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 http://madwomanintheforest.com/. 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 Amazon.com. 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 http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1554553881/ 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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Registration for PhysicsQuest 2011: Spectra Heats Up!

Each year I register our homeschool for the PhysicsQuest challenge.  By doing so, we are sent a great science kit with supplies for several experiments, all provided free to educators (including homeschoolers).

I received an email today notifying me that registration for 2011 is now open. I've copied and pasted the notice below for those of you who also might want to register.  Kits will arrive after the holidays, usually in February, if I remember correctly. Have fun!

PhysicsQuest 2011: Spectra Heats Up!  

Sign up to receive a FREE PhysicsQuest kit.  Students will do experiments relating to heat and temperature as they try and help Spectra solve the mystery of Tesla Junior High’s mysterious weather.  Kits contain all the materials needed to do 4 fun and exciting physics experiments as well as a manual and comic book.  As the students complete the activities they will be learning the physics they need to save the world, or at least Tesla Junior High.  There are a limited number of kits so sign up now!
A few weeks into their second year at Tesla Junior High the gang realizes things are really changing, well, the temperature at least.  Why is Lucy’s pool too hot to handle?  Snowed in in the middle of September?  No one can figure out what is going on.  On top of all this physics confusion, Lucy is being harassed by the newest student at Tesla Junior High, Tiffany Maxwell.  Could she be behind the odd things happening or is Lucy just blaming her because she is trying to steal her spot on the relay team?  Is she just a typical “mean girl” or is there more to her than her well-manicured nails, high-heeled boots and a sharp tongue?  Join Lucy Hene (aka Spectra) and her gang as they once again use their physics knowledge to save the world, or at least Tesla Junior High.  

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
What first attracted me to The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird ($8.99; Houghton Mifflin Books for Children; April 18, 2011) was the fact that it is set in Scotland in the seventeenth century. My mother moved from Scotland when she was twenty-five, and I have been to several places in the book, so it was a “must read” for me.

The historical novel begins on the Isle of Bute on the west coast of Scotland. Scotland has a lot of isles, and many are rough, wind-swept places. The book contains a nice map of Scotland to help the reader visualize the action as the protagonist traverses the country. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair lives in a ramshackle cottage with her grouchy old maternal grandmother who scrapes out a living as the village midwife. When one of the babies she delivers dies, Granny is falsely denounced as a witch, and Maggie is swept up in the accusations as well. Like in the Salem Witch Trials in America, the two are sentenced to hang. Maggie escapes to the mainland and seeks out asylum with her paternal uncle, who is a Covenanter.

For those who may be unfamiliar with them, the Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians who, in the mid-1600s, refused to swear allegiance to Catholic King Charles II of England as the head of the church. They signed covenants where they swore they would remain true to God as the head of their church. Maggie’s betrayer, a vixen by the name of Annie, follows her across the moors to Maggie’s uncle’s home, where Annie eventually betrays the Covenanters.

Though the book is fiction, it is based on historical fact and the author’s own family ancestry. Maggie’s uncle is based on a real person, Hugh Blair. In 1685, English soldiers threw 122 male and 45 female Covenanters into prison in Dunnottar Castle, including Hugh Blair. They were forced to endure deplorable conditions, packed so tightly that they were unable to sit down and even had to pay for water. Below is a photo of Dunnottar Castle I took while visiting there.
Here is a photo of the one window in the Whigs Vault, the prison where they were kept. The window faces a sharp cliff drop to the North Sea. The ocean spray and the rainy climate blow inside, forcing the prisoners to endure the elements as well as starvation and lack of space. Many of the Covenanters died standing up.
This book provides a lot of fodder for discussion, especially in the area of faith. How far are you willing to go in defense of your faith? Are you willing to endure torture and death? What if your death meant the likely death, from starvation, of your children because you weren’t there to harvest the crops and care for them? The characters in The Betrayal of Maggie Blair are faced with these decisions.

Maggie listens to the famous preacher James Renwick, and thinks on her life as he preaches: “Was it Christ who had rescued me from the gallows and the fire? Or just Tam? [her surrogate grandfather] I knew that I wasn’t pure enough – that I had never been good or faithful enough – to deserve that Christ himself would make such an effort to rescue me. I could believe much more easily in Tam’s love and his delight in making mischief.....Nobody has ever loved me like that. But does Jesus? Is it really true?” This provides a good opportunity to discuss Grace.

The book also deals with moral dilemmas, such as is it ever acceptable to lie? What if you lie to protect an innocent man? What if, to protect yourself and your family, you lie and sign that the King is the head of the church when you really believe it is God? Is that a sin? Are you betraying the First Commandment? The Ninth? There are no easy answers, which makes the discussion edifying.

One of the great things about this book, though, is the fact that it doesn’t beat the reader over the head with these questions. They are woven naturally into the fabric of the story, so that it doesn’t sound pedantic. It would make a great book for a book club or a young adult mother-daughter read aloud. There are parts of the book that move slowly, such as when Maggie is traveling from one part of the country to another or pondering philosophical questions, which might bore impatient readers. However, there is enough action, fighting, and threat of death to keep the story moving along.

The book is well-suited to high schoolers or sophisticated 8th graders. Aside from the aforementioned moral dilemmas, sin is also rampant in the form of adultery and abortion, as well as thievery, all of which are committed by the villain. These transgressions are not described in detail, and they do not detract from the overall respectability of the book. Still, you wouldn’t want to give the book to a 4th grader. For the interesting setting, deep philosophical questions, unique historical period, historically-accurate content, and good dialogue and description, I give this book 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 keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.