Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Critical Thinking Co.'s Alphabet Song Game

Okay, I will be honest when I review products.  The Alphabet Song Game is a very basic program for teaching and reinforcing the order of the alphabet and what each letter looks like.

It is a free download from the Critical Thinking Co.  That's the only plus.  And the only reason I don't hold it against the company.  They have tons of incredible resources, so you may want to just stop reading this review and head over to see all the great stuff they have.

Reasons not to download the Alphabet Song Game?  It is boring, mind-numbingly so.  There are a number of wonderful free sites out there that offer so much more, in a much more engaging manner.

This program has no customization and minimal user feedback.  If a child clicks on the wrong letter, there is no indicator.  They just are supposed to assume they are wrong if nothing happens.

It is geared toward preschoolers, but it lacks any engaging features.   One screen is seen over and over in each of the 22 levels with no variation. The graphics along the top never change once the game begins.  The audio consists of one female voice giving directions with the same short cheering track after each level.

What does it do?  The alphabet song is sung to begin every level.  The activities consist on clicking on the letter specified out of groups that contain more letters or with each level.  Sometimes, the letters are to be clicked in alphabetical order, and in other levels, the letters are randomly called out to be clicked.  As the levels progress, the kids are expected to be able to discern not only the correct letter but also the correct appearance of that letter.  As the kids progress through the levels, their accuracy is tracked, so that is helpful for parents and teachers.

I think the Alphabet Song Game has potential, but it's just not an engaging education tool in its present state, in my opinion.  I know my kids need more interaction and visuals when they are working on the computer.  For what it does, why not sit down with a child and play some non-computer games with the old magnetic letters?

However, like I said at the beginning, it is free.  And the Critical Thinking Co. doesn't sell fluff.  I have been impressed with every item I have gotten from them.  Head over to their site and check out all the great resources they have, from games to workbooks to software to hands-on learning sets.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From The Critical Thinking Co......

During the last part of summer vacation, I signed up to review Surfing the Net: Science, by Jennifer Katherine Brooks, distributed by The Critical Thinking Co.  As I have examined this resource and put it to use with my kids, here are our thoughts.

First, The Critical Thinking Co. is known for putting out quality resources that are full of activities that really get students thinking, so I expected no less from Surfing the Net:  Science.  And I was not disappointed.  This resource is comprised of one page after another of interesting, varied learning experiences, not just worksheets.

If you are like me, I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet as it relates to my students (my own children, in this case).  I want them to have tons of experience in navigating the online world as a learning resource, but I also want to protect them from unwholesome surprises.  And, to be honest, while I can totally eat up an endless wild goose chase online, personally, that's not what leads to the most fulfilling learning experiences for my kids.

Enter Surfing the Net:  Science.  Organized by overall topics, students are led through web-based learning experiences, much like following a map and site seeing all along the way.  Topics include:

Ecosystems and Habitats

This is not a curriculum.  It's a supplemental resource that could complement any science curriculum and is specified for grades 3-6.  Honestly, though, I think it could be useful on up into the upper middle school grades and beyond, especially for older students with less experience using the Internet as a learning tool.  Click here to go to the Critical Thinking Co.'s web site listing for this item.  From there you can click on "Click to Look Inside" to see the table of contents and sample pages.

What do I like?

Organization:  I want to be able to easily find what I can use in a resource without having to go through the entire publication.  The table of contents is right there and lists all the subtopics covered in each main subject.

Attention to Learning Styles:  From worksheets to online dissections to games to videos, there is something for any kind of learner.  We all know we need to hit as many learning modalities as we can to really make learning real for our kids, and I think the author of this work did an outstanding job in this area.

Critical thinking skills:  Surfing the Net:  Science is also formatted and developed in a way that promotes critical thinking skills.  The activities that accompany the web searches engage the students in really thinking about each subtopic--processing what they are seeing or playing or listening to online.  This goes way beyond the hidden word searches that are often touted as unit studies online.

Complementary nature:  I love putting unit studies together, uniting a variety of resources into a set of learning experiences for my kids.  That's how I plan to best utilize Surfing the Net:  Science.  If I need a web-based learning experience that goes along with one of the subtopics covered, it's there already for the using, saving me hours of chasing rabbits and verifying the kid-friendliness of potential online destinations for my students.

What's not to like?

The unpredictability of the Internet:  As I have reviewed this resource, I found at least one link that was expired.  That's not the author's fault; it's the nature of our online world.  So, there's one more reason to preview all links before adding the kids into the learning equation.

Point of view:  Most of the visitors to this blog are Christian homeschoolers.  As I previewed links provided in this resource, of course, I found that they are not geared toward a specifically Christian perspective.  Nor is that ever an objective in the accompanying activities.  Okay, here is my personal approach to this.  I don't want to so shelter my kids from what I don't agree with or believe that some day down the road they are hit with a truckload of stuff we never even dealt with.  I use a lot of resources not geared toward a Christian perspective mainly because there's still a lot of good stuff to learn.  Basically, it's the old adage about not throwing the baby out with the bath water.  However, that does also mean we as Christian teachers need to be diligent in previewing links in this case.  Just because it's a great resource in many respects doesn't negate our responsibility as teachers to do our own homework, so to speak!

What about the kids' reactions?

They really liked the hands-on nature of this book, namely getting to do things like virtual dissection! There are also exercises that give them a chance to take what they learn and then throw in their own imagination, and that kind of activity is a big hit with my bunch.  It was a little inconvenient with the e-book version to have to print off the pages to be able to write their answers, but I don't see a way around that, and it wasn't a huge deal.  I realized as my particularly curious thinker was working on the lesson about amphibians that this is also a resource that kids like her would eat up as something to go to when they just want to learn in general and need a direction to get started.  (Having said that, always, always know what your kids are doing online.  We bear that responsibility as teachers and parents, and it's a very serious one.)  It's also a great resource to begin teaching the basics of Internet research in guided sessions with students.

On to some more important specifics......

As I shared above, Surfing the Net:  Science  is available to order in either a print or e-book format.  Same price either way.  With the e-book format, you can click on the links to go straight to the online resources that go with each lesson.

What about cost effectiveness?  Both the print and e-book formats are $24.99.  At first, I was skeptical about how great of a deal this is.  But, you know what?  It's a very well-organized and very useful resource, so even this thrifty homeschooler has to admit it's a reasonable price for what you get.   This book represents hours and hours of research and work on the part of the author, with the result being that it will save me both a lot of late night hours online and a lot of energy that can go to something else for our home school.  But would you like to save a little bit anyway?  Of course!  Then, here you go with a savings offer from The Critical Thinking Co.!

15% Off Any Size Order!  Click here to go to their web site.

Details: Offer expires 10/31/2013 at Midnight PST. Use Coupon Code BLOGR814. Online prepaid orders only. Valid one per customer. Offer does not apply to iOS or Android apps, bundles or manipulatives such as Attribute Blocks, Interlocking Cubes or Pattern Blocks. Offer may not be combined with other discounts or offers, and is not retroactive. Not valid on wholesale orders.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Planner Possibilities

Yes, yes.... I am working on stuff for tomorrow, but I just found these wonderful planner links and wanted to share it.

And this one is from me...what I think we will use this year. Very simple, but, of course, I had to have one more late-night project before school starts in five hours and 46 minutes. Bear with me if it's hard to print out.  Still figuring this out.

As I find stuff and work tonight, I will just add to this post.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fourteen minutes of summer break left!

In less than twelve hours, our school year begins!  Everyone is asleep but me, for this night is kinda like Christmas Eve, but instead of strewing ribbon and wrapping paper everywhere and pulling it all together into a vision of evergreen joy as the sun breaks over the horizon, instead of hanging stockings filled with candy and more candy, it's brand new notebooks and books and folders and glue sticks and wide ruled paper that will be neatly arranged in three crates there in front of the fireplace.  

Hopefully I will fall into bed myself well before the crack of dawn, but we'll see.

In our area, most of the kids we know are also going back to public school in the morning.  Their moms are like the mom-side of me tonight--making sure I've done all I'm supposed to so that the kids have a great first day back.  Everyone has bathed, well, because that's a good habit to have, and because your brain works more efficiently when you're clean.  The one who needed a haircut got it just in the nick of time.  Outfits have been picked out.  

And a bunch of my friends are teachers, who share the other train of thought I am on tonight--hoping my planning pays off in excitement and learning without stifling, going over my to-do list one more, maybe two, more times before I turn out the light on summer break.  Did I copy everything I needed to?  Do I really like this science curriculum after all?  (That's just an example--I really like our science curriculum.) 

And a lot of us wear both hats, mom and teacher.  No, I'll be honest, I wear both, but it's not the same level of intensity in this boat as it is for my friends who teach in the public and private school settings.  I've been a teacher in both those settings, and I've been a mom, but I've never done those two things simultaneously except for the last months I taught fourth and then fifth grade while I was expecting our oldest. Homeschooling moms have different aspects of intensity, but I have so much respect for my friends who have so much to give to their classes and even more to their own families when they get home.  That leads to my point....

For moms who are up praying over their kids and for their kids' teachers and for teachers who are up tonight praying for their own kids and the ones they will have in class in the morning, and for moms who are up working on school stuff because they are their kids' teachers.....oh, yes, we've got a lot to work on and a lot to look forward to tomorrow and in the weeks to come!   May we bridge across our different educational situations to build one another up.

May this scripture, Proverbs 2:1-11, give us all encouragement and be a reminder of where our true worth and success as teachers really rests.

My son, if you accept my words

    and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
    and applying your heart to understanding
indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He holds success in store for the upright,
    he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
for he guards the course of the just
    and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path.
For wisdom will enter your heart,
    and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
Discretion will protect you,
    and understanding will guard you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading, Writing, and Peacocks....and more links to some neat stuff.

Today I finished getting the kids' independent reading lists ready and printed off, as well as completed the first 20 lessons of our grammar curriculum, which is really a combination of resources (Basically, I copy, paste, organize, and clean it up appearance-wise).  Had a computer buzz afterward, so I took a walk for a while to clear my head.  

Here's how we're doing our reading this year, the literature portion of it.  We will be reading a large number of books together.  Each child also has a list of required reading by genre.  They are to choose a certain number of books in each genre from the selections listed, but I also left blanks for them to choose from anything in the library.  I have book review forms I found online for each book they complete. Before you think that this sounds really stilted and gross, hold on.....the review forms are very basic and really are just to give them a simple opportunity to reflect, something like this: Scroll down a ways to find the book review form.

The next part is what I am excited about.  We are integrating our literature and writing in the form of a monthly magazine we each get to contribute to.  In it, we will include information in a variety of formats, from articles to lists to illustrations to puzzles and games.  My goal for this is to give the kids (and myself) a platform for processing and synthesizing and reflecting on what we read in a variety of forms and perspectives.  However, my goal is for this to be more than just literature-based, but something that encompasses our field trips and interests and activities as a family as well, even recipes.
There's the educational jargon I need, to focus on why we're doing this.  The plain spoken truth of the matter is that it's way more fun to publish your own magazine than to write a book report every week.  It's way more interesting to actually report on trying out an idea from a nonfiction book you've read than to summarize what someone else did.  I don't think you ever outgrow the fun of seeing something you write or something about yourself in Times New Roman, Courier, or Verdana up on the screen or coming out of the printer.

Here's an article that explains this much better than I have.  This teacher implemented the class magazine idea and here elaborates on the benefits and how it's structured as an ongoing class project throughout the year.  Not exactly how we will do ours, but this is really helpful as I plan.  Reading this really made this project become more tangible and focused.

And before I move on to peacocks, here's one more link to several simple book report forms.

Now, on to the part about peacocks.  A little over a year ago, we became the proud owners of two young peafowl, thanks to a sporadic, inconsistent weakness in this family when kids ask for animals that are smaller than a German shepherd.  One bird tragically gave up the ghost at a fairly young age, but the other has thrived and now parades all over our place.  

She has known both true friendship and true love and has known the loss of both.  Her dearest friends were two young banty hens who themselves were victims of life's fickle nature.  (Actually, we think an owl got one, and a dog got the other.)  And her knight in shining armor arrived suddenly one day out of the blue, pursued her constantly for four days, and disappeared, leaving her forlorn.  She leaves feathers in the yard and scratches my husband's truck. She doesn't trust the dog, and the cats think she is weird. She loves Teddy Grahams and her own reflection, and leaving to go anywhere takes twice as long as it used to because she doesn't want to get off the van, so I have to creep down the driveway until she flies off.  Such is her life.  

And we expect it to be long.  Our younger daughter, who is a wealth of useful, strange, and , at times, doubtful facts and statistics, recently informed us that a peacock's life span can reach 60 years.  She always follows that up with how old her father will be by then.  We remind her that the peacock goes wherever she does when it is her time to leave our nest. However, we know that, realistically, there is a big chance that all the adventures of our retirement years will include our fine, feathered friend.  She was a bigger commitment with longer-reaching ramifications than we figured on.

So is a lot of what is worth taking care of and holding onto and spending time on, including our children's education. This could take a lot of directions other than education, but I'll stick with this angle for today. You go wherever you want to with it.  There is no shortcut or cheat sheet or video that takes the place of putting in the time and effort and attention.  The greater picture is one of vision and growth and has a sense of purpose and even down-deep beauty, but the day to day is grittier and goes by minute by minute.  Random pieces of the whole scattered like feathers all over the yard....personalities that don't always mesh.....questions about upkeep and care because this is way different from a cat.....and the fact that sometimes the end result just seems really far away.

In those moments, may we remember to focus on the pattern of grace and beauty and strangeness and fun that runs through every day.  Just as our peacock is so weird in her own way, there are moments when I see her and am reminded she is truly a unique, beautiful bird.  

And so it goes with our homeschool.  Honestly, as we begin our eighth year, it is still so much fun to me.  But, also honestly, it's a ton of work and responsibility and a long-term commitment.  It's my beautiful peacock (that is quite possibly the dumbest metaphor I've ever written, but I'm leaving it), and I want to enjoy and be fully engaged in every day.  Embrace the uniqueness,  find the thread that weaves the random parts together, seek out answers where there are question marks, take good care of the hours in today.  

Here's what that means for me in real life action words:

  • Be in the moment at hand.
  • Be active in nurturing positive relationships in our family, relationships that build respect and encouragement.
  • Take time to do the work to assimilate the kids's discoveries and interests into our curriculum.
  • Limit my technology time to when it does not interfere with spending time with the kids.
  • Do not compare one child with another learning-wise, within our family, or with others.
  • Be willing to ask questions and listen to wisdom.  Lack of knowledge or not chasing it can have negative and harmful effects.
  • Take time to be consciously aware of and thankful for the specific blessings in each day.  That includes thankful prayer.
  • Plan for the long run, a day at a time, and be flexible.
Wow, she's finally wrapping this one up, you're thinking. Yeah, this one kinda got me to thinking.  I hope it did you, too!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Planning for cupcakes...

Six days from today, our school year begins.  I drove past a couple of local schools yesterday and saw the teachers' cars there and felt a strong sense of comradery.  I remember that anticipation and of being a little overwhelmed by my to-do list each year when we teachers came back together to prepare for the new year, and of being so glad to see each other and band together as we worked to get ready for our kids.  One year, the last year I taught fourth grade, I decided to paint my classroom and did so during inservice, finishing up just in time for meet-the-teacher night.  

Inservice, preparation, planning, whatever we each call this time of getting everything ready, is so much fun, so full of expectation and hope.  I alluded to that in my previous post.  It's a time of crisp book spines, blank pages, pencils with unused erasers, and lesson plan books that have yet to be modified or redone.  There are so mess ups, yet.  There are no complications in the schedule, no overbookings or double bookings.  

But I can just about guaranty that next week, there will be moments that don't go as planned.  There may even be bad attitudes.  And the teacher may have forgotten some really important component of a lesson.   And I know the original erasers on our pencils won't last any time at all.  There will piles in the living room of laundry and art supplies by the third day of school.  

But there will be lessons that go way better than I think they will on this side of them.  There will be listening to my son read to me and savoring the sound of his little boy voice that is starting to sound tougher.  There will be watching one daughter's eyes get wider and another's crinkle around the edges as they latch onto something that catches their interest.  There will be unexpected tidbits that one of them will discover that lead to modifying my lessons to accommodate real learning.

The difference in an organized, successful, uncluttered inservice and the reality of school is the life that three kids bring to it.  Life that is sometimes messy and reluctant but also anxious to be enriched and stretched and challenged.   We're a combination of traits.  One does not define the whole of us, nor does one flop or success define our homeschool.  

So, as I work hard today to prepare for our school year, I want to keep real life in mind, real kids, and a real teacher.  I kinda had a motherhood object lesson yesterday that got me to thinking.  My older daughter, while we were at my parents', totally made cupcakes alone.  All I did was take them out of the oven at the end, when she told me to.  She is capable of cooking!  When did this happen?  Not just toast, but recipes that involve a few steps.  And my girls decorated them, beautifully!  And independently.

That is something I want to better nurture this year.  I don't want to so plan out our days that I stifle that sense of experimentation, of my kids being able to see their own plans through with a real sense of accomplishment and independence.

I want to plan for cupcakes.  I don't mean to take out math for cookie baking or to water down our homeschool with play activities that don't contribute to our education.  But I do want to better seize those opportunities to really let them own a learning experience.  While a lot of our curriculum and schedule does call for structure on my part, I want to make sure I allow for their ideas to have room to flourish--  that I do my part to facilitate in those opportunities without taking over.  

This post is pretty much rambling about something I want to be reminded of in a few weeks and a few months.  For anyone who's been reading, wondering when I would finally get around to some good links for school stuff, here you go:

I have not found a grammar program I like this year, but I do like components of several, so I am in the process of putting them all together.  Here are a couple of those components.

That one goes to a teacher's site, where she welcomes downloads of these paragraph editing exercises, and there are a lot of them.  It's for a third grade class, but I think that's flexible, looking at the material.

These are broken down into over 400 short grammar exercises, with quizzes every five lessons, answers included for all.  While you can access them all one lesson at a time for free, they offer an e-book and print version of the whole thing.

Looking for a fun, kid-friendly art curriculum?  We bought this one on the recommendation of a friend a couple of years ago, and we all learned a lot about drawing foundations and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The author, Mark Kistler, approaches each lesson in a really laid-back, fun attitude.  From the beginning, the kids and I experienced success and could see our own progress.  Our youngest was just 7 when we bought it, but both he and I, at well above 7, were able to grasp the concepts presented. And while I listed the Amazon link for this book, the same author as a ton of stuff on for less than $4 including shipping.

Heard of CK12?  I hadn't until I was preparing for this school year.  It's actually a ton of online STEM academy resources, and it can be customized to what your students need.  From basic math skills through math I can't even imagine, to all sorts of science resources, you can find a wealth of stuff!  You can use the textbooks they have, or pick and choose and rearrange into what your kids need.  Now, I'll give this disclaimer--it is not written from a Christian perspective, so use discernment.  Math, that's not so much of an issue, but with the science and health-related topics, that does come into play.  And some of them do deal with topics that require a certain maturity.  But, like I said, use discernment--there is a lot of good stuff here.  One aspect of these materials is that you can either download them for free or get most of them for free in a Kindle form through Amazon.  Click here to get to that.  How's that for saving paper and integrating technology into our homeschool?

There you go for today!  Have fun getting ready for school!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Picking up four years later.....

How much fun I have had over the past couple of months exhausting my printer, following late-night rabbit trails online, and looking forward to the mailman's arrival with more books!!!  And it is still eleven days until school starts!  I have three stacks on the table in our living room, one for each student, and a long list of tasks to complete before those stacks and this teacher are ready to start the new school year.

And, as of today, this blog is back in gear, as well!  My hope is that it's a place to share resources, ideas, and encouragement for moms and homeschoolers, for anybody in any section of the Venn diagram those two groups would make together.

Like every year, there is just no feeling for a teacher like the potential in the emptiness before a new school year starts.  The sensation is the same with my own kids in our home school as it was when I prepared for my classes as a public school teacher.  What will stick with them this year?  Which of the activities I'm planning for will they truly click with?  What will be the catalyst that sparks a new obsession in their learning?  

This year, I'll be teaching fourth, sixth, and seventh grades.  Here are some resources in no particular order I was excited to discover (just click on the description to go to the link):

Texas History curriculum guide from the San Jacinto Museum of History , based on grade 7 TEKS (what Texas calls their educational objectives for each grade for anyone reading from another state)

Tons of wonderful, free cursive handwriting practice sheets and sets to print at home, my new go-to site for books that don't have to be new.  Tons of books for $3.47 including shipping!!!!

A packet from Orange County Public Schools to help teachers develop a clearer understanding of how to positively guide students through the writing process.  This one is geared toward an elementary class setting, but I have found information to help me be more concise, creative, and constructive in this area.

This is a selection of writing and reading graphic organizers from .  You have to scroll down to the free download link, but I can see us really using these in the future.  There are also other links for another free set as well as one to purchase the collection these are part of.

And perhaps my favorite find on Facebook today, from Critical Thinking, an offer for 6 free e-books when you join their mailing list.  They offer a variety of quality products to encourage and develop critical thinking skills for all ages.  Clicking on this description will bypass Facebook to go directly to the link on their web site.

As I wrap up the re-grand opening of this blog, I want to share this.  There's a verse in Psalm 138, verse 8, that I am particularly struck by lately.  My version of the Bible reads, 

"The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever-- do not abandon the works of your hands."  

I just love that and offer it here as an encouragement to us all as we strive to follow Christ.  And, for those of us who truly view our teaching as a calling, as part of who we are--both we and the kids we love are works of His hands.  He has a purpose for each of us.  May we keep that truth in mind, the promise, the hope, and the design in it, and may we walk worthy and know we are loved!