to burn 3500.  Me?  Nada.  Not one pound.  What's going on here? I was due to lose a pound 1000 calories and three workouts ago!  Would someone please tell my body?

I don't know how many workouts it really takes to lose a pound, but I do know it is more than a dozen.  Apparently just exercise doesn't cut it when you are over 40, and I need to start adjusting intake, too.   Perhaps the real question is, how many Tootsie Roll Pop licks does it take to gain a pound?!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I've Been Nominated for Being Thrifty!

I had a surprise today.  Someone nominated my blog for the Best Thrifty Homeschooler Blog category for the 7th Annual Homeschool Blog Awards.

While I *am* thrifty, I'm shocked to be nominated.  I really don't blog that much about my being a cheapskate frugal person.  I do have a scattering of posts on the topic, and you can read those by clicking the Money Savers tab in the navigation bar. Also, I love educational freebies, and have a Freebie tab for those as well.  Those that know me in real life, will agree with the nomination. I just didn't realize that it showed through at all on my blog.  Let's just say that I'm not above asking for discounts at a garage sale, digging through clothes at the Salvation Army, making laundry soap, finding Internet deals, and taking on DIY projects in the name of frugality.  While that frugality has gotten our family through some rocky finances in more recent years, I admit to the same tactics when it wasn't needed to pay the bills. So, I'm rather honored to even be nominated among some of those that blog more regularly about thriftiness.

That said, do check out the Homeschool Blog Awards by clicking the button below, and look at the other categories and nominees as well.  Voting is easy, so do some blog browsing and pick your favorite for each category!

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Greener Grass

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.

This summer, we grew potatoes in our garden. It was more of an experiment than a serious planting. We had some potatoes in the pantry growing “eyes,” and my daughter was curious if they would grow. They did! From our original three potatoes, we harvested 25 small new fall potatoes. We discovered many things along the way — that you must mound up potatoes as they grow, pinching the flowers off yields larger potatoes, and that potatoes are part of the nightshade family, which means other plants don’t like companion planting. We lost a whole mess of zucchini squash in the process. Still, we were thrilled with our little potato harvest and cooked up a fabulous, albeit small, batch of lovely, white mashed potatoes.

I recalled our experiment recently when I read Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat (Red Deer Press; March 13, 2009; $11.01). The book is set in 1847 during the height of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1850. Fifteen-year-old Kathleen (Kit) Byrne must struggle to hold her family together and fight off starvation when their potato crop fails.

The beginning of the book is somewhat predictable, but it gets edgier and more interesting as it progresses. The book incorporates a lot of elements of the famine, such as the belief that it was caused by the “Grey Man” (a kind of spirit), the government initiated public works road projects where the men were worked to death for unpredictable or non-existent pay, and how many landowners abandoned the country to their agents, who were often ruthless in the eviction of tenants in an effort to clear the land for more-profitable sheep grazing. Also, I like that the book uses proper vernacular like “Gale Day” (the day the rent was due).

Greener Grass would be a good book for middle school or early high school girls who are studying the Irish Potato Famine or who like underdog stories. I say it would be good for girls because the protagonist is a young woman, and she spends a good part of the book daydreaming about the landowner’s agent’s son, Tom. While many girls will enjoy the crush, most boys, I think, would tire of this unrequited love affair.

Primarily, the reader is spared from detailed descriptions of the harshest realities of the famine. For instance, some characters go off to the workhouse and are never seen again; the reader just hears they die of fever. The book does not give a brutal play-by-play of dying and death. (Spoiler Alert) However, there are a few scenes that are inappropriate for elementary-school students, such as when Kit plots to murder the landlord’s agent.

The book reminded me of Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Riley Giff, except the target audience for Greener Grass (12+ years old) is older than for Nory Ryan’s Song (8+ years old). Greener Grass is more complex, grittier, and longer. Another difference is that Nory’s Ryan’s Song focuses a lot on the promise of emigrating to America (which the protagonist does at the end of the book, described in the sequel Maggie’s Door), whereas in Greener Grass, Kit does not dwell on the promise of emigrating. She focuses on her struggles to survive in Ireland. The book is more depressing and less hopeful. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. (Spoiler Alert) Eventually, Kit is forced to leave Ireland for Canada at the end of the book.

Canadian readers may like this, as not all of the Irish immigrants ended up as Yankees. The book is the winner of several Canadian awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award from the Canadian Council for the Arts. Moreover, the author is an Irish-born Canadian. (For more information on the Famine, readers may want to check out Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, recommended to me by a friend, but which I haven’t finished reading yet. Still, it has interesting illustrations, mainly pen and ink drawings from the time period.) Overall, I give Greener Grass four out of five stars.

Although I love potatoes in every versatile form they come, I can’t imagine living on the potatoes we grew. The idea of my family’s survival depending on one crop frightens me. I suppose that is one of the messages of the Irish Potato Famine: Diversify. Do not depend entirely on any one thing...except God.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Strange Visitor

I have no idea how this guy (or gal?) got in our house, but we found it trucking right across our kitchen floor.  It obviously took a wrong turn somewhere!

I've never seen a caterpillar that looked quite like this one, with the black spikes protruding from its body.  Our dogs found it interesting, too, so we quickly scooped it up and took it outside right after snapping this picture.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: First Form Latin (Memoria Press)

When we were new homeschoolers and I was toying with the idea of a Classical Education, Memoria Press was a name mentioned to me early on.  Furthermore, their Latin program for elementary students, Latina Christiana was one that I had received good reviews from friends that had used it. Cheryl Rowe, the author of Latina Christiana, has since authored First Form Latin, part of a 4-book series for grades 5 and up.


I received the following items in my review package:
  • Teacher Manual
  • Student Text
  • Student Workbook
  • Quizzes and Tests
  • Teacher Workbook & Test Key
  • Pronunciation CD
  • Flashcards
  • DVDs
Wow! It was quite the package.  My first impression pulling the items out of the box was that the texts looked very professional, academic, organized, and thorough.

First Form Latin focuses on grammar and vocabulary, following the sequence of Classical Education. Regardless of age, new learners of the language start with the grammar stage because that is the current stage of learning as a beginner.

The program will work for instructors with no Latin background, but only if you, as the teacher, are willing to learn along with your student(s).  With the support materials, this is certainly obtainable, if you are patient (and the Teacher manual suggests calm as well!).  The support materials are extensive, and everything needed for successful learning is provided.  Scripted lessons, schedules, pronunciation reminders, teaching tips, answer keys, games and reviews activities, and more are all included.  Going through the materials, I found that my first impression of a very organized program was true, and then some.

First Form Latin's lessons are written for a classroom, but are very adaptable for one student.  It is encouraged to use the program with others, whether that class is siblings or as a class with friends and fellow homeschoolers.  Learning a language as a group makes it more interesting and fun.

Each week's studies consist of five parts:
  • Lesson
  • Workbook
  • Oral Drill
  • Quiz or Test
  • (optional) Lingua Angelica and/or Famous Men of Rome, or other history resources
Expect to devote around 3 hours a week using the program, plus additional time if adding history resources.

Sample pages and a Table of Contents are available by clicking below.

Student Text 
Student Workbook
Teacher Manual
Table of Contents

The DVD lessons, taught by Glen Moore, run around 15-20 minutes per lesson. As someone with zero Latin background, I highly recommend purchasing the DVDs to go with this program.  It is doable without them, but definitely worth the investment to have them available. I learned quite a bit from the lessons I watched. A sample from Lesson 8 can be viewed below.

After mastering First Form Latin, the student will have a solid grasp on the six indicative active tenses of the first two verb conjugations, five noun declensions, first and second declension adjectives, and 185 vocabulary words. After completing the series, which also includes Second Form Latin, Third Form Latin, and Fourth Form Latin, a student will have completed all of Latin grammar. First Form Latin alone is equivalent to one year of high school foreign language.

While the program states it is for beginning students grades 5 and up (or younger if they've completed Latina Christiana), I felt the bar was set pretty high and many students in the younger range would not be ready for the program.  It is a solid study of Latin, and students need to be prepared for the discipline and memorization to be successful. I didn't feel my particular 7th grader, whom struggles in the language area, was anywhere near ready.  My advanced 9th grader, on the other hand, would have been ready for this program at 5th or 6th grade. At this point, now in her fourth year of high school Latin and second year of Latin literature study, is beyond the material.  Since she is now our "resident Latin expert" (and I am definitely not), I had her review the program with me and give her opinion.

She felt the program is very thorough and covers the amount of grammar similar to her first year of high school Latin.  However, in her opinion, there is too much emphasis on charts and memorization, and not enough of seeing the language in action.  This is a bit different from the teaching approach to which she is accustomed (a blend of immersion and memorization, with a heavy dose of history and side projects thrown in) and not as suitable to her learning style. A student that likes a very systematic and textbook format will likely find the approach of First Form Latin more appealing.  As far as the DVDs, she found the instructor presented accurate teaching, was engaging, and looked a bit like Peter Parker from Spiderman. :)  So, not only do you have a thorough and well-organized Latin program, you get to enjoy an engaging presentation of the material from a superhero look-alike as well!

Overall, I liked the looks of this program. If learning Latin is part of your homeschool goals, First Form Latin is certainly worth checking out. I recommend that you explore the sample pages and DVD lesson segment to gauge whether you and your student are ready for this level of study, as well as if the style suits your needs. You may also want to read the reviews of other TOS Crew members that used the program with their new Latin learners.

First Form Latin is available from Memoria Press in two different packages. The first package includes all the teacher and student texts, plus the Pronunciation CD, for $55.  You may also purchase the material of the first package, plus flashcards and the DVDs for $115.  Visit the Memoria Press website for information on First Form Latin and other programs for a Christian classical education.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. 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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I've Gone to the Dark Side

At least, that is how it feels.  I just completed registration for my daughter to take a class at the local high school.
In Michigan, homeschoolers can register for electives at the local school.  In fact, many schools want homeschoolers to do so, as it means extra funding for them. However, I usually don't recommend homeschoolers do this, because most often the hassle outweighs any gain.  Sure, a free art class would be nice, but there is no guarantee of the quality and the daily schedule isn't very favorable either (as opposed to a once-a-week extended art time taught by an exceptional teacher hand-picked by me). That is still my position - in most cases, at least.

However, my daughter is now signed up for 2nd hour choir, starting second semester. For us, it really isn't about the choir class, nor any other class she might have taken. I have other reasons, and I believe they are very good ones, with some unique circumstances.  I'll share my reasons another time, because this situation required special permission with benefits beyond a choir class, and I want to be sure everything goes as it should first.  While I'm not looking forward to the required strict morning routine that it will impose every day (bleh!), I think it will be worth it in the end.

To be clear, I'm not exactly the type that goes around spouting that public school is evil and bad and homeschooling is pure and good.  Public school hasn't been the choice for my kids up until this point, but each family needs to make that decision on what is right for them. It isn't us vs. them or one perfect education decision. Everyone has a choice in the matter, and should have one without criticism.

The problem is, my choice for the last 9 1/2 years has been homeschooling. It has not gone without sacrifices and determination, and there is a lot of identity that goes with that.  Granted, we are still considered homeschoolers in our state and it *is* just one class. And if it doesn't work as intended, we'll just go back to how things were.  I still have complete control over my daughter's education, and that is my goal in my homeschooling decision. However, it still feels a bit...strange...and like I've gone to the "other side".

I'd love to hear from my readers...if you came across an "ideal" school situation/opportunity (whether part-time or full-time), would you take it? By "ideal" I mean one where your student would enjoy and thrive, was financially and/or academically beneficial, and left you with all the control cards?  Would you give a try? Or, would you pass it by regardless because of your homeschooling principles or ideas? 

I think this will make for an interesting discussion! However, I don't want a debate. Please share your thoughts and opinions respectfully.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: Excellence in Literature (Everyday Education)


Having a student in the household who just requested "more Shakespeare, please" reinforces that I need to find and provide quality literature programs in our homeschool.  Unfortunately, my less-than-stellar high school experience required very little reading of quality literature.  In fact, I don't even remember any of the classics being required in my high school courses (Sad, isn't it?). Since I pursued an engineering degree, I didn't have many literature requirements in college either.  All this means that I really need a guide to help me with my Shakespeare-requesting student!

After I heard a fellow homeschooler rave about Excellence in Literature, authored by Janice Campbell, I was very excited to learn that I would have the opportunity to review it. Intended for grades 8-12, there are 5 levels available in the series: Introduction to Literature, Literature and Composition, American Literature, British Literature, and World Literature. I received the first, Introduction to Literature (English 1), in the e-book format to review.


Excellence in Literature  is a self-directed literature study course written to the student.  Each level, which has nine 4-week units, has the same format and includes the following:

Overview and Objectives for Excellence in Literature
Frequently Asked Questions
How to Read A Book
Discerning Worldview Through Literary Periods
***Units 1-9 compose the bulk of the book, providing guidance for weekly lessons.
Formats and Models
Approach Paper Format
Historical Approach Paper Format
Author Profile Format
Literature Summary Format
Sample Poetry Analysis
What an MLA Formatted Essay Looks Like
Excellence in Literature Evaluation Rubric
Excellence in Literature Evaluation Rubric for IEW Students
Selected Resources 

Each unit is structured similarly. It is centered around a focus text (a full-length novel, play, or poem) and includes context works to round out the study. The context works include supplemental readings, biographies, poetry, audio resources, videos, art, and music. In addition, a suggested honors text is given for those students needing an extra challenge.

Students are given a weekly schedule. Each unit is similar with the first two weeks spent reading the focus text and context works, and writing "approach papers" (these aren't really full papers, but an assignment designed to prep the student for writing an essay), the third week starting a 500-750 essay, and the fourth week editing and revising.  A rubric is given to assist in evaluating and critiquing assignments.

A free sample unit from English I (Introduction to Literature) is available if you would like to see exactly how each unit is structured. You can also view a 5-year book list that includes all the focus and honors text for all 5 levels.  If you are curious on how the texts were selected, read Janice Campbell's explanation, How I Chose Great Books for Excellence in Literature.
The daily workload for the program is estimated to be a minimum of an hour a day.  I think this is highly dependent on the ability of the student.  For example, while my 7th grader isn't anywhere near being ready for this program, my 9th grader felt the writing assignments to be a bit light and that 4 weeks was too long for one unit.  However, my 9th grader has done similar studies already and is working several grades ahead.  Because the levels progress in difficulty, I showed her samples from English III and IV, which are co-published with IEW, and she thought these looked to be a more appropriate level. It seemed the essay requirements were a bit more difficult, as were the works, even though the structure was length per unit was the same. Even so, English I covered works that she hadn't yet studied and would provide a great introduction to literature for those just starting out.

Much of this program was a fit for us. I loved the flexibility and self-directed approach of this program.  The units can be mixed and matched.  The providing of just a basic weekly schedule requires the student to self-plan just as they would in a college course.  It is easy enough to add the honors track into the program if needed, and scaling the requirements back with shorter essays is feasible.  Furthermore, many units give audio options of the focus text, which would be of benefit those students that might struggle because of learning challenges.

While it is suggested that students have their own copy of the focus text to encourage active reading, digital versions of many of the focus texts are available for free or inexpensively. Also, links are provided for most of the context works and there isn't a lot of digging around trying to find materials.

Lastly, being a fan of Institute of Excellence in Writing materials, I really appreciated that in addition to a standard rubric, there was also a rubric specifically for IEW users included.

There were a few things either I struggled with, or that may pose problems for others.  I didn't care for the digital version and ended up printing the entire document.  Since it is non-consumable, I think I'd prefer to just purchase the printed version.  Being able to just click on links with the digital version is a bonus, though I encountered a couple that needed copied and pasted to work.

Either students using this program need to be independent, or the parent/writing mentor needs to fill in the gap and provide some guidance and structure.  For one of my students, the self-directed approach is perfect.  For my other student, I would have to work more closely on the day-to-day tasks with a goal of future self-planning.

Lastly, though a rubric is provided, evaluation of the final assignments may be difficult for parents that aren't confident writers themselves.  In this case, it would be beneficial to seek out someone that could provide writing evaluations. Janice Campbell has some suggested resources for evaluators, or a relative or another homeschooling parent could assist in this area.

Overall, this is a nicely done literature study and I would definitely consider a future purchase of other levels in the Excellence in Literature series.  Each level is available from Everyday Education for $27 in e-book format, or $29 plus shipping in a printed coil-bound version. Or, all 5 levels can be purchased at once at a discounted $135 for an e-book or $139 plus shipping for a printed version.

See what others have to say about this product by visiting the official TOS Crew blog!

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. 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.