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.