Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: HelloFresh

While don't mind cooking, I don't care much for the meal planning or shopping part. We have our favorites that I rotate and i continuously keep items on hand to make things easier. I also have some picky eaters, so it is difficult to successfully introduce new meals that get a thumbs up from all.  Instead we end up with a lot of leftovers and ingredients that won't be used up in future dinners. This also forces me to stay safe with those things we often enjoy.

The end result is things sometimes get a little boring at the dinner table.  We also tend to go out to eat once every week or two for some variety, but that can get expensive.

If are looking for a way to liven up your dinner table without heading out to eat, HelloFresh might be your ticket to gourmet meals at home.

HelloFresh is a weekly subscription service that makes cooking easy for everyone.  Each week the HelloFresh chefs create three recipes, do the shopping for you, and send you a box of fresh, pre-measured ingredients delivered right to your door. Everything needed is included in the box. You only need to provide such items as salt, pepper, butter, and cooking oil. There are two box types available, Classic and Veggie, with options for two or four people.  I received a Classic Box for two for review.

Recipients of the Classic Box are able to choose three standard recipes with two alternative meals with which to switch if they don't like one of the three selections.  At this time, the Veggie Box recipients are not able to switch out one the three meals with an alternative.

The recipes for the week I received the Classic Box were: Stuffed Squash with Cherry Balsamic Reduction, Apricot Glazed Turkey with Beets and Orzo, and Dill Crusted Tilapia with Sweet Potato & Cranberry Medley. 

From the website:
"HelloFresh works closely on recipe development with the Michelin star restaurant, Aquavit, and has a team of in-house chefs who graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education and worked at restaurants including Momofuku and Eleven Madison Park, to name a few!"
Deliveries are made each Wednesday. Mine arrived fairly early in the day.

Since the ingredients are fresh and perishable, packaging is very important.  I was impressed with the packaging, which included a well-insulated box and ice packs.  The ice packs were still frozen solid!
Three recipe cards with step-by-step instructions are included. The ingredients are placed in separate bags and clearly labeled with what recipe they belong.

Since my box arrived the day before Thanksgiving, I simply unpacked the items and placed them in the refrigerator for a few days. I didn't have any problems with the items remaining fresh until I was ready to try the recipes.

I'll be honest and admit that the recipes provided were probably not ones I would have selected from a recipe book or website.  There were several items in each that wouldn't be well-received by various members of the family nor would have been something I'd normally include in my cooking (i.e. dried cranberries).  Our teens were out and about with other dinner plans for most of the meals I made from the box, so I was mainly cooking just for hubby and me.  However, my husband can be pickier than the kids.

The first meal I made was the Dill Crusted Tilapia.
I loved that everything was pre-measured.  The above is for the Sweet Potato & Cranberry Medley that was being served as a side.

The recipe was easy to make.  I personally felt there was a bit too much dill in the crust, but that would have been remedied by going lighter on the coating.
The portions were huge, more than either of use could eat.  This could have easily fed our family of four with some added slices of bread and salad.
What surprised me on this meal was actually the side dish.  My husband isn't crazy about sweet potatoes or cranberries.  However, the medley was his favorite part of the dish.  The combination of tastes and textures really worked.

The next recipe I made was the Apricot Glazed Turkey. After Thanksgiving, turkey wouldn't have been my pick, but there was nothing Thankgivingy about this recipe.
This was one of those recipes that had ingredients I would have been tossing if I purchased from the grocery store, particularly the apricot jam and edamame. I would have never used up a normal size jar or package of either of these items.

My teenage son joined us for this meal, so I added a salad and garlic bread.  It was plenty.

This was the least favorite of the meals, mostly because of the beet side dish.  However, I had never tried beets before making this dish, so I didn't really know if I'd like them or not. I got my husband to take a taste, too. While neither of us liked them, I was happy we had the opportunity to try them in a tested recipe.  My son wasn't as adventurous, but he did eat everything else.

Lastly, I made the stuffed squash.  This was a recipe that I was going to switch with one of the alternates, but decided to give it a try at the last minute.  I'm the only one who will happily eat squash, so I made this on a busy evening for just myself, putting the other half of the squash in the refrigerator for lunch the next day.
Surprisingly, this was my favorite of the recipes. I had it the next day for lunch and still had a ton of the beef and rice filling left over. My husband came home very hungry the next evening and wanted a very quick meal.  I ended up taking some of the filling and mixing it with the remainder of the Sweet Potato & Cranberry Medley from the very first meal.  It definitely got a thumbs up.  The next day my daughter was looking for some lunch and I warmed up the rest of the beef and rice mixture, which she enjoyed.  This recipe ended up as four servings for four adults pretty easily - and we all liked it.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to review the Classic Box from Hello Fresh.  It got me cooking with ingredients that were outside my normal cooking and even encouraged my family to be a little adventurous in trying some new things with pleasant results.  I particularly enjoyed using fresh herbs.  I usually don't buy fresh herbs because I only need such a small amount and the rest will go to waste.  However, it really made a difference in the taste. The recipes also had me trying some new techniques.  For example, I've made sweet potatoes plenty of times, but never cubed and thrown in a skillet.

As much as I enjoyed trying the recipes, a weekly HelloFresh box doesn't fit into our current food budget, though I suspect that if I were to buy the ingredients on my own the price would be comparable, as shown with this HelloFresh vs Grocery Store comparison chart. The ingredients were all fresh and I weighed all the meats and found them to be accurate to what was listed. While I found the serving sizes to be generous and likely to feed my family of four, my family enjoys more country cooking than gourmet and I tend to cook rather frugally within their tastes. As a family, a weekly HelloFresh delivery doesn't really fit our needs.

However, I don't think homeschooling families, who are mostly single income and feeding growing bodies, should rule out HelloFresh all together. Since you can put your subscription on hold for any week, there is some flexibility. Even if you don't think you could budget for or use a box every week, I can see plenty of reasons to give HelloFresh a try as an occasional treat.
  • HelloFresh is a great way to get your kids cooking and trying new things.  The recipes are simple enough for beginners and take about only 30 minutes, but look like they take more time and effort.  Your kids will feel like professional chefs and learn some great cooking skills.
  • HelloFresh will expand your dining experiences. It is a great way to try new recipes without a lot of frustration hunting down ingredients or having unused leftover ingredients.  If you like the recipe, you can always make it again on your own with the recipe cards.  It would be fun to order an occasional box to try new things.  If you have a very large family, you can make all three meals in one evening and have a sampling of each.
  • HelloFresh is an economical alternative to going out for something different or special.  When our family of four eats out, the bill is usually over $50.  HelloFresh meals are priced under $10 per meal per person, likely cheaper than a comparable meal out.  If you didn't want to share with your kids, couples can use the meals for a date night at home. Better yet, have your kids cook the meals for you!
You can view the current options for the next deliver of the Classic Box and Veggie Box at the HelloFresh website.  Selections need to be made the Wednesday prior to delivery. Delivery areas are currently available from Maine to Miami and as far west as Chicago. 

Check out the HelloFresh Facebook page where you can get a feel for the company, the recipe options, and also be informed of occasional special offers.

The Classic Box for two is regularly $69 and the Veggie Box for two is regularly $59.  However, if you use referral code KVUJJT, you will get $20 off your first box. 

HelloFresh may be just what your family needs for a little change of pace in the kitchen and at the table!

If you would like to hear the experience of other families using HelloFresh, visit Mosaic Reviews.

Review: Udderly Smooth Hand, Foot, and Body Cream

Every winter I constantly fight super dry hands. In fact, when I was little, my mom used to put Vaseline on my hands and make me wear cotton gloves at night. I hated it! While I ditched the greasy ointment and gloves long ago, a great lotion is a necessity for our harsh Michigan winters.

However, all lotions are not created equally. Many lotions contain alcohol, which counteracts the moisturizing qualities. They may have a nice fragrance, but they don't do much to help dry skin. Others are so greasy that there is no touching anything or opening any closed doors for a good hour after application. There are very few lotions that seem to have the balance of not too greasy, but effectiveness at healing dry skin.

I recently had the opportunity to see how the Udderly Smooth brand of lotion fared against our harsh winters and resulting dry skin. I had heard of the brand before and recognized the cow pattern on the packaging, though I had never used the product. The lotion was originally formulated under the guidance of a pharmacist and intended for use on dairy cows, hence the quirky name.

I had quite an assortment in my package, which included body cream, foot cream, and hand cream.  The body and foot cream were in tubs and the hand cream in two different sizes squeeze bottles.  I also received some sample packets.

With the cold weather here to stay for the next several months, I was anxious to give the cream a try. Before I applied it though, I gave it a sniff. It had a very standard lotion fragrance, one of which I'm typically not fond, though not as strong as other brands. I discovered unscented lotions are available. If you tend to be pickier about scents, you have options.

Udderly Smooth contains no alcohol. When I first applied it, it felt like it was going to be too greasy. Much to my surprise, it was quickly absorbed and left behind a non-greasy protective coating on my hands. I was pretty happy with the results. I didn't feel like I was slathering on the grease, but felt like I was doing more than just putting a scent on my hands. Speaking of scent, once applied the fragrance didn't bother me at all.

My husband has a particular expensive lotion he likes to use to combat some of the abuse his hands take at work. Shortly after receiving the Udderly Smooth products, I noticed he had confiscated the tub of foot cream, but to use on his hands. The only difference between the foot and hand cream that I could tell was it a bit thicker and also contains shea. A week or so later, I noticed a wound on his hand and asked what happened. Come to find out, he had had a callous on his hand for quite some time. When he started using Udderly Smooth, the callous started softening up. As it softened, an unknown sliver which the callous had formed over, came to the surface. Both the sliver and callous are now gone. I thought that was pretty telling of the effectiveness in softening and healing drying skin. Needless to say, the foot cream has been permanently confiscated by my husband.

I've been applying Udderly Smooth each night and occasionally during the day and have found it effective in fighting my dry skin this winter.  I would not hesitate to purchase Udderly Smooth lotions. I now keep the travel size in my purse and the larger tub at my night stand.

Udderly Smooth lotions are readily available and likely at a store in your town. The Udderly Smooth website lists stores that carry the product and answers FAQ about the products. You are also able to order directly on the website if purchasing locally isn't an option. Coupons are sometimes found on the Udderly Smooth FB page, so be sure to like the page for extra savings.

Wondering what others thought of this product?  Check out more reviews at Mosaic Reviews.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review and Giveaway: Filmmaking from the First Directors

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in 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.

Do you have a student who is constantly enlisting and directing friends for the next video creation to upload to his or her YouTube channel? With inexpensive cameras and the easy and accessible video features of iPhones, it seems like many are dabbling in filmmaking.  However, are your kids interested in taking it a step beyond filming the family dog’s latest trick or the antics of the pet cat?

One of my kids has been dabbling in creating short videos, but also has a clear interest in film production and broadcasting in general. However, there simply isn’t much available to homeschoolers for study in this area.  Therefore, I was thrilled when Filmmaking from the First Directors became available earlier this year.


Filmmaking from the First Directors, taught by Thomas Purifoy, Jr., is available through Compass Classroom and teaches the basics of filmmaking and early film history.  The course is intended for ages 13 and up and can be used as an art high school credit. Mr. Purifoy, who wrote and directed Compass Classroom’s Modern Parables, Economics for Everybody, and Seek Social Justice is upfront that he’s not an instructor nor an expert, but simply someone who has been self-taught through experience.

The 15 lessons are delivered through an online portal.  What this means is all of the materials for the course, which consist of recorded lectures, PDF files, film examples, and a communication area, are available through an online account.  When students log into their account, they can see how far they’ve progressed in the course and also go back and review lessons.  The course is self-paced, though typically will take one or two semesters depending on the student.  Students can start the course at any time and are able to interact with other students also taking the course through comments on uploaded assignments.  The instructor will also occasionally comment and give feedback on assignments, especially the final project for the course.

Each lesson has a similar structure and includes four parts.  The first part is the Big Picture and covers concepts, history, film grammar, and key elements.  This portion is presented through a lecture.  Next, several film examples representing the main concepts are available for viewing, along with instructor commentary on various portions of the examples. The Production section covers the nuts and bolts and the Assignment section give the details and goals for that lesson’s assignment.  If students have a question or comment while watching the material, there is a message field under the viewing area to leave a note. Each lesson has some sort of hands-on flimmaking assignment, usually a film a couple of minutes long in the style of the film examples from that lesson.  The final project is an 8-10 minute short film.

There are no quizzes, exams, or grades in this course.  The main point is to learn through taking in the information and doing the assignments for each lesson.  This sets the tone for the students to take ownership of their own learning. Each lesson area is broken down into a “step”, which is assigned a point value upon completion if parent's are needing to show percent completed as part of issuing a parent grade for a student's transcript.

A list of lessons detailing the content is available.  I really like that the instructor de-emphasizes sound and has the students focus on action and image.  Many of the example films have the sound removed entirely so students aren't distracted by the emotions of sound and music and can instead focus just on images. A sample lesson is available for viewing.

The required equipment isn't too extensive and you may already own some or all it.  Use of an iPhone isn’t recommended, but there is also no need to purchase expensive equipment. The software needed for film editing comes with most computers. It should be noted that the course does not teach students how to use the equipment or software, so if they don’t already know how to do so, this should be added on to the time needed for the course. Students are given instructions to set up a Vimeo account to upload assignments and share with others.

One thing the instructor emphasizes is that this course will take a lot of time in general.  The lessons don’t take a long time to go through, perhaps an hour for each, but filmmaking, even short films, can be very time consuming.  Students will need to plan their film, prepare the location, and film the shots.  A film of just a few minutes may require ten times that amount of footage going into the editing process. If your student doesn’t have sufficient time to steadily work on the assignments, this course may not be the best option.  Filmmaking is satisfying, creative, and challenging, but definitely isn’t a rushed process.

Overall, I really, really like Filmmaking from the First Directors.  Even though I was reviewing the material for future use for my student rather than any personal interest, I found the material to be engaging and interesting. It made me want to get my camera out and start creating! Not only is the content of the course unique, but the structure is as well.  I like that there isn’t a focus on quizzes and tests but rather practical application through a hands-on approach.  And while there aren’t grades given and this is a self-paced course, there is still interaction between students and instructors not normally available with courses under a similar format. I think my future director is really going to enjoy this course and will learn much from it.

Filmmaking from the First Directors is a bargain at $99.  Be sure to also check out the other courses offered by Compass Classroom.

I was provided a copy of the above product in order to provide a fair and honest review.  No other compensation.  This review contains affiliate links.

I am very excited to announce that one lucky reader will be winning Filmmaking from the First Directors!  See below on how to enter.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review and Giveaway! Grace Unplugged and Own It

 Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in 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.

I haven't had the chance to read fiction much lately, but the story line of Grace Unplugged by Melody Carlson caught my attention.

About Grace Unplugged the Novel
Grace Trey is an 18 year old singer as passionate about her Christian faith as she is her phenomenal, God-given musical talent. Both traits come from her father, one hit wonder Johnny Trey who found Jesus after losing his chart success two decades ago. 

When Grace encounters her own music break of a lifetime, the sudden dive into the "real world" puts her deeper beliefs to the test. Pop superstardom is just within reach but appears to require some spiritual compromise. Will Grace reject her faith, or will she own it? 

Grace Unplugged is based on the motion picture of the same name starring AJ Michalka (Super 8) and Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men) with performances by award-winning artists Chris Tomlin and Jamie Grace. 
About the Grace Unplugged Author
Melody Carlson has sold more than five million books. A professional writer for twenty years, she recently received the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. Melody has two grown sons and lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest. 
My own daughter was very interested in the entertainment industry at one time.  Knowing the culture surrounding such a career, her dreams of Broadway or the big screen always made me a little nervous.  Though she has now redirected her career goals, the fact is, no matter what our kids will be doing in the "real world", their faith will be put to the test.

Though an entertaining and thought-provoking story for all ages, Grace Unplugged would be a great novel for a teen girls.  Some of the themes (drinking by the main character, for example) may not be desirable for younger kids. I hope to be able to see the movie, releasing October 4th. See the trailer below.

The novel Grace Unplugged, released early this month, is 304 pages and $15.99.

In the Grace Unplugged, Gracie Trey is introduced to an actual non-fiction book, Own It by Michael and Hayley DiMarco. The book is described as "life-changing".

About Own It, Discover Your Faith in God
The movie Grace Unplugged tells the story of Grace Trey, an ideal Christian teenager who is also a phenomenal singer. But when she is pushed into the “real world” at the tender age of eighteen after getting the music break of a lifetime, her faith is put to the test.
Own It mirrors the film by asking what it means to really “own” your personal faith rather than just automatically following in the footsteps of parents, friends, or other influencers. Best-selling authors Hayley and Michael DiMarco help readers understand what to do when faith meets real world challenges.
Without solid beliefs, poor choices are likely to follow. You must take the time to really know who you are, who you are becoming, and who God made you to be. It's your personal faith . . . own it! 
About the Own It Authors
Hayley DiMarco is the best-selling author of more than thirty books including Dateable, Marriable, Mean Girls, and The Woman of Mystery. She has been a featured speaker at Women of Faith, Precept National Women's Conference, and MOPS Intl. among others and has consulted on the creation and enhancement of some of the largest stadium events for teens and young women in North America.
Michael DiMarco is a skillled communicator and teacher who has authored more than a dozen bestselling books including the 2010 Christian Bookof the Year for Youth, B4UD8 (Before You Date). He and his wife, author Hayley DiMarco, have one daughter and live in Nashville, Tennessee. 
This would have been a great book for me to read as an older teen heading off to college, where my faith met many challenges.  With teens in the house, much of what this book discusses has been recent conversation in our home and very relevant. I don't want my kids blindly following the faith with which they've grown up. I want them to make it their own, fully grasping and living it out. This is a title I will be having both of my teens read in the very near future.

Own It is 192 pages and available for $14.99.

One lucky reader will have the pleasure of winning a copy of both titles!  Please see below for details on how to enter.
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 Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in 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.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review and Giveaway! Keyboard Classroom

I was given a copy of this product in exchange for my honest review. 

The other day I was watching my son whip out a paragraph and his laptop. I am so grateful that he's become a proficient typist.  Though he hasn't been officially diagnosed as dysgraphic, one look at his writing and a diagnosis isn't really necessary. This is a kid who is much better off typing and school work has been much easier since he's mastered this school.

We struggled at first in finding the right program, but two years ago I discovered Keyboard Classroom.  Below is my review at that time. 

I also have a bonus for my readers! As a celebration of the successful typist I now have, I would also like to host a giveaway.  One lucky reader will win a Dual User License, a $75 value. 

I remember when I learned to type in high school, hunched over a typewriter with an instructor chanting keystrokes.  It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but I now say it was the most useful skill I learned in high school.

Hardly anyone waits until high school to learn typing any more.  It is too much of a necessary skill now to wait that long. My daughter learned at age 8 with a popular software program.  I intended to use the same program for my son, but it just didn’t take off with him.  After another software failure, I switched over to the old flip book style that reminded me more of how I learned to type.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as successful as I had hoped. I especially wanted him to learn to type early because writing is difficult and tiring for him. However, while he can now type at 12, he just isn't as functional as I think he needs to be at this point.

While all of the programs we tried were somewhat successful, none were the best program for him.  The software programs seemed to either have too many distracting games, or weren’t systematic enough.  The flip-books were very systematic, but didn’t have any motivation tools and also required constant supervision from me. The end result was that my son could type, just not with the needed speed to get maximum benefit.  He was pretty good about knowing the location of the keys, but his hands still floated around the keyboard, creating errors. As a 7th grader with increasing writing requirements, he really needs to be a more proficient typist.

When I was presented with the opportunity to review Keyboard Classroom, I was exited to see how it might work in our homeschool.  Keyboard Classroom, which was developed over 20 years of research, is based on a timed fluency approach.  The program takes a systematic approach, building muscle memory toward mastery.

There are five fluency levels: Finger Trainer, Typing Words, Home Stretch, Typing Sentences, and Capital Stretch. Each fluency is based on a 1-minute time limit.  With passing levels closely monitored by the program and gradually increasing difficulty of skill levels, mastery is more easily achieved and ensured.

As the student progresses through the program, tokens are earned to play games.  The users also increase in rank (Cadet – General) as they move up in levels, which gives the student a big picture of their progress.
A unique feature of this program is the finger guides that are affixed to your keyboard.
They are attached with Velcro, allowing you to remove them when desired.  I was anxious to give the guides a try, since wandering hands were slowing down my son’s progress.

The video below explains more about the program and allows you to see it in action.

We all know that something can look great, until we try to implement it into our homeschool.  I’m happy to say that we’ve had a lot of success Keyboard Classroom. It seems to have all the features we need that other programs we tried didn’t.

For starters, the finger guides immediately solved my son’s problem of his hands floating around keyboard and improved his accuracy and timing by not having to constantly look down at his hands.

While there are fun games in the program, the games are being used as reward and reinforcement, not the method of instruction.  We’ve tried too many programs where either a focus on games was too distracting or the program was so dry by not having any games that it wasn’t motivating.  Keyboard Classroom seems to hit the right balance of having students learn through systematic repetition, while earning tokens to play games.

For my distractible son, the 1-minute fluency exercises were perfect.  The short exercises gave immediate feedback and clear goals (master 6 times before moving to the next level). The ranking system helped him see his overall progress so far, which is motivation to keep continuing.  Earning tokens to play the games was also motivating, without the games becoming the primary focus.

There are a couple of things which you need to be made of aware before purchasing.  The software can be purchased with a license of 1, 2, 3, 5, or 25. So, if you have more than one student needing to learn to type at the same time, make sure you buy accordingly.  However, if you want to use the program for one student, then save the software to use with another child later, that is possible with licensing for just one.  Just be aware that once you remove and add a username, that all work for the previous user will be lost. You should also be aware that in order to play the games, an internet connection is needed.  The basic program will still run without internet, though.

Keyboard Classroom was designed with the student with learning differences in mind, but the methods used would be a benefit to any child learning to type. I’ve had my son practice his typing for 15-minutes a day and have been pleased with the results. While he has learned to type some over the course of everything we've tried previously, I think Keyboard Classroom has the repetition, independence, and motivation to finally get him where he really needs to be. It is definitely a program that we’ll continue to use.

Keyboard Classroom sells for $39.95 for a single license.  Please visit the Keyboard Classroom website to learn more about the software or to make a purchase.

I was given a copy of this product in exchange for my honest review.  

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Homeschool Programming's TeenCoder

 One of the things people often ask when they find out I’m homeschooling high schoolers is how I am able to teach them the all of the various subjects at their level.  My answer is usually a simple – I don’t. At least, not always. While I’d like to believe I’ve learned enough over the years that I could satisfactorily teach them just about any subject, I really am aiming higher for our homeschool.  I want them to learn from experts, or at the very least, discover how to seek knowledge and learn independently. Even so, while I am not an expert across all subjects, I do have an education and can help them in many areas.  I guide, explain, teach, oversee and pretty much supplement whatever resources we are using in most subjects.

Fortunately, my academic strengths match my oldest daughter’s academic strengths for the most part, though I’ve shared in the past my clueless subject is Latin. In this case, I just have to completely outsource. Understandably, I just can’t wing a foreign language where I have zero experience.  I’m ok with that.  We all have our deficiencies. However, my son has discovered a new deficiency of mine – computer programming.  I’m going to date myself a bit here, but when I was in junior high, my school started offering the latest and greatest in computer courses.  It was a big thrill to learn how to scroll my name across the black screen in bright, green letters. No cool graphics, no Windows, not even a mouse to operate. And that is pretty much the extent of my computer programming experience.

Computer programming is clearly something I need to completely outsource if my son wants to learn it properly.  I need a program directed to the student with clear instructions. The content needs to be of enough substance to justify a solid high school credit, but not something designed for professional adults or overly technical.  My student needs to be able to complete it independently, but it also needds sufficient support materials clear enough for a teacher who really knew nothing about the subject.  Hands-on projects would be ideal, not only for the subject, but for my son’s learning style.  Speaking of learning styles, video instruction would be awesome as well.  It sounds like a bit of a tall order, doesn’t it?  It was, yet a program with all of the above fell into my lap.

Homeschool Programming

I recently had the opportunity to review Homeschool Programming’s TeenCoder C# curriculum.  I had heard of it before, but really didn’t give it much thought as we didn’t have a need for such curriculum at the time.  However, a course in computer programming was something I really thought would be beneficial for my son’s high school transcript given his interest, and he's now entering 9th grade.

TeenCoder C# is a high school curriculum using Microsoft’s free Visual C# program. It is broken down into two semester programs: Windows Programming and Game ProgrammingYou can purchase them together for one full high school credit or as individual semester courses. Windows Programming is a prerequisite to Game Programming. I received a digital version of all the materials for reviewing purposes, but those ordering would receive a perfect-bound 8.5” x 11” student book and a course CD.  I also was able to view the supplemental instructional videos for each course, which would be received on a DVD if purchased.

Windows Programming is presented in 17 chapters, with each chapter having three to four lessons each. Each chapter also has a hands-on activity. The average weekly time required is about 3-4 hours. The student text is written directly to the student; my son (14) said the instructions were very clear and easy to follow. Check out the Sample Student Lesson to get a feel for the presentation. The activities start pretty basic and progress in difficulty throughout the program. By the second chapter they are writing and running their own C# programs. In the last chapter, students create a chess game. For a look at the material covered through the course, see the TeenCoder Windows Programming TOC.  Getting started was initially a bit frustrating, but I think that was mostly because I had a digital version of the text and downloading the required Visual #C program wasn’t as straight-forward as I would have liked. Everything was easy to follow after the initial process. There are also instructions on the website to help with the download process.

While everything is geared directly to the student, the teacher (inept or not) isn’t left hanging. Support resources include a solution guide with short chapter summaries, explanations of student activities, tests and answers, and help files. View the Solutions Overview and Sample Activity Solution to get a feel for the structure of the teacher materials. It is assumed that you, as the parent, do not know how to program. This was a must for me! Homeschool Programming also emphasizes that they are available for questions for the lifetime of the course.

If you have an audio visual learner as I do, instructional videos are available as an optional resource.  The student textbook is required to complete the course, but the instructional videos are reinforcement of what is covered in the text. I had my son watch them first so he knew what to expect, then I had him read the chapter. Sample instructional videos are available on the Homeschool Programming website for the various programs offered, including a Game Coder Sample Instructional Video, which is part of the second half of the TeenCoder C# series.

The second half, Game Programming, is structured identically to Windows Programming. Students learn a game-creation framework for Windows and X Box 360 using Microsoft’s free XNA Game Studio. We didn’t get to this portion of the program because Windows Programming needs to be completed first, but trust me when I tell you my son is looking forward to going through the material.  In the final project, students create a bumper car game.  For the complete content covered, see the TeenCoder Game Programming TOC.

Both my son and I had a great overall impression of TeenCoder C#. My son was able to work through the material completely on his own.   He said the manual was very clear and well-written.  So far, I haven’t even needed to use the teacher helps, though I did look them over and found them simple enough.Visual C# is easy to use and is drag-and-drop. TeenCoder C# gets very high marks from this family for ease of use!

My son really appreciated the instructional videos. In fact, I think he really wished they were a larger part of the program as he really got a lot out of seeing the activity instructions rather than reading about them.  I highly recommend you add them to your package as they are well worth it.

If you are looking to include computer programming in your homeschool learning, I highly recommend you check out Homeschool Programming.  They have a variety of resources, including the KidCoder series for younger students. TeenCoder C# can be purchased as two semester courses or as one-year package. Either Windows Programming or Game Programming is $75 for the course only or $90 for the course and videos. If you start with the course only and decide later to purchase the videos, they are available for $20.  A nice discount is provided if you purchase both semesters at the same time. Package pricing is $130 for courses only, $155 for courses and videos, and $30 for the videos only. Visit the Homeschool Programming website to learn more or to purchase.

To read more reviews on TeenCoder and other products from Homeschool Programming, visit Mosaic Reviews.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: Typecrush

Typecrush, available at, is sure to appeal to word lovers.  When I was thinking about how to describe this game, my first thought was it is similar to Hangman, but more colorful and perhaps more challenging.  Then I thought perhaps it even had elements Scrabble or Wheel of Fortune mixed in. In the end, Typecrush really is what you make of it.  While it has some play suggestions and one simple rule, this game is really about connection and communication.

Typecrush is based on letter frequency analysis.  There are 98, color-coded, 2" diameter circle playing pieces, each with a letter on one side.  Each color represents a level of letter frequency.  For example, the most frequently used letters - E, T, A, O, and N - are blue.  Two 3 1/2" x 5 1/4" cards with the colors and corresponding letters are provided for players to reference.

I always get frustrated with complicated rules and appreciated the simplicity of the How to Play instructions.
1) Spell a word.  Make sure no one sees!
2) Flip the circles to hide your word.
3) Use the letter frequency chart and solve.
The single rule of the game is that whoever solves the word first get to choose the next word.

Typecrush is intended for ages 7 and up; the difficultly is dependent upon the complexity of the word and how you play.  The first time my son and I tried the game, we played it as described in the guidelines. Because my son is a struggling speller, I choose a fairly simply word to start. We eventually modified it by flipping over correctly guessed letters as we went along.  This allowed him to build upon a known letter rather than try numerous letter combinations in his head, which greatly reduced his guessing and increased his confidence.  Then it was my turn. It was much more difficult than one might think! I could see that some changes were necessary in order for this to be fun.

A suggestion given is to choose words from a certain category, e.g. animals or states. You could easily tie the categories with topics your students are currently studying or with vocabulary and/or spelling words. Since we are still on summer break here, we just used fun and random words. (Star Wars theme, anyone?)

One way my son liked to play was as a traditional Hangman style.  The color-coded pieces actually made it easier than regular Hangman, but he liked that each color narrowed down his choices.  While doing it this way may seem too easy for some, it helped him with letter and word analysis, which should be helpful with spelling skills.  For example, if the first letter is B and the next one is a purple letter (R, I, S, H, D), some thinking it through will reveal that R or I really are the only choices.  It is a good way to slow down kids who tend to spelled visually or by whole word, rather than break it down.
Can you guess this Star Wars word?

The game pieces could also be used to build words Scrabble style, perhaps taking turns creating words off of existing solved ones. Or, if you are up for a real challenge, have multiple-word puzzles. How you play is really up to you, since the focus is not about playing the game "right", but interacting with words and each other. 

Worth noting is that Typecrush is handcrafted in the USA and made from 100% recycled material.  While the pieces are made of cardboard, they have a nice feel and weight to them. The canister is small enough to throw into a bag for some easily transportable word fun.

Word-lovers will find Typecrush an interesting spin on some old favorites. and teachers and parents will appreciate it as an adaptable learning tool.  Typecrush can be purchased at for $25.  Each order comes with free shipping and a money-back guarantee.

Read more reviews on Typecrush at Mosaic Reviews!