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Review of Out of the Box Games' Snake Oil

Out of the Box Games Review

Out of the Box Games has some stellar offerings in its oeuvre, but Snake Oil has to be one of the best. Designed for children 10+ and costing $19.99, Snake Oil takes literally just minutes to learn. A game can be played with as few as 3 or as many as 10 players and typically takes 20-30 minutes to complete. The point of the game is simple: one player is the customer (the card drawn determines what kind of customer he is) and all of the other players are the pitchmen, trying to get that customer to buy the most dubious of products. The products are created from two Word Cards drawn from players' hands. The players create the products to pitch to the specific customer in front of them. Therefore, they would pitch a different product to a nurse than to a teacher. They would also use a different sales approach. The game is fast-paced and *hilarious*.


Out of the Box Games Review

Within minutes of opening Snake Oil, my kids (13, 11, 9, and 9) were playing. It took no time to figure out the rules (apart from reading them) and no time to "get into the game." With a lot of games, there is an acclimation period. Some games are so complicated that you have to play them a few times before you can even begin to enjoy them. Snake Oil is sooo not that game! You can play it and love it immediately. The second the game is over, you are playing it again - at least that was our experience. 

I wanted to see how the kids could figure out the game and play without my interference help, so I sat back and watched as they opened it up. After five minutes, I asked how to play and they were all falling all over themselves to explain it to me. The twins aren't *quite* 10 (3 more weeks), but they had no trouble jumping right in to explain. The rules are as simple as I explained above. The age recommendation on the box is probably a good one, but I know that my kids would have all been fine with this game at 8, so definitely use your knowledge of your kids as your guideline.


Out of the Box Games Review


Snake Oil is one of those games that is the ideal gift for anyone, especially for families with many children (did I mention that up to 10 people can play at a time - how many games can boast that level of participation?). It can get tedious (not to mention expensive) trying to figure out what to get each child in a large family, but you will be completely covered with this game. It is perfect for the whole family. I am one of those parents that has never been good at "Family Game Night" when that meant sitting through something like Candy Land. I don't play down to kids well (cue the "duhs" if you know me IRL). Games like this, though, can work for such a wide age range. Hearing what  younger kids come up with as they try to sell a product can be hilarious! This is the kind of game that no one will object to playing!


I'm not the only Crewbie whose kids can't stop playing Snake Oil, so be sure to click the banner below to read all about their experiences.

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Review of IXL


This is not the first time we have reviewed IXL, so I can say with the utmost authority that this is one program that does not rest on its laurels: it keeps getting better and better! When we first met IXL Math, it was one of the very best math practice programs we could imagine. My kids loved it. I wished we could use IXL for all of our subjects. Well, IXL must have had burning ears, because not only have they continued to expand their math offerings, but they now have IXL Language Arts - another huge winner!


Christmas Book Review

Before I get into everything that IXL has to offer, I want to address price. Cost is what held me back from IXL when I first started homeschooling, and I am KICKING myself. IXL is one of the best bargains out there, especially if you need a super high-quality program to help you work with your kids while you do something else (work from home, work away from home, take care of babies, recuperate from an illness, etc.). You just don't get more bang for your buck anywhere else, especially considering that IXL has math options for Pre-K through Precalculus and Language Arts options for 2nd-8th grade (with more grades coming). 

An annual subscription for one child for math is $79/year. Each additional child is only $20/year. For math and language arts, one child is $129/year. Each additional child is still only $20/year, so a full subscription for two children would only be $149, three children would be $169, etc. You can explore all of your pricing options here

All That IXL Has to Offer

It needs to be noted that IXL is not intended to be an instructional program; rather, it is intended to be a practice and reinforcement program. Your child learns a concept with his core curriculum and then practices it with IXL's thousands of practice questions and problems. He is able to see his mastery increase along the way with certificates of accomplishment, etc. Having said that, we have been using IXL in place of our core curriculum for the past month or so and I have been very pleased using it this way. My kids learn best through trial and error. They attempt something. If it is right, they internalize that. If it is wrong, IXL shows them that it is wrong and shows them (very thoroughly) how and why. They internalize that, too. They have learned the concept. Hence, although IXL does not purport to replace your curriculum, as with all things homeschooling, how you choose to incorporate it into your school day is completely up to you. It is a very complete program.

When you buy a subscription, you are not limited to a single grade level. You have access to everything in a particular subject area. If you buy both math and language arts, you have access to everything on the site. That's wonderful for two reasons: it lets you target your child's needs even if those needs don't correlate to state standards and it allows you to move between grade levels if your child works through a grade in a period shorter than one year. You can see a snapshot of some of the available language arts skills here:



Once your child has actually started to work through the skills, you begin to see the mastery level pop up next to the individual skill. Mary-Catherine's (9) fourth grade language arts page is shown here:


You can see that she has 100s (and gold medals!) through skill C.2 (where she has a 45) because that is the skill she is currently working on. You don't have to work through a level consecutively like M-C is - that is just how I have chosen to have her do the 4th grade language arts. My rationale is simple. Although most of this material is complete review for her, this is a standardized testing year for us and IXL uses standardized testing language. I think this is a wonderful way for her to become accustomed to the specialized way standardized tests ask questions. My kids are always a little afraid of testing (it's not required in Texas so we only do it every other year so I can see how they compare to grade level - like many homeschoolers none of them are really on grade level in much of anything). Being able to demystify it and give them so much practice is hugely beneficial to them.

As you can see with the little gold medals next to M-C's name, IXL is all about the rewards. I would have told you that my kids are not big on the incentives, but I would have been wrong! The way IXL works is pretty ingenious. When you first begin to work on a skill, you receive 10 points for a correct answer. After the first 2 questions, you get 9 points for a correct answer. After that, you continue to get diminishing rewards for correct answers. Incorrect answers, however, are dealt with harshly (M-C chimed in with, "very harshly!") You lose anywhere from 5-10 points for an incorrect answer, depending on where you are in your mastery process. Obviously, IXL is going to make sure that your child knows a skill before awarding them that 100! It is not simply a question of answering 10 questions right for 10 points each. My kids love the challenge - in fact, they begin to take it very personally when they get up into the 90s and miss a question. Experiencing that setback makes them so determined to master the skill. I love to see that fire in them - it's a fire I don't see when I am just working with them one-on-one. 

I know that I have cut off the questions in this graphic, but I am showing it to illustrate how the process works. Keep in mind that the child only sees one question at a time. I am just showing two here so you can see the variety. Your child will see the number of questions she has attempted, the amount of time she has been working, and her "SmartScore" - that is the mastery number to which I have been referring. Hence, she always knows where she stands.




Along the way, they earn certificates for number of questions answered, skills mastered, and other things. For skills mastered, they unlock rewards.

Switching gears to Therese and her Algebra report, here is a summary of her activity, which shows her reward status:


Looking at her summary chart below, you can see that, unlike M-C, Therese has been jumping around on her Algebra skills. I left that up to Therese because, again unlike M-C, Therese is using IXL as a supplement to her regular math program. For her, it is working really well that way. She does her math program and then comes to IXL to practice what she feels she needs to. That's the great thing about IXL - you can completely adapt it to your needs. Nicky (11) is also doing IXL Algebra. Unlike Therese (13), he is using it as his sole math program right now, so I have two kids using the same level, but using it two separate ways. How neat is that?


One of IXL's greatest features is the amazing number of reports available to parents. For example, I can see at a glance every single individual problem that Therese has worked! I can see when she worked it, what she answered, and whether it was correct or incorrect. As an example, here are two such problems that I looked up:


I have never seen another program with reporting capabilities like these. They are an amazing value add to the program that I don't know that many people consider. Just think, if you have a dawdler, you can actually see how fast she is working (I don't have that problem with Therese - you can see that she answered problem #1 at 1:16 and #5 at 1:19 -- and she did answer the others in between). I am not even showing you half of the different ways you can look at your child's progress - IXL even emails you the progress reports! Here I looked at Therese's progress over the course of (I think) 3 weeks:


IXL has something to offer every homeschooling family. For me, I am looking for things that some of my kids can do while I work with other kids or while I deal with headaches (although I am praying so hard that a new treatment will give my whole family some relief!). IXL has become a huge part of that. I will always make room in my budget for it. It is a no-brainer for me. Unlike so many companies who put out a great product and then sit back and count their revenue in perpetuity, IXL is literally exponentially better every single year. That speaks volumes about them. 

IXL is also available as an iPad app for those running iOS 7 and above. It has both the math and the language arts and works essentially the same as the online version. The portability factor is great, as is the "tablet" factor for those kids who just love the idea of doing school (or anything) on the iPad. Even better - IXL is on Kindle Fire! What that means for my family is that all of my kids can do IXL at once - I love that, as it really cuts down on potential arguments about who gets to do it first (what a great program to inspire those kinds of arguments!). To find out if IXL will run on your device, be sure to visit their apps page.

Clearly, this is a company I love (as a bonus, all four of my kids do, too). To see how other Crew families used IXL, click the banner below.
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Ready for Break

I know that school just started (well, to clarify - the school year with its activities just got started. We school year-round. The addition of activities just makes it harder to get school done! That's the life of the unsocialized homeschooler!) Speech and debate take a fair amount of time. Therese and Mary-Catherine not only have dance, but Therese also assists in three classes of 3-7 year olds, so it really feels like we live at dance. The only reason we aren't there five days a week instead of four is because Debate takes the entirety of Thursday evening-night.

In any case, I'm already at the point where I want time off! The Crew year is winding down (my last two reviews for 2014 will come next week!). I have been on the Crew since 2010 and can't imagine my life without it (the weeks between the last reviews and finding out if we have been selected for the new Crew year are probably the longest of the year for Crewbies!). The girls' dance teachers are choreographing Christmas dances. It feels like vacation should be imminent! And yet the calendar says it's only early November! I don't know what it is about this time of year that makes me want to vacate. Maybe it's the cooler weather. Maybe it's the time change. Maybe it's the fact that I'm basically a sloth. I really just want to sit and knit all day.

Speaking of knitting all day, Henry has taken up beading as a hobby and he made me some beautiful stitch markers. Typically I use toddler hair elastics (the small plastic ones you can get for $1 for 500 of them) because I have never wanted to pay for the beautiful beaded ones. This morning, though, he gave me these!


I love having a talented husband! I'm not even threatened by the fact that he is so much more clever and crafty than I am! (He's also a better baker and sewer -- and secure enough in his masculinity to admit it!)

I guess the irony of my wanting a break is that I really dread the holidays, so my break comes at the expense of having to deal with them...maybe I'll just knit through them :-/

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Review of Fascinating Education

Fascinating Education Review

Nicholas (11) has been all about chemistry for the past six months or so, so when we got the chance to review Fascinating Education's Fascinating Chemistry course, I was elated. I was familiar with Fascinating Education from the time, a couple of years ago, when I looked at the Biology course for Therese, and I remember being really impressed. It was with high expectations that I started Nicky off on the course. 

Fascinating Education Review

Fascinating Chemistry covers the material that would be found in a high school chemistry course, but is presented in a way that is comprehensible to middle school students. Although Nicky hasn't gotten to the later lessons (where I definitely remember high school chemistry getting hairy), I can say that so far, he has understood everything that has been presented. The material is definitely not dumbed down in any way, but it is presented very clearly with great graphics that render the material accessible to jr. high students. Given that he really wanted to take chemistry, this course was the perfect one for him - hard core chemistry material, but presented in a way that he can follow.

Although it's not relevant to our world, Dr. Sheldon Margulies, the brains behind Fascinating Education (and a neurologist, which makes him of special interest to my poor migraine-ridden self) maintains that the course is meaty enough to qualify for a high school chemistry credit! That is a course that is filled with material - in other words, it is something that I knew would be good for Nicky (N.B., it's not relevant to our world because Nicky is in 6th grade; he takes several high school level classes, but I am not filling out a transcript for him yet). Also, although Fascinating Chemistry is in the process of incorporating lab work, that is not something that we did with Nicky. I wanted a course he could work through independently, and lab work did not fit in with that vision!

The lessons are about 45 minutes each (on average), and there are online tests every lesson. There are 18 total lessons and scripted lessons included (although the lessons themselves are video/slide-based - I, for one, love also having the scripted version available). A year's access costs $79.

Fascinating Education Review

Nicholas and Fascinating Chemistry

I will readily admit that Nicky has been moving through this course at a glacial pace -- but I'm okay with that. His, well, personality quirks (OCD, ADHD, etc) mean that some school days are awesome and others...well, not so much. The great thing is that since we have access to this course for a year, I know that he will be able to finish the whole thing! A lesson looks like this: 


You see the slides down the side, so you always know what you've seen and what is upcoming. You see the progress bar across the bottom, so you know how much you have left (so important to a kid like Nicky). There is nothing distracting on the screen - just the slide and Dr. Margulies' soothing voice (again, perfect for a kid like Nicky). When you combine these features with the solid chemistry that this course packs, it has been a big hit in our house.

Nicky works on this course primarily independently, although I am in the same room so that I can monitor him and answer his questions. Essentially, he watches the lesson over the course of a few days and we talk about the material. I print out the script of the entire lesson so that he can follow along with what is being said if he wants to. Also, he can have the printed lesson in his binder as a reference. The scripted lesson looks like this (obviously, just a small portion is shown!):


It is a great feature to be able to have the material referenced by slide. That way, you can always get back to a particularly troublesome slide, which is very handy when you get to subjects like all the different kinds of atomic bonds. 

The tests are ten question long multiple choice exams. They are not hard if you have watched the lesson and have even a basic understanding of it. I don't think they are an essential part of the course (for us), but if you are using this course for a high school credit, you will definitely want to make use of this built-in gradable feature.

A Word on the Labs

As I said, I didn't use the labs supplied with this course because I wanted it to be something that Nicky could do pretty much on his own (just one of those seasons in life where I need my kids to be pretty independent in school). However, since labs are included, I wanted to mention something about them! Labs are supplied in a separate area of the website that requires a secondary password (this is done for safety's sake). The chemistry labs include making salt crystals, making brass, volume of ice, and atmospheric pressure to name a few. The materials required are generally those you can find around the house.

I have to say that I think Fascinating Chemistry is a great course with a ton of information. Nicky is taking it slow, which will help with his retention. He will definitely be taking high school chemistry in a few years, but that is due more to his age than to any criticism I have of this course. I definitely plan to check out Fascinating Biology and Fascinating Physics when he is ready for them. I love that they are accessible to him at his age - what a great fit for a gifted kid! 

To see how kids of all levels have been using these Fascinating courses, be sure to click the banner below!



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Review of Jim Hodges Productions' In the Heart of the Rockies

Jim Hodges Productions Review

My kids had MP3 players years before any other kids I knew. I'm talking they had them at 5 years old. They didn't (and still don't!) have any songs on them, though! Instead, they had old time radio shows and audio books! My kids absolutely love audio books (wonder where they got that from, said the lady with the almost 1,200 book Audible library...), so when we got the chance to review In the Heart of the Rockies (1860s) MP3 CD from Jim Hodges Productions, we jumped at the chance!

Jim Hodges Productions Review

In the Heart of the Rockies is part of the GA Henty series of audio books available from Jim Hodges Productions. It is 10 hours, 53 minutes long and is contained on one MP3 CD, meaning it won't play on a regular CD player, but it works great on your computer! It is recommended for ages 10+ and costs $25. Alternatively, you can order it as a digital download for $18. 

We also were given the chance to use the available Study Guide in PDF format ($12.00). The study guide is 32 pages long and is in a traditional format with vocabulary, chapter questions, and activities. Given that the Henty books were not written yesterday, it is wonderful to have these study guides available so that it is easy to take advantage of the rich vocabulary and historical accuracy the books provide.

How We Used the CD and Study Guide

Although I knew that we were going to use the study guide, I also knew that asking my children to pause between chapters of the book would be a losing battle. To that end, I let them (the youngest three - 9, 9, and 11) listen to the entire book before even mentioning the study guide! We listened to the book together over the course of a week at different times during the day, and all of the kids loved it. I chose this particular story because the Rockies are my children's favorite place to vacation. I was born in Colorado, and although my kids are native Texans, they have learned to love the Rocky Mountains as much as I do. They especially love learning about the history of the entire area, so this book was exactly the kind of thing we would seek out on our own! I'm kind of surprised we hadn't already read it, but I'm also quite glad! Some things are just perfect for audio.

The narration of this book is spot-on. It's not over-narrated. It's not forced. It's just a great reading of the story. It's the kind of book you listen to over and over. At almost 11 hours it's a good length. It's long enough to be a story you can get lost in, but not so long that you wonder if it will ever end. The 10-11 hour length is, in my very experienced opinion, a perfect one for most audio books. It allows for your attention span never to ebb. That was definitely the case with my children. The book tells the story of Tom Wade, a teenager from England who travels west to the West (the American West!). After he meets up with his uncle, he does all the things you would expect an adventurer in the 1860s to do: he fights Indians and winter blizzards and he searches for gold! While the book is packed with fun history, it definitely doesn't read like history.

When the book was over, I let them know that we were also reviewing the study guide. They weren't thrilled, but when they saw the study guide, they actually didn't mind! I think they layout of the guide was a huge help in this regard. For one thing, there is room to write right on it, and there are lines! Lines make study guides less intimidating. 


It's like they put limits. In any case, I assigned the guide to Nicholas (11), and he had no trouble completing it *without having to go back and re-listen to the book*. That's when you know the narration stuck! The vocabulary in the guide is so much fun - I loved that the kids learned so many great words that I take for granted, being a voracious reader of 18th and 19th century literature myself. It was a good exercise for Nicholas to look up the formal meanings of words that he had learned in context in hearing the book. The recall/comprehension questions were not difficult, which was good as Nicky is easily frustrated. In terms of the activities, there is a nice range that will work for different kinds of learners. If research is called for, there are hyper linked websites within the guide. Again, the fact that the book dealt with historical aspects of the Rocky Mountain region made it so much fun for the kids since we have visited so many of the places mentioned. It made them want both to listen and then to do the study guide's activities (making a chart of notable Mountain Men was a favorite!). Answers to questions are in the back of the guide in case they are needed.

I think it's obvious that we really loved this product. Jim Hodges Productions produces other audio books from companies whose names are easily recognizable in the homeschool world, so be sure to check out all of the offerings. GA Henty is definitely a good place to start, though! To read other Crew reviews of other Henty audio offerings from Jim Hodges Productions, click the banner below!


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Was It Just Me?




Does anyone else remember? This was my favorite cover...

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My Headache Future

Let's play a fun game! What do the following pictures signify? I have often said I would have a frontal lobotomy if it meant that I wouldn't have anymore migraines...however, stuff (that's the technical medical term) is happening to this scary looking individual that is not in the front, so that can't be it...


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